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Sunday Art: Preparing to Write About Judith Butler’s Profound Brooklyn University Address

12:26 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Netanyahu-Brezhnev

Last Thursday, philosopher Dr. Judith Butler delivered a profound address at Brooklyn University.  She was one of two speakers at what might have been a small gathering of students and Brooklyn activists, wanting to hear some intelligent ideas about the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.  The movement, begun by Palestinians in 2005, models itself somewhat after similar movements seeking to put pressure on the apartheid South African regime, from the late 1980s, through the fall of that regime in the mid-1990s.

The other speaker was Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of Global BDS.  Barghouti has a Masters degree in electrical engineering from Columbia, and a Masters in philosophy from Tel Aviv University.

Dr. Butler, in her address, which was about 40 minutes long, noted in the opening remarks:

At the time [Butler was invited] I thought it would be very much like other events I have attended, a conversation with a few dozen student activists in the basement of a student center. So, as you can see, I am surprised and ill prepared for what has happened.

What happened was an explosion of invective against Butler, Barghouti, Brooklyn College, its President, and NYC Mayor Bloomberg, for supporting their being able to even talk on campus about BDS under the sponsorship of one of its departments, and without someone on the podium with them who could offer an opposing view.

Judith Butler drew some hearty laughs with this:

Yet another objection, sometimes uttered by the same people who made the first, is that BDS does qualify as a viewpoint, but as such, ought to be presented only in a context in which the opposing viewpoint can be heard as well. There was yet a qualification to this last position, namely, that no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor [Alan Dershowitz], but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.

Haaretz commentator Chemi Shalev wrote Friday:

Far more Americans know of the Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement today than did a week ago. Many millions of people have been exposed for the first time to the idea that Israel should be boycotted, divested and sanctioned for its occupation of the territories. Many more Americans, one can safely assume, have formed a positive image of the BDS movement than those who have now turned against it.

Tafasta merube lo tafasta, the Talmud teaches us: grasp all, lose all. The heavy-handed, hyperbole heavy, all-guns-blazing campaign against what would have been, as Mayor Bloomberg put it, “a few kids meeting on campus” mushroomed and then boomeranged, giving the hitherto obscure BDS activists priceless public relations that money could never buy.

Rather than focusing attention on what BDS critics describe as the movement’s deceitful veneer over its opposition to the very existence of Israel, the disproportionate onslaught succeeded in casting the BDS speakers who came to the Brooklyn campus as freedom-loving victims being hounded and oppressed by the forces of darkness.

Judith Butler herself spent a fair portion of her 1997 book, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, describing aspects of this.  Essentially:

Butler argues that hate speech exists retrospectively, only after being declared such by state authorities. In this way, the state reserves for itself the power to define hate speech and, conversely, the limits of acceptable discourse.

I first came across Judith Butler’s writing in 2004, when researching false uses of the terms “anti-semitic” and “anti-semitism.”  I had been accused in articles, blog posts, and even in an address to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature as one.  Butler’s writing eased my anguish at the time.

I’ve wanted to write an enduring essay about Butler’s Brooklyn College address since reading it.  I’ve re-read it twice now, trying to distill it for popular blog consumption.  That may be a task beyond my ability.

The concept of censorship making an idea being censored more known and attractive predates Butler’s analysis.  The history of people finding ways around such censorship goes back to ancient times too.  When societies begin to break down through hubris, hypocrisy, corruption, pollution and so on, some members of the nomenklatura realize better than others what is happening, what is at stake.

Butler’s writings and talks (on Youtube, for instance) show examples of her sense of irony, and some humor.  Her overall style, though, is quite dry.  Nobody has ever accused her of pandering for attention, within or beyond academia.

Thinking about her irony and perhaps intentional avoidance of populist metaphor and framing today, I found myself listening more closely to the wildly ironic Dmitri Shosatakovich’s 12th Symphony, a work I’m considering conducting in 2014.  He wrote it at the beginning of the end of the paradigm of a communist utopia in the USSR.  He had ceased to believe in the myth long before, but had been rehabilitated, and was commanded to write a triumphal work, dedicated to the memory of Vladimir  Lenin.

He was hesitant, but fulfilled the commission.  It was thought to be a workmanlike, dutiful symphony, but it has never been regarded as one of his masterpieces.

From my first hearing in the mid-1960s, I detected that he was mocking the idolization of Lenin.  He couldn’t be more obvious than he was, or it would not be performed.  He mocked his own film music to the dozens of patriotic Soviet movies he scored.  He parroted the false drive forward of the increasingly failed system that entrapped him and other artists.

Watching the increasingly Sovietesque moves to somehow save Israeli apartheid from being truthfully perceived remind me aspects of the downfall of the USSR – not so much as in the Mother country, but in its satellites.

Here is Yevgeni Mravinsky, conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s iconic slap in the face of false monumentalism, from a 1984 broadcast:

Free Brooklyn College: Sign the Petition to Support Academic Freedom at CUNY

6:47 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Brooklyn College campus [hdr image]

If you live in Brooklyn, you have probably heard of the threat from members of the New York City Council against Brooklyn College.  If you live elsewhere, chances are that, unless you are involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights, or the struggle against them, you’ve missed his one.

In a nutshell, in late January a controversy arose over the political science department at Brooklyn College sponsoring an upcoming appearance there by two advocates of Global BDS.  That movement, now in its ninth year, advocates putting pressures upon the increasingly apartheid Israeli state, similar to the sanctions imposed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, against the increasingly apartheid South African state.  Here is a description of the controversy, from a friendly point of view:

At Brooklyn College, a student chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine organized a forthcoming panel with Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The political science department agreed to co-sponsor it. When certain individuals hostile to BDS heard about this event they raised an outcry. The outcry started with Alan Dershowitz, who demanded that the political science department either withdraw its sponsorship or ‘balance’ it with a voice – namely his – that is critical of the panelists. Very quickly this became a city and state-wide issue, and various politicians, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, began to make the same demands. Now, quite disturbingly, the New York City Council is threatening to withhold future funding for CUNY unless the political science department either cancels the event or withdraws its sponsorship.

Advocates for the college’s position have emerged, including constitutional attorney, Glenn Greenwald, Palestinian rights advocate Andrew Sullivan, and – surprisingly – MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes (as described by Phil Weiss):

A “who’s who” list of New York politicians is trying to shut down the conversation. Hayes mentions Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler. “I understand why there’s an outcry” from those who find BDS odious — he says, covering his bases. But Hayes is clear about the academic-freedom principle and about the highly “selective” concern for balance in this instance and not others. What if the University of Alabama tried to disinvite a gay speaker? Hayes says that some of those politicians “browbeating” the college have been on his show. Good liberals. Yes: Progressive Except Palestine, PEP.

Greenwald has written several columns now on the threats against the college. Most recently, he centered on comments by NYC council member, Lew Fidler, whose threats against Brooklyn College funding seem to have been the most explicit yet.  Greenwald:

How can anyone not be seriously alarmed by this? These threats are infinitely more destructive than any single academic event could ever possibly be…Plainly, this entire controversy has only one ‘principle’ and one purpose: to threaten, intimidate and bully professors, school administrators and academic institutions out of any involvement in criticisms of Israel.

Fidler’s chilling letter to BC President Karen Gould can be read here (scribd).

One speaker at the upcoming event, prominent feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, has defended herself many times against specious “anti-semitism” charges (Butler is Jewish), most notably, in her profound essay on anti-semitism, in the London Review of Books, eleven years ago:

In holding out for a distinction to be made between Israel and Jews, I am calling for a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate; but I am also opposing anti-semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests. The ‘Jew’ is no more defined by Israel than by anti-semitism. The ‘Jew’ exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos. Once the distinction is made, discussion of both Zionism and anti-semitism can begin, since it will be as important to understand the legacy of Zionism and to debate its future as to oppose anti-semitism wherever we find it.

The other main speaker in the upcoming BC event is Palestinian, Omar Barghouti, echoed Butler in a 2011 interview with The Guardian on Global BDS, which he helped found:

Here is what the petition in support of Brooklyn College’s position states:

We the undersigned write in support of the decision by Brooklyn College’s political science department to co-sponsor a panel discussion with Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti. We urge CUNY President Karen Gould to resist attempts by those who have attempted to intimidate CUNY into canceling, changing, or withdrawing its sponsorship for the panel. We are especially concerned that the New York City Council has threatened to withhold further money for CUNY if it does not either cancel the event or withdraw its sponsorship. This is a grave threat to academic freedom and sets a terrible precedent for the future.

You can sign it here.

The goal was 500 signatures. It currently as 1,612.

(If you click “SIGN’” button, you can leave the page without hitting the “pay” buttons on the succeeding page.  I didn’t pay, and my name now shows up.)

I signed – as a college professor in favor of free speech.

Will you sign?

Occupy Oakland Endorses Global BDS by 135 to 1 Vote on the Eve of UPenn BDS Conference

7:28 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

I. Friday evening, a conference opened at the University of Pennsylvania, devoted to speakers, clinics, workshops and teach-ins on the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, initiated on July 9th, 2005, by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organizations, in protest to continuing Israeli incursions upon Palestinian rights, particularly in the occupied West Bank. As one might expect, Zionist organizations have been either trying to stop the conference or demonize it since word got out it would happen.  Even though people were strongly discouraged from attending, the event is unrolling without incident so far, with “a waiting list of 250.”

In the run-up week to the conference, notable luminaries and usual suspects showed up, to take one side or another.  Here’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s endorsement:

Here’s a set of notes on part of Alan Dershowitz’ speech Thursday to the Philadelphia Jewish Federation:

–Professors at the University of Pennsylvania who support BDS are complicit with evil.

–Protecting Israel is one of the great human rights issues of the 21st century.

–(During the audience Q and A): Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein hate America. They hate liberalism. They hate Western values. Make it clear that people who love liberty love Israel.

–Attacking Iran would not be preemptive, it would be reactive. Iran is already engaging in war with Israel. It has armed Hezbollah, Hamas….Israel has a right to attack.

–2 state solution would require a military presence in Jordan Valley in case there’s an incursion from Iraq. Iraq is becoming Iran. They take their orders from Iran.

Best-selling writer, videographer and journalist, Max Blumenthal, a U Penn alumni, wrote in the Daily Pennsyvanian on the same day, countering Dershowitz, and questioning the prominent neocon attorney’s credibility:

To counter the Penn BDS event, local pro-Israel groups including Hillel and the Philadelphia Jewish Federation have summoned the famed trial lawyer and Harvard University professor of law Alan Dershowitz to campus to keynote a Feb. 2 event: “Why Israel Matters to You, Me, and Penn: A conversation with Alan Dershowitz.” Penn’s Political Science department – which has pointedly refused to co-sponsor the BDS conference — will co-host Dershowitz’s lecture, where the professor has vowed to explain why he considers BDS to be one of the most “immoral, illegal and despicable concepts around academia today.”

The support Dershowitz received from the university and from pro-Israel groups that claim to abhor violence is ironic in light of Dershowitz’s record. Indeed, Dershowitz is an open advocate of torture who has urged Israel to destroy entire Palestinian villages, attack civilians and bulldoze their homes. Despite Dershowitz’s professed concern for political dissidents living under autocratic regimes, he has called for personal retaliation against Israeli academics who speak out in favor of BDS. Meanwhile, Dershowitz routinely smears high-profile critics of Israel’s 45-year-long occupation as evil anti-Semites — and worse.

In March 2002, during the height of the Second Intifada, Dershowitz published an article in The Jerusalem Post proposing a “new response to Palestinian terrorism.” According to Dershowitz, even the ironfisted tactics of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were not harsh enough. He urged Israel to adopt an explicit policy of collective punishment — a practice banned by international law. Dershowitz advised Israeli forces to arrange for “the destruction of a small village which has been used as a base for terrorist operations. The residents would be given 24 hours to leave, and then troops will come in and bulldoze all of the buildings.”

No less disturbing is Dershowitz’s recommendation that the United States adopt an official policy allowing federal law enforcement officials to torture criminal suspects. As long as an FBI agent received a “torture warrant,” according to Dershowitz’s rules, he was free to do as he pleased to the body of anyone in his custody. Dershowitz even offered torturers proposals for inflicting maximum pain. Among the methods he advised was “the sterilized needle being shoved under the fingernails,” an idea the journalist and former US intelligence analyst James Bamford described as “chillingly Nazi-like.”

For a list of some of the more important articles leading up to this watershed event, Mondoweiss has made one as part of their article on the first full day, including tweets coming out.

II. On Wednesday, at a meeting of Occupy Oakland, here is what happened:

Last Wednesday at the amphitheatre in front of Oakland’s city hall, occupiers endorsed Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel in a 135-to-one vote. Oakland’s occupiers have recently experienced chemical dispersants, and a mass arrest, which took place over the weekend. Among those arrested was Noura Khouri, the Palestinian organizer who initiated the BDS proposal.

The general assembly (GA) was electric; Wednesday was the first time those arrested were present for an occupy meeting. Despite the several distractions, including barking dogs and a New York Times reporter snapping photographs, occupiers listened attentively as Khouri and two others discussed the “intimate relationship,” between local law enforcement and the Israeli military. “We are seeing the militarization of our local police forces,” Khouri said, continuing “they are using the same tactics, weapons and laws.”

Khouri, along with co-presenters Basima Sisemore and Deppen Webber, also touched on the use of chemical dispersants by the Oakland Police Department (OPD) and the Israeli military. “The same tear gas that is being used on the streets here against you all is being used in Palestine,” said Sisemore. And, in fact, a portion of the occupiers at GA had experienced tear gas during the weekend’s “move-in day” actions, a failed attempt to occupy a vacant building. Throughout the march the OPD fired tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, flash-booms, and smoke grenades, on protesters, including children and elderly. One producer of these “non-lethal” weapons is Defense Technology, which is also used by the Israeli military.

The presenters then read the proposal text, and a letter of solidarity with the occupy movement from the BDS Nation Committee (BNC):

Our aspirations overlap; our struggles converge. Our oppressors, whether greedy corporations or military occupations, are united in profiting from wars, pillage, environmental destruction, repression and impoverishment. We must unite in our common quest for freedoms, equal rihts, social and economic justice, environmental sanity, and world peace.

However, occupiers did not need much convincing on why BDS should be endorsed.

This was an important event.  Here’s a link to the video of the endorsement and the discussion that led up to it (about 25 minutes of open presentations), from Alison Deger’s excellent article on this.

From the beginning of the OWS movement, some have sought to characterize elements of its organization or participation as being “anti-Semitic.” As the movement has grown remarkably over the winter and gears up for Spring, some will attack this vote as the same. Look for articles coupling the burning of an American Flag at Oakland City Hall and this resolution within the same paragraph.

But as law enforcement forces at dozens of Occupy encampments and actions have shown over the course of this winter, and as the initiators of the Oakland proposal mentioned in their explanation of their move, our police are increasingly showing influence of what Max Blumenthal has described as the “Iraelification” of American law enforcement:

The Israelification of America’s security apparatus, recently unleashed in full force against the Occupy Wall Street Movement, has taken place at every level of law enforcement, and in areas that have yet to be exposed. The phenomenon has been documented in bits and pieces, through occasional news reports that typically highlight Israel’s national security prowess without examining the problematic nature of working with a country accused of grave human rights abuses. But it has never been the subject of a national discussion. And collaboration between American and Israeli cops is just the tip of the iceberg.

Having been schooled in Israeli tactics perfected during a 63 year experience of controlling, dispossessing, and occupying an indigenous population, local police forces have adapted them to monitor Muslim and immigrant neighborhoods in US cities. Meanwhile, former Israeli military officers have been hired to spearhead security operations at American airports and suburban shopping malls, leading to a wave of disturbing incidents of racial profiling, intimidation, and FBI interrogations of innocent, unsuspecting people. The New York Police Department’s disclosure that it deployed “counter-terror” measures against Occupy protesters encamped in downtown Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park is just the latest example of the so-called War on Terror creeping into every day life. Revelations like these have raised serious questions about the extent to which Israeli-inspired tactics are being used to suppress the Occupy movement.

III. I hope to follow up on ramifications of the Occupy Oakland BDS resolution, and on the results of UPenn’s BDS Conference, as they are making postable videos of most speakers there.  Meanwhile, here is the address Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of Global BDS, had taped for the conference: