The Problem with Judith Butler: The Political Philosophy of the Movement to Boycott Israel

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WHEN AMERICAN STUDIES ASSOCIATION PRESIDENT Curtis F. Marez gave his absurd “one has to start somewhere” answer to a New York Times reporter’s question as to why one should single out Israel’s universities for a boycott, one might have thought he had set the gold standard for empty boycott advocacy. But soon a still more vacuous contestant arrived. At the pro-boycott session on January 9 at the Modern Language Association’s 2014 annual meeting, University of Texas professor and panelist Barbara Harlow offered her own concise answer to the “Why boycott Israel?” question: “Why not?”

With advocates like these, one might think the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel would need no opponents. Certainly the public image of the humanities is not enhanced by remarks of this sort. But in truth many boycott supporters do not look for adequate reasoning. They want their existing passions inflamed still further. Palestinian BDS entrepreneur Omar Barghouti, who lectures regularly on US campuses, is adept at generating moral outrage in susceptible audiences. But the BDS movement also has more sophisticated spokespersons at its disposal. Judith Butler, who has become the movement’s premier philosopher and political theorist, is perhaps the foremost among them. Her work, which carries significant authority among humanists, helps us get to the heart of the movement’s guiding principles. The critique I will offer thus addresses the theoretical framing of the whole BDS movement by way of Butler’s approach to Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. She has complained that pro-BDS arguments do not receive detailed analysis. I will make every effort to provide that here.

The Problem with Judith Butler: The Political Philosophy of the Movement to Boycott Israel

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