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.

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Vol. 25 No. 17 · 11 September 2003

Judith Butler’s point (LRB, 21 August) can be narrowed to a single question addressed to Israeli and Jewish advocates abroad: where is the line that you will not cross in step with the state of Israel? At what point does Israel’s war stop automatically being ‘my war’? Had this question been asked of so-called liberals some ten years ago, they would have had to draw their line by now, when apartheid in Israel has become a plain fact of life. Almost every possible line has been transgressed, with support from liberals of all stripes, while the charge of anti-semitism is being used to dispossess the Palestinian people of their last resource of land.

Yitzhak Laor
Tel Aviv

Human rights violations take place in innumerable other countries in which universities directly or indirectly invest: China, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, the Congo. In some of these nations, thousands if not tens of thousands have died or been tortured. What sticks in the throat is not so much the visibility of the Palestinian cause as the invisibility of the plight of Chechens, Tibetans, Liberians, Basques, Kurds, Corsicans, Northern Irish Catholics, Kashmiris, Congolese. Professor Butler's point would be better made were the LRB not guilty of voicing disgruntlement with Israel every third or fourth issue: the rest of the world's hot spots receive article-length treatment maybe once – or, if lucky, twice – a year.

Bennett Lovett-Graff
New Haven, Connecticut

Not being Jewish myself I haven’t followed the debates as closely as some, but what has struck me is that Israeli policy since 11 September 2001 has not encouraged goodwill towards Israel. An impression has been given that ‘since we suffered the Holocaust we can do anything we like now and anyone who dares criticise our aggression in the West Bank, say, is nothing but a bigoted anti-semite.’ I am well aware that this is most certainly not the attitude of all Jews; however, the Sharon Government, assisted greatly by the US’s one-sided stand (the Israelis have a right to defend themselves but the Palestinians don’t), has done a great deal to rekindle a pernicious anti-semitism. Butler is absolutely right to insist that criticism of Israel should in no way be construed as anti-semitism. On the contrary, I believe that Israeli policy should be criticised, and very strongly, with a view to reining it in, or else we risk a horrible anti-semitic backlash that will, of course, target not Sharon and his sympathisers, but ordinary Jews trying to go about their daily business, all over the world.

Parina Douzina Stiakaki

Judith Butler refers selectively to aspects of a disagreement she and I had on the Academics for Justice listserv last December in order to level a charge against me that allows her to resolve her own anxieties at being a Jew who is highly critical of Israeli policies and at the same time ‘emotionally invested in the state of Israel’ and painfully aware that ‘no label could be worse for a Jew’ than ‘anti-semite’.

The archives of the Academics for Justice listserv record a message received from Butler on 16 December 2002 complaining about messages I had sent earlier, including one in which I criticised the Jewish press in Britain. Twice in the course of this short emotional message Butler threatened to withdraw from the list. She didn’t address her concerns to me directly, but chose instead to issue an appeal to list members to ‘reprimand’ me in some way (and presumably plead with her to stay on the list). Nevertheless, I immediately apologised to her for inadvertently offending her and did my best to explain the reasons for my criticism of the Jewish press as well as my position on the boycott of Israeli institutions, which she had also attacked in her message. All this material as well as all relevant correspondence is on my website (

In my response to Butler, I pointed out that I specifically criticised the Jewish press/ papers, which is very different from criticising ‘Jews’ (and that conflating the two would be like conflating ‘American press’ with ‘Americans’). I then explained that the two main Jewish papers in Britain are the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish Telegraph. I cited Ilan Pappe (an Israeli Jew) writing about the Jewish Chronicle as follows:

The Jewish Chronicle’s smear tactics and campaigns are not only harmful for anyone supporting the Palestinians, they will act at the end of the day against the Anglo-Jewish community as a whole. This paper is their main organ and it represents the Jewish community in Britain as racist, fascist and ignorant. Most of the community members, to the best of my knowledge and I spent four years there, are fair-minded, liberal and pluralist people. But the association of the community’s leaders with Zionism had gradually eroded its more universal and humane aspects.

I wonder whether Butler would be prepared to characterise Pappe as an ‘anti-semite’, or whether she would prefer the more ‘appropriate’ category of ‘self-hating Jew’.

As for the boycott, I explained to Butler that I would ‘only co-operate with members of Israeli academia officially … within the activist frame’ – I had invited Ilan Pappe to Manchester in September, where he lectured to a large audience – and that, unofficially, I work more closely and have stronger friendships with Israeli activists than I’ve ever had before. I further reassured her that I discuss the pros and cons of all aspects of the boycott regularly with Israeli and non-Israeli colleagues. Butler never responded to my letter but six months later in the pages of the LRB she implicitly accuses me of being anti-semitic. Here, like the President of Harvard, she ‘uses the “anti-semitic" charge to quell public criticism of Israel’ (to use her words) but with one minor difference: Butler reserves this grossly abused label for those who express their criticism in a manner she does not agree with – in other words, by implementing the academic boycott or exposing the fact that the Jewish press in Britain is shamelessly and exclusively pro-Israel. She does not use it to intimidate those who call for divestment from Israel, a tactic she seems to approve of, perhaps because she assumes that there is general agreement on this issue. Divestment, of course, hits the economic infrastructure of the targeted community, rather than the cultural elites. I concluded my response to Butler by offering to withdraw from the list myself if other colleagues shared her interpretation of my position.

Finally, if my position on the academic boycott is anti-semitic, how would Butler explain the various forms that the boycott of South African academics took in the 1980s and early 1990s? Were they anti-white? Or anti-Afrikaner? Would any boycott on the part of academics be legitimate? Or is it only illegitimate if it involves Israel? The British Government refused to supply books and other information sources to Argentina during the Falklands War. Was this not a form of academic boycott affecting individuals as well as institutions? I do not recall outraged intellectuals attacking the British Government at the time.

In the end, I find myself agreeing with Butler on one thing: if the charge of anti-semitism continues to be used to defend Israel the power of that label will be seriously diluted. Perhaps that’s why I am not impressed by Butler’s charge and do not intend to lose any sleep over it.

Mona Baker
University of Manchester

As someone perhaps rather too ready to allow strong disapproval of Israel's current policies to slide into anti-semitic prejudice, may I say how illuminating and helpful I found Judith Butler's article.

Alan Locke
Bassan, France

For the past two hundred years, we in the US have practised supposedly free inquiry in religion, politics or whatever. In three densely argued pages of the LRB, however, Judith Butler asks if a Jew can criticise Israel without being called anti-semitic. Why do we need to question our right and responsibility for examining anything, anybody, any idea?

Masao Miyoshi
Del Mar, California

Vol. 25 No. 18 · 25 September 2003

Some years ago, during a period of retrenchment at the University of Edinburgh, the chair of Scottish history fell unexpectedly vacant. We were in a two-year university-wide freeze on all appointment, and in principle, the chair could not be an exception. But there were many who clamoured for it to be. After all, it was surely unthinkable that the study of Scotland’s history should be left leaderless in Edinburgh.

The next faculty meeting was better attended than any in my thirty years at the university. Backwoodsmen had been summoned to vote down the embargo on the chair, though any vote against it could only be advisory. In the event, there was a large vote in favour of an immediate replacement, and although I can’t remember the details, I believe a compromise was reached, the chair duly advertised and a candidate eventually appointed.

What I do remember, vividly, is the way in which many of the contributors to the faculty discussion began their remarks. Again and again they introduced their support for the immediate renewal of the chair with ‘As a Scot …’ or, much less often, ‘As a non-Scot …’ What I wanted to say, but was not bold enough, was that being or not being Scottish was (or should be) irrelevant to what people had to say about the importance of the chair. The case should have been made on intellectual grounds, not according to emotion and ethnic/tribal allegiance. For me it was a disappointing and somewhat shameful day. Like Judith Butler (LRB, 21 August), I maintain that you can oppose current Israeli statist policies and still not be anti-Israel, certainly not anti-Jewish or anti-semitic. Indeed, for the president of Harvard even to imply that there is an equivalence is trahison des clercs, as it would be for any academic, and so it was in that Edinburgh meeting, where it seemed to be implicit that all Scots would wish the chair to be excluded from the freeze and that non-Scots had no locus standi on the issue.

Even Butler finds it necessary to declare her personal allegiance: ‘What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel [and] critical of its current form precisely because we are invested in it.’ Butler does have a defence for her ethnic self-revelation, for as well as making her case, she is also exploring her own sense of herself as a Jew. And yet I’m not fully convinced, for she risks the implication that (only) Jews may criticise Israel, and, further, that only Jews may be critical of Jews. This is the nightmare of relativism. It is not in such ethnic confines that we will find the ‘public space’ Butler calls for ‘in which such issues might be thoughtfully debated’ and where we may prevent ‘certain kinds of exclusion and censorship’.

Alan Davies

If criticism is made in the context of supporting Israel's right to exist free from the attacks it has endured since its inception, then I believe that criticism will be viewed as constructive and not as anti-semitic. I think Lawrence Summers got it exactly right: the academic boycotts and divestiture initiatives are anti-semitic precisely because they single Israel out for censure when, as Bennett Lovett-Graff says (Letters, 11 September), there are in the world dozens of blatantly worse regimes doing worse things.

Emanuel Goldman
New Jersey Medical School

Bennett Lovett-Graff asks why the Palestininan cause is more visible than that of the Chechens, Tibetans or Corsicans. The answer is that the Israeli Government is dependent on the support of the US Government to an extent that the Russian, Chinese or French is not.

Timothy Burns
Seattle, Washington

Vol. 25 No. 19 · 9 October 2003

Some years ago when I arrived at a hotel in Los Angeles the girl at reception remarked that I spoke English ‘kinda funny’ and asked where I was from. ‘England,’ I replied. She frowned for a moment, and then her face cleared. ‘Oh yeah, England,’ she said. ‘That’s part of France, isn’t it?’ I was reminded of this encounter with ignorance by Bennett Lovett-Graff’s letter about human rights violations (Letters, 11 September). First, he equates the plight of the Northern Irish Catholics with that of such people as the Liberians, which is manifestly absurd. Second, he states that the plight of these Catholics is invisible. How can anyone have missed the reporting of the thousands of killings that have occurred in the Province, the countless books about the Troubles, the documentary programmes and the fictional films? Where has he been for the last 25 years? Working as a hotel receptionist in Los Angeles?

Michael Hope
Merano, Italy

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