My purpose in writing to the Times of Malta is to expose a calumny made against Prof. Judith Butler by Edward Caruana Galizia in his article ‘Sound of selective silence’ (November 1).
An ironic title for an article selectively silent on another tragedy being played out in Israel at this time: the systematic butchery of Palestinians by the Israeli army in Gaza. I want to set the record straight on Prof. Butler and to do it in her own words, to avoid any equivocation. Hence, the rather long quotations I will cite below for which I apologise to readers.
Caruana Galizia’s narrative describes a “sordid tapestry of ideological contortion”, woven by the “left”, that is, by NGO activists; “feminist stalwarts”, Aditus, MGRM and Black Lives Matter activists. But, “perhaps the most disconcerting part”, he says, of this supposed “ideological contortion” “is the case of Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley”.
“Butler represents a chorus of intellectual luminaries who believe that misgendering someone is tantamount to human rights abuse. Yet, there she is on Twitter, describing Hamas as a ‘progressive force’ in global politics and ‘part of a global left’. This endorsement doesn’t just defy logic. It shatters any façade of any moral consistency,” he says.
A serious charge. But let’s begin with this statement itself. How accurate is it? Butler did use the quoted words about Hamas but she didn’t use them on Twitter and they aren’t even recent. She said them in 2006 to answer a question in a discussion about the threat of Hamas and Hezbollah to Israel’s existence.
Her answer was: “Yes, understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, is extremely important. That doesn’t stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. It doesn’t stop those of us who are interested in non-violent politics from raising the question whether there are other options besides violence. So again, a critical, important engagement.”
The unacknowledged post on Twitter Caruana Galizia used was actually made by a Janet Inglis on October 30 of this year with a comment on a video of Butler’s reply; he even borrows her racist quip about “a one-way ticket off a Palestinian rooftop”. Caruana Galizia’s dishonesty about his source typifies everything he says. Endorsing a critical engagement with Hamas 17 years ago, misguided as it may sound today, is hardly endorsing Hamas’s assault on innocent Israeli and other civilians on October 7, 2023.
What Butler thinks about that attack is documented in a recent article, ‘The Compass of Mourning’, she wrote in the London Review of Books (October 19, 2023, well before Inglis’s post).
These are her words: “There are those who do use the history of Israeli violence in the region to exonerate Hamas but they use a corrupt form of moral reasoning to achieve that goal. Let’s be clear, Israeli violence against Palestinians is overwhelming: relentless bombing, the killing of people of every age in their homes and on the streets, torture in their prisons, techniques of starvation in Gaza and the dispossession of homes. And this violence, in its many forms, is waged against a people who are subject to apartheid rules, colonial rule and statelessness.
Being used as human shields doesn’t turn people into legitimate targets- Kenneth Wain
“When, however, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee issues a statement claiming that ‘the apartheid regime is the only one to blame’ for the deadly attacks by Hamas on Palestinian targets, it makes a serious error. It is wrong to apportion responsibility in that way and nothing should exonerate Hamas from responsibility for the hideous killings they have perpetrated.”
She is even more unequivocal in her opening paragraph: “In fact, I do condemn without qualification the violence committed by Hamas. This was a terrifying and revolting massacre. That was my primary reaction and it endures.”
Caruana Galizia’s dishonesty is compounded by the fact that he deliberately omitted mentioning that, far from being just some disengaged armchair intellectual, Butler is herself a Jew, born in the US, with ancestors who perished in the Holocaust. She is also an esteemed philosopher and powerful activist for peace in Palestine and non-violent political action generally – not that these qualities will impress Caruana Galizia.
Interviewed on the events in Gaza, she was unequivocal on the practice of targeting civilians: it violates international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention and amounts to acts of terror. It is thereby morally reprehensible and inexcusable, whoever perpetrates it, be it Hamas or the Israeli State bombing schools, hospitals, ambulances and fleeing civilians. And right-thinking people, that is, people with ‘moral clarity’, condemn it unequivocally and demand that it stops on both sides.
Caruana Galizia takes the high moral ground and accuses “the left”, presumably including Butler, of claiming “moral uprightness while ensconced in this inconsistency” and of being “intellectually bankrupt”. Which is rich given his malicious lies against Butler manipulated to reach his end; to lend credibility to his blinkered rant against NGOs who work to protect people from discrimination and other human rights abuses they still suffer in our own western societies. Who is “intellectually bankrupt” if not someone incapable of making an honest argument?
I would add something of my own to the subject of Israel’s abominable behaviour in Gaza. The excuse that Hamas is using civilians as ‘human shields’ can never justify the indiscriminate massacre of the men, women, elderly and children of Gaza, the patients in the hospitals and so on. An excuse shamefully endorsed by western leaders and media outlets.
Being used as human shields doesn’t strip a people of their humanity, it doesn’t turn them into objects or legitimate targets. On the contrary, it qualifies them more strongly for the protection of their human rights. It obliges the exercise of the greatest caution to minimise the risks to their lives and limbs – to the extent of erring on the side of caution. Indiscriminate bombing is a war crime, as is imposing the cruel conditions of siege Israel is imposing on them.
Kenneth Wain is a philosopher and academic.