Open Zion

02.12.13

It's How Badly She Said It

So what did Judith Butler actually say?

After the sound and fury that preceded her appearance at Brooklyn College, Butler's words seem like an anticlimax, the quickly scrolled text between the last scene of a movie and the credits. The drama was all about the invitation, about an advocate of BDS being there.

I'll skip that dispute. The American fight about what you can't say about Israel, and where you can't say it, will always sound to an Israeli as if Lewis Carroll scripted it. But The Nation was kind enough to post a transcript of Butler's remarks. What struck me was a section presented as factual description of what's wrong with Israel. In an old-fashioned way, I think coherency and accuracy make a political argument more effective. Butler's syntax sometimes gets in the way of understanding what she's asserting as fact. What comes across clearly, though, is that she hasn't devoted much effort to checking her sources.

So, for instance, Butler states that "nearly 25 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish, and most of those are Palestinian, although some of them are Bedouins and Druse." The figure of 25 percent apparently comes from official Israeli statistics—which treat East Jerusalem as part of Israel, and therefore include its Palestinians residents in Israel's population. Without East Jerusalem, the proportion of non-Jews is lower. Perhaps Butler regards East Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory, but this doesn't seem consistent with her other views.

Butler also seems to say that the non-Jewish population consists of three groups: Palestinians, Druse and Beduin. In fact, the same government statistics list just over 4 percent of Israel's population as "other"—neither Jewish nor Arab. Almost all of these are ex-Soviet immigrants who entered Israel as family members or descendants of Jews and who live as part of the Jewish majority. At the same time, Butler's comment defines Druse and Beduin as not being Palestinian. That's actually a matter of intense debate with the Druse and Beduin communities.

"If Israel is to be considered a democracy," Butler continues, "the non-Jewish population deserves equal rights under the law, as do the Mizrahim (Arab Jews)…" Here, it seems, Butler asserts that Israel's laws discriminate against Mizrahim. It's true that Israeli society is marred by widespread informal discrimination against Mizrahima term generally used for Jews whose families came from Muslim countries. But as Israeli legal scholar Yifat Biton has written, one hurdle to fighting such discrimination is that the legal system doesn't recognize any distinction between Mizrahim and other Jews—making de facto discrimination invisible to the law. Along the way, Butler identifies Mizrahim as "Arab Jews," perhaps to boost the number of oppressed Arabs. But not all mizrahim are from Arab countries. Among those who are, few would accept being defined as "Arab Jews."

When Butler states that "Palestinians are barred from military service," she again touches a real issue but gets the basic facts wrong. There's no bar on Palestinian citizens serving in the IDF. Most are exempted. Druse men are drafted. A large portion of Beduin men and a much smaller portion of other Palestinians volunteer. Preference for military veterans has indeed been used as a pretext for discriminating against Palestinian citizens, and some right-wing politicians would like to apply the method more widely. To make sense of the debate over their proposals, you have to know that most Palestinian citizens most definitely don't want to serve in the IDF.

Butler goes on to say that "the Knesset debates the 'transfer' of the Palestinian population to the West Bank, and the new loyalty oath requires that anyone who wishes to become a citizen pledge allegiance to Israel as Jewish and democratic..." Does the second part of that sentence refer to something that "the Knesset debates"? From the syntax, it's a separate item, as if the requirement for the loyalty oath is law. The right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party has submitted a bill that would require such an oath for naturalization; it hasn't passed. As for the first part of the sentence, there have been far-right Knesset members who support "transfer." Their ideas are abhorrent. Whether awful ideas should be banned from Knesset discussion is another question. The fact that someone has expressed an abhorrent idea in parliament should not be used as a statement about the parliament as a whole.

I could go on, but let these examples suffice. There's a pressing need to criticize both the occupation and inequality within Israel. But when a prominent critic offers such a distorted picture, she only makes it easier for Israeli supporters of the status quo to dismiss foreign criticism. Of course, Judith Butler has every right to speak in an uninformed fashion, and colleges have every right to invite uninformed speakers. But she's not doing a lot of good for the cause of change in Israel.