Butler, Barghouti Talk BDS & Academic Freedom at Brooklyn College
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After standing in the cold, making our way through a patdown or two (I was patted-down generously by a female officer while Moon for some reason had a male officer do the dirty), as well as a few checkpoints ("name please!"), Grace Moon and I found ourselves in the Gold Room at the Brooklyn College Student Center, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the speakers and, I was hoping, a very fine scholarly smackdown.
The speakers did indeed arrive, but the "smackdown" that I was hoping for—the smackdown of those audacious NYC politicians in the pockets (or hats) of zionists—never really happened, because, as I was quick to find out, the BDS movement isn't about hatred or revenge, it's rather about acheiving equality and, indeed, as Barghouti claimed, the eventual dissolution of the BDS movement itself.
The national media in, I'll loosely say, "collaboration with" zionist leaders have, not surprisingly, sensationalized this event, equating the event as the catalyst for the "second Holocaust." Butler addressed this particular accusation in her remarks (which you can read in full at The Nation), calling it malicious type of historical revisionism:
I believe we have to be very careful when anyone makes use of the Holocaust in this way and for this purpose, since if the term becomes a weapon by which we seek to stigmatize those with opposing political viewpoints, then we have first of all dishonored the slaughter of over 6 million Jewish people, and another 4 million gypsies, gay people, disabled, the communists and the physically and mentally ill. All of us, Jewish or not Jewish, must keep that historical memory intact and alive, and refuse forms of revisionism and political exploitation of that history. We may not exploit and re-ignite the traumatic dimension of Hitler’s atrocities for the purposes of accusing and silencing those with opposing political viewpoints, including legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel. Such a tactic not only demeans and instrumentalizes the memory of the Nazi genocide, but produces a general cynicism about both accusations of anti-Semitism and predictions of new genocidal possibilities. After all, if those terms are bandied about as so much artillery in a war, then they are used as blunt instruments for the purposes of censorship and self-legitimation, and they no longer name and describe the very hideous political realities to which they belong. The more such accusations and invocations are tactically deployed, the more skeptical and cynical the public becomes about their actual meaning and use. This is a violation of that history, an insult to the surviving generation, and a cynical and excited recirculation of traumatic material—a kind of sadistic spree, to put it bluntly—that seeks to defend and legitimate a very highly militarized and repressive state regime. Of the use of the Holocaust to legitimate Israeli military destructiveness, Primo Levi wrote in 1982, “I deny any validity to [the use of the Holocaust for] this defence.”
Butler's remarks—always critically acute, always in her subdued, passionate style—were, I think, revised in light of the recent national circus surrounding the event in order to speak about the necessity of academic freedom.
The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech. It not only bars such interventions, but it also protects those platforms in which we might be able to reflect together on the most difficult problems. You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.
Her opening thoughts on the principle of academic freedom gave way to a localized dissection of the BDS event, in which she in more than one occasion invoked her fantastic text Excitable Speech:
They [critics of the event] fear that if the speech is sponsored by an institution such as Brooklyn College, it will not only be heard, but become hearable, admitted into the audible world. The fear is that viewpoint will become legitimate, which means only that someone can publicly hold such a view and that it becomes eligible for contestation. A legitimate view is not necessarily right, but it is not ruled out in advance as hate speech or injurious conduct. Those who did not want any of these words to become sayable and audible imagined that the world they know and value will come to an end if such words are uttered, as if the words themselves will rise off the page or fly out of the mouth as weapons that will injure, maim or even kill, leading to irreversibly catastrophic consequences. This is why some people claimed that if this event were held, the two-state solution would be imperiled—they attributed great efficacy to these words. And yet others said it would lead to the coming of a second Holocaust—an unimaginable remark to which I will neve[r]theless return.... [A]ll of us here have to distinguish between the right to listen to a point of view and the right to concur or dissent from that point of view; otherwise, public discourse is destroyed by censorship. I wonder, what is the fantasy of speech nursed by the censor? There must be enormous fear behind the drive to censorship, but also enormous aggression, as if we were all in a war where speech has suddenly become artillery.