Ken Waltzer: Arguing With Judith Bulter

  • 0

I read the speech by Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at UC-Berkeley, titled “You Will Not Be Alone,” which she addressed Wednesday April 14 to Berkeley student senators. The speech, available at the Nation at, called upon the students to have the courage to vote for disinvestment in companies assisting and profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The motion before the students that had earlier been passed 16-4 but then was vetoed by the Student Senate President Will Smelko was not about Israel, she said (the motion itself asserted the same), but was about disinvesting from General Electric and United Technologies, firms alleged to be “invested in” and “profiting from” the Israeli occupation of “Palestinian lands and peoples.”

That is, it was not about disinvesting in Israel or engaging in discrimination against Israeli companies and citizens, she said; it was about disinvesting in companies “that make military weapons that kill civilians.”

It was about voting to keep university funds from being used to support “companies that engage in war crimes.”

But General Electric and United Technologies had not bombed Gaza, Israel, the Jewish state, had done so; and General Electric and United Technologies had not killed civilians, Israel’s army and air force had. So students were indeed being asked for a verdict on Israel, and on war crimes, and on the whole occupation, all very much obliquely and out of historical context, without serious debate, without really talking about Gaza and the occupation and past efforts at peace, or about Palestinian as well as Israeli war crimes. But here was Judith Butler saying it was not so – it was not about Israel, it was about occupation and war crimes, and that the matter of Israeli war crimes committed with weapons systems provided by GE and United Technologies was a settled fact.

In saying this, Judith Butler took great care also to identify herself as a Jew and as knowledgeable about the history of Jewish social values and to establish that the Jewish community contains a range of opinions and views on the occupation, “Israeli military aggression,” and the future of Zionism, bi-nationalism, and citizenship in Israel and Palestine. Her own view, however, could not be any clearer – Israel is guilty of military aggression and making purposeful and illegal war on civilians and of claiming exceptional status in the world of nation states.

In two asides, Butler identified with the bi-national dream of those early, if marginal, Zionists who envisioned Jews and Arabs living together in a single federated state, a vision that won little support amidst either Jews or Arabs. She also identified herself with Primo Levi’s criticism of Israeli actions in Lebanon during the early 1980s.

Apparently, Butler is assembling an all-star Jewish thought case against Israel, lining up historical figures and critiques that might help her have at Israel from within selected aspects of Jewish tradition. Like others, she has also been preoccupied with Hannah Arendt, who also favored a bi-national federated state and was critical of the Zionist state, and she has found inspiration too in the shrinking post-Zionist school in Israel.[1]

In this moment, though, she did not reveal all she is doing to muster such resources in her critique of Israel. Nor did she indicate she spoke as part of the larger boycott and divestment movement which has as it goal to delegitimize and isolate Israel. She simply spoke in a manner akin to the Goldstone report, filled with self-righteous assumptions and charges posited to be “well-documented” but concerning which there are serious responses, clear reproaches, and sound counter-arguments. Interestingly, she was not as even-handed as the Goldstone report, which despite its provocative charge and evidentiary bias mentioned Palestinian war crimes and terror by Hamas in Gaza.

Tragically, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not a product of settler colonialism and Israeli military aggression, as Butler hints, and the Palestinians are not merely victims but participants. Tragically, the conflict is and has been the product of two competing peoples and national movements vying for control of the same land, and hard-liners on both sides have had the upper hand in pushing and prolonging it.

Not surprisingly, other predictable BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) luminaries. including Richard Falk, Noam Chomsky, and Desmond Tutu, also waded in urging the students to override the veto in the name of moral choice.

But, in the end, these outside pleas were unsuccessful – the Student Senate voted 7-12 with one abstention to uphold the veto (14 votes were needed to override), and disinvestment at UC-Berkeley was defeated until the next effort.

[1] Judith Butler, “I Merely Belong to Them,” London Review of Books, 29:9 (May 10, 2007).

Ken Waltzer: Arguing With Judith Bulter

  • 0