Judith Butler, Judaism and Israel, and Free Speech

In case you haven’t heard from your critical theory-lovin’ friends, noted post-structuralist Judith Butler is coming to campus this Wednesday (4:00pm in Memorial Chapel), speaking in a pumped-up, academic-celebrity installment of the Center for the Humanities’ Monday Night lecture series. There was widespread excitement about her visit long before the topic of her speech was announced. But Butler, who once taught at Wesleyan, now has a new and quite different project underfoot, one that deals with an aspect of her own identity apart from gender: the difficult questions of Jewish identity and the Israeli state.

When she arrives here, she’ll still be hot off the heels of a controversy at CUNY-funded Brooklyn College, where prominent pro-Israel Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and a “battalion of New York lawmakers” threatened to cut the campus’s funding if the president refused to capitulate on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions panel at which she was speaking, according to Salon.

Fortunately, with the blessing of many significant political figures, including Mayor Bloomberg, Butler ended up being allowed to speak after all on February 8th, but she modified her words to address the controversy. Butler is a professor of rhetoric as well as comparative literature, and she added to her speech remarks addressing the not-already-converted:

The arguments made against this very meeting took several forms, and they were not always easy for me to parse. One argument was that BDS is a form of hate speech, and it spawned a set of variations: it is hate speech directed against either the State of Israel or Israeli Jews, or all Jewish people. If BDS is hate speech, then it is surely not protected speech, and it would surely not be appropriate for any institution of higher learning to sponsor or make room for such speech. Yet another objection, sometimes uttered by the same people who made the first, is that BDS does qualify as a viewpoint, but as such, ought to be presented only in a context in which the opposing viewpoint can be heard as well. There was yet a qualification to this last position, namely, that no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor, but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.

And yet all of us here have to distinguish between the right to listen to a point of view and the right to concur or dissent from that point of view; otherwise, public discourse is destroyed by censorship. I wonder, what is the fantasy of speech nursed by the censor? There must be enormous fear behind the drive to censorship, but also enormous aggression, as if we were all in a war where speech has suddenly become artillery. Is there another way to approach language and speech as we think about this issue? Is it possible that some other use of words might forestall violence, bring about a general ethos of non-violence, and so enact, and open onto, the conditions for a public discourse that welcomes and shelters disagreement, even disarray?

However, these remarks largely failed to reach the audience they were perhaps intended for, writes Marissa Brostoff:

The lasting irony was that all the fuss around the event made it much more of an echo chamber than it would have been otherwise. The royalty of New York’s Palestine activist community were out in force, having signed up weeks in advance and braving hours of lines and security checks (including full body scans) to get in. Students, with the exception of those organizing, largely failed to get in at all.

Hopefully this won’t be the case here at Wesleyan—but it will be interesting to see whether Middletown’s Palestine activist community has its own “royalty.” Our own expatriate the Tenured Radical has weighed in on the issue of the BDS movement, and her opinions may surprise you, considering the general orientation of the academic left. She writes, “I have never understood why I should embrace an undemocratic response to the Israeli state’s horrendous failure of democracy; or why an ideologically rigid, if secular, strategy is a morally appropriate counterweight to enforcing a conservative theocratic interpretation of history on the Palestinian people.”

Controversy remains the name of the game. Butler, as a public intellectual, seeks to start debate wherever she goes, and in addition to opening up the conversation about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, she led author Marissa Brostoff to conclude that “Austerity education kills dissent on Israel.” Brostoff, an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College herself and a former writer at The Forward, worries that “CUNY students are being told that critique is a luxury they can’t afford.” Citing a lack of critical response to a very similar event hosted at Yale with Butler speaking, she sees a double standard unfolding in the academy in which public universities no longer have the “luxury” of hosting free speech and fostering developments in the humanities in general.

This Wednesday, whether you agree with Professor Butler or not, is a time to celebrate the degree of free speech we have achieved so far on campus and question how we can speak more openly about Israel and Palestine without feeling personally offended. Let the “curiously uncontroversial Israeli film series” spark some conversation outside a formal, academic context. Y’know.

Here’s a summary of the topics Butler will touch upon on Wednesday, which focus specifically on Martin Buber and hope to unite history and future:

What is the difference between cultural and political Zionism, and what were the debates that took place prior to 1948 about what Zionism could mean? Although the pre-history of contemporary political Zionism is often regarded as something of interest only to academic historians of Jewish history, it bears direct consequences on how we conceive of co-habitation on the lands of Israel/Palestine. That “backslash” in the last sentence is a rather large problem, and as new debates emerge about statehood for Palestine, one-state and two-state options, the work of Martin Buber becomes salient once again. He argued not only that co-habitation involves bi-nationalism, but that Jewish renewal may well be damaged by a form of Zionism that focuses on a state. Although usually when we ask, “Are you a Zionist?” we mean “Do you believe in the right of the State of Israel to exist?.” But the equation of those two questions was very far from the minds of those who debated the political value and limits of Zionist discourse in the early part of the 20th century. This lecture contends that those debates have relevance for our current ones.

For more information on Judith Butler’s visit, check the Facebook event. I’ll see you there.

4 thoughts on “Judith Butler, Judaism and Israel, and Free Speech

  1. Pingback: Judith Butler has Great Hair, Lively Hands in New Promotional Video | Wesleying

  2. Pingback: Judith Butler Unpacks the Bejeezus Out of Zionism at Memorial Chapel | Wesleying

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