Judith Butler on the Global Boycott: Analysis and Response

Now that Israeli Apartheid week is ending, and Judith Butler’s talk has been posted online, I feel it is less important to provide a comprehensive sketch of her arguments, and instead offer some analysis and response to the case she made for a “global” as opposed to “partial” boycott.

Butler’s case relies on the idea that doing business with any Israeli institutions normalizes the current conditions of domination, and should therefore be avoided. Relations with individuals as individuals do not exist only as institutional relations, so the new academic boycott does not target individuals. She is opposed to, but supports, partial boycotts on the grounds that doing business with any Israeli firm or institution normalizes the entire system of domination and rights-exclusion that is Israeli apartheid. Her opposition to partial boycotts is, however, partial, as she recognizes the civil society call for BDS is purposely open-ended to allow groups in different situations to find a BDS tactic that works for them.

The strongest case I can imagine in opposition to Butler is to simply point out that (nearly?) every state is predicated on theft and the exclusion of the rights of others, so the mere existence of continued injustice does not differentiate Israel from Canada, the United States, or any of its neighbors. When I do business with the United States or Canada, I imply that the situation – which is a state of War – is normal. When I do business with Lebanon and Jordan I recognize the situation, which is one of apartheid; differential rights for and oppression of Palestinians in refugee camps.

The response to this, which Butler did not make but which can be drawn by her emphasis on the civil society call for BDS that came out of Palestine, is to remark that the moral arguments that affirm BDS as a legitimate tactic are not sufficient reasons for advocating BDS against a criminal regime. Rather, they are necessary conditions – if BDS was an illegitimate tactic, then a civil society call from an oppressed group would not justify its employment against their oppressor. The fact that BDS is a legitimate tactic, however, enables the call from Palestinian society for it to be a valid declenching reason for us to pursue BDS against Israeli apartheid. If Jordanian or Lebanese civil society or the Palestinian refugees in those countries were to call for BDS against those respective countries, I would heed the call and lobby institutions to which I am connected to boycott, divest, and pursue sanctions against Lebanon and Jordan.

However, this idea needs further elaboration and investigation: why does a civil society call justify BDS, why should we care what civil society thinks, and why do we think the 170 Palestinian organizations can legitimately put a call forth from the Palestinian people, effectively speaking on their behalf? Chomsky has famously criticized the BDS call, stating that he supports only BDS that does not hurt the Palestinians, and dismissing the grouping of 170 organizations, saying that if they are going to call for something that hurts the Palestinians he will not engage in it simply because they advocate it. Moreover, he opposes the global boycott because he believes it to be “hypocritical” – why don’t we boycott the United States, which is itself responsible for many of Israel’s crimes?

I should have asked Butler at the talk what she thought of this criticism, but I think if I had she likely would have emphasized the failure of the “peace process” and the tradition of grass roots, civil society movements in opposing violence and oppression. If we took the standard of “hypocricy” as a reason not to boycott countries we never could have boycotted South Africa without also boycotting the United States on the basis that the United States was responsible for many of their crimes.


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