A BIT MORE THAN A MONTH AGO, the organizers of A Night of Philosophy — the extravagant all-night lecture series hosted by the French Consulate in New York — received an open letter protesting against the invitation of Monique Canto-Sperber to speak at the event. Notable liberal philosopher and former director of the École normale supérieure, Canto-Sperber was scheduled to give a 20-minute presentation entitled “Freedom of Speech” — which, according to the authors of the letter, involved a “tremendous irony.” As they explain:
For a major event on philosophy, a field that is predicated on free inquiry and intellectual exploration, to give a forum on free speech to someone who […] was responsible for two of the most egregious acts of censorship of Palestinians and of critics of Israeli state policies, is beyond being a stark contradiction — it is appalling.
It should come as no surprise that these strong words have everything to do with the controversies surrounding Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) — the movement that’s promoting, among other things, an academic boycott on Israel. As the letter’s authors point out, Canto-Sperber had canceled two political events that were scheduled to take place at the École normale supérieure because they were organized by groups promoting the boycott on Israeli academics. According to the signatories to the letter, including Judith Butler, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Richard Falk, Gayatri Spivak, and many other notable thinkers, this constituted “a denial of the rights of freedom of expression,” and contradicted “a long history of free speech and political expression” at the École normale supérieure.
It would be a shame to miss the opportunity that this letter provides to muse philosophically about BDS, freedom of speech, and nonviolent political action, but, in order to do so, it is necessary to first lay my own cards on the table. I’m not myself an Israeli academic, but I’m an Israeli and an academic. I have suggested in the past that Israelis should prefer prison to engaging in obligatory military service in the occupied territories; and I have argued that a Jewish state cannot function as a liberal democracy. Given these views, it isn’t my business to fiercely oppose BDS. We have come to a point in which it is necessary to get our hands dirty when fighting for the rights of Palestinians. Boycotts of, divestments from, and sanctions on Israeli institutions are ways to pressure the Israeli government, and to begin to produce some change. The prevalent feeling in Israel is that business can and will continue as usual without outside pressure, resulting in 50 more years of military occupation. Israel’s recently elected far-right government, which has just launched a massive campaign attempting to delegitimize BDS activities, is the clearest example that change in this country can no longer come from within.
Nevertheless, I cannot bring myself to support the boycott on Israeli academics. The way in which the open letter from which I quoted construes the relation between BDS and the freedom of speech is emblematic of a comfortable but treacherous misconception that has become, in some circles, commonplace. BDS supporters speak as if they can boycott without silencing; or silence without being violent. Arguably, this position is more pernicious to speech and to political action than the boycott itself.
For one thing, it is surprising that supporters of the academic boycott find appalling the attempt to limit their freedom of speech — their movement constitutes a massive assault on the same freedom. We should be clear about BDS’s strategy: it is an attempt to take Israelis’ freedom of speech hostage, and to use this hostage in order to put pressure on the Israeli government. Therefore, anyone who is invested in the value of free speech should be reluctant to join BDS. And, for the same reason, a BDS supporter expressing indignation when her own freedom of speech — her freedom to silence others — comes under attack is likely doing so in bad faith. At the same time, a liberal supporter of universal free speech has a case when acting to circumscribe the free speech of BDS supporters. This shouldn’t sound paradoxical: there is room, in a far off corner of liberal logical space, to support the silencing of those who undertake the massive silencing of others.
A prevalent answer to this commonsensical sketch is that BDS does not, in fact, infringe upon Israelis’ freedom of speech. One author who has stressed this repeatedly is Judith Butler, who is perhaps BDS’s deepest and most vocal theorist. Butler’s oft-repeated argument is that BDS doesn’t silence on the basis of citizenship, and doesn’t affront the freedom of speech, because it “targets institutions and not individuals.” BDS communicates clearly, she says, that any Israeli is free to enter any form of scholarly interaction: “the only request […] is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used for the purposes of those activities.”
One problem with this proposition is the language in which it is couched. It is inaccurate to describe BDS as posing a request, because BDS supporters certainly wouldn’t honor the decision of an Israeli who refuses to abide: they wouldn’t invite her to a conference, or agree to publish her work. Butler’s words are imprecise because a request is a form of communication, whereas BDS promotes the imposition of a boycott.
But the “institutions-not-individuals” argument is misleading on a deeper level, as well. It is a truism bordering on cliché that honoring the freedom of speech depends on talking to those with whom we sharply disagree. The value of listening to others cannot be based on the premise that we agree with those who speak, like what they say, or even respect who they are. But Butler turns a deaf ear to such arguments; introducing an artificial, clean-cut distinction between individuals and institutions, the “request” she is talking about only addresses those Israelis who more or less agree with BDS. The rest are excluded from the conversation.
This point should be explained somewhat more fully. Most Israeli academics would indignantly refuse to disown their institutional identity, because, even if they oppose the occupation, they deeply identify as individuals with the Zionist cause. For these Israelis, consenting to BDS’s request that they delegitimize Israeli institutions amounts to betraying their own identity. This majority of Israeli academics, then, are barred by BDS from academic interaction, and the reason for barring them is what they believe in, and the way their beliefs constitute who they are. The convenient distinction between individuals and institutions doesn’t hold up, and arguments based on that distinction don’t begin to address what free speech is supposed to be about.
A related claim, commonly made in this context, is that the boycott is a form of nonviolent political action. However, it is safe to assume that an act need not shed blood in order to be violent. There are forms of violence that aren’t physical, and given that freedom, friendship, love, thinking, and the overcoming of physical violence all depend on speech, silencing individuals is one of the deepest forms of violence we know. (For what it’s worth, the origin of the Hebrew word for violence, alimut, is the same as that of silence, elem.) On the face of it, then, imposing a boycott on Israeli academics is an obvious form of a violent political action.
But here too it is illuminating to consider Judith Butler’s position. She is a world-renowned theorist of violence, and she has repeatedly recommended the academic boycott as a form of nonviolent political action. Key to understanding Butler’s stance may be the fact that she is friendly to Walter Benjamin’s account of “nonviolent violence”: political action that attacks not individuals but the coercive power of a legal order that is itself corrupt. “When a legal system must be undone,” Butler writes, commenting on Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” “it is important that [the coercive] bonds of accountability be broken.” In order to “dissolve” a body “of established law that is unjust,” following what the law determines is precisely what needs to be “suspended.” Nonviolent violence is action that is “unleashed against the coercive force of that legal framework, against the accountability that binds a subject to a specific legal system and stops that very subject from developing a critical if not revolutionary point of view on that legal system” (Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, 2012).
Can the boycott be vindicated as this form of nonviolent violence, then?
It is true that Israel has reached a stage in which one could plausibly argue that the body of law itself has to be undone. Certainly the five-decade long military dictatorship over the Palestinians — the legality of which has been time and again tested and validated by Israeli law in the Supreme Court — is a rule of law in relation to which, as Arendt would put it, decent people would choose crime. BDS’s violence can be interpreted as a framework for such decent criminality: attacking the bond between Israeli academics and their institutions, it forces these academics to speak free of a conformist perspective that’s in line with the law. For anyone who begins to suspect that Israel’s system of justice and academic institutions are a part of the problem rather than of the solution there is something attractive about this suggestion. Judith Butler correctly points out that Israeli universities have taken no measures to officially repudiate the occupation, and that there are ways in which their research and teaching are complicit in it. Among other things, a new Israeli university was recently established in the West Bank, but none of Israel’s existing universities officially contested the idea of establishing a research institution on occupied territory, operating under the Israel Defense Forces’ military law.
However, even if the idea of violence that is not violent is attractive, and has already been made to apply to Israeli reality — movements administrating the refusal to military service work along similar lines, as do organizations such as Breaking the Silence — boycotting academics doesn’t fit into the same category. A sticky point remains, and it is one we would be wise to insist on: silencing individuals can never be nonviolent. Butler must certainly agree about this, because she knows that human individuals “require language in order to be” (Introduction, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 1997). The boycott on Israeli academics can be considered a form of nonviolent violence only if we accept her argument that the boycott silences institutions only, and not individuals. But as we have seen, this argument doesn’t get off the ground.
At some point, Butler concedes that BDS causes “an inconvenience” for Israeli scholars because they will have to seek alternative funding. The term “inconvenience” is telling, because it suffers from the same lack of precision as the word “request,” on which I already commented. Take a close look at this picture: those who do not agree with BDS aren’t in it: Israelis who do not abide by BDS’s conditions of speech suffer no inconvenience — they aren’t even addressed. To see the point, consider the logical structure of Butler’s argument: in order to show that BDS doesn’t silence individuals, she claims that those who reject BDS’s conditions of speech — because they reject BDS’s conditions of speech — aren’t human individuals at all, they are institutions. Having excluded them from being human interlocutors, Butler can explain that silencing these people isn’t violent. (Israelis who do agree to BDS’s conditions of speech, indeed suffer mere “inconvenience.”) This is precisely the danger that’s immanent to all forms of boycott: silencing someone results in being unable to recognize them as human. It is one thing to impose a boycott, and quite another to promote an international political movement that excludes a group of people from being subjects of possible violence. By presenting itself as a nonviolent political movement, this is what BDS has come to. As Nietzsche taught us, pretending not to be violent can sometimes be the most violent thing you can do.
Consequently, as long as it is advertised as a nonviolent political action that sanctifies free speech, the academic boycott on Israel should be opposed. BDS supporters can only make a case for the academic boycott if they are prepared to consciously leave the liberal comfort zone and insist that individuals’ free speech needn’t be fetishized and worshiped; that violence, too, is sometimes necessary and permitted. They will have to convince the public that a massive silencing of Israelis is a legitimate — and conducive — use of violence in the fight for the rights of the Palestinians. This is a position that Judith Butler, herself, presumably, would have to oppose, for she has insisted that “the only version of BDS that can be defended is one that is compatible with principles of academic freedom.” BDS activity is bound to grow around American and European campuses, but unless you are prepared to engage in a massive silencing of Israelis that is anything but nonviolent, the boycott on Israeli academics shouldn’t receive your support.
This article is adopted from a lecture given on April 24, 2015, at the New York Consulate General of France’s “A Night of Philosophy.”
Omri Boehm is an Israeli citizen who teaches at The New School in New York.