Blog post

After Pantin

In response to remarks they gave at an event in Paris earlier this month, Judith Butler has received hate mail while Zionist publications have attacked them. In this article, Butler defends and clarifies their position.

Judith Butler14 March 2024

After Pantin

This article was originally published by Médiapart on 11 March. 


My sojourn in France this academic year has been full of interesting twists and turns. First, an event was cancelled by the Mayor of Paris in early December on anti-zionism and antisemitism in which I had hoped to draw a distinction between the two. The event was rescheduled to take place at Pantin and many people arrived for the conversation on that topic that I had with Francoise Vergès, Michèle Sibony, Olivier Marbouf, producer and author associated with the Relais de Pantin. The sponsoring organizations included two anti-Zionist Jewish groups, and several other left organizations. After the event, Paroles d’honneur posted a recording of the event, and then critics circulated an extracted portion in which I am featured as saying that the attacks perpetrated against Israelis on October 7th was part of a resistance movement. I proposed that we think about Hamas not as a terrorist group, but as part of that movement. What the extract failed to include was the next part of my argument, namely, that we can, and must, disagree with the tactics of such a movement, and that my view is that the atrocities committed then, and the genocidal actions of the State of Israel, are both to be opposed.  I then went on to talk about non-violence and what it means, emphasizing that my aspiration for the region, shared by many others, is a form of governance that would embody principles of equality, justice, and freedom for all, regardless of religion, race, national original.

The hate mail started pouring in by alarmed Zionists. I was once against accused of siding with Hamas, of not caring about sexual violence, of misusing the hallowed term “resistance” in the French context. My institutional hosts in Paris were concerned by the public outrage. And though I have not quite been “cancelled,” some events have been “postponed” in light of threats made to disrupt my lectures. This scandal is, and is not, about me. At such moments, public speakers become a kind of vortex for conflicting forces, and it is all too clear how little attention there is for qualified arguments and thoughts that take time to develop. As stated in my article on October 10th in the London Review of Books (“The Compass of Mourning”), I felt extreme anguish about the killing of Jewish Israeli citizens on October 7th, and I then condemned Hamas for committing atrocities. At the same time, I had to ask myself, why are those lives so palpably grievable to me when the attacks against Palestinians in Gaza were intensifying, and thousands were being killed. Some thought I should speak more about the Israeli lives brutally extinguished or taken hostage and others thought that I should be quiet about the grief I felt about those lives.  I can neither renounce the grief and outrage I feel about those attacked and killed on October 7th nor stop insisting that genocide is happening against Palestinian people. For me, this is not a contradiction.

All of these sentiments remain true for me as a Jew and as a person. As we know, the decades of violence that led up to this event, especially those perpetrated by occupying forces, pre-date October 7th, so the histories we should be telling should begin several decades before. Since then, Israeli attacks on Gaza have resulted in nearly 30,000 deaths, and those deaths prompt me to mourn and to oppose Israeli state violence. So, I am left with the predicament, but not a contradiction, one which I share with many others across the world, of mourning all the deaths that have happened in this brutal war, of wanting a world in which all violence and killing will come to an end.

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The Hamas attacks in October, as we know, emerged from the armed faction of a political party that administers Gaza. I join those who describe this attack as a form of armed resistance to colonization and ongoing siege and dispossession. This neither romanticizes their atrocities nor justifies their actions. Although it is apparently difficult to hear, it is possible to describe Hamas as part of a resistance movement or armed struggle, without considering their actions as justified. Not all forms of “resistance” are justified. Any and all forms of sexual violence are deplorable, whether committed by Hamas or the Israeli military.  Antisemitism and anti-Arab racism must be equally opposed. For me, Israeli killings of tens of thousands of Gazans in shameless and unrestrained ways have now to be our focus, as does the complicity of the US and major powers with this genocide. It is past time that the international community, especially the actors in the region, come together to find a just and enduring solution that would allow every inhabitant of the land to live in equality, freedom, and justice. To do that, we must find ways of understanding the reasons for violence without resorting to (a) quick and dubious justifications for it or (b) racist caricatures to oppose it.

My commitment is to develop a way to imagine the radical equality of the grievable. People on all sides will object. A philosophy of nonviolence demands a perspective on war that does not necessarily assume a position within the war.  It is possible, if not urgent, to reflect on war and genocidal actions – which are not the same – to produce critical reflection that seeks to find the potential for a true peace that might be established, to discern how and why military actors can lay down their arms and engage with one another at the table of diplomacy and the construction of a new future.

If we want to ask people to lay down their arms – as I hope we do - then we must understand why they take them up in the first place. To pursue that kind of historical inquiry is not to justify the violence that they inflict. To understand the historical emergence of a movement is not to rationalize its actions. Indeed, to realize a world of nonviolent cohabitation and to bring subjugation to an end, it will be necessary to understand the history of colonial subjugation, its ongoing structures and practices, in order to bring that subjugation to an end. Co-habitation will not work without first establishing conditions of equality. For me, the ideals of equality and co-habitation have informed all my work as has the commitment to nonviolent modes of political action and mobilization. For the means we use reflect and embody the world we want to create, which is why nonviolence, however impractical, affords a perspective we cannot do without. It is with sadness that I take note of the efforts to misconstrue and caricature my words and my work, but perhaps this incident illuminates the limits of  what can be heard and known by those for whom disavowal and complicity have become a way of life. It is that way of life that needs most urgently to be contested.

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The Force of Nonviolence
Judith Butler’s new book shows how an ethic of nonviolence must be connected to a broader political struggle for social equality. Further, it argues that nonviolence is often misunderstood as a pas...
Precarious Life
In her most impassioned and personal book to date, Judith Butler responds in this profound appraisal of post-9/11 America to the current US policies to wage perpetual war, and calls for a deeper un...

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