Philosopher and professor in rhetoric at the University of California (Berkeley), Judith Butler, born in 1956, made her name in the English-speaking academic world a quarter of a century ago with the publication of her Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. This complex work, which has now become a classic, has nothing in common with the ‘gender theory’ recently invented by the opponents of gay marriage.
Far from having invented gender studies, which have been taught in American universities since the early 1960s and which sought to distinguish anatomical sex from socially or psychically constructed gender identities, Judith Butler was rather more of an iconoclastic heir to them. Basing herself on the French thought of the 1970s – from Simone de Beauvoir to Jacques Lacan – in her 1990 work she gave due focus to life on the ‘border lines’, arguing that sexual difference is always fluid and that transsexuality (the conviction that one belongs to another sex), for example, could be a way of subverting the established order and refusing the biological norm. Butler had herself very early in life found herself in a situation outside the norm, lacking in borders, on account of her identity as a Jewish woman raised as a Jew but critical of the policies of the State of Israel.
It’s not hard to imagine that anyone who skimmed the news this week might get the impression that something uniquely terrible is about to happen in Midwood, Brooklyn. “We’re talking about the potential for a second Holocaust here,” Assemblyman Alan Maisel warns. Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler and other New York City politicians write a letter to the Brooklyn College president threatening the school’s funding and claiming that their constituents feel “targeted and demonized.” “Jew-bashing grows in Brooklyn,” the New York Post proclaims. “Brooklyn College, a once-esteemed campus in the City University system, this week joins a long list of enemies — from lefty denizens of the Park Slope Food Co-op to Iranian madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who crave wiping the state of Israel from the map.”
Mental images of Ahmadinejad picking up some kombucha at the Park Slope Food Co-op aside, the level of hyperbole might make one wonder if Brooklyn College is hosting a neo-Nazi revival weekend or passing nuclear secrets to Iran.
Lighting a Torch Within: Anti-colonial Israeli Support for BDS
The historic call by Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it fully complies with its obligations under international law contains a rarely noticed dimension inspired by struggle against South African apartheid. It invites “conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace,” thereby confirming that principled anti-colonial Jewish Israelis who support the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination, and who uphold freedom, justice, and equality for all as the bases for a just, comprehensive, and sustainable peace, are regarded as partners in the struggle.
Principled Israeli anti-colonialists committed to Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law have played a significant and growing role in the struggle for Palestinian rights, despite their still small numbers. Many of them, aside from their unequivocal commitment to comprehensive Palestinian rights, realize that Israelis cannot possibly have normal lives without first shedding their colonial character and recognizing Palestinian rights. The words of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, on how the oppressed can also re-humanize their oppressors, are relevant here:
Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.
It’s time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa.
In July 2005 a huge coalition of Palestinian groups laid out plans to do just that. They called on “people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.” The campaign Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions—BDS for short—was born.
Every day that Israel pounds Gaza brings more converts to the BDS cause, and talk of ceasefires is doing little to slow the momentum.1 Support is even emerging among Israeli Jews. In the midst of the assault, roughly 500 Israelis, dozens of them well-known artists and scholars, sent a letter to foreign ambassadors stationed in Israel. It calls for “the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions,” and draws a clear parallel with the anti-apartheid struggle. “The boycott on South Africa was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves ... This international backing must stop.”
Yet many still can’t go there. The reasons are complex, emotional, and understandable. And they simply aren’t good enough. Economic sanctions are the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal. Surrendering them verges on active complicity. Here are the top four objections to the BDS strategy, followed by counterarguments.