No, it’s not anti-semitic

Judith Butler

Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-semitic in their effect if not their intent.

Lawrence Summers, 17 September 2002

When the president of Harvard University declared that to criticise Israel at this time and to call on universities to divest from Israel are ‘actions that are anti-semitic in their effect, if not their intent’, he introduced a distinction between effective and intentional anti-semitism that is controversial at best. The counter-charge has been that in making his statement, Summers has struck a blow against academic freedom, in effect, if not in intent. Although he insisted that he meant nothing censorious by his remarks, and that he is in favour of Israeli policy being ‘debated freely and civilly’, his words have had a chilling effect on political discourse. Among those actions which he called ‘effectively anti-semitic’ were European boycotts of Israel, anti-globalisation rallies at which criticisms of Israel were voiced, and fund-raising efforts for organisations of ‘questionable political provenance’. Of local concern to him, however, was a divestment petition drafted by MIT and Harvard faculty members who oppose Israel’s current occupation and its treatment of Palestinians. Summers asked why Israel was being ‘singled out . . . among all nations’ for a divestment campaign, suggesting that the singling out was evidence of anti-semitic intentions. And though he claimed that aspects of Israel’s ‘foreign and defence’ policy ‘can be and should be vigorously challenged’, it was unclear how such challenges could or would take place without being construed as anti-Israel, and why these policy issues, which include occupation, ought not to be vigorously challenged through a divestment campaign. It would seem that calling for divestment is something other than a legitimately ‘vigorous challenge’, but we are not given any criteria by which to adjudicate between vigorous challenges that should be articulated, and those which carry the ‘effective’ force of anti-semitism.

Summers is right to voice concern about rising anti-semitism, and every progressive person ought to challenge anti-semitism vigorously wherever it occurs. It seems, though, that historically we have now reached a position in which Jews cannot legitimately be understood always and only as presumptive victims. Sometimes we surely are, but sometimes we surely are not. No political ethics can start from the assumption that Jews monopolise the position of victim. ‘Victim’ is a quickly transposable term: it can shift from minute to minute, from the Jew killed by suicide bombers on a bus to the Palestinian child killed by Israeli gunfire. The public sphere needs to be one in which both kinds of violence are challenged insistently and in the name of justice.

If we think that to criticise Israeli violence, or to call for economic pressure to be put on the Israeli state to change its policies, is to be ‘effectively anti-semitic’, we will fail to voice our opposition for fear of being named as part of an anti-semitic enterprise. No label could be worse for a Jew, who knows that, ethically and politically, the position with which it would be unbearable to identify is that of the anti-semite. The ethical framework within which most progressive Jews operate takes the form of the following question: will we be silent (and thereby collaborate with illegitimately violent power), or will we make our voices heard (and be counted among those who did what they could to stop that violence), even if speaking poses a risk? The current Jewish critique of Israel is often portrayed as insensitive to Jewish suffering, past as well as present, yet its ethic is based on the experience of suffering, in order that suffering might stop.

Summers uses the ‘anti-semitic’ charge to quell public criticism of Israel, even as he explicitly distances himself from the overt operations of censorship. He writes, for instance, that ‘the only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated.’ But how does one vigorously advocate the idea that the Israeli occupation is brutal and wrong, and Palestinian self-determination a necessary good, if the voicing of those views calls down the charge of anti-semitism?

To understand Summers’s claim, we have to be able to conceive of an effective anti-semitism, one that pertains to certain speech acts. Either it follows on certain utterances, or it structures them, even if that is not the conscious intention of those making them. His view assumes that such utterances will be taken by others as anti-semitic, or received within a given context as anti-semitic. So we have to ask what context Summers has in mind when he makes his claim; in what context is it the case that any criticism of Israel will be taken to be anti-semitic?

It may be that what Summers was effectively saying is that the only way a criticism of Israel can be heard is through a certain acoustic frame, such that the criticism, whether it is of the West Bank settlements, the closing of Birzeit and Bethlehem University, the demolition of homes in Ramallah or Jenin, or the killing of numerous children and civilians, can only be interpreted as showing hatred for Jews. We are asked to conjure a listener who attributes an intention to the speaker: so-and-so has made a public statement against the Israeli occupation, and this must mean that so-and-so hates Jews or is willing to fuel those who do. The criticism is thus given a hidden meaning, one that is at odds with its explicit claim. The criticism of Israel is nothing more than a cloak for that hatred, or a cover for a call for discriminatory action against Jews. In other words, the only way to understand effective anti-semitism is to presuppose intentional anti-semitism; the effective anti-semitism of any criticism turns out to reside in the intention of the speaker as retrospectively attributed by the listener.

It may be that Summers has something else in mind; namely, that the criticism will be exploited by those who want to see not only the destruction of Israel but the degradation or devaluation of Jewish people in general. There is always that risk, but to claim that such criticism of Israel can be taken only as criticism of Jews is to attribute to that particular interpretation the power to monopolise the field of reception. The argument against letting criticism of Israel into the public sphere would be that it gives fodder to those with anti-semitic intentions, who will successfully co-opt the criticism. Here again, a statement can become effectively anti-semitic only if there is, somewhere, an intention to use it for anti-semitic purposes. Indeed, even if one believed that criticisms of Israel are by and large heard as anti-semitic (by Jews, anti-semites, or people who could be described as neither), it would become the responsibility of all of us to change the conditions of reception so that the public might begin to distinguish between criticism of Israel and a hatred of Jews.

Summers made his statement as president of an institution which is a symbol of academic prestige in the United States, and although he claimed he was speaking not as president of the university but as a ‘member of our community’, his speech carried weight in the press precisely because he was exercising the authority of his office. If the president of Harvard is letting the public know that he will take any criticism of Israel to be effectively anti-semitic, then he is saying that public discourse itself ought to be so constrained that such statements are not uttered, and that those who utter them will be understood as engaging in anti-semitic speech, even hate speech.

Here, it is important to distinguish between anti-semitic speech which, say, produces a hostile and threatening environment for Jewish students – racist speech which any university administrator would be obliged to oppose and regulate – and speech which makes a student uncomfortable because it opposes a particular state or set of state policies that he or she may defend. The latter is a political debate, and if we say that the case of Israel is different, that any criticism of it is considered as an attack on Israelis, or Jews in general, then we have singled out this political allegiance from all other allegiances that are open to public debate. We have engaged in the most outrageous form of ‘effective’ censorship.

The point is not only that Summers’s distinction between effective and intentional anti-semitism cannot hold, but that the way it collapses in his formulation is precisely what produces the conditions under which certain public views are taken to be hate speech, in effect if not in intent. Summers didn’t say that anything that Israel does in the name of self-defence is legitimate and ought not to be questioned. I don’t know whether he approves of all Israeli policies, but let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that he doesn’t. And I don’t know whether he has views about, for instance, the destruction of homes and the killings of children in Jenin which attracted the attention of the United Nations last year but was not investigated as a human rights violation because Israel refused to open its borders to an investigative team. If he objects to those actions, and they are among the ‘foreign policy’ issues he believes ought to be ‘vigorously challenged’, he would be compelled, under his formulation, not to voice his disapproval, believing, as he does, that that would be construed, effectively, as anti-semitism. And if he thinks it possible to voice disapproval, he hasn’t shown us how to do it in such a way as to avert the allegation of anti-semitism.

Summers’s logic suggests that certain actions of the Israeli state must be allowed to go on unimpeded by public protest, for fear that any protest would be tantamount to anti-semitism, if not anti-semitism itself. Now, all forms of anti-semitism must be opposed, but we have here a set of serious confusions about the forms anti-semitism takes. Indeed, if the charge of anti-semitism is used to defend Israel at all costs, then its power when used against those who do discriminate against Jews – who do violence to synagogues in Europe, wave Nazi flags or support anti-semitic organisations – is radically diluted. Many critics of Israel now dismiss all claims of anti-semitism as ‘trumped up’, having been exposed to their use as a way of censoring political speech.

Summers doesn’t tell us why divestment campaigns or other forms of public protest are anti-semitic. According to him, some forms of anti-semitism are characterised as such retroactively, which means that nothing should be said or done that will then be taken to be anti-semitic by others. But what if those others are wrong? If we take one form of anti-semitism to be defined retroactively, what is left of the possibility of legitimate protest against a state, either by its own population or anyone else? If we say that every time the word ‘Israel’ is spoken, the speaker really means ‘Jews’, then we have foreclosed in advance the possibility that the speaker really means ‘Israel’. If, on the other hand, we distinguish between anti-semitism and forms of protest against the Israeli state (or right-wing settlers who sometimes act independently of the state), acknowledging that sometimes they do, disturbingly, work together, then we stand a chance of understanding that world Jewry does not see itself as one with Israel in its present form and practice, and that Jews in Israel do not necessarily see themselves as one with the state. In other words, the possibility of a substantive Jewish peace movement depends on our observing a productive and critical distance from the state of Israel (which can be coupled with a profound investment in its future course).

Summers’s view seems to imply that criticism of Israel is ‘anti-Israel’ in the sense that it is understood to challenge the right of Israel to exist. A criticism of Israel is not the same, however, as a challenge to Israel’s existence, even if there are conditions under which it would be possible to say that one leads to the other. A challenge to the right of Israel to exist can be construed as a challenge to the existence of the Jewish people only if one believes that Israel alone keeps the Jewish people alive or that all Jews invest their sense of perpetuity in the state of Israel in its current or traditional forms. One could argue, however, that those polities which safeguard the right to criticise them stand a better chance of surviving than those that don’t. For a criticism of Israel to be taken as a challenge to the survival of the Jews, we would have to assume not only that ‘Israel’ cannot change in response to legitimate criticism, but that a more radically democratic Israel would be bad for Jews. This would be to suppose that criticism is not a Jewish value, which clearly flies in the face not only of long traditions of Talmudic disputation, but of all the religious and cultural sources that have been part of Jewish life for centuries.

What are we to make of Jews who disidentify with Israel or, at least, with the Israeli state? Or Jews who identify with Israel, but do not condone some of its practices? There is a wide range here: those who are silently ambivalent about the way Israel handles itself; those who only half articulate their doubts about the occupation; those who are strongly opposed to the occupation, but within a Zionist framework; those who would like to see Zionism rethought or, indeed, abandoned. Jews may hold any of these opinions, but voice them only to their family, or only to their friends; or voice them in public but then face an angry reception at home. Given this Jewish ambivalence, ought we not to be suspicious of any effort to equate Jews with Israel? The argument that all Jews have a heartfelt investment in the state of Israel is untrue. Some have a heartfelt investment in corned beef sandwiches or in certain Talmudic tales, religious rituals and liturgy, in memories of their grandmother, the taste of borscht or the sounds of the old Yiddish theatre. Others have an investment in historical and cultural archives from Eastern Europe or from the Holocaust, or in forms of labour activism, civil rights struggles and social justice that are thoroughly secular, and exist in relative independence from the question of Israel.

What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel, critical of its current form, and call for a radical restructuring of its economic and juridical basis precisely because we are invested in it? It is always possible to say that such Jews have turned against their own Jewishness. But what if one criticises Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness, in the name of justice, precisely because such criticisms seem ‘best for the Jews’? Why wouldn’t it always be ‘best for the Jews’ to embrace forms of democracy that extend what is ‘best’ to everyone, Jewish or not? I signed a petition framed in these terms, an ‘Open Letter from American Jews’, in which 3700 American Jews opposed the Israeli occupation, though in my view it was not nearly strong enough: it did not call for the end of Zionism, or for the reallocation of arable land, for rethinking the Jewish right of return or for the fair distribution of water and medicine to Palestinians, and it did not call for the reorganisation of the Israeli state on a more radically egalitarian basis. It was, nevertheless, an overt criticism of Israel.

Many of those who signed that petition will have felt what might reasonably be called heartache at taking a public stand against Israeli policy, at the thought that Israel, by subjecting 3.5 million Palestinians to military occupation, represents the Jews in a way that these petitioners find not only objectionable, but terrible to endure, as Jews; it is as Jews that they assert their disidentification with that policy, that they seek to widen the rift between the state of Israel and the Jewish people in order to produce an alternative vision of the future. The petitioners exercised a democratic right to voice criticism, and sought to get economic pressure put on Israel by the US and other countries, to implement rights for Palestinians otherwise deprived of basic conditions of self-determination, to end the occupation, to secure an independent Palestinian state or to re-establish the basis of the Israeli state without regard to religion so that Jewishness would constitute only one cultural and religious reality, and be protected by the same laws that protect the rights of others.

Identifying Israel with Jewry obscures the existence of the small but important post-Zionist movement in Israel, including the philosophers Adi Ophir and Anat Biletzki, the sociologist Uri Ram, the professor of theatre Avraham Oz and the poet Yitzhak Laor. Are we to say that Israelis who are critical of Israeli policy are self-hating Jews, or insensitive to the ways in which criticism may fan the flames of anti-semitism? What of the new Brit Tzedek organisation in the US, numbering close to 20,000 members at the last count, which seeks to offer a critical alternative to the American Israel Political Action Committee, opposing the current occupation and working for a two-state solution? What of Jewish Voices for Peace, Jews against the Occupation, Jews for Peace in the Middle East, the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Tikkun, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Women in Black or, indeed, Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the only village collectively governed by both Jews and Arabs in the state of Israel? What do we make of B’Tselem, the Israeli organisation that monitors human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, or Gush Shalom, an Israeli organisation opposing the occupation, or Yesh Gvul, which represents the Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories? And what of Ta’ayush, a Jewish-Arab coalition against policies that lead to isolation, poor medical care, house arrest, the destruction of educational institutions, and lack of water and food for Palestinians?

It will not do to equate Jews with Zionists or Jewishness with Zionism. There were debates among Jews throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as to whether Zionism ought to become the basis of a state, whether the Jews had any right to lay claim to land inhabited by Palestinians for centuries, and as to the future for a Jewish political project based on a violent expropriation of land. There were those who sought to make Zionism compatible with peaceful co-existence with Arabs, and those who used it as an excuse for military aggression, and continue to do so. There were those who thought, and still think, that Zionism is not a legitimate basis for a democratic state in a situation where a diverse population must be assumed to practise different religions, and that no group ought to be excluded from any right accorded to citizens in general on the basis of their ethnic or religious views. And there are those who maintain that the violent appropriation of Palestinian land, and the dislocation of 700,000 Palestinians, was an unsuitable foundation on which to build a state. Yet Israel is now repeating its founding gesture in the containment and dehumanisation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Indeed, the wall now being built threatens to leave 95,000 Palestinians homeless. These are questions about Zionism that should and must be asked in a public domain, and universities are surely one place where we might expect critical reflections on Zionism to take place. Instead, we are being asked, by Summers and others, to treat any critical approach to Zionism as effective anti-semitism and, hence, to rule it out as a topic for legitimate disagreement.

Many important distinctions are elided by the mainstream press when it assumes that there are only two possible positions on the Middle East, the ‘pro-Israel’ and the ‘pro-Palestinian’. The assumption is that these are discrete views, internally homogeneous, non-overlapping, that if one is ‘pro-Israel’ then anything Israel does is all right, or if ‘pro-Palestinian’ then anything Palestinians do is all right. But few people’s political views occupy such extremes. One can, for instance, be in favour of Palestinian self-determination, but condemn suicide bombings, and find others who share both those views but differ on the form self-determination ought to take. One can be in favour of Israel’s right to exist, but still ask what is the most legitimate and democratic form that existence ought to take. If one questions the present form, is one anti-Israel? If one holds out for a truly democratic Israel-Palestine, is one anti-Israel? Or is one trying to find a better form for this polity, one that may well involve any number of possibilities: a revised version of Zionism, a post-Zionist Israel, a self-determining Palestine, or an amalgamation of Israel into a greater Israel-Palestine where all racially and religiously based qualifications on rights and entitlements would be eliminated?

What is ironic is that in equating Zionism with Jewishness, Summers is adopting the very tactic favoured by anti-semites. At the time of his speech, I found myself on a listserv on which a number of individuals opposed to the current policies of the state of Israel, and sometimes to Zionism, started to engage in this same slippage, sometimes opposing what they called ‘Zionism’ and at other times what they called ‘Jewish’ interests. Whenever this occurred, there were objections, and several people withdrew from the group. Mona Baker, the academic in Manchester who dismissed two Israeli colleagues from the board of her academic journal in an effort to boycott Israeli institutions, argued that there was no way to distinguish between individuals and institutions. In dismissing these individuals, she claimed, she was treating them as emblematic of the Israeli state, since they were citizens of that country. But citizens are not the same as states: the very possibility of significant dissent depends on recognising the difference between them. Baker’s response to subsequent criticism was to submit e-mails to the ‘academicsforjustice’ listserv complaining about ‘Jewish’ newspapers and labelling as ‘pressure’ the opportunity that some of these newspapers offered to discuss the issue in print with the colleagues she had dismissed. She refused to do this and seemed now to be fighting against ‘Jews’, identified as a lobby that pressures people, a lobby that had put pressure on her. The criticism that I made of Summers’s view thus applies to Baker as well: it is one thing to oppose Israel in its current form and practices or, indeed, to have critical questions about Zionism itself, but it is quite another to oppose ‘Jews’ or assume that all ‘Jews’ have the same view, that they are all in favour of Israel, identified with Israel or represented by Israel. Oddly, and painfully, it has to be said that on this point Mona Baker and Lawrence Summers agree: Jews are the same as Israel. In the one instance, the premise works in the service of an argument against anti-semitism; in the second, it works as the effect of anti-semitism itself. One aspect of anti-semitism or, indeed, of any form of racism is that an entire people is falsely and summarily equated with a particular position, view or disposition. To say that all Jews hold a given view on Israel or are adequately represented by Israel or, conversely, that the acts of Israel, the state, adequately stand for the acts of all Jews, is to conflate Jews with Israel and, thereby, to commit an anti-semitic reduction of Jewishness.

In holding out for a distinction to be made between Israel and Jews, I am calling for a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate; but I am also opposing anti-semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests. The ‘Jew’ is no more defined by Israel than by anti-semitism. The ‘Jew’ exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos. Once the distinction is made, discussion of both Zionism and anti-semitism can begin, since it will be as important to understand the legacy of Zionism and to debate its future as to oppose anti-semitism wherever we find it.

What is needed is a public space in which such issues might be thoughtfully debated, and to prevent that space being defined by certain kinds of exclusion and censorship. If one can’t voice an objection to violence done by Israel without attracting a charge of anti-semitism, then that charge works to circumscribe the publicly acceptable domain of speech, and to immunise Israeli violence against criticism. One is threatened with the label ‘anti-semitic’ in the same way that one is threatened with being called a ‘traitor’ if one opposes the most recent US war. Such threats aim to define the limits of the public sphere by setting limits on the speakable. The world of public discourse would then be one from which critical perspectives would be excluded, and the public would come to understand itself as one that does not speak out in the face of obvious and illegitimate violence.