On Criticising Israel: Letters to LRB

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

The following letters were published by London Reviews of Books (LRB, Vol. 25 No. 17) in response to Judith Butler’s essay ‘No, it’s not anti-semitic.’

On Criticising Israel
From Yitzhak Laor

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

From Bennett Lovett-Graff

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

From Parina Douzina Stiakaki

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

From Mona Baker

(see unedited version of this letter here: https://www.monabaker.org/2015/11/02/crying-wolf-anti-semitism-the-jewish-press-in-britain-and-academic-boycotts/.

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 (www.monabaker.com).

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

From Alan Locke
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

From Masao Miyoshi

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

From Yovanka Malkovich

From the Barbara Walters interview with Yasser Arafat:

Walters: Why are you such an anti-semite?
Arafat: Me?
Walters: Yes, you.
Arafat: How can I be against myself?

Yovanka Malkovich
New York