Academia’s Judith Butler of BDS flunks on the facts

September 20, 2012
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Judith Butler is a senior member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement (Photo: AP)

Judith Butler is a senior member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement (Photo: AP)

American academic Judith Butler, who took part in a panel debate in Berlin’s Jewish Museum last weekend on whether Zionism “belongs to Judaism”, is the doyenne of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement.

In a new set of essays, Parting Ways, Butler, who is Jewish, argues for a one state solution for Israel-Palestine.

With many on the Israeli and Palestinian sides pessimistic about the chances of a viable two state solution, there is a growing debate about one state. Reality in Israel and the West Bank indicates that a one state solution would be the end of Israel. But for Butler and other BDS activists, a rejection of Zionism is the strategy, regardless of facts on the ground.

Just as a starter, since Butler consistently defines Israel as a “settler” or “coloniser state” and the Palestinians as the “indigenous” population, how does she expect to build a cohesive, rational bi-national state that respects the two claims to one land?

Butler doesn’t simply reject Zionism; she gets the facts wrong. She states: “Zionism is one way that religion has entered public life” — but Zionism is not a religion. While it is Butler’s prerogative to be anti-Zionist, she should at least get her facts right. Both left-wing and right-wing antecedents of Zionism were profoundly secular, from Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who founded the notion of a greater Israel, to leftists like Martin Buber, Ber Borochov and others, many of whom were Marxists inspired by the revolutions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As Martin Buber wrote to Mahatma Gandhi in 1939: “We need our own soil in order to fulfil it. We need the freedom of ordering our own life.”

This is the best distillation of political Zionism there is, taking in both left- and right-wing politics and made by someone whom Butler admires as an early proponent of a bi-national state for Jews and Palestinians. It was rejected — alas — by both Jews and Palestinians.

Since she refuses to travel to Israel, Butler has no opportunity to engage with Israelis. Indeed, she travels to Bir Zeit University, the excellent Palestinian university near Ramallah, but that only gives her half the picture.

Finally, she tips the hand of the BDS movement when she argues why these global protests address “the claims” of Palestinians in 1948, as well as those under occupation today. Neither she, nor they, want simply to end the occupation but to replace Israel with a one-state solution.

Professor Butler writes unconvincingly that: “The loss of demographic advantage for the Jewish population in Israel would surely improve prospects for democracy in that region.”

The Arab revolutions, while deposing corrupt dictatorial regimes, do not bode well for democracy. Nor does fundamentalist Judaism, which is increasing in Israel today. The irony is that two states based on a division of the land constitutes the best chance for a humanistic solution to the conflict.

Jo-Ann Mort is CEO of ChangeCommunications, a New-York based strategy firm with Israeli and Palestinian clients. This article is a version of a review of 'Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism' that appeared on The Forward website (www.forward.com)

    Last updated: 11:38am, September 21 2012