Anti-Semitism Denial

  • 0

On September 20, 2002 Lawrence H. Summers, the president of  Harvard University, delivered to the Harvard community a speech  deploring the upsurge of antisemitism in many parts of the globe: he specified synagogue bombings, physical assaults on Jews, desecration of Jewish holy places, and (this with special emphasis) denial of the right of “the Jewish state to exist.” But his most immediate concern was that “at Harvard and …universities across the country” faculty-initiated petitions were calling “for the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested.”1

One of the Harvard faculty, Ruth Wisse, had described the divestment petition as “corrupt and cowardly” in offering its reasons for calling on the U. S. government to stop military aid and arms sales to Israel and upon universities to divest both from Israel and from American companies selling arms to Israel. “The petition,” wrote Wisse,”requires that Israel comply with certain resolutions of the UN–the terms of which it distorts to say what those resolutions do not mean”; she also pointed out that the petition says nothing of the fact that all the Arab states remain in perpetual non-compliance with the entire UN Charter, which is based on the principle of mutual respect for the sovereignty of member states, which are to settle disputes by peaceful means.2

But of course the advocates of disinvestment in Israeli companies took a less benign view of Summers’ position. Amidst the numerous wails of outrage Summers provoked, one, because of its great length and still greater indignation, stands out as a classic utterance of what has come to be called “antisemitism denial”: Judith Butler’s essay in the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS (21 August 2003) entitled “No, it’s not anti-semitic.”

Prior to the autumn of 2003, this University of California professor of rhetoric and comparative literature was, like many members of Berkeley’s “progressive” Jewish community with which she habitually identifies herself, somebody who defined her  “Jewishness” (not exactly Judaism) in opposition to the State of Israel. She was mainly a signer of petitions harshly critical of the Jewish state, full of mean spite towards its alleged “apartheid” and “bantustan” practices, oily sycophancy towards such Palestinian figures as Sari Nusseibeh, and a habit of covering over the brutality of Arab terror with the soft snow of Latinized euphemisms. She was one of the 3700 American Jews opposed to “occupation” (Israeli, not Syrian or Chinese or any other) who signed an “Open Letter” urging the American government to cut financial aid to Israel; later she expressed misgiving about signing that particular petition–it “was not nearly strong enough…it did not call for the end of Zionism.”3 In autumn of 2002 she requested, with ponderous irony, honorary membership in the Campus Watch organization’s listing of Middle East specialists polemicizing in their classrooms on behalf of Radical Islam and against Israel and America. In June 2003 her name could be found on the ubiquitous “Stop the Wall Immediately” petition.

The wall, Butler and her fellow adepts in the rhetoric of inverted commas alleged, was “supposed to block’terrorist attacks’ but certainly won’t prevent missiles and helicopters from hitting their human target.”Suicide bombings, lynchings, pogroms, and roadside shootings were not terrorist attacks but only “terrorist attacks,” whereas Israeli response to those so- called “terrorist attacks” injured real human targets.  

But deeper currents were also stirring in Butler. She had undertaken some abstruse research into the history of Zionism and discovered that there had been “debates among Jews throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as to whether Zionism ought to become the basis of a state.”4 From this discovery the Hannah Arendt professor of philosophy (as she is called at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland) promptly concluded that demanding an end to Zionism in 2003, that is, calling for politicide (and the genocide that would surely accompany it) was no different from taking a debater’s position against Zionism 75 or 100 years ago. She was helped in following this arrow-straight course from Buber and Magnes to “post-Zionism” by her conviction
that the crucial ethical activity for Jews “is relating to the other,”5 i.e., that Jews must dance at everybody’s wedding except their own.

Butler had herself signed the  divestment petition at its place of origin, Berkeley, where it had circulated in February 2001. She therefore found Summers’ remarks not only wrong but personally “hurtful” since they implicated Judith Butler herself in the newly resurgent campus antisemitism. Butler could hardly have failed to notice that the Berkeley divestment petition had supplied the impetus and inspiration for anti-Israel mob violence on her own campus on 24 April 2001, a few weeks after it had been circulated, and for more explicitly anti-Jewish mobs at San Francisco State University in May of the following year. Slander of Israel has provoked physical violence on many campuses, especially those (like Wayne State in Detroit or Concordia in  Montreal) with a large Arab presence.

Summers, aware of how ubiquitous in anti-Israel discourse is the straw man called “the defender of Israel who decries any criticism of Israeli policy as antisemitism,” went out of his way in his address to separate himself from this (conjectural) figure: “I have always throughout my life been put off by those who … conjured up images of Hitler’s Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel.” Nobody has ever discovered just who these conjurors (a term Butler picked up in her rebuttal) might be, but if Summers thought that he would distance himself from them by this disclaimer, he was greatly mistaken.  

In fact, the corruption of discourse about the ongoing Arab war against Israel–as Butler would soon demonstrate–consists precisely of the now deeply ingrained rhetorical habit of calling virtually all assaults on Israel, on Zionism, on Israelis, from verbal to physical, “criticism of Israeli policy.” In a recent issue of JUDAISM, for example, one Andrew Bush (whose name pops up near Butler’s in some anti-Israel petitions) writes that “The Intifada”–i.e., the murderous assaults by Arabs against Jews that were unleashed by the Oslo Accords–“is also a critique of Zionism…[and] it is precisely Postzionism that allows one to read the violent language [!] of the Intifada as critique.”6 It is indeed the compulsive repetition, with the regularity of a steam-engine, of the euphemism “criticism of Israel” that characterizes Butler’s “No, it’s not anti-semitic.”

Despite the large role played in promoting the divestment campaign by people like Noam Chomsky, Summers had chivalrously gone out of his way to say that “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.” To annihilate Summers’ distinction between intentional and effective antisemitism is the primary aim of Butler’s counter-attack. Her strategy is what logicians call the tu quoque (i.e., you too, or you’re another) argument: Summers’ accusations, says Butler, are “a blow against academic freedom, in effect, if not intent.” His words have had “a chilling effect on political discourse.” No evidence, of course, is (or could be) adduced for the allegation. Of one thing we can be sure: the chill did not extend to Harvard itself, whose English department would soon (in November, to be precise) play host to the racist hoodlum from Oxford, Tom Paulin,  who had urged (in yet another “criticism of Israeli policy”) that Jews living in Judea/Samaria “should be shot dead,” or to Columbia, where Paulin continued merrily through autumn semester as a visiting professor, or to the New York Review of Books, which in October 2003 would establish a new front in its 36-year old assault on Israel by publishing Professor Tony Judt’s “Israel: The Alternative,” a call for an end to the State of Israel that had already appeared in shorter form in the Los Angeles Times. Neither did Summers dampen the fires of Israel-hatred at the London Review of Books itself, which in January 2003 published another 133 lines of Paulin doggerel called “On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card,” a versified rehearsal for Butler’s “No, it’s  not anti-semitic.”. If Summers’ speech had a chilling effect on antisemitic clarion calls, including incitement to raw murder, one would not want to know what the fully heated versions would sound like.

Butler perfunctorily assented to Summers’ recommendation that–as she deviously restates it–“every progressive person ought to challenge anti-semitism vigorously wherever it occurs,” but she seemed incapable either of recognizing it in such (to her) innocent “public criticisms” as economic warfare against the Jewish state or calls for its dismantling or assaults on Zionism itself or opposing any effort (however feeble) Israel might make to defend herself against suicide bombers; indeed, she made it clear that she saw no difference between Jews intentionally murdered by suicide bombers (also their sponsors and despatchers) and Arabs accidentally killed by Israeli efforts to repel would-be murderers. Although nobody can recall Judith Butler saying anything more critical of Arab butchery of Jews than that it is “unacceptable,” she here presented herself, with characteristic brazenness, as offering Jews a salutary warning against crying wolf: “if the charge of anti-semitism is used to defend Israel at all costs, then its power when used against those who do discriminate against Jews–who do violence to synagogues in Europe [synagogues, bar mitzvahs, and Passover seders in Israel are not mentioned], wave Nazi flags or support anti-semitic organizations–is radically diluted.” And so on and on–ad nauseam.

In trying to confute Summers’ distinction between intentional and effective antisemitism, Butler calls it wildly improbable that somebody examining the disinvestment petitions signed by herself and her co-conspirators might take them (as hundreds on her own campus already had done, and as gleeful readers of the London Review of Books were about to do) as condoning antisemitism.7 She therefore poses this (as she assumes) unanswerable conundrum: “We are asked to conjure a listener who attributes an intention to the speaker: so-and-so has made a public statement against the Israeli occupation, and this must mean that so-and-so hates Jews or is willing to fuel those who do.” But Summers was perfectly correct in stating that one need not “hate Jews” in order to perform actions or utter words that are “antisemitic in their effect if not their intent.”

Let us take a well-known case: when Dickens wrote OLIVER TWIST he harbored no hatred of Jews and had no programmatic or conscious intention to harm them. Indeed, he said of his Jewish monster Fagin that “he’s such an out and outer I don’t know what to make of him.” The reason for Dickens’ puzzlement was that, in an important sense, he did not indeed “make” Fagin, and
therefore didn’t know what to make of him. Fagin was ready-made for Dickens by the traditional folklore of Christendom, which had for centuries fixed the Jew in the role of Christ-killer, surrogate of Satan, inheritor of Judas, thief, fence, corrupter of the young; to which list of attributes Butler and her friends would now add “Zionist imperialist and occupier,” or–I quote from the statement that was the germ of the whole divestment campaign–“criminal apartheid regime.”  Has OLIVER TWIST often been antisemitic in its effect? Of course–or does Butler think that it is because of their interest in the plight of the homeless in early Victorian England that Arab publishers have long kept cheap paperback translations of the book in print?

Butler also uses the tu quoque “argument” in rebutting or rather evading (for she never really acknowledges it) the charge of discriminatory selectivity that Summers (like countless others) had made. Why, among all the nations on earth, has Israel alone been singled out for punishment and pariah status by the advocates of disinvestment? Where is their advocacy of disinvestment in China until China withdraws from Tibet, or from Morocco until that country ceases to occupy Western Sahara, or from Zimbabwe until it ceases persecuting its white citizens, or from Egypt until it stops building tunnels for the smuggling of arms to Palestinian killers? Could the singling out of Israel possibly have anything to do with the fact that it is a Jewish country?  Despite the inordinate length of her essay, Butler cannot find space to answer this question. Instead, she accuses Summers himself of biased selectivity. “If we say that the case of Israel is different, that any criticism of it is considered as an attack on Israelis, or Jews in general, then we have singled out this political allegiance from all other allegiances that are open to public debate. We have engaged in the most outrageous form of ‘effective’ censorship….”

Her ultimate use of the tu quoque strategy is to make Summers, the critic of antisemitism, himself guilty of what he attacks. Why? Because he assumes that Jews can only be victims, conflates “Jews” with Israel, and writes as if all Jews were a single, undifferentiated group.

Apparently the 1135 Israelis murdered and the nearly 10,000 mutilated (in a Jewish population of under five million) by Arab  pogromists, lynch mobs, and suicide bombers between 27 September 2000 and the time Butler published her essay were not sufficient to meet her stringent requirements for (Jewish) victim status.8 But if Israelis are not the victims of Palestinian aggression in the latest round of the Arab nations’ 56-year old war to eradicate the Jewish state, why is it that Jewish schools in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem must be protected by armed guards while Arab schools in Nazareth or Jenin require no such safeguards? Why is it that getting on a bus in Jerusalem or going to a cafe or discotheque in Haifa is a form of Russian roulette, a far more dangerous activity than prancing about as a “human shield” for Arafat in Ramallah? One might forgive Butler for overlooking a seminal essay in the June 2000 issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN9 which demonstrated massively that ours is a time of a new kind of war, “characterized by routine massacre of civilians,” in which relatively little of the destruction is inflicted by tanks and artillery. It is harder to forgive her for overlooking 9/11 of 2001, in which a small number of technically competent Islamicist barbarians, heavily armed with fanatical indifference to human life, including their own, succeeded in attacking two major cities of the greatest power on earth, killing 3000 people, shattering whole industries, and causing billions of dollars in economic damage.

As for the argument that nothing is antisemitic which does not explicitly target every single Jew in the world, it is Butler at her most jejune. After all, she says (as if she had to remind us!) not all Jews are heavily “invested” in Israel: “Some Jews have a heartfelt investment in corned beef sandwiches.”10 But does she really think that when Josef (later Johannes) Pfefferkorn, whose distinction between “good” and “bad” Jews became the paradigm for Jewish self-haters, urged his countrymen (in the1520s) to “drive the old Jews out [of Germany]” he had himself in mind? When Karl Marx excoriated Jews as “the filthiest of all races,” did he really mean to include himself? Do the operators of Nazi websites have trouble making “exceptions” for the writings of Chomsky or his disciple Norman Finkelstein? Indeed, Butler’s requirement of total inclusiveness would have allowed Hitler himself to say (had he so wished) of his racial policy: “No, it’s not antisemitic.” And since Butler writes as if antisemitism were a genetic affliction from which Jews, most especially her “post-Zionist” Israeli friends, are protected by virtue of being born, this line of argument would leave poor Summers as virtually the only Jewish antisemite in the whole world.

Although Butler’s essay is such a loose, baggy monster that only a journal fanatically committed to erasing the Jewish state would have published it, what it leaves out is even more outrageous than what it includes. It omits history altogether, torturing a text and omitting context. Did it never occur to Butler that the divestment effort is merely the latest installment of the 50-year old Arab economic boycott of Israel, one prong in the endless Arab campaign to destroy the Jewish state, or that the Arab boycott is itself an imitation of the Nazi boycotts of the 1930s? Does she see no connection between the Nazi denial of the Jews’ right to live and her own effort to make Israel’s “right to exist” contingent upon its conformity to her political prejudices? And then, of course, there is the omission of context that is de rigueur among all those who have made the “Palestinian cause” and the erasure of Israel the touchstone of contemporary liberalism. The “occupation” which they constantly bemoan did not precede and cause Arab hatred and violence; it was Arab hatred and violence that led–in 1967 as in 2002–to occupation.

But the crucial omission from this essay by somebody who has relentlessly insisted on the political implications of language is–the political implications of the language of the advocates of divestment, of boycott, of “an end to Israeli occupation,” of an end to Zionism, of stopping the “wall,” etc. Josef Joffe, editor of the German weekly DER ZEIT, has succinctly defined the linguistic difference between “criticism of Israeli policy” and antisemitism:

     Take this statement: ‘Demolishing the houses of the families of
     terrorists is morally wrong because it imputes guilt by
     association, and politically wrong because it pushes more people
     into the arms of Hamas.’ Such a statement is neither anti-Israel
     nor anti-Semitic; it might even be correct. By contrast, ‘the
     Israelis are latter-day Nazis who want to drive the Palestinians
     from their land in order to realize an imperialist biblical
    dream’ inhabits a very different order of discourse, ascribing
    evil to an entire collective and, in its equation of Israelis and
    Nazis, revealing an obsessive need for moral denigration.11

The Harvard/MIT divestment petition that Butler champions against Summers was promoted at MIT by Noam Chomsky, a person who would be rendered almost speechless on the subject of Israel if deprived of the epithet “Nazi”; it was promoted at Harvard by Professor Paul Hanson, who referred to Israel as the “pariah” state. Butler was herself among the “first signatories” of a July 28, 2003 petition that uses the Israeli-Nazi equation beloved of nearly all denigrators of the Zionist enterprise (going back to British official circles in Cairo in 1941) by stating that “concrete, barbed wire and electronic fortifications whose precedents…belong to the totalitarian tradition” were transforming the Israel “‘defense forces'” (again the rhetorical quotation marks) and indeed “Israeli citizens themselves into a people of camp wardens.”12

And so it would seem that, for Butler, “Language plays an important role in shaping and attuning our…understanding of social and political realities”13 except when it happens to be the antisemitic language that demonizes Israel as the devil’s own experiment station, black as Gehenna and the pit of hell.

Edward Alexander is professor of English at University of Washington and the author of IRVING HOWE–SOCIALIST, CRITIC, JEW (Indiana University Press).


1. The full text of Summers’ speech may be found in CONGRESS MONTHLY
 (September/October 2003)

2. Ruth Wisse, “How Harvard and MIT Professors are Planting a Seed of Malevolence,” NEW YORK SUN, 20 May 2002.

3. LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, 21 August 2003.

4. Ibid.

5. HA’ARETZ interview of 6 January 2004.

6. JUDAISM, 52 (Winter/Spring2003), 111.

7. A delicious letter from a reader published in LONDON REVIEW on 11 September 2003 thanked Butler for saving him from thinking of himself as an antisemite: “As someone rather too ready to allow strong disapproval of Israel’s policies to slide into anti-semitic prejudice, may I say how illuminating and helpful I found Judith Butler’s article.” Very helpful indeed. The only letter printed by the journal critical of Butler’s essay was by Mona Baker, originator of the academic boycott of Israel: she found Butler too soft on Zionists and was angered at Butler’s linking her to the arch-villain Summers himself.

8. Butler’s feminist followers may wish to contemplate the following statistic: of the Palestinian fatalities at that stage of “Intifada II” 116 were women; of the Israel fatalities 271 were women.

9. Jeffrey Boutwell and Michael T. Klare, “Special Report: Waging a New Kind of War,” SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, 282 June 2000).

10. LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, 21 August 2003.

11. “The Demons of Europe,” COMMENTARY, 117 (January 2004), 30.

12. “Israel and Palestine: Stop the Wall Immediately” petition.

13. “A ‘Bad’ Writer Bites Back,” NEW YORK TIMES, 20 March 1999.

Anti-Semitism Denial

  • 0

Edward Alexander

Edward Alexander is Prof. Emeritus in the Department of English at the University of Washington, among his most recent books are The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction, 2012) and Jews against Themselves (Transaction, 2015)

Read all stories by Edward Alexander