Open Zion

05.24.13

McGill's Judith Butler Bungle

When I first heard that McGill University, my university, was awarding Professor Judith Butler an honorary doctorate, I winced, quietly. Butler is a caustic critic of Israel, with a blind spot for terrorist totalitarians. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that she is a respected scholar. And, frankly, I never wanted to be one of those hair-trigger activists who bellows predictably at every anti-Israel affront.

However, on reconsideration, inspired by a powerful statement by McGill Students for Israel, I have decided to challenge the McGill honorary doctorate committee’s foolish decision, aware that the university will not change its mind—and hoping no protestors will disrupt commencement or repudiate McGill overall. I am not fighting my university, whose ideals I cherish. I am, however, fighting to uphold those very ideals for which McGill stands, along with all great universities.

Controversy focuses on Butler’s general support for boycotting Israel and, particularly, her remarks at a “teach in” on war, when she said, “Understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements.” Her follow-up explanation was that they are “‘left’ in the sense that they oppose colonialism and imperialism, but their tactics are not ones that I would ever condone.”

The only thing “anti-imperialist” about these movements is that they use that label to mask their desire to destroy Israel. Her welcome telegraphs a shows of solidarity with these two organizations because of that defining ideological stance.

Both times she failed to denounce the Hamas-Hezbollah religious zealotry, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism and genocidal aims. Her need to prettify these terrorist organizations as “social movements,” her reductionist insult to progressivism by suggesting that these brutal anti-democratic movements are at all progressive because they are imperialist meaning anti-Israel, reflects a moral obtuseness and intellectual sloppiness that has made many intellectuals enablers of Islamist terrorists and Palestinian rejectionism.

The McGill committee’s Butler blind spot reflects a broader intellectual malady today. This week, even the Wall Street Journal described the rioters in Sweden as angry youths without mentioning words like “immigrants” or Islamists. That is like covering the Watts or Rodney King Los Angeles riots without mentioning race.

Of course, we must not demonize any religion, race, or ethnic group. The objection to boycotting begins with its essentialist bigotry that attacks Israel as an entity rather than Israeli policy. Too many academics like Butler have been ideologically colonized by a form of totalitarianism which is intellectually imperialist—imposing a foreign regime of dos and don’ts, of likes and dislikes, that distort the truth, simplify the complex, reward the violent, and doom peace efforts.

Academics used to push politicians to see truth clearly—in all its messiness. Today, politicized professors like Butler push students to cloud the truth through their particular political prism. That McGill, like so many other universities, honors such academic saboteurs insults all truth seekers, left and right.

This is not about Butler’s right to free speech or her right to be wrong. An honorary doctorate rewards exceptional role modeling; tenure rewards good scholarship. As the McGill Students’ statement notes, an honorary degree “reflects McGill University’s highest aspirations and ideals,” celebrating the recipient as “an inspiration and role model to our students, graduates and our community as a whole to enhance the reputation of McGill University.”

Hmm. My McGill—our McGill—is about the noble, consistent ideals John Peters Humphrey and others from McGill Law School defined when writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not Butler’s amoral, sloppy, politically correct identity politics.

My McGill—our McGill—is about the sacrifices 5568 men and women of McGill made defeating totalitarianism in World War II not the weak intellectual fig leafs Butler provides today’s totalitarians.

My McGill—our McGill—is about the exemplary impact of an Irwin Cotler in fighting for human rights worldwide, not the damage a Judith Butler does in rationalizing Islamists’ human wrongs by uniting in anti-Israel zeal.

My McGill—our McGill—is about the tremendous bridge-building efforts of a Jim Torczyner, whose McGill Middle East Program in Civil Society and Peace Building has been fighting poverty, ignorance, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia with creative anti-poverty programs and joint social work studies involving Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Canadians for decades now. Not the bridge-burning efforts of Butler and her BDS comrades who polarize an already divided Middle East.

My McGill—our McGill—is about a scholarly tradition since 1821, which encourages complex thinking rather than the simplistic sloganeering of Butler’s boycotters, which reduces the messy Israel-Palestinian conflict to a black and white, good-guys versus bad guys fight.

And my McGill—our McGill—is about the courageous leadership in the fight against anti-Semitism spearheaded by our outgoing principal Heather Munroe-Blum, who said calls for McGill to boycott Hebrew University go “against everything McGill stands for. It suggests a cowardice that I, as Principal of this great university, categorically reject.” How tragic that one of her last acts as principal will reward someone who epitomizes that cowardice.