By Maya Dukmasova
CAIRO: On Tuesday, Judith Butler, eminent philosopher, writer, activist and professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkley delivered the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus.
Butler, who is renowned for her groundbreaking philosophical contributions to the areas of ethics, gender studies, queer theory, feminism, and political theory, discussed the identity issues underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a talk entitled “‘What Shall We Do Without Exile?’ Darwish and Said on Addressing the Future.”
The talk was moved to the Ewart Hall auditorium after the smaller Oriental Hall was filled beyond capacity by faculty and students eager to hear Butler speak.
The first part of the talk was devoted to a discussion of the problems with
the construction of the Israeli state and Israeli identity around the nationalist philosophy of Zionism. Butler argued that the minoritization, occupation, and expulsion of Palestinians are integral to the implementation of Zionism today and that this philosophy needs to be set aside in order for a new solution to emerge.
A vocal supporter of the one-state solution for the ongoing crisis between Israelis and Palestinians, Butler extensively argued that progress is impossible as long as the theoretical framework of Israeli policies do not change.
She dared the audience to imagine an Israel beyond Zionism and cited extensive examples of the bi-nationalism which already exists in various parts of Israel and the occupied territories in a form she labeled “wretched.”
“People are already living side by side,” Butler said in an interview with Daily News Egypt. In Jerusalem, Haifa, and parts of the West Bank Israelis and Palestinians have had to accept cohabitation. But, she continued “Because there is Zionism in all these places where there is wretched bi-nationalism, there is a group of people who exercise colonial control over another, or there are Palestinian citizens of Israel who do not have equal rights. If we get rid of Zionism, and we really think of what a different policy might look like that would be democratic and that would include any number of religious and non-religions groups, then political equality is secured for all peoples and the colonial legacy comes to an end.”
She was careful to underscore that this new, alternative bi-nationalism would not be a happy, idyllic utopia. Rather, she characterized it in terms of “un-chosen proximity and unwilled neighborliness.”
Butler added: “There may well be animosity, feelings of anger, revenge, difficulty, even some hatred or antagonism but so what? That’s what it means to live in a democracy.”
Butler has long been on the frontlines of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), whose publicized goals are: Israel ending its occupation of and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; Israel recognizing the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and Israel respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. (http://www.bds-palestine.net/)
BDS members strive to non-violently achieve these goals by pushing for boycott of certain industries complicit in the oppression of Palestinians, such as Caterpillar which manufactures bulldozers that are used by the IDF to demolish Palestinian homes. BDS additionally calls for divestment from these companies by individuals and institutions, and official economic sanctions against Israel.
Butler stressed the nature of this movement as a global non-violent campaign, “[The non-violent aspect] is really important especially when the Israelis keep saying ‘Well there’s nobody to talk to,’ or ‘They seek to destroy us,’ or ‘They’re always violent’ [about groups representing Palestinians].
Further, Butler did not approach this complex subject exclusively as an advocacy campaign for the rights of oppressed minorities. Much of her lecture and interview discussion focused on the problem this crisis creates for Jews like herself and the construction of Jewish identity.
In the United States, criticism of the state of Israel is often labeled anti-Israeli and by extension anti-Semitic. For years now, Butler has tried to shift discussion away from such a conceptual confusion.
“What I wish for [Israel] as I wish for everyone else, is a mode of democratic cohabitation that would put an end to the violence in the region. Why wouldn’t that be for them?” She cited many Jewish movements and philosophies for which ideas of racial equality and non-discrimination are formative and fundamental. “So to be asked to somehow forget that formation or betray those values in the name of some Zionism which is supposed to represent Jewishness is just a travesty.”
Yet there has been progress in terms of criticism of Israeli policies, she said. “Ten years ago, it was easier to say that it must be anti-Semitic, either intentionally so or effectively so. I think now it’s harder, especially when Jews come out very strongly and not only say that what is happening in Israel is unjust but it actually doesn’t even represent Jewish values as they know it. “
Still, Butler’s views remain on the outskirts of public opinion in the United States, part of Europe and many other countries. One of the primary barriers to the decoupling of Israel and its politics from Jewish identity is the historiography of World War II, she said.
“If you tell the story of the Nazi genocide against the Jews, which was massive and hideous and unbearable, [then it lead] necessarily to the establishment of the state of Israel as a sanctuary for Jews so that they will never again have to be in the situation they were in in Nazi Germany. If you make that link then at least, growing up as an American or indeed a British Jew you are taught that Israel protects the Jews against genocide and if you criticize Israel you expose the Jews to genocide. And that’s how it got massively displaced on to the neighboring Arab populations and the indigenous Palestinians.”
Today, the groups that militantly, violently, or non-violently advocate for the rights of Palestinians and oppose Israel are connected in many people’s consciousness to the desire to eradicate Jews altogether. The voices and actions of groups ranging from BDS to Hamas are “assimilated into that genocidal fear and rhetoric. Genocidal rhetoric is pumped up, it is recalled and replayed,” and then fundamentally unjust policies can be carried out under the banner of defending Jews against genocide, said Butler.
Despite all of the forces working against a voice and view like hers, Butler perseveres. “I’m always discouraged, I have no hope at all, but I just keep pushing. Which is why I liked working on this [Said and Darwish] material, ‘The Impossible Task.’ Ok it’s impossible but that’s not the end of the story somehow.”
She continued, “What happened in Gaza was an atrocity, there’s no question about it.” But mobilization and efforts at public education are gaining momentum. Butler advocated teach-ins, film screenings, web initiatives and of course organized BDS efforts.
“Everyone exists in an institution or is able to protest institutions that either invests in companies that are part of war-making or profiting from the occupation, and they can make their voices known.
“It still remains difficult for me at a US university campus [to speak about these issues and criticize Israel]. I can say things more easily in this region than I can there,” she admitted. Yet in the Egyptian context, she emphasized the compounded difficulties of organizing public demonstrations and government petitions.
When an audience member on Tuesday asked her what could be done in Egypt to solve the crisis. Butler replied, apparently amused and slightly bewildered at the simplicity of the question “Wouldn’t it be great to have a mobilization to open up that Rafah gate? It would subvert the siege in Gaza.”
The final part of Judith Butler’s talk was devoted to examining the legacy of Palestinian identity formation in the works of Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish. In a moving climax of the lecture, Butler closely analyzed Darwish’s poem “Edward Said: A Contrapuntal Reading,” elaborating on themes of exile now central to the Palestinian experience worldwide, and the need to continue imagining the seemingly impossible resolution to the crisis.