Judith Butler, who last week received Frankfurt’s coveted Theodor Adorno Prize, came to prominence as an anti- Israel agitator almost a decade ago. In September 2002, Harvard president Lawrence Summers charged 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.”
In August 2003, Butler, then a professor at UC Berkeley and a signatory of nearly every anti-Israel petition circulating on American campuses, including the “divestment” one, published a rebuttal of Summers’s charge, called “No, it’s not anti-semitic,” in the London Review of Books. 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.” A primary aim of Butler’s counter-attack was to annihilate this distinction. Using the tu quoque (you too) strategy, she called Summers’s accusations “a blow against academic freedom, in effect, if not intent.” His words have had “a chilling effect on political discourse,” she wrote.
Apparently the chill had not taken hold at Harvard itself, which would in November confer honors upon Oxford’s Tom Paulin, who was famous for urging that Jews in Judea and Samaria “should be shot dead.” Butler perfunctorily assented to Summers’s recommendation that anti-Semitism be condemned, but she seemed incapable either of recognizing it in such (to her) mild “public criticisms” as economic warfare against Israel or calls for its dismantling or assaults on Zionism itself for interfering with suicide bombers.
Indeed, she saw no difference between Jews being intentionally murdered and Arabs accidentally killed by Israeli efforts to repel the murderers.
Butler asserted that nobody examining the divestment petitions could take them as condoning antisemitism. “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.” 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.”
TAKE A well-known case: when Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, he harbored no hatred of Jews and no intention to harm them. He said of Fagin: “he’s such an out and outer I don’t know what to make of him.” The reason for Dickens’s puzzlement was that he did not indeed “make” Fagin, and therefore he did not know what to make of him. Fagin was ready-made for Dickens by the folklore of Christendom, which had fixed the Jew in the role of Christ-killer, agent of Satan, inheritor of Judas, thief, fence, corrupter of the young; to which list of attributes Butler and her comrades now add “Zionist imperialist and occupier.” Has Oliver Twist often been “antisemitic in effect”? Of course. Or does Butler think it is for their concern over the homeless in Victorian England that Arab publishers keep cheap translations of the novel in print?
Butler’s ultimate use of the tu quoque strategy was to make Summers himself guilty of what he attacked. Why? Because he assumed that Jews can only be victims. Apparently the hundreds murdered and the thousands mutilated by Arab terrorists between September 27, 2000 and the time Butler published her essay were not sufficient to meet her stringent requirements for (Jewish) victim status. But if Israelis were not the victims of Palestinian aggression, why did Jewish schools in Jerusalem require protection by armed guards while Arab schools in Nazareth did not? Why was getting on a bus in Jerusalem or going to a cafe in Haifa a form of Russian roulette, far more dangerous than prancing about as a “human shield” for Yassir Arafat?
What Butler’s polemic left out was even more blatant than what it included. It omitted history altogether, torturing a text and omitting context. Did it never occur to Butler that the divestment effort is the latest installment of the 50-year-old Arab economic boycott of Israel? Equally egregious was the omission of context that is compulsory for those who have made the “Palestinian cause” the cornerstone of campus liberalism. The “occupation” which they bemoan, neither preceded nor caused Arab hatred and violence; it was Arab hatred and violence that led – in June 1967, as in April 2002 – to occupation.
But the crucial omission from this essay by somebody who built a career by insisting on the political implications of language was precisely the political implications of the language of advocates of divestment. The Harvard/MIT divestment petition that Butler championed was promoted at MIT by Noam Chomsky, who would be rendered almost speechless on the subject of Israel if deprived of the epithet “Nazi”; it was promoted at Harvard by professors calling Israel the “pariah” state. Butler was herself among the “First Signatories” of a July 28, 2003 “Stop the Wall” petition that used the Israeli-Nazi equation beloved by nearly all denigrators of the Zionist enterprise (going back to British official circles in Cairo in 1941) in asserting that “concrete, barbed wire and electronic fortifications whose precedents… belong to the totalitarian tradition” were transforming the Israeli “defense forces'” and indeed “Israeli citizens themselves into a people of camp wardens.”
So it would seem that, to quote Butler, “Language plays an important role in shaping and attuning our… understanding of social and political realities” – except when it happens to be the anti-Semitic language that demonizes Israel as the devil’s experiment station, black as Gehenna and the pit of hell.
The writer is Prof. Emeritus in the Department of English at the University of Washington,his most recent book is The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction, 2012).