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Palestinian Lives Matter Too: Jewish Scholar Judith Butler Condemns Israel’s “Genocide” in Gaza

StoryOctober 26, 2023
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We speak with philosopher Judith Butler, one of dozens of Jewish American writers and artists who signed an open letter to President Biden calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. “We should all be standing up and objecting and calling for an end to genocide,” says Butler of the Israeli assault. “Until Palestine is free … we will continue to see violence. We will continue to see this structural violence producing this kind of resistance.” Butler is the author of numerous books, including The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind and Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. They are on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re continuing our conversation on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. We’re joined now by the philosopher and gender studies scholar Judith Butler, who’s one of dozens of Jewish writers and artists who recently signed an open letter to President Biden calling for an immediate ceasefire. Judith Butler is the author of numerous books, including The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind and Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Their recent piece for the London Review of Books is headlined “The Compass of Mourning.” Judith Butler joins us today from Paris. They are a distinguished professor in the Graduate School at the University of Berkeley and the Hannah Arendt chair at the European Graduate School. They’re also on the advisory board of the Jewish Voice for Peace.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Butler. If you could respond? We were just speaking to Dr. Ashrawi, who said that Palestinians have, quote, “been refused the recognition of our own humanity and rights.” You’ve written extensively on the way in which different lives are valued differently.

JUDITH BUTLER: Yes. Well, let me simply say that everyone on this show who you have interviewed in Palestine has used the word “genocide.” And I think we need to take this word quite seriously, because it does describe the situation in which a population is targeted — not just the military part, but the civilian part — and bombarded, dislocated forcibly, and plans are being made for relocation or the absolute razing of Gaza itself. So, as you know, there are legal groups, like the Center for Constitutional Rights, that has published a 40-page study on why it is correct to call what is happening to Palestinians now genocide. And other groups are studying international law and showing that genocide is not — it doesn’t always look like the Nazi regime, but it can be the systematic undercutting of the livelihood, the health, the well-being and the capacity to persist. This is exactly what is happening.

Why it is that the U.S. media, for the most part, and the U.S. government has decided to be complicit with genocidal crimes is a major question. It is an alarming fact. And Hanan Ashrawi is right to say that it’s not just that they’re giving ideological support or spin doctors to say that Israeli genocidal violence is justified. They are actually giving weapons and support and counsel in order to effect this genocidal set of policies.

So, as far as I’m concerned, the Palestinians have been labeled as ungrievable. That is to say, they’re not a group of people whose lives are being considered as worthy of value, of persisting, of flourishing in this world. If they are lost, it is not considered to be a true loss, because they are not just less than human — surely that — but not just less than human, but a threat to what the idea of the human is that is being defended by Zionist politics, shared by Israel and the U.S. and many Western powers.

So, I think once we see these caricatures taking hold in public discourse — all Palestinians are Hamas, or Hamas is terrorist rather than, say, an armed resistance struggle, or Israeli violence is morally justified, and Palestinian violence is barbaric — well, why wouldn’t it be right to describe the bombardment of people in their homes and in their hospitals and in their schools or as they are fleeing, according to Israeli directives — why isn’t that barbaric? I mean, what we are seeing is not just the killing of Palestinian civilian lives as a casualty of war, a kind of byproduct. These civilians are targeted. So, the targeting of civilians who belong to a particular group, ethnic, racially defined, that is a genocidal practice. That is what we are seeing.

And we should all be standing up and objecting and calling for an end to genocide. It’s true I signed — I signed several petitions, one of which calls for an immediate ceasefire. That’s the minimum. But the fact is, is that the violence that we’re seeing belongs to a long-standing violence, 75-year-old violence, that has been characterized by systematic dislocation, killing, imprisonment, detention, stolen land, damaged lives. We actually need a much fuller political solution to the situation. Until Palestine is free and people in Palestine are able to live as citizens or political actors in a world that they help to craft — they become self-governing, they belong to a democracy — we will continue to see violence. We will continue to see this structural violence producing this kind of resistance. So I hope —

AMY GOODMAN: Judith Butler — 

JUDITH BUTLER: — we don’t, in the end, put a Band-Aid — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you —

JUDITH BUTLER: Please.

AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli politician Moshe Feiglin called for a Dresden on Gaza, referring to the World War II firebombing of the German city of Dresden, killing some 25,000 people.

JUDITH BUTLER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: A storm of fire on all of Gaza. Naftali Bennett, the former prime minister, when asked about the killing of Israeli civilians, of more than 1,400 people on October 7th, responded to the Sky anchor, saying, “Are you seriously talking about Palestinian civilians?” We just have 45 seconds, but your response?

JUDITH BUTLER: Well, I think that one of the problems is that Palestinian civilians are not recognized as such. In other words, when you’ve accomplished, rhetorically and through the media, the identification of Palestine with terrorism, and all Palestinians with terrorism, barbarism and animality, then there are no civilians in the imaginary of those who are doing violence to them.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank —

JUDITH BUTLER: And that’s false, and it has to be opposed. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to continue with Part 2 of our discussion and post it at democracynow.org. Judith Butler is a philosopher, political commentator and gender studies scholar, a distinguished professor in the Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley, and the Hannah Arendt chair at the European Graduate School, on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, for another edition of Democracy Now!

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