Friday, September 08, 2006


Judith Butler, Zeina Zaatari, Beshara Doumani and Charles Hirschkind

I too attended Berkeley Teach-Ins Against War's event last night. I feel somewhat responsible for the admittedly inflammatory comment, "Judith Butler played the Jewish card." So I want to put that comment in context and offer my impressions.

I think there are two sides to Butler's presentation of herself as a Jewish critic of Israel. On the one hand, she argues that Jewish values motivate her critique of the state of Israel. That I can't argue with. And that I can respect. On the other hand, after hearing her spiel twice this year, I've gotten the sense that she -- and her partisans -- believe that the fact of her Jewish ethnicity in and of itself renders morally and intellectually credible any and all commentary she offers the public on Israel. It's no accident that her fellow panelists "conscripted" her (in absentia) to speak about Israel, rather than, say, the social services of Hezbullah.

So as a critic of Israel, we're to understand, Butler is authentic. Let me relate her opening words from last night: "To make a set of events thinkable is not to take a normative position. Yet all discourse as public discourse is normative." Is this a person I should take at her word? For me, she doesn't make her criticism relevant by couching it in platitudes about Judaism. But she'd make it relevant by laying bare her ethical stance; by acting as a responsible public intellectual. Her talk at the conference earlier this year on "Is there a New Anti-Semitism" opened with an equally sophistic preamble: "I'll leave questions of historical and social issues to those qualified to address them, but..." And she went on to lecture at length on Primo Levi's relationship to Zionism, cryptically advancing an anti-Zionist position of her own.

Now I went to this most recent Berkeley event because I'm perfectly willing to hear anti-Zionist positions expounded and, preferably, debated. Of course, this wasn't an "Organized Research Unit," or a department that hosted the event. This was a group of people who indeed come together for ideological solidarity. But this was a UC Berkeley-sanctioned event, and, at the risk of sounding like Grover Norquist or Benjamin Netanyahu, I don't think that the taxpayers of California should have to pay for the lights to be on while such vulgar propaganda is spread on a UC campus. The most egregious example of this was the "Hizbullah" speaker (Zeina Zaatari). That was her charge: to speak about the Shiite militia and social movement. So we heard "a message from a Hezbullah woman," who mourned the deaths of martyrs but vowed to continue resistance. Her womb could produce more. One might object: what's wrong with sharing the voice of this woman? Isn't there something to be gained in hearing a perspective? The problem is that this woman's voice was marshalled as part of a vigorous attempt to rehabilitate Hezbullah in the eyes of the audience. As Judith Butler later commented, "Hizbullah and Hamas are part of the global left." So the social service infrastructure of Hezbullah was rehearsed. They have hospitals and schools, all of which, our speaker claimed, were destroyed by Israel. Lest anyone look askance at the organization's finances, she detailed its sources of funding. Some funding, she was willingly to concede, came from Iran (she didn't mention Syria). But, she hastened to add, "They have businesses." It was a crowd that seemed pleased to mock the "mainstream media." So I doubt many will have noticed the recent Washington Post story that detailed just exactly what those "businesses" are.

I don't want to bore or offend anybody. And Asaf is right: group think is stupid, dangerous, and downright embarrassing. I, for one, agree with Butler's point that the line between soldier and civilian is less clear now than it was before the Lebanon War. I am deeply troubled by this. But I see it as part of a trend, a crisis in international politics to which Israel is indeed a party: what are the norms of warfare going to be in this new environment? I don't believe they've been sufficiently worked out yet. But I don't believe in Butler's Original Sin either.

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