"No, It's Not Antisemitic": Judith Butler vs. Lawrence Summers

By Alexander, Edward | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

"No, It's Not Antisemitic": Judith Butler vs. Lawrence Summers


Alexander, Edward, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


ON SEPTEMBER 20, 2002 LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS, THE president of Harvard University, delivered to the Harvard community a speech deploring the upsurge of antisemitism in many parts of the globe: he specified synagogue bombings, physical assaults on Jews, desecration of Jewish holy places, and (this with special emphasis) denial of the right of "the Jewish state to exist." But his most immediate concern was 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." (1)

One of the Harvard faculty, Ruth Wisse, had described the divestment petition as "corrupt and cowardly" in offering its reasons for calling on the U.S. government to stop military aid and arms sales to Israel and upon universities to divest both from Israel and from American companies selling arms to Israel. "The petition," wrote Wisse," requires that Israel comply with certain resolutions of the UN--the terms of which it distorts to say what those resolutions do not mean"; she also pointed out that the petition says nothing of the fact that all the Arab states remain in perpetual non-compliance with the entire UN Charter, which is based on the principle of mutual respect for the sovereignty of member states, which are to settle disputes by peaceful means. (2)

But the advocates of disinvestment in Israeli companies took a less benign view of Summers' position. Amidst the numerous wails of outrage Summers provoked, one, because of its great length and still greater indignation, stands out as a classic utterance of what has come to be called "antisemitism denial": Judith Butler's essay in the London Review of Books (21 August 2003) entitled "No, it's not antisemitic."

Prior to the autumn of 2003 this University of California professor of rhetoric and comparative literature was, like many members of Berkeley's "progressive" Jewish community with which she habitually identifies herself, somebody who defined her "Jewishness" (not exactly Judaism) in opposition to the State of Israel. She was mainly a signer of petitions harshly critical of the Jewish state, full of mean spite towards its alleged "apartheid" and "bantustan" practices, oily sycophancy towards such Palestinian figures as Sari Nusseibeh, and a habit of covering over the brutality of Arab terror with the soft snow of Latinized euphemisms. She was one of the 3700 American Jews opposed to "occupation" (Israeli, not Syrian or Chinese or any other) who signed an "Open Letter" urging the American government to cut financial aid to Israel; later she expressed misgiving about signing that particular petition-it "was not nearly strong enough ... it did not call for the end of Zionism." (3) In autumn of 2002 she requested, with ponderous irony, honorary membership in the Campus Watch organization's listing of Middle East specialists polemicizing in their classrooms on behalf of Radical Islam and against Israel and America. In June 2003 her name could be found on the ubiquitous "Stop the Wall Immediately" petition. The wall, Butler and her fellow adepts in the rhetoric of inverted commas alleged, was "supposed to block 'terrorist attacks' but certainly won't prevent missiles and helicopters from hitting their human target." Suicide bombings, lynchings, pogroms, and roadside shootings were not terrorist attacks but only "terrorist attacks," whereas Israeli response to those so-called "terrorist attacks" injured real human targets.

But deeper currents were also stirring in Butler. She had undertaken some abstruse research into the history of Zionism and discovered that there had been "debates among Jews throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as to whether Zionism ought to become the basis of a state." (4) From this discovery the Hannah Arendt professor of philosophy (as she is called at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland) promptly concluded that demanding an end to Zionism in 2003, that is, calling for politicide (and the genocide that would surely accompany it) was no different from taking a debater's position against Zionism 75 or 100 years ago. …

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