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Judith Butler on Hamas, Israel’s Collective Punishment of Gaza & Why Biden Must Push for Ceasefire

Web ExclusiveOctober 26, 2023
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Watch Part 2 of our interview 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, and is on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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

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

We continue with Part 2 of our conversation on Gaza with 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. Among those who signed the letter were V, formerly Eve Ensler, Masha Gessen and the playwright Tony Kushner.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Judith Butler is 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 distinguished professor in the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Hannah Arendt chair at the European Graduate School. They also serve on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Butler. I’d like to ask first about the open letter that you signed along with others, other Jewish writers and scholars, urging President Biden to support a ceasefire in Gaza. I’ll just quote a line from the letter, which says, quote, “We condemn attacks on Israeli and Palestinian civilians. We believe it is possible and in fact necessary to condemn Hamas’ actions and acknowledge the historical and ongoing oppression of the Palestinians. We believe it is possible and necessary to condemn Hamas’ attack and take a stand against the collective punishment of Gazans that is unfolding and accelerating as we write.” So, Professor Butler, could you, you know, talk about that? I mean, why — it seems so self-evident, of course, that one can condemn what Hamas did and simultaneously oppose this brutal, ongoing assault on Gaza.

JUDITH BUTLER: Well, it seems to me that one can be opposed, and should be opposed, to the killing of civilians. And that’s a basic ethical precept of war. And so it’s only logical to say that one objects to the killing of civilians on both sides. I think that what is problematic is how often many people who understand themselves as Zionists have said that the Hamas attacks justify the present response on the part of the Israeli military. But as we see, the military powers are radically asymmetrical. And this is not a conflict where, oh, both sides are at fault in some equal way. We have to understand the history of the violence that has been inflicted against Palestine, including Gaza, and I would include as part of that violence the deprivation of the people of drinking water, of healthcare, of basic foods and electricity, that, in other words, the very conditions of life itself have been attacked systematically.

So, I think that I can’t speak for all of the people who signed that letter. But as Jews, we do say, “Not in our name.” This is the — what the Israeli state is doing, what the Israeli military forces are doing does not represent us. It doesn’t represent our values. And because, as I’ve said, I think what we’re seeing is the implementation of a genocidal plan, according to international legal definitions of genocide, as Jews, it is imperative, ethically, politically, to speak out against genocide, just as it is to speak out against the production of a new class of refugees or the intensification of refugee status for so many Palestinians, who have, in some cases, been refugees since 1948. Their families have. So, that’s, I think, the basic thinking behind that petition.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Butler, I wanted to turn to John Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, who was speaking this week at a White House press briefing.

JOHN KIRBY: This is war. It is combat. It is bloody, it is ugly, and it’s going to be messy. And innocent civilians are going to be hurt, going forward. I wish I could tell you something different. I wish that that wasn’t going to happen. But it is. It is going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the killing of civilians is just going to happen. Judith Butler, if you could respond also, as a Jewish professor, for those in the Israeli government, like Naftali Bennett, who have said, “Are you seriously talking about Palestinian civilians?” that if you are to raise your concerns about Palestinians, that it somehow minimizes what happens on — what happened on October 7th, the killing of 1,400 Israelis, the worst killing of — mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust?

JUDITH BUTLER: So, when the national security spokesperson claims that it’s just too bad that civilians will lose their lives in Gaza, and that he wishes that it were not the case, he is, in fact, lying. Civilians are targeted. And I think we can also say that one of the things that is happening right now is that — and it has been happening for some time — is that the Israeli state claims that all these civilian targets it hits are shields for military installations. Well, that’s a very convenient explanation, but it doesn’t explain the bombing of homes, the bombing — and the targeting and bombing of people as they are fleeing the north to the south. So, I think that this is bad faith, at best, and a brutal lie, if we’re to be honest.

I think, as well, that there are, unfortunately, some Jewish groups and Zionist groups that care fully or exclusively or primarily about Jewish life, and their position is that the destruction of Jewish life is the worst possible thing in the world — and it is terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. But Jewish life is no more valuable than Palestinian life. And I think that you might find a number of people who agree with that in the abstract, but they take the massive targeting, the slaughter campaign against Gaza as justifiable, because no amount of violence can possibly compensate for their sense of injury.

I would just add that it is extremely difficult to get the media and the press to offer graphic and detailed descriptions of what the suffering is in Gaza. We hear much more, say, in The New York Times about Israeli lives and the losses they’ve endured. But we never get the same kind of coverage of Palestine. We sometimes get numbers. And as you’ve seen, those numbers could be disputed, even by Biden, even though they’re supplied by United Nations agencies or respectable agencies on the ground. So, there are all kinds of ways of minimizing and derealizing — that is to say, making fake or making illusory — Palestinian deaths. And I think our job, as scholars, activists, people in journalism, is to bring that into the open and make these lives and these deaths meaningful for the greater public.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Butler, I’d like to ask about your own work. You’ve written extensively on the question of why certain lives are valued more than others. If you could speak specifically about how this is reflected not only in the comments we just heard from John Kirby, but also in media coverage, mainstream media coverage, of the war here in the U.S. I’ll just quote from your 2009 work, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? In the book, you write, quote, “When we take our moral horror to be a sign of our humanity, we fail to note that the humanity in question is, in fact, implicitly divided between those for whom we feel urgent and unreasoned concern and those whose lives and deaths simply do not touch us, or do not appear as lives at all.” So, if you could, Professor Butler, speak about this and how it’s manifest, in particular, as you were talking about earlier in The New York Times, in the U.S. media? And you’re in Paris at the moment, so you could perhaps also address this as it’s reflected in the European media.

JUDITH BUTLER: Well, first of all, let’s just state what I take to be obvious and true, which is that the settler colonial framework of Israel’s occupation of Palestine is a racist one, and Palestinians are figured as less than human. They’re among the non-Europeans. There are obviously Jewish non-Europeans, as well. But they are racialized, and they are treated as less than human. So the loss of those lives is not marked and acknowledged as a loss. Of course, it is within Palestine. I mean, there are always ways of gathering and mourning and carrying the dead and honoring the dead. So, we’re talking only from the point of view of those who believe that the elimination of Palestinian lives or the constant damaging of Palestinian lives is somehow justified. They’re not seeing those lives as human lives, according to the idea of the human they have.

And we’ve seen this when Netanyahu calls them animals or others call them barbaric, or, let’s keep in mind, when they are understood to be just a strategic problem: “Oh, here’s this population that has to be managed. Maybe it can be deported.” So, you know, when someone like — when someone from the Israeli government talks about relocating Palestinians to Sinai, making them into an Egyptian problem, investigating housing that’s available outside of Cairo, they are actually talking about deporting people as if they’re goods or chattel, as if they have the right to do so, as if they own these people or that these people are somehow movable goods. This is already not just a radical dehumanization, but it makes possible the brutal treatment, the deportation and the killing that is in play right now. And I think we’re not just seeing random acts of bombardment. We’re seeing a plan unfold. And unless it’s interrupted by the U.S. and other major powers, it will be devastating.

Of course, in Europe, and in Paris, there was, for a time, an interdiction against supporting Palestine through public protest. And luckily, the Constitutional Court here struck that executive decision down, and at least 20,000 people were on the street just last weekend. And, of course, we’re seeing it more and more in U.S. academic circles, but also in European ones. Unless people condemn Hamas, they are not considered acceptable. They’re considered to be antisemitic. Unless people support Israel unequivocally, they are understood to be antisemitic or aligned with terrorism. And, of course, as soon as that happens, those who want to object publicly or at their universities to the injustice that’s being committed risk losing support, losing their jobs, becoming stigmatized. I know academics who have been suspended here and in Switzerland. I know, certainly, academics in Germany who try to speak out, who are then tarred with the accusation of being antisemitic.

It’s not antisemitic to criticize the state of Israel if the state of Israel is a settler colonial state that’s doing violence of an extraordinary kind. One objects to violence. One objects to settler colonial arrangements. One objects to injustice. Indeed, as a Jew, you’re obligated to object to injustice. You would not be a good Jew if you were not objecting to injustice. So, to be called antisemitic — and I have been called that for years by those who oppose me — because I stand for values that are also Jewish values, shared values, but Jewish values, too, is simply appalling.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened to you in Bern. In fact, we thought we were going to be interviewing you in Switzerland, but you had a talk canceled.

JUDITH BUTLER: Well, I canceled my own talk, because I saw that speaking at the University of Bern under these conditions would have produced a controversy and could have possibly hurt my hosts and their department. But it is true that there are certain places where people who are clearly anti-Zionist or who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which I do, that there are protests, that there are efforts to censor, there are efforts to take away forms of recognition or to block the gate. I mean, this is only intensifying on U.S. campuses. And, of course, we need to protect the right of assembly and protest and demonstration. To be in solidarity with Palestine is not necessarily to agree with all the military actions of Hamas, but it is to stand with the people who are being targeted in a genocidal manner.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Butler, if you could also speak about what you think a possible resolution to the present crisis is? Also, in the context of your 2020 book, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind, how is it that we take your injunction, your urging of nonviolence — and, of course, it’s a complicated position that you take — to understand how this situation could potentially come to an end?

JUDITH BUTLER: Well, I do think, first of all, a ceasefire is immediately necessary. But then I think there will be no resolution unless Gazans are allowed to return to their homes and to rebuild them and to undertake the mourning and the living that is theirs to do. I think the occupation has to come to an end, and I include the siege of Gaza as part of the occupation. It’s sometimes said that, oh, Gaza is no longer occupied, that the occupation ended in 2005. That’s not true. It may be that troops pulled back, but every bit of that border, except perhaps the Rafah gate, is patrolled and controlled by Israeli state authorities. And that means that goods and people can’t come and go without Israeli authority. So there’s no political autonomy to speak of under conditions such as those.

But I also think that the kind of deportations we’re seeing right now, they happened in 1948, when the Nakba began. The Nakba is not just a single event that happened in 1948. It is an ongoing condition. So the violence we see now, the killing, the massacre, the dislocation, is a continuation of the Nakba. It is perhaps its most graphic moment in the present. But we should not be imagining that, oh, if we solve this particular conflict now, we will have gotten to the root of the problem. The root of the problem involves finding a way for Palestinians to have full power of self-determination, to live in a democratic society, for dispossession to come to an end, for stolen lands to be returned or acknowledged or for reparation to be given, and also a right of return for a lot of people who have been forced to leave under terrible circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: Judith Butler, we want to thank you very much for being with us, philosopher, political commentator, gender studies scholar, 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. Since we have two minutes on the satellite left, that title of the Hannah Arendt school, if you could say where you think Hannah Arendt would stand today?

JUDITH BUTLER: Well, there are different parts of Hannah Arendt, but I would say that she was very smart in 1948 when she wrote that basing the state of Israel on the principle of Jewish sovereignty is a terrible mistake, and that it would produce conflict of a military character for decades to come. She was arguing for a binational structure, a pluralistic structure, where Jews and Palestinians could cohabit the land, where there would be some form of equality. I’m not sure her plan was totally worked out. It seemed to be derived from Martin Buber to a certain degree. But she did think that no state could be based on an ethnic or religious form of sovereignty without producing displacement for all the people who don’t belong to that religion, that ethnicity. So, she did predict that Israel would produce a massive class of refugees, and that it would be mired in conflict for years to come.

And it’s also why I think we have to remember the right of return. We will not get to the root of the problem unless we understand the more than — the millions of Palestinians whose families have been living in forced exile for all these years, and give them some acknowledgment, some reparation, some way of honoring the right of return.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. To see Part 1 of our conversation with the professor at University of California, Berkeley, we want to urge you to go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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