jew on this

critical, progressive ideas from pondering jews

Tag: zionism

World War Z & Unified Palestine

by roadsideservice



Firstly: the flick is not a work that is based, in any real or meaningful sense on Max Brooks’ work World War Z: An oral history of the zombie war (2006). It has the title (well, partly), but this is about it. One of the few things they took from the novel was a plot line that teetered on the edge of Brooks’ narrative on Israel/Palestine and stretched it through a large chunk of the film.

Brad Pitt’s character Gerry arrives in Jerusalem to complete a mission given to a virologist (KIA) to find patient zero in what seems like hours of the undead outbreak. It doesn’t really make sense, but there you go.

In Jerusalem, in the radical othering, zombies seamlessly replaced Palestinians as the threat par excellence. This transition is entirely unremarkable. Behind the Wall – now used to protect from the swarm of undead – is a fantasy of human purity, protected, safe, and a sanctuary from a world whose intent is to wipe the inhabitants from the face of the earth. The desert is in bloom and life needs protection. Beyond the borders, beyond civilization, are uncontrollable hordes, baying for blood. They are mindless. They hate life. Israel has a right to protect their borders, after all.

In both narratives Israel has managed to implement procedures early to stem the threat of the “African Rabies” (was this in the film? warning: it is in the book). In the novel, describing a situation where Israel had been driven out of the occupied Palestinian territories by the resistance and thus wielding considerably less power, the Israeli ambassador announced to the UN General Assembly that they were enacting a policy of “voluntary quarantine”. The Palestinian interviewee Saladin Kader tells the (unnamed) narrator twelve years after the outbreak:

I didn’t even hear the second part of the fat bastard’s speech, the part about offering asylum, no questions asked, to any foreign-born Jew, an foreigner of Israeli-born parents, any Palestinian living in the formerly occupied territories, and any Palestinian whose family had once lived within the borders of Israel. The last part applied to my family, refugees from the ’67 War of Zionist aggression…I had never been to Israel, or what was about to be absorbed into the new state of Unified Palestine…(2010, 39)

The film entirely skirts these narratives of the novel. Instead, Israel-proper is innovative, benign and site of salvation for the world’s refugees. Within the scenes of a benevolent, peaceful, harmonious Israel, power has not shifted, and Palestinians – we assume from the racialised discourses – are just happy to have their lives saved in a world gone to shit.

Given this is meant to be an adaptation, the filmmakers are directly antagonistic to this post-apocalypse speculation. The novel goes to Tel Aviv and Bethlehem, but not to Jerusalem – in fact in the novel Unified Palestine had withdrawn altogether from Jerusalem because it did not make sense strategically in the planned defense from zombie attack.

It does, however, (and I speculate) make strategic sense for Israel that an international film to be set in a contested space such as Jerusalem with benign nationalists at the helm. Herein the Israeli state and nationalism is not problematized in the way the book suggested were possible in a situation of extreme emergency. It would be interesting to know what incentives  the filmmakers were given to depart so significantly from this narrative.

What made Brooks’ work so distinct was a number of factors: it was speculative fiction; it was set 12 years after the Zombie War; it was a reflection on experience, rather than action-thriller. I suspect what would have worked well as a format for this story (perhaps ironically) is the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir, albeit without what Ghassan Hage calls the “postexterminatory existentially anxious warrior”. Set 25 years after the “Lebanon War”, it flits around in time and space, has a central character that is collecting stories, and does not require action scenes to propel it forward.

The filmmakers had a chance to be innovative with a radically new zombie apocalypse film format and story telling style, but instead made clichés collected from every zombie apocalypse flick since Night of the Living Dead, without the fun of Shaun of the Dead.


(But also:

I was really disappointed by World War Z. Many reviewers have cited (lazily) Romero’s work, but I think where this departs from Romero so spectacularly to the endless miraculous escapes by our protagonist Gerry. Zombie films need to suspend your disbelief and as someone who is pretty into the genre, it really doesn’t require much to get me there. We never, for instance, get any sense why Gerry is so important. Or why the mission is on is so urgent, why he was chosen, or why he is so materially supported in doing this is not entirely clearOr why, after the immediate outbreak a massive fuck off plane can be afforded so a virologist can go and find patient zero (or why this would be a pressing issue). Or why Gerry continued the work of the virologist (who thankfully toppled himself)– what the fuck does Gerry know? Come to that, what does he know that he is considered so important by the UN that he is shunted around the world? Or why is it that Gerry’s plane was allowed to land?  Or why he could move around with little more than a limp after being impaled after a plane crash (I wont go into that).

Also: Do not watch it in 3D, whatever you do.)


the politics and poetics of (young, proud) diaspora

by tobybee

at the Jewish Federations of North America Jewish General Assembly that is happening currently in New Orleans, there has been a bit of a disruption cause by some rad young Jews.

check them out in action during Netanyahu’s speech:

Watching this, for me, is simultaneously fucking inspiring and amazingly depressing: they get shouted down so quickly, and Netanyahu is so ridiculously smug. But of course he is – he knows that he is so completely in control, and that these amazing people might yell and hold banners, but he can just call them dupes and the masses will cheer. urgh.

but if you just want the inspiring, and the hilarious, check out their spoof Birthright trip, and the fantastically worded, and completely spot-on retraction (“Moreover, presenting a multiplicity of narratives would undermine not only the idealized image of Israel that Birthright presents, but also the sense of emergency that gives such power to the Birthright experience. We know that trauma is a potent educational tool, and the Birthright program—ten days of intense activity with an armed escort, Holocaust references, intimate encounters with IDF soldiers and second-hand stories about ‘violent’ Arabs—has been carefully devised to infuse youth with the conviction that Jews everywhere are on the brink of annihilation, and that the only way to survive is to support Israel without question.”).

and the newly-formed group that all this action came out of: ‘Young, Jewish and Proud’, which is part of Jewish Voice for Peace. Reading their opening statement, for me, was spine-tingling. Here’s an excerpt (but you should definitely read the whole thing):

I. we exist.
We exist. We are everywhere. We speak and love and dream in every language. We pray three times a day or only during the high holidays or when we feel like we really need to or not at all. We are punks and students and parents and janitors and Rabbis and freedom fighters. We are your children, your nieces and nephews, your grandchildren. We embrace diaspora, even when it causes us a great deal of pain. We are the rubble of tangled fear, the deliverance of values. We are human. We are born perfect. We assimilate, or we do not. We are not apathetic. We know and name persecution when we see it. Occupation has constricted our throats and fattened our tongues. We are feeding each other new words. We have family, we build family, we are family. We re-negotiate. We atone. We re-draw the map every single day. We travel between worlds. This is not our birthright, it is our necessity.


IV. we commit.
We commit ourselves to peace. We will stand up with honest bodies, to offer honest bread. We will stand up with our words, our pens, our songs, our paintbrushes, our open hands. We commit to re-envisioning “homeland,” to make room for justice. We will stand in the way of colonization and displacement. We will take this to the courts and to the streets. We will learn. We will teach this in the schools and in our homes. We will stand with you, if you choose to stand with our allies. We will grieve the lies we’ve swallowed. We commit to equality, solidarity, and integrity. We will soothe the deepest tangles of our roots and stretch our strong arms to the sky. We demand daylight for our stories, for all stories. We seek breathing room and dignity for all people. We are committed to the struggle. We are the struggle. We will become mentors, elders, and radical listeners for the next generation. It is our sacred obligation. We will not stop. We exist. We are young Jews, and we get to decide what that means.

so ridiculously great, for the poetry of their writing, for the energy, for the way they take the idea of delegitimisation and throw it on its head.

**update 11/11: to read the rad perspectives of some of the people involved in the protest, check out two pieces on Mondoweiss: this piece by Matthew Taylor, and this piece by Rae Abileah

mother’s milk?

by tobybee

I took this photo when I was in Tel Aviv in August 2007 – I was being taken by some friends on an architectural tour around the city, and my guide was showing us a brutalist building across the road from this. Every so often I remember this photo. It sticks in my mind, and in my throat. I’m not 100% sure what to make of it yet; I’m still thinking about what it’s saying about zionism, gender, secularism and (the claiming and defining of) jewish bodies and spaces. Anyway, I came across it again today so wanted to share.

peter beinart + the failure of the US jewish establishment

by anzya

I was recently pointed in the way of Peter Beinart’s article, published last month in the NY Review of Books – “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”. If you haven’t read it, do now, as there are some pretty sharp analyses in there about the way Jews in America perceive, criticise and/or defend Israel and its politics. And though it focussed on American Jewish Zionist orgs, so much of what he writes applies to the attitudes of Australian Jews towards Israel and Zionism. I particularly liked his argument about the generational differences between American Jews in how they view Israel, which I’ll quote here:

These American Zionists are largely the product of a particular era. Many were shaped by the terrifying days leading up to the Six-Day War, when it appeared that Israel might be overrun, and by the bitter aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when much of the world seemed to turn against the Jewish state. In that crucible, Israel became their Jewish identity, often in conjunction with the Holocaust, which the 1967 and 1973 wars helped make central to American Jewish life. These Jews embraced Zionism before the settler movement became a major force in Israeli politics, before the 1982 Lebanon war, before the first intifada. They fell in love with an Israel that was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology of occupation. And by downplaying the significance of Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas, American Jewish groups allow these older Zionists to continue to identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth, an Israel that now only exists in their memories.

But these secular Zionists aren’t reproducing themselves. Their children have no memory of Arab armies massed on Israel’s border and of Israel surviving in part thanks to urgent military assistance from the United States. Instead, they have grown up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril. Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism.

I realise I am reading this about a month late(!). Much has been written on Beinart’s piece already in other blogs including jew school, mondoweiss, Tablet mag and AJDS. Since then, however, there has also been a more recent rebuttal from Abraham Foxman from the ADL published in the NY Review blog, (in which he gives some pretty annoying and predictable arguments in defense of Netanyahu et al), and a response from Beinart who, rather unusually and admiringly politely, writes:

The ADL was founded “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” What I have always admired about that statement is its suggestion that to truly defend Jewish dignity, one must also defend the dignity of other vulnerable groups. At home, the ADL still honors that mission, working valiantly, for instance, against racial profiling in Arizona. But how can an organization that is so vigilant in opposing bigotry in the US be so complacent about a government shaped by men like Lieberman, Effi Eitam, and Ovadia Yosef? How can it not take its rightful place in the struggle on behalf of Palestinians evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah?

I think would be interesting to follow this post up at some stage and to see how Australian Zionist orgs repsond/ed to this article and debate, and the similarities and comparisons between the Jewish establishment in US and in Australia that can be drawn. So stay tuned. And do put your two cents in the comments section below 🙂

dangerous lists

by tobybee

The other day I discovered that I’m on one of those lists of Jews who are apparently self-hating, and whose presence in this world will lead to the destruction of all Jews (in this case, it’s the ‘Self-Hating and/or Israel Threatening List. Yes, that’s right, the ‘SHIT List’. So witty. Indeed). It was the kind of thing that I thought might happen at some point, but I didn’t realise it had already happened! Very exciting. I called a couple of friends, got a few mazaltov’s, felt a little proud of myself. After all, the list presents quite an impressive gathering of Jews, and it’s kind of nice to be considered alongside them. As many others have said, if I’m being put on this kind of list, clearly I’m doing something right.

On the list—which, as well as being clearly the rantings of a group of people who have a tenuous grasp on reality, is violently sexist, racist and homophobic—among the nearly 9000 listed, are people such as Judith Butler, Daniel Boyarin (but, interestingly, not Jonathan), Amira Hass, Idith Zertal, and everyone’s favourite self-hating Jew, Woody Allen.

After the initial surprise of finding my name eased, I began to wonder how I ended up there. So I had a look for others in Australia who I thought might be on the list: Antony Loewenstein is there, as is Peter Slezak. Amusingly, so is Fania Oz Salzberger. But no John Docker, no Ned Curthoys, and neither of my fellow bloggers (not that I’m saying that I want them on the list, but it’s interesting to see who is included and who isn’t, I think).

Which does make me wonder how I ended up on the list. As far as I can tell, the organisation on whose website the list is is in America. I’m kind of assuming that someone in Melbourne, someone who knows me, told them to put me on the list. I blog here under a pseudonym, but on the list my birth name is used.

Inherently, the list is bad: for everything that it is, and everything that it signifies. I decided though that I don’t want to dwell on its badness, and instead be amused—and, as I say, slightly proud—by the whole thing. What does upset me is the thought that someone who I know put me on this list. Who knows though. Maybe they just went through some online petition that I signed somewhere along the way and put everyone who signed it on (although that doesn’t seem likely – some others who have signed the same petitions as me don’t seem to be on the list). Or maybe someone I know really finds me that objectionable (which, I worry, is the most likely explanation). Either way, it seems that now I’ve officially been listed.

48 hours on…

by tobybee

we’re not the type of blog that brings you up-to-date information, so presumably (like me), you’ve been looking elsewhere for coverage and commentary on the attacking of the flotilla. people on facebook and twitter have been constantly providing important information, videos, and ideas. so, to begin with, here’s a small sample of things to read/watch:

first reports from protestors on the flotilla, published in the guardian here and here
a great piece by Gideon Levy in Haaretz
footage of Naomi Klein speaking at a rally in Toronto
statement by J Street
statement by the AJDS
a piece by Joan Nestle (who spoke beautifully at the rally in Melbourne last night)
Glenn Greenwald talking with Elliot Spitzer
and mondoweiss and ibn ezra on twitter, who are providing regular streams of ideas and links.

What has been interesting over this last nearly 48 hours, is watching people respond. and i’ve been surprised. when i first heard the news it didn’t occur to me that there would be people who would defend israel’s actions. it seemed clear-cut: you don’t storm a boat and kill people in international waters. simple. and i stayed up til 2am reading, trying to find information, chatting online to friends overseas. at one point in the evening it hit me that what we were talking about here was an army storming a boat; and that on a boat you have nowhere to go. and that it happened at 4.30am, in the dark. and that that must have been truly terrifying for some people on board.

as Salman Rushdie simply stated, “The initial response is that it would be much better not to start shooting people”.

and then i awoke to friends saying that when the protestors were violent towards the soldiers, the soldiers had the right to defend themselves. as though the soldiers coming onto the boats was not a prior act of violence. and there seemed to be this unshakeable belief in the footage that people were watching – that the soldiers rappelled down onto the boats and were instantly met with sticks. rather than an understanding that this was footage presented by one side, and that maybe, once we heard from the protestors (who had been prevented from speaking), we would learn a different story. and then we would have competing narratives, and it would be up to our own individual politics and ideologies to decide who we believed.

and i’ve watched as people write on facebook, suggesting that the army merely went onto the boats to check for weapons; or responding in an aggressively hyper-masculinist way, that they would have gone out and killed everyone on board if they were the israeli army, that the israeli army did exactly the right thing by responding with such force; or posting different ideas every few hours, as they vascillate, struggling with their left-leaning, humanitarian politics, and their zionism. or, another response, of being excited about the idea of being in israel in a couple of weeks, and being able to have a holiday there, and do banal, holiday things – perhaps, in the end, this is the way that lefty zionists can respond to such an event – by turning away and not really dealing with what has been done.

and, of course, i’ve watched as people share critiques and links, engage in heartbreaking, open and honest discussions, and speak in terms of sadness, anger and solidarity. and there has been a sense of a transnational community being formed, of people uniting in outrage and resilience.

people get distracted by the minutiae, trying to distract others with suggestions that the people on the boats were terrorists, that they were carrying weapons, that the blockade is a good thing, that the soldiers have some right to defend themselves in whatever way they deem appropriate, that people in the diaspora are not allowed to have an opinion. and it’s interesting talking to friends, and seeing how we turn slightly more conservative, turning to principles of international law to defend our position; or listening to people talk of israel as a terrorist state, thereby conforming to the discourse set by the conservative hegemony of “terrorist” as the biggest slander to throw at someone/something. what has happened is corrupting, I suppose.

and there’s this rush to blame the government and let the soldiers off, as though the soldiers didn’t make a decision, and make that decision over and over, to be a part of that army (because yes, people always refuse to go, and there are always soldiers who refuse to follow orders, and i’m not convinced that every soldier in the israeli army is reluctant to do their job- i think that a great many believe in it. and i condemn that). but i think that yes, we need to blame the government: for the lies that they tell, for the blockade they maintain, for the deaths they cause.

there’s so much more to say.

i’ll end with the words that Joan Nestle ended her post with: “I write from a Jewish heart, Israel is my concern, my burden, my shame–and activism in the face of the brutalities of a mad State is my Jewish heritage.”

Sachs says… tolerance

by tobybee

On April 22 Albie Sachs, an activist with the ANC and former justice of the South African Constitutional Court, gave a speech at the Cape Town Press Club. We haven’t mentioned before, on this blog (i don’t think!), the shameful saga which developed in South Africa recently, when Judge Richard Goldstone was effectively barred from being at his grandson’s barmitzvah (before the threats were lifted in the days before the barmitzvah, and he was in the end able to attend), but presumably you’ve seen the coverage elsewhere (see for instance here, here, and here). Sachs, up until this point, had not commented on Goldstone’s report, as he wanted to remain in a position where he could practically contribute to creating peace between Israel/Palestine, in some form. But, he says, the outrage of what was done to Goldstone and his family, and what was done to Jewishness too, impelled him to speak. And so he said, in the most beautiful way…

I felt sick. I knew how family-orientated Richard and Noleen were, and how proud they were of their children and grandchildren. I couldn’t believe that political anger against him, which people had every right to express, had evolved into an uncontrolled and unconscionable rage that sought to violate the spirit of one of the most sacred aspects of formal Jewish tradition. Non-believers, as secular people like myself are called, tend to fall into two categories… either we aggressively repudiate all religious belief as obscurantist humbug, or we actively acknowledge that people owe much of their dignity and personhood to their consciences and beliefs. I belong to the latter group. It shocked me deeply that instead of being a sanctuary of spiritual communality that transcended, even if momentarily, the feuds of secular life, the shul was being converted into a trench of partisanship. Above all, I felt for the barmitzvah boy. He had a right to have his grandpa there on his very special day.


Like Richard’s grandson, I had the fortune or the misfortune to be born into a family with a famous figure constantly in the headlines. In my case it was my Dad, Solly Sachs, a trade union leader who was loved by many and vilified by others. The wounds that affected him the most were those inflicted not by his enemies but by persons in his own circles. Just as we can’t choose our parents, so we can’t choose our grandparents. I only hope that the awkwardness the barmitzvah boy must feel at being dragged into the limelight by the anger directed by some people at his grandfather, is outweighed by the knowledge that the love and concern that Richard has shown for justice for all grandchildren in all countries in no way reduced his enormous interest in and affection for his own grandchildren. What must certainly be puzzling is that the anger is coming from people in the Jewish community, many of whom have been his friends, when so much of the origins of his intellectual and emotional passion comes from the fact that he is a Jew. As Freud explained, however, the intensity of emotion comes precisely from the closeness of the parties, from what he called the narcissism of small differences – it is when people are very much alike in deep ways that their points of disagreement become bitter and magnified.

What does it mean to be a Jew? From time to time I ask myself this question. As long as there is anti- Semitism in the world, I will proudly affirm myself as a Jew. But apart from the fact that I am viscerally anti-anti-Semitic, what does being a Jew signify to me in positive terms? Last year I happened to visit the United Kingdom Supreme Court while a case concerning the right of admission to the Jewish Free school was being argued. I heard counsel suggest as a rule of thumb that there were three characteristics of a Jewish family: it had a tiny scroll in a holder called a mezuzah hanging by the front door, its members went to synagogue regularly, and they contributed to Jewish charities. By that reckoning I failed all three. Yet in a tribute at the funeral of Joe Slovo a decade ago, despite the fact that Slovo was not the slightest bit religious and had no special links with the Jewish community, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris stirringly declared that Joe was not only a good Jew but an exemplary one because of his contribution to the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in South Africa.

When I was detained in solitary confinement the only reading matter I had been allowed was a book containing the Old and the New Testaments. Rationing myself to two pages a day, I slowly read through the Torah from beginning to end. The parts that reached me most powerfully were the lyrical and beautiful Songs of Solomon and the magnificent poetic visions of the prophets in exile. What they extolled above all was the righteousness of the humble and the oppressed seeking to be free in an imagined new world where all would be free. I picked up similar themes poetically expressed in the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. The connection with the past that served as a source of courage for me in prison, came not from the passages exalting leaders who smote their enemies and destroyed every living thing in captured cities, nor from what I perceived as the inward-looking zealotry of some of the scribes. It stemmed from the way I felt myself to be immersed in an eternal striving for the achievement of knowledge that would enable the world to be better understood and human life to be made more perfect.

Read the rest of this entry »

the possibilities of leftist discussions

by tobybee

Overland, that fantastic Melbourne-based journal, has been recently accused by some Melbourne Jewish academics of unfairly silencing debate on Israel-Palestine (specifically: “Our principle question is why Overland has chosen to highlight these vexatious voices who contribute only fanatical polemics and represent nobody in either the Jewish community or the Left, and chosen to ignore or actively censor the large group of Jewish (and broader Left) voices who are able to present serious contributions on the complexity of the conflict.”) And so the Overland editors have responded, publicly, to these claims. I don’t have much to add to what they have to say – they write so eloquently and persuasively – other than to say that I’m glad that they make these complaints public, and that they defend the importance of honest marginal(ised) political speech. It’s a glorious thing to read…

Overland and bias: a response to some critics

A few days ago, we received a letter (published below) signed by six Australian academics: Professor Bernard Rechter, Professor Douglas Kirsner, Professor Andrew Markus, Dr Bill Anderson, Dr Nick Dyrenfurth and Associate Professor Philip Mendes. They were, they said, collectively writing to the board of Overland and to its patron, Barry Jones, about ‘recent editorial bias on Israel/Palestine’.

We cannot speak for the OL Society. But editorial decisions are the responsibility of the editorial staff. We make the allegations against us public, partly because they are too serious for closed-door insinuations, and partly because, by seeking to exert organisational pressure on editorial policy, the letter illustrates, in a small way, the obstacles to debating Israel/Palestine in this country.

Let us begin with the obvious point that accusing an overtly political journal of ‘bias’ makes no sense whatsoever. When Overland launched in 1954, it proclaimed its ‘bias’ (literally) with a famous phrase borrowed from Joseph Furphy. That slogan was meant to signal that the journal gave a voice to the Left, just as Overland does today.

But we suspect that by employing words like ‘bias’, ‘prejudic[e]’, ‘demonise’, Mendes and co. intend to imply something rather darker – that the Overland editorial team is anti-Semitic. If that is what they mean, they should come out and say so. For the record, any allegation that Overland publishes, accepts or otherwise endorses anti-Semitism or any other form of racial discrimination is utterly scurrilous, and we reject it entirely.

In relation to our coverage of Israel/Palestine – which consists, it might be noted, of a debate over three years between four Jewish writers, some of whom uphold a two-state solution and some of whom do not – Mendes and co. write:
“We can all agree that the Australian Left has no consensus on this issue. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that a wide majority on the Left today support a two-state solution which encapsulates recognition of both Israeli and Palestinian national rights. It is also fair to say that those fundamentalists who advocate the elimination of Israel and its replacement by an Arab State of Greater Palestine represent a small, if sometimes vocal, minority.
Yet it is precisely these marginal views, which demonize Israel and infantilize the Palestinians, that seem to have captured Overland’s agenda in recent years. We note, for example, the three recent articles that appeared in issues 187 by Ned Curthoys, 193 by Antony Loewenstein, and 198 by Michael Brull. […] Our principle [sic] question is why Overland has chosen to highlight these vexatious voices who contribute only fanatical polemics and represent nobody in either the Jewish community or the Left, and chosen to ignore or actively censor the large group of Jewish (and broader Left) voices who are able to present serious contributions on the complexity of the conflict.” (emphasis theirs)

Here, our critics entirely misunderstand the Overland project, which is not, and never has been, to present the ideas of the majority. On the contrary, almost by definition, our small magazine provides space for views that do not receive a hearing elsewhere. In Overland’s case, those views are inevitably political. As its website makes clear, Overland has
“a tradition of publishing dissenting articles with a political and cultural focus. […] Overland is the only high-profile Australian literary magazine that sees the publication and advancement of new and marginal writers as part of its charter.” (emphasis ours)

The notion that publishing minority views constitutes ‘censorship’ is truly bizarre. Let’s put the question specifically. Are Mendes and co. silenced? Do they or their co-thinkers lack forums in which to expound their ideas?

No, not so much. For the sake of brevity, let us merely consider their access to the Australian, the country’s only national newspaper, and a publication with a circulation and reach far beyond that of Overland. A quick search through the archives reveals the following: a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth on 16 March 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism; a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes on 13 May 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism; a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes on 19 September 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism; a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes on 11 November 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism. (At that point, our patience began to wane somewhat.)

Given this record, we might equally ask Dyrenfurth and Mendes whether, with their avowed commitment to representation, they organise similar open letters to the Australian’s editorial board, urging that Murdoch provide space for, say, environmental activists alongside his regular quota of climate change denying columnists. After all, to borrow a phrase, those who want action on global warming ‘represent the majority of the population’ – but, oddly, they seem to have been deliberately excluded from the pages of the Australian!

Think for a moment about what Mendes and co. are arguing. The signatories to this letter are, as they take pains to remind us, all professors or academics of one variety or another, ensconced in well-paid jobs at universities around the country. Many of them are widely published; most have, as we have seen, regular access to the mainstream media. Yet, when Overland prints an article by Michael Brull, a young writer with none of the resources or institutional backing that they enjoy, they complain to its governing body that they are being excluded!

In that respect, the whole episode is sadly typical of how debates about Israel/Palestine are conducted. Mendes and co. urge the OL Society not to permit Overland to ‘highlight the views’ of anti-Zionists like Ned Curthoys, Antony Loewenstein and Michael Brull who, we are told, are irrelevant, marginal figures and as such not worth worrying about. Yet in their writings for the mass-circulation Australian, Dyrenfurth and Mendes attack these ‘irrelevant’ and ‘marginal’ views, over and over and over again. Indeed, they single out John Docker, Ned Curthoys, John Pilger and a variety of other named individuals for public abuse – and neither they nor the Australian offer these people any opportunity to reply.

So it comes down to this. Mendes and co. assert their right to berate their political opponents in the most vituperative fashion. But they also want – in the name of ‘free speech’– to deny those opponents any platform whatsoever, even in a tiny literary magazine.

The politics underlying this dispute should be understood.

The signatories present themselves as friends of Overland, writing more in sorrow than in anger about its current editorial decline. ‘We all strongly respect,’ they proclaim, ‘Overland’s tradition of providing a forum for free and open discussion of democratic and progressive ideas.’



[A]s we have seen, the signatories are not concerned with responding to articles with which they disagree, so much as with applying institutional pressure to ensure the offending pieces don’t get published at all.

Our ‘Leftist’ critics – some of whom, it is true, have made real contributions to the progressive movement in the past – need to ask themselves where, politically, they are heading. Kirsner is merely one on the long list of former radicals transformed into arch-reactionaries by an aggressive and uncritical identification with conventional wisdom about the Middle East. Dyrenfurth and Mendes, those self-proclaimed partisans of the Left, might wonder why the Australian, Murdoch’s ferociously conservative flagship, consistently offers them space alongside the climate change deniers, religious bigots, warmongers and Islamophobes whom it pleases that paper to promote. Is it, as they seem to think, because they present ‘serious contributions on the complexity of the conflict’? Or is it because self-proclaimed Leftists who devote themselves to smearing others on the Left as lunatics and racists serve a useful role for a conservative newspaper?

As to the specific merits of the Overland articles in question, we, unlike our critics, have faith in the ability of our readers to make up their own minds. We would, however, point out that Michael Brull’s piece, which our correspondents single out for particular opprobrium, maintains, for the most part, a remarkably civil tone – particularly when contrasted with the work of his critics. Compare, for instance, Brull’s writing to a typical Nick Dyrenfurth effusion in the Australian, in which the ‘socialist jihadists’ of the University of Sydney are abused as ‘anti-Semitic’, ‘imbecilic’, ‘maddies’ and ‘hatemongers’ – all without the reader learning anything whatsoever about the actual arguments that they uphold.

Michael Brull concludes his essay with the suggestion that issues around Israel/Palestine be opened ‘to free debate, without the usual flood of hysterical name-calling’. That seems to us, the editorial staff at Overland journal, an eminently reasonable proposal, and one to which we are also committed. Precisely because the misery in the Middle East shows no signs of abating, the discussion over Israel/Palestine needs to be broadened beyond simple reiteration of the conventional wisdom.

More generally, in an increasingly homogenised mainstream media, emerging voices that don’t parrot Murdoch talking-points often struggle to be heard. We believe that by providing a platform for ‘marginal’ writers – even if those writers occasionally scandalise a conservative or two – Overland performs an important function. That is the policy the journal has followed since 1954. It is one we will continue to uphold.

Jeff Sparrow
Jacinda Woodhead
Rjurik Davidson
Kalinda Ashton
Alex Skutenko
John Marnell

But I guess I should also say that the letter from Mendes et. al. makes me angry and sad. They claim a position within an imagined Jewish community which is dishonest, I think; and they formulate exclusivist boundaries which attempt to define that community. They work to further entrench the dangerous and violent idea that being a Zionist (and, of course, being a Zionist in a very particular way) is the only way of being Jewish, of being left-wing, and of being a Jewish lefty (or a lefty Jew?). But this lil blog works to demonstrate otherwise.

*hat-tip to Antony Loewenstein

UC Berkeley Divestment Bill round-up: the emotions of it all

by tobybee

A lot has been published on the interwebs about what has happened with the Divestment Bill which was passed, vetoed, and then in a final vote the other day, the veto was not overturned. The Bill called for Berkeley Student Senate to divest from General Electric and United Technologies due to their collusion with the Israeli Government in the breaking of International Law, with the treatment that is done to Palestinians. So I’m not going to rehash what happened, but instead point you towards this blog post on zunguzungu, which brings together many of the key ideas and arguments which were raised, and explains really well what happened. And there’s also these posts on Mondoweiss (here and here, amongst other places) that you should check out for more information.

But I do want to draw attention to something, and that is the question of what the Bill was about. Because, reading a couple of different pieces of writing by people on what could, for neatness, be classified as opposing sides, it becomes very clear that people were not thinking about, nor speaking about, the same thing. This, written to advice those working in opposition to the Bill on how to address the meeting which voted on the motion of whether or not to overturn to veto, is from a pamphlet entitled “Unifying Strategies for Our Jewish Community”, and is taken from zunguzungu (who links to the whole pamphlet):

The message: The bill is an attack on our Jewish community. It silences our voices.

**End your speech with “Don’t Silence Me” This will have a powerful, unifying impact.**

DO include in your speech
Make it personal, include personal experiences and emphasize feelings of personal attack.

The Bill is out of context and based on questionable sources (no need to go into detail).

Thus, the bill is in fact an attack on the JEWISH COMMUNITY.

An unjustified attack on Israel is an attack on my Jewish identity. It is attacking ME.

DO NOT include in your speech
DON’T try to deconstruct the bill. DON’T focus on addressing the fallacies/specifics of the bill. Instead, focus on how it is an attack on the Jewish community.

AVOID a debate on the Middle East. Supporters of the bill would like to argue on this platform.

It’s quite an amazing statement, no? Make the argument about emotions, rather than about the companies which are to be divested from. And, as zunguzungu points out, make the problem the feelings/treatment of Zionists at Berkeley, rather than the breaches of international law and human rights, and the violence against Palestinians.

Contrast this with a speech by Judith Butler, given at the meeting the other night where the veto was decided upon, (which can be found in many places, including here) who writes:

Let us begin with the assumption that it is very hard to hear the debate under consideration here. One hears someone saying something, and one fears that they are saying another thing. It is hard to trust words, or indeed to know what words actually mean. So that is a sign that there is a certain fear in the room, and also, a certain suspicion about the intentions that speakers have and a fear about the implications of both words and deeds. Of course, tonight you do not need a lecture on rhetoric from me, but perhaps, if you have a moment, it might be possible to pause and to consider reflectively what is actually at stake in this vote, and what is not.


[C]onsider this closely: the bill you have before you does not ask that you take a view on Israel. I know that it certainly seems like it does, since the discussion has been all about that. But it actually makes two points that are crucial to consider. The first is simply this: there are two companies that not only are invested in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and peoples, but who profit from that occupation, and which are sustained in part by funds invested by the University of California. They are General Electric and United Technologies. They produce aircraft designed to bomb and kill, and they have bombed and killed civilians, as has been amply demonstrated by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. You are being asked to divest funds from these two companies. You are NOT being asked to divest funds from every company that does business with Israel. And you are not being asked to resolve to divest funds from Israeli business or citizens on the basis of their citizenship or national belonging. You are being asked only to call for a divestment from specific companies that make military weapons that kill civilians. That is the bottom line.

If the newspapers or others seek to make inflammatory remarks and to say that this is an attack on Israel, or an attack on Jews, or an upsurge of anti-Semitism, or an act that displays insensitivity toward the feelings of some of our students, then there is really only one answer that you can provide, as I see it. Do we let ourselves be intimidated into not standing up for what is right? It is simply unethical for UC to invest in such companies when they profit from the killing of civilians under conditions of a sustained military occupation that is manifestly illegal according to international law. The killing of civilians is a war crime. By voting yes, you say that you do not want the funds of this university to be invested in war crimes, and that you hold to this principle regardless of who commits the war crime or against whom it is committed.

Of course, you should clearly ask whether you would apply the same standards to any other occupation or destructive military situation where war crimes occur. And I note that the bill before you is committed to developing a policy that would divest from all companies engaged in war crimes. In this way, it contains within it both a universal claim and a universalizing trajectory. It recommends explicitly “additional divestment policies to keep university investments out of companies aiding war crimes throughout the world, such as those taking place in Morocco, the Congo, and other places as determined by the resolutions of the United Nations and other leading human rights organizations.” Israel is not singled out. It is, if anything, the occupation that is singled out, and there are many Israelis who would tell you that Israel must be separated from its illegal occupation. This is clearly why the divestment call is selective: it does not call for divestment from any and every Israeli company; on the contrary, it calls for divestment from two corporations where the links to war crimes are well-documented.

Let this then be a precedent for a more robust policy of ethical investment that would be applied to any company in which UC invests. This is the beginning of a sequence, one that both sides to this dispute clearly want. Israel is not to be singled out as a nation to be boycotted–and let us note that Israel itself is not boycotted by this resolution. But neither is Israel’s occupation to be held exempt from international standards.

I highly recommend you read all of Butler’s piece.

What these two writings point to is the emotional hold which this question (and who knows that I mean by ‘this question’, for there are a million questions being asked) has on Jews, and the different ways in which we each respond. And these responses, I am quite convinced, are largely of the emotional order. Which means that we need to take emotions as a motivating force and analytical category very seriously if we are to talk through and understand what Israel does, and how we can change it.

Butler on Jewishness as speaking ethically

by tobybee

A wonderful piece was published in Haaretz – an interview of Judith Butler, by Udi Aloni. It’s quite long, so I’ve taken an excerpt below (which is still rather long, I know). But you should read the whole thing, which can be found here.

Philosopher, professor and author Judith Butler arrived in Israel this month, en route to the West Bank, where she was to give a seminar at Bir Zeit University, visit the theater in Jenin, and meet privately with friends and students. A leading light in her field, Butler chose not to visit any academic institutions in Israel itself. In the conversation below, conducted in New York several months ago, Butler talks about gender, the dehumanization of Gazans, and how Jewish values drove her to criticize the actions of the State of Israel.

A beautiful Israeli poem asks, “How does one become Avot Yeshurun?” Avot Yeshurun was a poet who caused turmoil in Israeli poetry. I want to ask, how does one become Judith Butler -especially with the issue of Gender Trouble, the book that so troubled the discourse on gender?

You know, I’m not sure that I know how to give an account of it, and I think it troubles gender differently depending on how it is received and translated. For instance, one of the first receptions [of the book] was in Germany, and there, it seemed very clear that young people wanted a politics that emphasized agency, or something affirmative that they could create or produce. The idea of performativity – which involved bringing categories into being or bringing new social realities about – was very exciting, especially for younger people who were tired with old models of oppression – indeed, the very model men oppress women, or straights oppress gays.

It seemed that if you were subjugated, there were also forms of agency that were available to you, and you were not just a victim, or you were not only oppressed, but oppression could become the condition of your agency. Certain kinds of unexpected results can emerge from the situation of oppression if you have the resources and if you have collective support. It’s not an automatic response; it’s not a necessary response. But it’s possible. I think I also probably spoke to something that was already happening in the movement. I put into theoretical language what was already being impressed upon me from elsewhere. So I didn’t bring it into being single-handedly. I received it from several cultural resources and put it into another language.

Once you became “Judith Butler,” we began to hear more about Jews and Jewish texts. People came to hear you speak about gender and suddenly they were faced with Gaza, divine violence. It almost felt like you had some closure on the previous matter. Is there a connection, a continuum, or is this a new phase?

Let’s go back further. I’m sure I’ve told you that I began to be interested in philosophy when I was 14, and I was in trouble in the synagogue. The rabbi said, “You are too talkative in class. You talk back, you are not well behaved. You have to come and have a tutorial with me.” I said “OK, great!” I was thrilled.

He said: “What do you want to study in the tutorial? This is your punishment. Now you have to study something seriously.” I think he thought of me as unserious. I explained that I wanted to read existential theology focusing on Martin Buber. (I’ve never left Martin Buber.) I wanted look at the question of whether German idealism could be linked with National Socialism. Was the tradition of Kant and Hegel responsible in some way for the origins of National Socialism? My third question was why Spinoza was excommunicated from the synagogue. I wanted to know what happened and whether the synagogue was justified.

Now I must go Jewish: what was your parents’ relation to Judaism?

My parents were practicing Jews. My mother grew up in an orthodox synagogue and after my grandfather died, she went to a conservative synagogue and a little later ended up in a reform synagogue. My father was in reform synagogues from the beginning.

My mother’s uncles and aunts were all killed in Hungary [during the Holocaust]. My grandmother lost all of her relatives, except for the two nephews who came with them in the car when my grandmother went back in 1938 to see who she could rescue. It was important for me. I went to Hebrew school. But I also went after school to special classes on Jewish ethics because I was interested in the debates. So I didn’t do just the minimum. Through high school, I suppose, I continued Jewish studies alongside my public school education.

And you showed me the photos of the bar mitzvah of your son as a good proud Jewish Mother…

So it’s been there from the start, it’s not as if I arrived at some place that I haven’t always been in. I grew very skeptical of certain kind of Jewish separatism in my youth. I mean, I saw the Jewish community was always with each other; they didn’t trust anybody outside. You’d bring someone home and the first question was “Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?” Then I entered into a lesbian community in college, late college, graduate school, and the first thing they asked was, “Are you a feminist, are you not a feminist?” “Are you a lesbian, are you not a lesbian?” and I thought “Enough with the separatism!”

It felt like the same kind of policing of the community. You only trust those who are absolutely like yourself, those who have signed a pledge of allegiance to this particular identity. Is that person really Jewish, maybe they’re not so Jewish. I don?t know if they’re really Jewish. Maybe they’re self-hating. Is that person lesbian? I think maybe they had a relationship with a man. What does that say about how true their identity was? I thought I can’t live in a world in which identity is being policed in this way.

But if I go back to your other question… In Gender Trouble, there is a whole discussion of melancholy. What is the condition under which we fail to grieve others? I presumed, throughout my childhood, that this was a question the Jewish community was asking itself. It was also a question that I was interested in when I went to study in Germany. The famous Mitscherlich book on the incapacity to mourn, which was a criticism of German post-war culture, was very, very interesting to me.


I then [in recent years] moved towards a different kind of theory, asking under what conditions certain lives are grievable and certain lives not grievable or ungrievable. It’s clear to me that in Israel-Palestine and in the violent conflicts that have taken place over the years, there is differential grieving. Certain lives become grievable within the Israeli press, for instance – highly grievable and highly valuable – and others are understood as ungrievable because they are understood as instruments of war, or they are understood as outside the nation, outside religion, or outside that sense of belonging which makes for a grievable life. The question of grievability has linked my work on queer politics, especially the AIDS crisis, with my more contemporary work on war and violence, including the work on Israel-Palestine.

It’s interesting because when the war on Gaza started, I couldn’t stay in Tel Aviv anymore. I visited the Galilee a lot. And suddenly I realized that many of the Palestinians who died in Gaza have families there, relatives who are citizens of Israel. What people didn’t know is that there was a massed grief in Israel. Grief for families who died in Gaza, a grief within Israel, of citizens of Israel. And nobody in the country spoke about it, about the grief within Israel. It was shocking.

The Israeli government and the media started to say that everyone who was killed or injured in Gaza was a member of Hamas; or that they were all being used as part of the war effort; that even the children were instruments of the war effort; that the Palestinians put them out there, in the targets, to show that Israelis would kill children, and this was actually part of a war effort. At this point, every single living being who is Palestinian becomes a war instrument. They are all, in their being, or by virtue of being Palestinian, declaring war on Israel or seeking the destruction of the Israel.

So any and all Palestinian lives that are killed or injured are understood no longer to be lives, no longer understood to be living, no longer understood even to be human in a recognizable sense, but they are artillery. The bodies themselves are artillery. And of course, the extreme instance of that is the suicide bomber, who has become unpopular in recent years. That is the instance in which a body becomes artillery, or becomes part of a violent act. If that figure gets extended to the entire Palestinian population, then there is no living human population anymore, and no one who is killed there can be grieved. Because everyone who is a living Palestinian is, in their being, a declaration of war, or a threat to the existence of Israel, or pure military artillery, materiel. They have been transformed, in the Israeli war imaginary, into pure war instruments.

So when a people who believes that another people is out to destroy them sees all the means of destruction killed, or some extraordinary number of the means of destruction destroyed, they are thrilled, because they think their safety and well-being and happiness are being purchased, are being achieved through this destruction.


Why Israel-Palestine? Is this directly connected to your Jewishness?

As a Jew, I was taught that it was ethically imperative to speak up and to speak out against arbitrary state violence. That was part of what I learned when I learned about the Second World War and the concentration camps. There were those who would and could speak out against state racism and state violence, and it was imperative that we be able to speak out. Not just for Jews, but for any number of people. There was an entire idea of social justice that emerged for me from the consideration of the Nazi genocide.

I would also say that what became really hard for me is that if one wanted to criticize Israeli state violence – precisely because that as a Jew one is under obligation to criticize excessive state violence and state racism – then one is in a bind, because one is told that one is either self-hating as a Jew or engaging anti-Semitism. And yet for me, it comes out of a certain Jewish value of social justice. So how can I fulfill my obligation as a Jew to speak out against an injustice when, in speaking out against Israeli state and military injustice, I am accused of not being a good enough Jew or of being a self-hating Jew? This is the bind of my current situation.

Let me say one other thing about Jewish values. There are two things I took from Jewish philosophy and my Jewish formation that were really important for me… well there are many. There are many. Sitting shiva, for instance, explicit grieving. I thought it was the one of the most beautiful rituals of my youth. There were several people who died in my youth, and there were several moments when whole communities gathered in order to make sure that those who had suffered terrible losses were taken up and brought back into the community and given a way to affirm life again. The other idea was that life is transient, and because of that, because there is no after world, because we don’t have any hopes in a final redemption, we have to take especially good care of life in the here and now. Life has to be protected. It is precarious. I would even go so far as to say that precarious life is, in a way, a Jewish value for me.

I realized something, through your way of thinking. A classic mistake that people made with Gender Trouble was the notion that body and language are static. But everything is in dynamic and in constant movement; the original never exists. In a way I felt the same with the Diaspora and the emancipation. Neither are static. No one came before the other. The Diaspora, when it was static, became separatist, became the shtetl. And when the emancipation was realized, it became an ethnocratic state; it also became separatist, a re-construction of the ghetto. So maybe the tension between the two, emancipation and Diaspora, without choosing a one or the other, is the only way to keep us out of ethnocentrism. I suppose my idea is not yet fully formulated. It relates to the way I felt that my grandfather was open to the language of exile while being connected to the land at the same time. By being open to both, emancipation and Diaspora, we might avoid falling into ethnocentrism.

You have a tension between Diaspora and emancipation. But what I am thinking of is perhaps something a little different. I have to say, first of all, that I do not think that there can be emancipation with and through the establishment of state that restricts citizenship in the way that it does, on the basis of religion? So in my view, any effort to retain the idea of emancipation when you don’t have a state that extends equal rights of citizenship to Jews and non-Jews alike is, for me, bankrupt. It’s bankrupt.

That’s why I would say that there should be bi-nationalism from the beginning.

Or even multi-nationalism. Maybe even a kind of citizenship without regard to religion, race, ethnicity, etc. In any case, the more important point here is that there are those who clearly believe that Jews who are not in Israel, who are in the Galut, are actually either in need of return ? they have not yet returned, or they are not and cannot be representative of the Jewish people. So the question is: what does it mean to transform the idea of Galut into Diaspora? In other words, Diaspora is another tradition, one that involves the scattering without return. I am very critical of this idea of return, and I think “Galut” very often demeans the Diasporic traditions within Judaism.


I think we have to get over the idea that a state has to express a nation. And if we have a bi-national state, it’s expressing two nations. Only when bi-nationalism deconstructs the idea of a nation can we hope to think about what a state, what a polity might look like that would actually extend equality. It is no longer the question of “two peoples,” as Martin Buber put it. There is extraordinary complexity and intermixing among both the Jewish and the Palestinian populations. There will be those who say, “Ok, a state that expresses two cultural identities.” No. State should not be in the business of expressing cultural identity.


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 Žižek 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.

Žižek, 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.

Žižek 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 Žižek 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 undoing.
So, 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.


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.”


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?