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Judith Butler: On Israel, Palestine and Unacceptable Dimensions of the Status Quo

Critical theorist and activist Judith Butler talks about Israel, Palestine, Gaza, BDS, US education, anti-Semitism and inequality.

Critical theorist and activist Judith Butler. (Photo: Susanne Christensen / Flickr)

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Critical theorist and activist Judith Butler talks about Israel, Palestine, Gaza, BDS, US education, anti-Semitism, radical democracy, activism, inequality, solidarity and more.

Judith Butler is a world-renowned academic in the area of critical theory and professor of comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. She coined the term “gender performativity” and is the author of Gender Trouble. Dan Falcone spoke with her about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Dan Falcone: Can you tell me about your book Parting Ways and how specific research you have done in works such as this help to outline what you think is appropriate activism in dealing with certain Palestinian-Israeli issues?

Judith Butler: For myself, I think that certain forms of theory provide for experiments in the realm of the possible. So for instance, if we ask what substantial political equality might be in Israel/Palestine, we might lay out proposals for equal rights, for Palestinian self-determination, for the end of colonial rule, including both occupation and siege. And we would have to think about rights to land and even land redistribution plans in light of the question of whether or not they achieve not only substantial equality, but substantial justice.

This last involves proposals for land redistribution and/or redress for those dispossessed. I would also like to see a refugee plan developed by those in the region committed to overcoming the stark inequality between the law of return and the right of return. Many might say that such proposals are impractical given how hard any negotiations seem to be. But in my view, if we lose sight of what it might mean to realize principles of democracy there, we collapse the political horizon and end up accepting unacceptable dimensions of the status quo.

Cristan Williams recently interviewed you on “gender performance” for The TransAdvocate. Much of the discussion centered on social constructions of gender or disagreements and controversies within academia and the overall discourse as it pertains to that discipline. In what ways do you see or confront differences within the activist realm in regard to Gaza and the West Bank? And is there a connection between your Middle East politics and your work on gender?

My work on gender from the start included a reflection on whose lives are considered grievable. The politics of memorialization concerned me as a young Jewish person reflecting in the massive losses under Nazism, but in a different way during the height of the US AIDS crisis (which is far from over globally), and the activism of the ’80s and ’90s dedicated to marking and publicizing the loss of life from AIDS and the precarity of those lives without access to medical care.

That concern was elaborated after 9/11 when it seemed clear to me that some lives were considered more grievable than others, and that involved me in thinking about Israel/Palestine, and how I had been taught to think about Jewish life as more valuable than other life. So this question has concerned me in different forms for a long time.

In my work on gender and on Palestine, I am interested in how those who are subjugated nevertheless find means for resistance, and also in trying to show how tacit schemes of inequality condition a great deal of public discourse on the question. I think the transgender struggle for rights and recognition is enormously important, and that we have to be able to think about the possible links of solidarity among the subjugated. Those links are the basis of a possible solidarity that is against all forms of subjugation and seeks to expose those naturalized and normalized forms of hatred and phobia that inform political inequalities and erasures.

The academic boycotts of Israel have sometimes been called well-intentioned albeit fashionable elite forms of protest. Some scholars and academics also hold certain views skeptical of any form of an Israeli boycott. Do internal disagreements make it difficult to navigate within the general anti-Zionist framework? And what kind of principled stands and goals do you believe are paramount within the broader concept of divestment?

I do not agree with your assessment. The BDS [boycotts, divestment and sanctions] movement has a great deal of support from workers and students throughout the world, a growing following in South Africa, and a substantial presence in Sweden. The EU [European Union] has established rules regulating business exchanges with the settlements, and there is growing grassroots support for BDS in the black communities of both the US and the UK. The academic boycott is but one dimension of a large and growing movement, one that has incited [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to new levels of histrionics.

Recently, we have seen an increasing number of younger American Jews parting ways with both Judaism and Zionism. Furthermore, a recent Pew Research Center Study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” indicates that 25 percent of Jews under the age of 30 argue that the United States is far too supportive of Israeli policy. This is even higher than the 22 percent of the general American public who also think that way. To me, this is illustrative of the type of important work you do as an academic and as an outspoken critic. How do you perceive these cited statistics?

I am quite sure that I am only one small part of the trend you identify and in no way a causal agent. I am not sure about the methodology of this study, so have no real views on these findings.

My sense, though, is that there is no Jewish consensus on Israel in the US, that any dinner table of Jewish people is bound at this moment to fall into arguments about Israel, its war in Gaza, the occupation, one state or two states, BDS, etc.

I do not see any new consensus emerging, but groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Open Hillel have taken courageous stands for justice, withstanding slander and ridicule in order to open up a discussion that many would like to shut down. Sadly, but transparently, the false charge of anti-Semitism is one instrument for censoring such discussions within the Jewish community.

Just recently a large sum of aid was directed to Gaza to rebuild after the latest streak of intensified violence in the region. Much of the support is from the United States and clients such as Egypt and certainly Israel. How will Gaza enhance or at least maintain itself in terms of self-defense as it receives the reconstruction funding?

Well, there are many issues at work in this situation. There is not only a certain reluctance on the part of NGOs and nation-states to engage in a reconstruction that will be followed by another destruction. There is also an understandable fear that reconstruction efforts will not only extend the power of NGOs over resources, but weaken the struggle for political self-determination, free elections and open borders. If reconstruction efforts keep the siege in place, then reconstruction serves the status quo. At the same time, reconstruction is always a strange kind of opportunity to establish new hegemonic formations within the area.

My hope is that those parties recruited to rebuild Gaza will insist the end of the siege as a precondition for their efforts. Although I do not support Hamas, I do not believe that the civilians in Gaza have in any way “earned” the massacre they have received. My sense is that a global consensus on Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity would be most helpful to have moving forward. And I say that not only for strategic reasons, but because the assault in Gaza included a criminal annihilation of a significant portion of the population.

It is true that Israel claims self-defense, but that raises many questions.

The first is does self-defense serve as a legitimate basis for committing war crimes and limitless aggression? I think not. The second: Do Palestinians in Gaza have the right to self-defense, and is it equal to what the Israeli government claims? How do these questions get altered once we realize that the situation remains that of continuing colonial rule? What difference would it make if Palestinians gained powers of self-determination? Would they then have a “self” that could legitimately be defended?

You have been involved in The New Hillel Movement as discussed in The Nation. Do you see an opportunity for public education or education overall to improve?

What might be most important is to conceive of the struggle for Palestinian political self-determination as part of a history of anti-colonial struggles. One of the most important conceptual breakthroughs we might achieve as educators is to establish the historical framework of settler colonialism for understanding the issues. We also have to make sure that anti-Semitism, state racism and Islamophobia play no part in the resistance movement or its proposed scenarios for resolution.

Although anti-Semitism is sometimes used as an instrument of censorship or a way of discounting legitimate Palestinian resistance to colonial subjugation, it does sometimes exist in the discourse and the policy of the struggle. And we have seen the fatal results of anti-Arab racism in the most recent assault on Gaza. We are also confronted still with state racism in the form of Israeli law, land policy and forms of population control. So perhaps we all have to become smarter about the forms of colonialism and racism in order to have the kind of analysis that assists in the struggle to realize those nearly impossible goals of radical democracy.

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