Home » Judith Butler Will Not Co-Sign Israel’s Alibi for Genocide

Judith Butler Will Not Co-Sign Israel’s Alibi for Genocide

Last month, the famed American philosopher and gender studies scholar Judith Butler was thrust into the center of a controversy after remarks Butler made about the October 7 attacks in Israel. A longtime critic of Zionism and Israel’s war against the Palestinians, Butler had condemned the attacks in the immediate aftermath. But at a March roundtable in France, Butler offered a historical context for the Hamas-led operations and stated that the attacks constituted armed resistance. The blowback was swift, and Butler was criticized in media outlets across Europe and in Israel. This week on Intercepted, Butler discusses the controversy and their position on Hamas, Israel, and crackdowns on student protests.

Butler is currently a Distinguished Professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School. They are the author of several books, including “The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind,” “Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism,” and most recently, “Who’s Afraid of Gender?”

Jeremy Scahill: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.

Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.

JS: Well, Maz, there’s a lot to talk about this week. In a few minutes, we’re going to be talking with the great Judith Butler. But before we get to that interview, I want to ask you your sense of where things are right now with the Netanyahu government appearing to be ready for a full-scale invasion of Rafah.

Of course, Rafah has been attacked repeatedly, but this presumably would be a much more intense, full-scale ground operation, even as there’s reports that the Biden administration is trying to push for some form of a deal where Hamas would release 33 of the Israelis that they’re holding in return for some, as of now, undefined pause in the Israeli attacks.

But your thoughts on this moment, the political situation, and the threats coming out of Tel Aviv.

MH: Well, it’s been a very eventful few days. We had the reports suggesting that a peace deal could be imminent, in fact, that would end the conflict for a predetermined period of time. But on Tuesday, Netanyahu indicated that whether there is a deal for hostages or not, the war will continue and the attack on Rafah will continue.

And he said explicitly that we’re going to enter Rafah “with or without a deal.” So what it indicates to me, and most observers, I would say too, is that this war was not really about the hostages. It’s not currently about the hostages either, because Netanyahu’s had many opportunities to free the hostages in a peace agreement for a ceasefire or a permanent peace agreement.

And reportedly, even from the first days of the war, it came out recently that Hamas apparently had offered full release of hostages in exchange for the IDF not coming into Gaza on the ground. So it seems that Netanyahu is very, very committed to continuing the war as long as possible; the hostages are not a priority.

It seems like his statement on Tuesday was specifically geared to sabotage the current ongoing negotiations, which by all accounts, we’re almost reaching success. So it seems very, very obvious that Netanyahu is invested in continuing the war. And it could not just be for political reasons, in terms of Israel’s position, but his own political future inside Israel, because the second the war ends, he’s going to be in serious political and legal trouble with Israelis and continuing [the war] longer prevents that.

JS: There’s also this strange micro-mystery that’s been playing out. Some days ago, there were reports that started emerging in the Israeli press, indicating that Netanyahu and some of his senior officials in his government were very concerned that the International Criminal Court was going to be handing down indictments, including indictments of Netanyahu himself and Yoav Gallant, the defense minister.

And the initial reporting in the Israeli media was citing sources in The Hague, but it seems pretty clear from other reporting that has now taken place in Israel and elsewhere, that this was kind of rumor intelligence and that it was being floated to the Israeli press. For what reason would Netanyahu and his government want to float the notion that the International Criminal Court was potentially going to be issuing indictments?

It could be that that is true — that there is a contemplation at play at the Hague where the prosecutor, Karim Khan, is actually considering or has sealed indictments of Netanyahu or others. Though it would be a really swift course of action, if you look at the history of how the ICC proceeds, but it does seem as though there’s a political agenda at play that isn’t exactly clear right now.

Netanyahu reportedly also spoke directly to Joe Biden saying that he wants the United States to block any effort by the International Criminal Court to issue indictments against Netanyahu or other officials. But it’s something to sort of keep an eye on and flag. And just one thing I want to mention for people — we’ve talked about this on the show before, whether it’s true or not, the reports about potential International Criminal Court indictments of the Israelis — it’s important to remember this, that there is a law on the books in the United States that’s been in place since 2002, and it was a bipartisan bill that was signed into law by George Bush. And it’s known in the human rights community as the Hague Invasion Act.

And basically what it says is that if any American personnel — military elected officials, appointed officials — are ever indicted or brought to The Hague on war crimes charges or as part of a war crimes investigation, that the president of the United States can use military force to liberate them from the Netherlands.

But also buried within the language that the framers of that law employed was that it’s not just American officials that could be liberated, but also those working for governments of a NATO member country or major non-NATO allies — and among them is the state of Israel.

So, I just want to put that out there for people. Imagine if China or Russia had a law on the books that said if any of their personnel were ever taken to The Hague, that China or Russia could invade the Netherlands. But the final thing I want to say on this is that just the mere rumors that there may be an attempt by the International Criminal Court to indict the Israelis has caused a panic in Washington, particularly among Republican lawmakers and Speaker Mike Johnson, where they are now drafting legislation to directly retaliate against the International Criminal Court if they indict any Israeli officials on war crimes charges. The White House, Maz, is saying for now, we don’t support an investigation. The position is the ICC has no jurisdiction over Israel. And then Speaker Mike Johnson saying that if the Biden administration doesn’t stop this, if it is in fact even true, that it would create a precedent that would allow American diplomats, political leaders, and American military personnel to be indicted on war crimes charges at The Hague as well.

MH: Well, the whole thing is making such a spectacle out of the supposed rules-based liberal order, because these are institutions that the United States has patronized or supported in various ways in the past and used, specifically, endorsed their use against their own enemies. Vladimir Putin is indicted by the ICC. He has a warrant for him.

No one claimed they didn’t have jurisdiction over that. So, to so brazenly view it as valid in one circumstance and ignore it and even attack the institution in others, I think this is not going to be sustainable in the long term, because the whole world sees this hypocrisy, sees the lack of substance behind these very lofty words and institutions.

So I think that if they attack the ICC in various ways, attack its personnel, threaten even to attack it physically, if it puts warrants for Israelis, I think it only further along the process of a decay and dissolution of these very, very flawed ideas, institutions that the U.S. built at the end of the Cold War.

JS: Yeah. And just a final note on this: I still think that there are political reasons why Netanyahu’s government wanted to push this story, whether it’s true or not. And let’s also remember that there have been credible reports that Israel has spied on lawyers working for the state of Palestine in proceedings at the International Criminal Court. These have been going on for many years, so it’s possible that the Israelis heard something and they wanted to front-run it and make a big racket about it. It’s also possible that it’s part of a broader distraction operation or an attempt to get the United States to come out on record and attack the International Criminal Court — knowing that Israel is committing war crime after war crime.

Well, we’re going to speak to somebody who also has been really outspoken about Israel’s war crimes in Gaza, as well as the events of October 7, and also the events taking place on American college campuses and universities, [and] around the world increasingly. I’m referring to Judith Butler, the U.S. philosopher, currently a distinguished professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School.

Judith Butler is the author of several books, including “The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind,” “Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism,” and most recently, “Who’s Afraid of Gender?

Professor Judith Butler joins us now from Paris. Thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted.

Judith Butler: I’m glad to be here.

JS: Judith, I want to start by asking you about the protests, the encampments that we’re seeing pop up, not just across the United States at universities and colleges, but now increasingly we’re seeing this happening at universities internationally.

And at some of the campuses, particularly in the United States, there’s been a violent crackdown — not only targeting students, but also targeting professors at universities like Emory and others. And I’m curious to get your analysis of the situation as we understand it right now on these campuses, the way that the university administrations have responded, and the role of law enforcement agencies in coming onto the campuses to arrest students and faculty.

JB: Well, certainly I have been following the student encampments and protests, and the way that some university presidents have called in police to break apart the encampments, but also physically to confront and hurt students and faculty protesting and to suppress, in general, their rights of assembly and their rights of free speech. I would say as well their academic freedom — although those three are not the same. 

I think we all saw the footage from Emory University, and the calm and principled head of the philosophy department [Noëlle McAfee] who had the perspicacity to persist and to communicate about her situation. I have to say that I have seen police incursions on campuses for many years.

It is important to see that some university presidents are not calling in the police. So we need to remember that some of them do still hold to principles of freedom of expression and are not enacting violence against students. That said, it is a quite phenomenal movement. 

I’m in France right now, where the students at Sciences Po have been erecting an encampment. I saw an astonishing number of police surrounding the Sorbonne the other morning. Paddy wagons waiting for student protesters and other protesters are seen every weekend in the streets of Paris. Whenever there is a demonstration, there are huge numbers of police who bear their automatics in public as ways of intimidating people and keeping them from expressing their solidarity with Palestine, and of course, their principled opposition to a continuing genocidal attack on Gaza, now focusing, as we know, on and near the Rafah gate.

I think that there are spurious and completely objectionable grounds that universities have given for unleashing police on students. One of them has to do with security. One has to ask security for whom or for what — certainly not security for protesters. They’re not interested in protesters being secure, secure enough, to exercise their rights of expression, their rights of protest. It seems like that would be good if we wanted to guarantee rights of protest on campus, since that would be a defense of freedom of expression and what we call “extramural speech” in the academy. 

But also it becomes clear that the security at issue is twofold. One: security for the campus, its own property — security of the entrance, allowing students to come and leave as they wish, imagining that those protests, those encampments, are somehow keeping people from moving on and off campus. 

But also, as we know, there is a security concern raised by some Jewish students — and here, it’s really important to say some Jewish students, because not all Jewish students agree — those Jewish students who claim that they are unsafe on campus or feel that they need security, telling us that certain utterances make them feel unsafe.

Now, utterances that truly jeopardize another person’s safety are those that threaten them with harm. And what we’re seeing in some of the justifications that are used by college and university presidents to bring police onto campus is an equivocation between utterances that may be objectionable and hurtful or disturbing, and utterances that are threats, literally threats to the physical safety of a student.

So I think that the blurring of that distinction has quite frankly become nefarious because any student who says “I feel unsafe by what I hear another student say” is saying that “My security and safety is more important than that person’s freedom of expression.” And if we countenance that, if we give too much leeway to that claim that a student feels unsafe because, say, an anti-Zionist — or a statement in support of Palestine, or a statement opposing genocide makes that Jewish student feel unsafe, we are saying that that student is perceiving a personal threat or is threatened by the discourse itself — even when the discourse is expressive rather than portending physical harm. 

Now, if somebody does say, listen, if somebody uses a deeply antisemitic slur, any kind of antisemitic slur, or addresses a Jewish student in an antisemitic way, and then says, “And because you’re Jewish,” or “Because I feel the following way about Jews, I’m also going to do physical damage to you. I’m going to harm you.” — that is not acceptable speech. That is not protected speech. There’s nothing about that speech that is protected. 

But if calling for an end of genocide against Palestine is understood as making a Jewish student feel unsafe, then we see that the safety of the situation has been oddly co-opted by that particular Jewish student. It’s as if they are being threatened with harm when, in fact, the opposition to the genocide in Gaza is quite explicitly an opposition to doing harm and killing numerous people who are huddled in Rafah looking for safety.

So I call it nefarious because it’s so clear that Palestinians — who are under bombardment and will now, or have undergone, unfathomable loss, who are living through a spree of killing and genocide that stretches the human imagination and appalls anybody whose heart is open to the reality before them — that they are the ones in need of safety. And the international community has failed to provide that safety. They are in need of safety from harm, like real physical harm. They need to be safe from killing, from being killed. They need to be protected against being killed. They need to protect their families, what’s left of their families.

So for an utterance that opposes the genocide in Gaza to suddenly make a Jewish student feel unsafe — because that Jewish student identifies with Zionism or with the state of Israel — is a grotesque claim in the sense that that student is safe. 

That student is having to hear something that might be deeply disturbing and sometimes antisemitic — and I think we must all agree that antisemitic speech, narrowly, clearly, lucidly defined, is radically objectionable under all circumstances. But we can talk about that as well, since what counts as antisemitic has so expanded beyond the limits of its established definitions that, unfortunately, the call for justice in Palestine is registered by some as nothing more than antisemitism.

“If calling for an end of genocide against Palestine is understood as making a Jewish student feel unsafe, then we see that the safety of the situation has been oddly co-opted by that particular Jewish student.”

MH: Judith, I wanted to get your perspective also on what these protests are indicative of — in the sense that, obviously, you’ve seen previous generations of protests by students and others about Palestine before, but it seems the scale and scope today is quite unlike what we’ve seen in the past. What do you think that this reflects in terms of public opinion and particularly generational change of how younger people view this subject, as opposed to how it appears to older generations? 

JB: I think that it’s obviously not everyone in the younger generation. So we have to be careful in our generational generalizations. And, you know, we see people like Ros Petchesky in New York, a Jewish Voice for Peace advocate, getting arrested, I think, several times now. She’s older than I am, I believe. So there’s a cross-generational solidarity, as well as a specific form of mobilization that is now focusing on college campuses. 

But let’s remember that the mobilization on college campuses was preceded by a number of very public actions jointly waged by Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, disrupting bridges in New York or the federal building in Oakland, the ports of Oakland, the Statue of Liberty, we could go on and on. Some very high-profile protests. And of course, Biden himself has discovered that there are — that there’s no event he can go to right now without major protest outside. Now, a lot of times that is young people. I guess I want to point out that a lot depends on whether you’re able-bodied, like able-bodied young people are able to encamp and protest in ways that other folks maybe can’t.

But the current mobilization on college campuses is being watched nationwide and globally. So a number of Palestinians have commented to me from different parts of the world that it is enormously heartening, that it lifts them to see this great solidarity and this great clarity. Very often when it comes to Israel–Palestine, we hear people say, “Well, it’s so complex.” I think for many of the young people, it’s not that complex. This is a genocidal violence being enacted against the Palestinian people in Gaza. And it is obvious and it is clear, and they have the footage and they circulate the footage and they know it.

They’re also reading: They’re getting the history of Zionism. They’re getting the history of occupation. They’re getting the history of Gaza. They’re learning online and in seminars and in their own colleges. And the mobilization is born of an unequivocal conviction — not just that the bombardments and killings, the loss now of over 34,000 Palestinian lives is horrific. Not just that, but the history of Zionism, the history of occupation, the structure of apartheid within the state of Israel, the fact that Palestinians remain stateless or living within administrative authorities that do not have full state powers and do not represent full political self-determination. And that even now, Palestinians who live within the state of Israel, within its current boundaries, they also are suffering harassment, violence, and second-class citizenship in many different ways. 

I think that there is a broad educational effort happening here. And I like the fact that education is being mixed with activism because activism should be informed. And sometimes we see ill-informed instances, like somebody yelling, “Jews go back to Poland.” No, that’s not acceptable. 

What does the liberation of Palestine mean? What does it look like? Well, in my view, it means that Palestinians and Jews and other inhabitants of that land will find a way to live together. Either next to each other or with one another, under conditions of radical equality, where occupation is dismantled and all the colonial structures associated with occupation is dismantled.

It doesn’t mean pushing Jews off the land. It does mean, in my mind and in many people’s minds, the taking down of settlements and the redistribution of that land to Palestinians who lived there. And it does mean, in my mind and in the mind of many others, a just way of thinking about the right of return for Palestinians who have suffered forcible exile and who wish to return to the lands or at least to the region, or to have compensation or acknowledgment for what they have suffered. 

I wish I saw more on campus. Like, what’s behind the slogan? Like, yes, I want to free Palestine from colonization, from bombardment violence, from settlements, from military and police detention. I want to see freedom from all of those things. But then we also have to ask: Freedom to do what? What will freedom look like? How will it be organized? How will people live together in a free Palestine, or in a free Palestine–Israel, whatever it may be called, or in two states who will have to have a negotiated agreement or a federated model? 

A lot of people have been thinking about this for a long time, so I think I would like to see more seminars in the street, seminars on college campuses that try to take apart the slogans — distinguish the hateful slogans, the ignorant ones, the antisemitic ones from those that are actually helping to realize justice and freedom and equality in that land.

So if we were to have another public seminar on these campuses where everybody is assembled, it should surely be on academic freedom as well. Academic freedom means that educators have a right to teach what they want, to build their own curriculum, to express their ideas without the interference of state and without the interference of donors.

But I think that’s also collapsing right now as donors, we see at Columbia University, are making threats to withdraw funds, that also happened at Harvard and elsewhere. Also state powers, governments pressuring universities to suppress the rights of speech and assembly that their students have. These are forms of interference in university and college environments that ought properly to be protected from that interference. That is what academic freedom is.

JS: Judith, I wanted to ask you about the events of the last few months and how they’ve impacted you and your public profile. On March 3, you made remarks at a gathering in France. And for people that have really followed the history of Hamas as an organization, of the armed struggle of the Palestinian people, of the actions of the Israeli state over the decades — the remarks that you made were, in my assessment, a quite factual rendering of the events, and embedded within them was historical context. You used a phrase, though, that was then cherry-picked, and much ado was made about it in the international press, and certainly in the Israeli press, but also in Le Monde, in American newspapers, and other papers in Europe, et cetera.

You described the attacks of October 7 as “an act of armed resistance.” And again, I emphasize, if people listen to the full context of your remarks, it was quite clear, I think, to intellectually honest people, what you were saying. But then you had just this avalanche of attacks against you publicly. And, from what I understand, also privately, you received hostile communications or hateful communications from people.

But I wanted you to walk us through how you experienced that. What was the point that you were making that then became the subject of controversy? Because I think it’s important to hear it in your own words.

JB: Well, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. I should preface my answer with this comment. Because the violence is so acute and people are taking up sides in very emotionally invested ways, they’re not hearing very well. They don’t always have the time or patience to read or listen to a complex point. And I am somebody who does speak in complex sentences, and I make a claim, and then I qualify it, and then I contextualize it. There’s several steps. And as a teacher, I have the time to do that. As a public figure, I’m learning, one doesn’t always have the time to do that. 

The question that was posed to me in Pantin was, first of all, whether Hamas was a terrorist organization, and then whether I thought as well that it was possible to distinguish the actions of Hamas from an antisemitic attack. 

I made clear in that context that I, as a Jewish person, quite frankly, was anguished on October 7, and I wrote about that, and a lot of my friends on the left were very angry with me for writing about that. I was supposed to keep that to myself. We can see that the grief over Jewish lives lost is very often humanized and memorialized in ways that Palestinian deaths are not.

And we have only to look at the U.S. press and Le Monde as well to see that enormous inequality. 

“We can see that the grief over Jewish lives lost is very often humanized and memorialized in ways that Palestinian deaths are not.”

But I did feel that way. And I wrote against Hamas, in fact, hoping that it would disappear as a movement on October 7. And then as I thought about it, and I saw the genocidal actions of the Israeli state against the Palestinian people of Gaza, and I think we have to say Palestinian people, because it’s not just those who voted for Hamas, or those who are actively part of Hamas. They [Israel] weren’t like asking people, “How did you vote?” or “How do you feel about Hamas?” before they killed them. They did not do that. And indeed, children, older people, as we know, aid workers — I mean, the killing has been monstrous and largely indiscriminate.

And I did think that it was then more important to come out against genocide and to call it that. I did some work, some reading, as I think we probably all did, to figure out, well, how is genocide defined, and who are the jurists who agree. And now, as we know, there are several hundred, if not thousands, who do agree that what is happening is genocide, and the International Court of Justice has also said, plausibly, yes, it is. Wish they would say something stronger. 

By the time I got to Pantin, and people asked me about Hamas — I still don’t like Hamas. I don’t endorse Hamas. I have never applauded or rejoiced in the military tactics of Hamas. I have written extensively on nonviolence, and I often presume people know that I am actually committed to nonviolent means of overthrowing unjust regimes. This is what I teach, and it’s what I believe, and it is what I also have written about at length. 

So I wasn’t romanticizing Hamas, but I was saying they come from somewhere. Hamas emerged as a significant political organization in the wake of the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords turned out to be an enormous betrayal of the Palestinian people. The transfer of political authority that was going to take place, that was promised, never took place. And in fact, it was undercut: More land was taken, fewer rights were given, and it was considered by most Palestinians to be a massive betrayal.

Hamas emerged then, as we know, within Palestinian politics. There are several political parties. There’s Fatah, there’s the Palestinian Liberation Organization, there’s the Palestinian Administration and its complex relationship to that, and also the Palestinian National Unity Party, which is extremely interesting to me. I’m probably following that more closely than anything else. 

In short, I thought it was important not to just see the atrocities committed by Hamas — and they were atrocities — on October 7 as random acts of violence. They were horrific. I’ve condemned them many times, and I continue to condemn them. But they come from somewhere.

“Can we take the time to understand what drives people to that? Where does that come from? What conditions are they living under?”

Can we take the time to understand what drives people to that? Where does that come from? What conditions are they living under? What conditions are they objecting to? Can we discuss those who object to those conditions through military means and those who object to those conditions through other means available to them? Just as a matter of understanding. 

But in certain contexts, to try to understand something like this means that you endorse it. Or if you fail immediately to call it “terrorist,” that means you think it is acceptable. Well, no, there are various unacceptable crimes against humanity, many of which are inflicted by states. We don’t call all crimes against humanity “terrorist” crimes. 

I was trying to contextualize. I was trying to understand why people would be moved to take up arms and be part of a combat struggle. Now, the problem in France is, if you say “resistance movement,” you’re saying résistance. And if you say résistance, you are recalling the liberation from the Nazis, you are recalling the triumphant win of the resistance movement against fascism in France. 

So résistance is always an idealization. Résistance is always what you want. You want to be part of it. You want to be in the wake of it. You want to tell that story. You want to applaud it. So to say something is résistance is to applaud it. And I was foolish because I know enough French and French culture to know that you can’t use the word résistance without invoking that particular legacy.

So, people immediately thought that meant, if I call this violent resistance — and then even say, “And I object to its tactics,” which I did say — by using the word résistance, I am applauding, I am endorsing. 

I never was. I never will. I never have. But I am interested in why people pick up arms, and I’m interested in when they lay them down. So why can’t we be thinking about the Irish Republican Army, or why can’t we be thinking about other places where there’s been violent conflict — where different groups have agreed to lay their arms down when a legitimate political negotiation seems plausible? I’m interested in that, because I am interested in nonviolent modes of resolution. But we have to understand why people take up arms.

“I am interested in why people pick up arms, and I’m interested in when they lay them down … because I am interested in nonviolent modes of resolution.”

And I suppose also, I want to distinguish between being against occupation or against the Israeli siege of Gaza, and antisemitism. Now, yes, some Hamas members said hideous antisemitic remarks. And, of course, we must object to every and all antisemitic remarks. And those were hideous, clear, and explicit. There’s no equivocation. 

But to say that their struggle for justice, freedom, or equality is, at core, just antisemitism, or mainly antisemitism, is to assume that they would be happier if they were colonized by some other group of people. They’re only objecting to being colonized by the Jews because they’re the Jews.Well, no, that’s not right. 

They’re objecting to colonization. And if and when antisemitism gets confused with an anti-colonial rhetoric or an anti-occupation rhetoric, then we need to disentangle it. We need to do that on college campuses, we need to do it with our Palestinian allies if that ever happens — in my experience, it happens very, very rarely. 

In any case, I guess I was taken to endorse Hamas, which I do not do, that I refused to call it “terrorist,” but I feel like once you call it “terrorist” and you just put it in that box, then it’s random violence that justifies any and all efforts to wipe it out.

If Hamas is only terrorist and not a military group that is trying to achieve some kind of political aim that other people are also trying to achieve through nonmilitary means, if it’s only terrorist, then the alibi for genocide is right there. Because if all of these people are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers who are living in Gaza, then the entire population is painted as terrorist, at which point, there’s only one thing that the Israelis and many of its U.S. supporters think is possible: which is the obliteration of those people. 

So I think we have to think critically about how and when we call people terrorists. There’s a jurist here who’s defending people’s free speech on Palestine, and she’s called a terrorist sympathizer, and she’s now under scrutiny by a legal investigation. So before we bandy about this term “terrorist” — and I’m sure there are legitimate uses of it, and we can even describe some actions of Hamas as terroristic, terrorizing, terroristic — we can certainly also talk about whether Israel is an example of state terrorism. When do we talk about that?

I think it’s not the case that terrorism only belongs to nonstate actors. We also have states that act through terrorization and terroristic tactics and who would comply with such a definition. But yes, for many people, at least in the media, it seemed that I had either contradicted myself, that I had criticized Hamas and now I was elevating it and even identifying with it — but that’s not the case. I continue to deplore their tactics. 

I am interested in why they took up arms after Oslo. I wonder what it would take to get them to put down arms. What am I for? I’m for significant, substantial political negotiations that would produce a nonviolent future for Palestine. But, I don’t know if anybody can really hear that, because at this point, the smallest word reduces the person.

Like, “Oh, you said that word,” or “You failed to say that word, so this is who you are, and this is where you belong, and you’re on that side.” “You’re pro-Hamas.” Or even in my early one, “You’re pro-Israel.” It’s like, no. No. People are jumping, and they see words and they grab them, and they try to capture people and reduce them without listening, reading, contextualizing. I hope, really, that we get slower, more careful educational efforts happening on campuses and elsewhere, so that our reporting and our speaking can be as precise and thoughtful as possible.

MH: Judith, one thing you alluded to — and we’ve discussed on the show in the past as well too — is the difficulty of discussing the subject not just among peers, but also due to state pressure. In the United States certainly we’re seeing now with the campus protests, but also in Europe, perhaps even more strenuously.

You’re based in Paris, and you’ve had some incidents in the last few months where events you’re speaking at or taking part in came under some sort of pressure or participation had to be withdrawn. And things like this are happening across Europe and quite extensively. Can you talk a bit about the climate there for discussing Israel–Palestine and the challenge in raising these perspectives that you’re discussing with us today?

JB: I mean, I think what’s going on in Germany is quite distinct, and people here in France I know keep asking themselves, “Are we becoming Germany?” And I don’t know whether France is becoming Germany. I think there is in fact an internal debate about that. The police were brought in to confront the students at Sciences Po, and many people who may have very different views on Palestine and Israel objected to the suppression of the freedom of protest and the freedom of speech at Sciences Po. But it’s true that, I mean, obviously in places like Germany, anybody who’s invited there will first be investigated by their hosts to see whether they support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions, which I have since 2009. I wouldn’t go to Germany because I know what the attacks would be like against me.

I’m glad [Yanis] Varoufakis did. I think that was brave and important and drew attention to it. I’m glad Masha Gessen survived that trial. I’m glad that Nancy Fraser is speaking out strongly against her cancellation. It was, and remains, a complete scandal that someone as smart and important as she is, is denied the freedom to speak because she signed a perfectly legitimate philosophers’ letter objecting to the genocidal attacks on Gaza.

So I’ve been rescheduled. One of that was canceled in a convoluted way, but then I’ve been twice rescheduled. So we will see whether that rescheduling is fulfilled. I think it probably will be, but it is not comfortable to speak freely in public about matters such as these

JS: Just to follow up on that: I’ve been in touch with lawyers in Germany who are representing ordinary citizens, not prominent academics, not famous people, but ordinary residents of Germany.

Some of them are Arabs, Palestinians, others are Jewish residents of Germany, who have been charged under antisemitic speech laws because they’ve used terms at demonstrations to describe what the Israeli state is currently doing to Gaza that were historically applied to the actions of the Third Reich.

And there was a rather senior woman who is an Israeli living in Germany who was twice arrested within I believe a week period, a one-week period, for simply holding a sign. But many of the most vicious attacks against people on these grounds in Germany are aimed at Arab residents, unfamous Arab residents of Germany, some of whom are even being threatened with deportation.

And what I wanted to zero in on is, I’m constantly having arguments with people in Germany and elsewhere in Europe about these kinds of laws. As you see the rise of the AfD in Germany, the far right-wing party, the re-rise of the the far right, — and we’re seeing this in other European countries as well, and you’re certainly experiencing that in France. If right now Germans, ordinary Germans, don’t recognize that the weaponization of these laws against residents or citizens of Germany — because the German state has this “reason of state” that “we must defend Israel at all costs,” that’s the mentality here, and it in and of itself conflates Israel as a state with Judaism as a whole. 

But if you justify criminalizing this speech, right now, that is aimed at protesting against Israel’s actions in Gaza. And then if you have a far-right party take over, it’s so easy for that party to say, “Well, hey, that’s the standard. You’ve set the standard. We’re allowed to criminalize speech that we don’t like.” I think that’s extremely dangerous. You know, I can levy a million criticisms toward the United States, but at least we have a fundamental basis to argue about these issues from, and it’s the First Amendment. In Germany, and it’s leading the way, and in other European countries, they also have speech laws heading in this direction, or they’re contemplating them — these are extraordinarily dangerous laws. Extraordinarily dangerous.

JB: I am following that, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that people who are famous should not be canceled or criminalized, but maybe other people can be. No, no, no. I’m quite aware — in fact, when I used to go to Germany, I visited many Israelis in exile who live in Berlin and who were working closely with Palestinians and were anti-Zionists, quite frankly, who thought that they would be able to live in Germany more easily than they could in Israel because of the cultural activities.

But those people, including, as you say, Jewish people of conscience, the Jüdische Stimme people, the Jewish voices people — they are being arrested, and we’re seeing German police arresting Jewish people in the name of defending against antisemitism. And of course, we’re also seeing German politicians and their apologists deciding whether or not a Jewish person’s critique of Zionism or critique of the Israeli state or the Israeli policy in Gaza amounts to antisemitism.

So Germans are brokering whether or not Jews are antisemitic or not, which I find appalling. And there’s no shame in that. You’re right about the raison d’état the reason of state in Germany, the unconditional support for the Jewish state of Israel. But, you know, they claim that the Jewish state of Israel is a democracy, and yet, if it were, which I don’t think it is, it would also accommodate free speech or robust criticism of the state’s actions. But it does not do that.

We’ve seeing that now in the sporadic persecution of Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, professor at Hebrew University, who was arrested in her bed just the other morning. Released now, but possibly facing new arrests as we speak. But in Germany as well, the suppression of criticism, of public criticism, is also an attack on democracy. So as they cancel and annul and criminalize all kinds of young people, including, as you say, Palestinians, people from Turkey, North Africa, Syria, you don’t have full citizenship or full residency or complete papers or are particularly vulnerable — we see a crackdown on the stateless or the precarious that suggests that police powers are legitimately being used to suppress open public criticism. What we associate with flourishing democracies.

So you’re right. The AFD, which according to the latest reports is gaining greater and greater support among German people, including German youth, is able to flourish in an environment in which state powers and police powers are being unleashed against people who are trying to express basic democratic rights: the rights to speak, to criticize, to assemble, to protest, to give names to what we see, to give the true name for what we see, to say the word “genocide.”

We could have a longer conversation about the spurious argument that is sometimes used against protesters, namely that the Jews are those who suffered genocide, therefore they cannot be enacting a genocide, and it is obscene to say that they are, and they use that word “obscene.” There is nothing that keeps a people who have suffered massively in life from afflicting massive suffering on others, even though the sufferings are different. There is nothing in the history of the world that precludes that.

There are no pure angels in the situation, but there is obviously an effort to control language and to suppress analogies and to keep the exceptional character of the Nazi genocide in place so that we cannot use the word “genocide” to name what very clearly complies with the legal definition of genocide. So I just think it is going to be a massive struggle in Germany to open up the critique of Israel, to accept the nonconsensus on Israel. 

“What if we imagined a transformation of that state, so that it was a state that represented all the inhabitants there, regardless of religion, regardless of race, national origin?”

I want to say one last thing about it, and here’s a kind of bad argument: If you say you’re an anti-Zionist in Israel, in Germany, and sometimes here in France as well, people think it means that you believe that Israel has no right to exist. They actually think that’s all it means. When you say you’re an anti-Zionist, they hear you saying, “I want the destruction of the state of Israel.” Now, you could be an anti-Zionist like I am, clearly, and wish for a state formation in which Palestinians and Jews live together and inhabit that earth together equally and without violence, supported by constitutional protections, by economic equality, the end to colonial structures, the end to occupation.

That’s not the death of the state of Israel, but it might involve a transformation of that state. And it’s that last point, like, what if we imagined a transformation of that state, so that it was a state that represented all the inhabitants there, regardless of religion, regardless of race, national origin?

We would just sound like old-style liberals, right? We would be like boring old-style liberals. Constitutional democracy. If you called for that, for a one-state solution, would you be calling for the end of the Jewish people or the death of the Jewish people or the destruction of the state? You would be calling for a transformation of the state that would be in the service of all the inhabitants, because living on conditions of equality, living equally free, living under justice is the end to a violent struggle for freedom, because freedom is there.

It’s the end of the violent struggle against the Palestinians because they are your neighbors and your equal citizens. I mean, it’s a vision of cohabitation. It’s not a violent act. So, you know, the state of Israel was founded one way; it could have been founded another way. There were bi-nationalists who wanted the state of Israel not to be founded on the basis of Jewish sovereignty. They lost that. And there have always been Jewish Israeli critics of the Jewish sovereignty principle who wanted Israel to be a democracy worthy of the name. Those are positive values, and at least they should be debated. And they could be debated in Germany because a lot of the people who held to this view were German Jews or German-speaking Czech Jews like Hans Kohn.

I mean, it’s just nonsense. Anyway, this is the nonsense that we’re left with in this world right now.

JS: Well, Judith Butler, you leave us with a lot to contemplate, and I know you have to go right now, but we’re so grateful for you, for taking the time to be with us here on Intercepted. Thank you so much.

JB: OK. Thank you very much.

MH: Judith Butler’s latest book is out now and called “Who’s Afraid of Gender?

JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. 

Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. Laura Flynn produced this episode. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Legal review by Shawn Musgrave and Elizabeth Sanchez. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Fireman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

MH: If you want to support our work, you can go to theintercept.com/join. Your donation, no matter what the size, makes a real difference. And, if you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted and our other podcast, Deconstructed. Also leave us a rating and review whenever you find our podcasts. It helps other listeners to find us as well.

If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at [email protected]

JS: Thank you so much for joining us, I’m Jeremy Scahill. 

MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.

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May 2024