Judith Butler: As a Jew, I Was Taught It Was Ethically Imperative to Speak Up (Part II)

Why do we use term "bi-nationalism?" For me it is the beginning of a process, not the end. We could say "multi-nationalism," or "one-state solution." Why do we prefer to use the term "bi-nationalism" rather than "one state" now?

I believe that people have reasonable fears that a one-state solution would ratify the existing marginalization and impoverishment of the Palestinian people. That Palestine would be forced to accept a kind of Bantustan existence.

Or vice versa, for the Jews.

Well, the Jews would be afraid of losing demographic majority if voting rights were extended to Palestinians. I do think that there is the fundamental question of "Who is this 'we'?" Who are we? The question of bi-nationalism raises the question of who is the "we" who decides what kind of polity is best for this land. The "we" has to be heterogeneous; it has to be mixed. Everyone who is there and has a claim - and the claims are various. They come from traditional and legal grounds of belonging that are quite complicated. So one has to be open to that complication.

Now I want to move to the last part of the conversation. It was over three years ago, at the beginning of the Second Lebanon war, that Slavoj iek came to Israel to give a speech on my film Forgiveness. The Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel asked him not to come to the Jerusalem Film Festival. They said that I should show my film - as Israelis shouldn't boycott Israel, but they asked international figures to boycott the festival.

iek, who was the subject of one of the films in the festival, said he would not speak about that film. But he asked: why not support the opposition in Israel by speaking about Forgiveness? They answered that he could support the opposition, but not in an official venue. He did not know what to do.

iek chose to ask for your advice. Your position then, if I recall correctly, was that it was most important to exercise, solidarity with colleagues who chose nonviolent means of resistance and that it was a mistake to take money from Israeli cultural institutions. Your suggestion to iek was that he speak about the film without being a guest of the festival. He gave back the money and announced that he was not a guest. There was no decision about endorsing or not endorsing a boycott. For me, at the time, the concept of cultural boycott was kind of shocking, a strange concept. The movement has since grown a lot, and I know that you've done a lot of thinking about it. I wonder what do you think about this movement now, the full Boycott, Diversion and Sanction movement (BDS), three years after that confusing event?

I think that the BDS movement has taken several forms, and it is probably important to distinguish among them. I would say that around six or seven years ago, there was a real confusion about what was being boycotted, what goes under the name of "boycott." There were some initiatives that seemed to be directed against Israeli academics, or Israeli filmmakers, cultural producers, or artists that did not distinguish between their citizenship and their participation, active or passive, in occupation politics. We must keep in mind that the BDS movement has always been focused on the occupation. It is not a referendum on Zionism, and it does not take an explicit position on the one-state or two-state solution. And then there were those who sought to distinguish boycotting individual Israelis from boycotting the Israeli institutions. But it is not always easy to know how to make the distinction between who is an individual and who is an institution. And I think a lot of people within the U.S. and Europe just backed away, thinking that it was potentially discriminatory to boycott individuals or, indeed, institutions on the basis of citizenship, even though many of those who were reluctant very much wanted to find a way to support a non-violent resistance to the occupation.

But now I feel that it has become more possible, more urgent to reconsider the politics of the BDS. It is not that the principles of the BDS have changed: they have not. But there are now ways to think about implementing the BDS that keep in mind the central focus: any event, practice, or institution that seeks to normalize the occupation, or presupposes that "ordinary" cultural life can continue without an explicit opposition to the occupation is itself complicit with the occupation.

We can think of this as passive complicity, if you like. But the main point is to challenge those institutions that seek to separate the occupation from other cultural activities. The idea is that we cannot participate in cultural institutions that act as if there is no occupation or that refuse to take a clear and strong stand against the occupation and dedicate their activities to its undoingSo, with this in mind, we can ask, what does it mean to engage in boycott? It means that, for those of us on the outside, we can only go to an Israeli institution, or an Israeli cultural event, in order to use the occasion to call attention to the brutality and injustice of the occupation and to articulate an opposition to it.

I think that's what Naomi Klein did, and I think it actually opened up another route for interpreting the BDS principles. It is no longer possible for me to come to Tel Aviv and talk about gender, Jewish philosophy, or Foucault, as interesting as that might be for me; it is certainly not possible to take money from an organization or university or a cultural organization that is not explicitly and actively anti-occupation, acting as if the cultural event within Israeli borders was not happening against the background of occupation? Against the background of the assault on, and continuing siege of, Gaza? It is this unspoken and violent background of "ordinary" cultural life that needs to become the explicit object of cultural and political production and criticism. Historically, I see no other choice, since affirming the status quo means affirming the occupation. One cannot "set aside" the radical impoverishment, the malnutrition, the limits on mobility, the intimidation and harassment at the borders, and the exercise of state violence in both Gaza and the West Bank and talk about other matters in public? If one were to talk about other matters, then one is actively engaged in producing a limited public sphere of discourse which has the repression and, hence, continuation of violence as its aim.

Let us remember that the politics of boycott are not just matters of "conscience" for left intellectuals within Israel or outside. The point of the boycott is to produce and enact an international consensus that calls for the state of Israel to comply with international law. The point is to insist on the rights of self-determination for Palestinians, to end the occupation and colonization of Arab lands, to dismantle the Wall that continues the illegal seizure of Palestinian land, and to honor several UN resolutions that have been consistently defied by the Israeli state, including UN resolution 194, which insists upon the rights of refugees from 1948.

So, an approach to the cultural boycott in particular would have to be one that opposes the normalization of the occupation in order to bring into public discourse the basic principles of injustice at stake. There are many ways to articulate those principles, and this is where intellectuals are doubtless under a political obligation to become innovative, to use the cultural means at our disposal to make whatever interventions we can.

The point is not simply to refuse contact and forms of cultural and monetary exchange - although sometimes these are most important - but rather, affirmatively, to lend one's support to the strongest anti-violent movement against the occupation that not only affirms international law, but establishing exchanges with Palestinian cultural and academic workers, cultivating international consensus on the rights of the Palestinian people, but also altering that hegemonic presumption within the global media that any critique of Israel is implicitly anti-democratic or anti-Semitic.

Surely it has always been the best part of the Jewish intellectual tradition to insist upon the ethical relation to the non-Jew, the extension of equality and justice, and the refusal to keep silent in the face of egregrious wrongs.

I want to share with you what Riham Barghouti, from BDS New York, told me. She said that, for her, BDS is a movement for everyone who supports the end of the occupation, equal rights for the Palestinians of 1948, and the moral and legal demand of the Palestinians' right of return. She suggested that each person who is interested, decide how much of the BDS spectrum he or she is ready to accept. In other words, endorsement of the boycott movement is a continuous decision, not a categorical one. Just don't tell us what our guidelines are. You can agree with our principles, join the movement, and decide on the details on your own.

Yes, well, one can imagine a bumper sticker: "what part of 'justice' do you fail to understand?" It is surely important that many prominent Israelis have begun to accept part of the BDS principles, and this may well be an incremental way to make the boycott effort more understandable. But it may also be important to ask, why is it that so many left [wing] Israelis have trouble entering into collaborative politics with Palestinians on the issue of the boycott, and why is it that the Palestinian formulations of the boycott do not form the basis for that joint effort? After all, the BDS call has been in place since 2005; it is an established and growing movement, and the basic principles have been worked out.

Any Israeli can join that movement, and they would doubtless fine that they would immediately be in greater contact with Palestinians than they otherwise would be. The BDS provides the most powerful rubric for Israeli-Palestinian cooperative actions. This is doubtless surprising and paradoxical for some, but it strikes me as historically true.

It's interesting to me that very often Israelis I speak to say, "We cannot enter into collaboration with the Palestinians because they don't want to collaborate with us, and we don't blame them." Or: "We would put them in a bad position if we were to invite them to our conferences." Both of these positions presume the occupation as background, but they do not address it directly. Indeed, these kinds of positions are biding time when there is no time but now to make one's opposition known. Very often, such utterances take on a position of self-paralyzing guilt which actually keeps them from taking active and productive responsibility for opposing the occupation even more remote. Sometimes it seems to me that they make boycott politics into a question of moral conscience, which is different from a political commitment. If it is a moral issue, then "I" as an Israeli have a responsibility to speak out or against, to sink into self-beratement or become self-flagellating in public and become a moral icon. But these kinds of moral solutions are, I think, besides the point. They continue to make "Israeli" identity into the basis of the political position, which is a kind of tacit nationalism. Perhaps the point is to oppose the manifest injustice in the name of broader principles of international law and the opposition to state violence, the disenfranchisement politically and economically of the Palestinian people. If you happen to be Israeli, then unwittingly your position shows that Israelis can and do take positions in favor of justice, and that should not be surprising. But it does not make it an "Israeli" position.

But let me return to the question of whether boycott politics undermines collaborative ventures, or opens them up. My wager is that the minute you come out in favor of some boycott, divestment or sanctions strategy, Udi, you will have many collaborators among Palestinians. I think many people fear that the boycott is against collaboration, but in fact Israelis have the power to produce enormous collaborative networks if they agree that they will use their public power, their cultural power, to oppose the occupation through the most powerful non-violent means available. Things change the minute you say, "We cannot continue to act as normal."

Of course, I myself really want to be able to talk about novels, film, and philosophy, sometimes quite apart from politics. Unfortunately, I cannot do that in Israel now. I cannot do it until the occupation has been successfully and actively challenged. The fact is that there is no possibility of going to Israel without being used either as an example of boycott or as an example of anti-boycott. So when I went, many years ago, and the rector of Tel Aviv University said, "Look how lucky we are. Judith Butler has come to Tel Aviv University, a sign that she does not accept the boycott," I was instrumentalized against my will. And I realized I cannot function in that public space without already being defined in the boycott debate. So there is no escape from it. One can stay quiet and accept the status quo, or one can take a position that seeks to challenge the status quo.

I hope one day there will be a different political condition where I might go there and talk about Hegel, but that is not possible now. I am very much looking forward to teaching at Bir Zeit in February. It has a strong gender and women's studies faculty, and I understand that the students are interested in discussing questions of war and cultural analysis. I also clearly stand to learn. The boycott is not just about saying "no" - it is also a way to give shape to one's work, to make alliances, and to insist on international norms of justice. To work to the side of the problem of the occupation is to participate in its normalization. And the way that normalization works is to efface or distort that reality within public discourse. As a result, neutrality is not an option.

So we're boycotting normalization.

That's what we're boycotting. We are against normalization. And you know what, there are going to be many tactics for disrupting the normalization of the occupation. Some of us will be well-equipped to intervene with images and words, and others will continue demonstrations and other forms of cultural and political statements. The question is not what your passport says (if you have a passport), but what you do. We are talking about what happens in the activity itself. Does it disrupt and contest the normalization of the occupation?

You remember that in Toronto declaration against the spotlight on Tel Aviv at the film festival, it was very clear that we do not boycott individuals, but the Israeli foreign minister tried to argue that we were boycotting individuals. Yet the question is about institutions. On that note, I want to clarify: You will not speak in Tel Aviv University... forever? Well, not forever...

When it's a fabulous bi-national university [laughter]

Udi Aloni is an Israeli-American filmmaker and writer