Judith Butler: What is the value of Palestinian lives?

The 2014 Edward Said Memorial Lecture with Dr. Judith Butler

13 October 2014
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC

Yousef Munayyer: Moving to today’s program. We are very happy to host, on an annual basis, a memorial lecture commemorating the contributions and life of Professor Edward Said – who we lost far too early as a guiding light and an intellectual – not just in the Palestinian cause, but also, in studies on post-colonialism, and critical theory, and comparative literature, and the like. This lecture is one of our key events annually and we are very happy to have Dr. Judith Butler as our Edward Said Memorial lecturer this year.

Dr. Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and the Co-director of the Program on Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of numerous books and her most recent is, “Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critic of Zionism”. She also is active in gender and sexual politics, in human rights, in anti-war politics, and in Jewish Voice for Peace.

Today, she will discuss the differential value accorded to Palestinian and Israeli lives in the light of the most recent Israeli military campaign on the Gaza Strip, in which massacres and violations of International law have occurred. So please join me in welcoming our Edward Said Memorial lecturer today, Dr. Judith Butler.

Judith Butler: I am honored to be here today, and I want to thank The Jerusalem Fund for the faith they put in me to give this lecture in honor of Edward Said.  I know that the Said lecture is a way to honor and remember the extraordinary work of the scholar, Edward Said, including his prodigious literary accomplishments and his incisive public and political commentary. And so the question of how best to honor him has to be thought through, since my task today, after the Gaza massacres, after the most recent and most devastating Gaza massacres, is to try to think about his perspective, but also with him, his words, the words he left us, even though he was writing in a different political time.  So I do want to return to his work, since it is unclear that we have actually caught up with him:  rather, my task is to bring that work forward, in order to think with and through his words about how it is that a certain question can emerge during this time:  what is the value of Palestinian lives?  To ask the question is already rather terrible.  Why does such a question have to be asked?  And when we ask it, are we also asking for whom Palestinian lives have value?  Could it be that the answer to the question is, no, they do not have value?  The question should not surprise us if we consider the political situation in which Palestinian lives are expendable, when we recognize that the international outcry against the latest bombardment of Gaza, for instance, was muffled, if not censored, and when we recognize that what I shall call these crimes are very far from being recognized, or adjudicated, in existing international courts.  So, on the one hand, we should not be surprised, that the value of Palestinian lives has once more come into question; on the other hand, we should always be surprised, for without that sense of shock and even bewilderment, without a sense of being scandalized, we will lose the fully appropriate rage, and the fully appropriate grief, that is a crucial part of political resistance.

So one asks the question, what is the value of Palestinian lives? To show that there is no consensus on the matter, and to expose this as a moral and political scandal.  To ask the question is to show the horror of the question.  One asks the question to show that, unbelievably, the question can be asked, and this should not be the case.  Of course, it is possible to respond quickly and set the matter aside: of course, Palestinian lives, like all lives, have value, and ought to have value, and ought not to be threatened, humiliated, terrorized, or destroyed. Such an answer seeks recourse to what I would call a quick universalism, one that works simply by asserting the abstract equality of all lives, regardless of where they are from, regardless of ethnicity, religion, regional location, race, gender, and all the other possible social determinations of human life.  Indeed, it is possible to accept that abstract equality of all lives and yet to live and act in a world that does not reflect that equality in concrete terms.  This produces a certain schism in the mind: one defends the equal value of all lives as human lives, abstracting them from their social and political location.  At the same time, precisely because one clings to the abstraction in the place of the social reality, one accepts the differential way that lives are valued in the social, economic, and political sphere.  In that way, the abstract equality that is asserted among all lives functions as an alibi for not recognizing and opposing concrete and urgent inequalities.

Although I just suggested that there is a quick version of universal equality that can serve as an alibi for actual inequality, I actually want to move today toward a more complex understanding of what Edward Said called “universalization” and to query what he meant by such a term.  This argument might already seem abstract, as if I will be suggesting one theoretical model over another.  But it will only work if it can become increasingly concrete.  It could be that we answer the question by claiming that Palestinian lives have value because they are Palestinian, and that there are specific values associated with Palestinian lives that have to be recognized in their concreteness.  To answer the question this way means bringing forth the specificity of Palestinian culture, daily life, artistic and cultural production, history and economics, religious and social organizations.  And yes, all that work is quite necessary, given the cultural effacement that Palestinians have suffered in popular media, given the slander and the stereotypes, but can such an approach, by itself, answer the question of why certain lives can be publicly grieved and others are deemed ungrievable?  Can it answer the question of why it is so difficult for there to be a powerful global consensus on the grievability of Palestinian lives?  What do I mean by grievabilility, and what effect, if any, does conceiving of Palestinian lives as worthy of grief have on concrete social policy, much less an effective resistance movement backed by international consensus?  First of all, when we speak about a life as potentially grievable, we are talking about someone who is alive.  Indeed, all of us here are potentially grievable or, at least, I hope we are.  When a life is, from the start, regarded as grievable, then every precaution will be taken to preserve that life and to safeguard that life against harm and destruction.  If we think that all lives ought to be treated in that way, safeguarded from harm and destruction, then, in my view, we embrace a principle of the radical equality of the grievable.

Concretely, we can say that very often the statistics that show the overwhelming devastation of the population in Gaza compared with those within Israel are not enough to affect certain kinds of powerful rhetoric that foregrounds the right of Israel to self-defense.  Whenever we talk about self-defense, we have to ask, which self?  Who has a self?  Who is in the political position to have a self that can and ought to be defended?  Is it possible, within international political discourse, to talk about Palestinian self-defense?  Can those who live under settler rule “defend” themselves?   Let us review, once again, the statistics we have about the differential losses that resulted from Operation Protective Edge.  I do this not only to show the inequality of those losses, but to show how that inequality is covered over when certain losses count as real, and others are waved away through certain discursive gestures that wield political power within a situation of structural inequality.

Whether one takes the UN numbers or those offered by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights or the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, in July and August of this year, somewhere between 2131 and 2168 Palestinians were killed, and 77 Israelis were killed. (IMEU).  When we make a distinction between combatants and civilians, we are already on tricky political territory, for how is that distinction made, and who makes it? The UN claims that 1473 of the Palestinian dead were civilians, but PCHR puts the number higher, at 1662 civilians and that this includes between 501 children and 257 women, or 519 children and 297 women, depending on your source.  The Palestinian Ministry of Health reports 11,100 Palestinians were wounded, and that at least 100 of those will suffer long-term disability or illness.  Especially hard-hit, as you know, are the populations living within refugee camps: at least 80,000 refugee homes were damaged or destroyed during the bombardment of Gaza, and as many as 20,000 of those structures are no longer habitable. It is worth noting as well that the majority of Gaza’s 110,000 homeless people are children.

There are many more statistics that are important, including those who are traumatized, including those who suffered those losses, and who survive to live in a world in which those losses are irreversible.  And then those who require social and psychological support – how do those numbers get established?  Can we ever know them?  I give you these numbers, realizing that they are in the process of being revised, that new losses still are added to the list every week.  I do this not because I think that “numbers talk” in ways that other arguments do not.  In fact, I think that many people can glance at the numbers and not be affected very much by what they see, not be moved to conclude that what has happened is unjustified, and are able to claim, with apparent calm, either that Palestinians brought this devastation on themselves or to regard the loss of life within Israel of much greater concern.  Indeed, the numbers do not speak for themselves; they require interpretation, even though we may think that the horror of it is, and ought to be, absolutely clear. We still have to make it clear, and that means bringing the numbers forth, offering numbers and names, numbers, names and images, and all that, together with analysis and media presence.  And the risk is, of course, that one will be entering into a certain media industry in which it is always the same picture of Palestinian devastation, and it continues and recurs, compounding the sense of political paralysis and inevitable destruction rather than moving its viewers to judge and act.

Of course, it is the human shield argument that functions to de-realize Palestinian losses.  It was made popular in Operation Cast Lead and was renewed in July and August of this year with ferocious zeal.  As Yousef and others have pointed out, the human shield argument is racist and reprehensible.  It is important that this be said time and again, since it has not yet been heard where it should be; and saying it turns out not quite to be enough, since it is not only a pernicious argument, but a belief that is much wider than I would have thought.  Indeed, when I first came across the argument that Palestinians put their children in the way of Israeli bombs, I thought it was so ridiculous that no one could possibly accept it.  Of course, I was wrong, and I now see that I was much more wrong than I could have imagined.  What gives this argument its appeal and its credibility?

The argument takes different forms, but the one that seems to circulate most often is that Hamas in particular places its rocket launchers in civilian areas, and so draws Israeli fires to those same areas, putting at risk the civilians there. Such a claim should be easily adjudicated by determining where the rocket launchers actually are, but neither Israel nor Hamas, as far as I know, publish any of the maps or documentation it claims to have to support this point.  Moreover, the so-called handbook said to be discovered by Israelis in East Jerusalem that lays out the Hamas strategy to use and imperil its civilian population as human shields turned out to be a forgery.   Some of those who defend Israel’s bombing of civilian populations understand those civilians to be members of Hamas, or to have voted for Hamas, and conclude that by voting as they have, they have put themselves in the way of Israeli bombs.  They may not be combatants, but they also, according to this argument (if it is an argument), put themselves in harm’s way by voting as they are said to do; the children who do not vote nevertheless belong to families who have ostensibly voted, and that means that they, too, will pay for their voting privileges with their lives.  Indeed, I am not sure whether from the point of view of aerial bombardment anyone can really know whether those who are targeted voted for Hamas, did not vote, or remain loyal to Fatah.  But the argument makes clear that the status of civilian does not quite matter, for civilians are the ones who vote, and if they voted for Hamas, they are to pay with their lives. At this point, it is clear that civilian casualties are quite deliberate, since Gaza was being punished for voting for Hamas, even though in many of the mainstream accounts, Hamas is said to have taken over Gaza in terms that liken that election to a coup. In any case, that one argument, or belated form of rationality, apparently thinks it is alright to target a population for exercising its limited rights to vote in electoral politics.

I am not in favor of Hamas, and I have never supported Hamas. I object to several dimensions of that political party.  Its charter, with its anti-Semitism, its brutal executions, its rockets, its hierarchy, and its treatment of women (after, as a Jewish lesbian, I can hardly be understood as a supporter).  Although I understand the arguments for armed resistance, I am myself in favor of non-violent forms of resistance.   Indeed, one reason I have to say this out loud – even though it should be clear on the basis of my broader political views –  is that any effort to study Hamas or understand its aims, or to see how it is figured within the Israeli political imaginary, is very often taken to be sympathy for Hamas, if not potential membership! So now that I have situated myself, I want to make two remarks. One is that Hamas, the political party, is very often made to function as a synonym for Palestinians in Gaza, and from the Israeli state’s perspective, the destruction of majority support for that party justifies the assault on civilians.  In other words, it is precisely because civilians have largely supported Hamas that civilians are targeted.  It does not seem to matter that there is a part of Hamas dedicated to armed resistance, and a part of Hamas that takes care of social and medical services, irrigation, and education.  Secondly, Hamas, because it is an Islamic party, is very often caricatured as a “culture of martyrdom” which, in clearly racist terms, leads to the incredible generalization that Palestinians in general do not value life, or the life of their children in the way that Israelis do, or in the way that people in the “west” are said to do.  So to the extent that the human shield argument relies on this gross stereotype that Palestinians, figured as the uncivilized and the pre-modern, do not value life as those of us “in the West” do, we see that a fundamentally orientalist conceit is part of what makes this claim plausible.  The claim that Palestinians as a group sacrifice their children for the sake of their cause relies on a conception of Palestinians as barbaric, and this broader view of the Palestinian supports the more specific view that Hamas is responsible for its own civilian losses, especially the children.

There is a great deal to be said about how “women and children” function in these kinds of arguments.  Obviously, there is a special kind of shock and horror reserved for the destruction of the lives of women and children who are understood to be emblems of innocence.  On the one hand, the accusation that Hamas has sacrificed them makes them barbaric.  But this same assumption implies that if the IDF has deliberately targeted them for destruction, it is the IDF that is barbaric. So we see how the same premise operates in the accusation.  Does it mean that at some level the IDF knows that it is engaged in a form of killing that is utterly unacceptable?  I am reticent to redeploy the language of barbarism since it seems mainly to be opposed to civilization.  And that terms tend to work to distinguish among cultures that are more and less civilized, reproducing the scene of orientalism.  Indeed, it is one reason that I continue to have interest and faith in international protocols that simply call the destruction of civilian populations criminal.   But I suspect that if the Israeli discourse that charges Palestinians with the barbaric sacrifice of its children believes that the deliberate destruction of populations of children is barbaric, then at some level, it knows and believes that its own actions are barbaric; the point of the accusation against Hamas is to cover over, and to externalize, what it considers to be its own barbarism.

What is of course so very shocking about this set of arguments is that they clearly serve the purpose of deflecting from, and rationalizing, the fact that the Israeli Defense Forces have targeted civilians, massacred populations and destroyed the conditions of life in large parts of Gaza. The argument is meant to twist the terms of truth so that it is Palestinians who sacrifice their children and women, their civilians, not Israel that has killed those vast numbers of people.  Indeed, the evidence that Israel deliberately targeted civilians, that is, unarmed people, has been released by dissidents within the IDF, confirmed by UN workers in the area, and by Palestinian testimony.  At some point we have to ask whether there is a destructiveness at work that does not care about the rationale for the destructiveness.  The rationale comes later; it can suddenly shift, and it does not matter that the rationale remains consistent.

After all, at first it seemed that the killing of Israelis in Hebron was the reason for the attack on Gaza, and the crackdown and increased detentions throughout the West Bank.  But then it did not matter that the Hebron killers were not Hamas, those killings became the occasion to attack Gaza, and to escalate into a full-scale war of bombardment.  If, as Netanyahu claimed, the population of Gaza should now see what will happen to it if it continues its support for Hamas, then we might conclude that the point of the bombardment was to destroy that political party and its apparent hold on the majority of Gazans. But then it turned out that more sympathy for Hamas was generated among Palestinians in the West Bank than had been recorded before, and so it seemed that Netanyahu’s aim was foiled.  But what if the aim is to claim that all of Palestine is, or potentially is, Hamas, and to seek to establish the rocket-throwing, child-sacrificing figure of the Palestinian as the norm?  If the point was to destroy the unity government, then at one point in this process, that seemed to be failing.  If the point was to establish the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, or as the dominant partner in any unity government, that also seems to be failing.  If the point was to confirm Hamas as a terrorist organization, then that was surely called into question by the fact that Israeli representatives entered into negotiations with them in Cairo, and so has begun to treat them, perhaps inadvertently, as diplomatic players.  The fact seems to be that there was no one rationale for that bombardment, and that the rationale is constantly shifting.  Are we perhaps asked by this circumstance to think of a destructiveness that is relatively indifferent to the question of whether that destructiveness is justified, that takes on justifications after the fact, and switches them quickly, without any care for consistency or accountability?

Of course, the official language is self-defense, and that is the rationale that President Obama and others have used.  Israel is entitled to self-defense.  Given that Palestine is not yet formed and recognized as a state, and that Gaza remains under colonial rule – occupied in the sense that the siege is an instrument of occupation, and occupied in the sense that it has no sovereign authority over its borders – then the appropriate framework for this conflict continues to be colonial rule. And the resistance to Israel is the resistance to colonial rule.  Again, I would like to see the charter of Hamas relinquished and repudiated.  As long as the language concerning the “destruction” of Israel remains, couched as it is in anti-Semitic rhetoric, Israel itself will be able to invoke self-defense for whatever destruction it causes.  That said, the way that Israel invokes self-defense gives it permission for unbridled and unlimited assaults.  For it is not only in relation to rockets sent into Israeli territory that Israel invokes self-defense.  For some, Israeli self-defense requires the transfer of Palestinian Israelis outside of ’48, and for yet more, self-defense implies that humiliation, harassment, detention, and imprisonment of massive numbers of Palestinians is justified, and self-defense also works to justify the massacre of civilian populations, forms of destruction that some call genocidal.  Indeed, if and when the very existence of another people on their land seems to be understood as a potential or actual threat to one’s existence, then self-defense authorizes total war.

In what I have laid out so far today, I think you can see that there are two forms of twisted logic.  The first was that the massacre of children is made to appear as the deliberate choice and plan of the victim; the second is that the principle of self-defense, depending on how it is construed, can authorize limitless aggression. I began today with a discussion of grievable lives, and asked whether we might be able to ask the question, what is the value of Palestinian lives?  I have suggested that the systematic devaluation of Palestinian lives proceeds through twisted arguments of the kind that I sought to expose.  They themselves are the one who devalue their own lives and the lives of their children; or they, the Palestinians, are those who only seek to threaten Israeli lives, and so ought to be understood as living threats, which means that taking their lives is the same as eliminating a threat to life.  Life, in that last claim, is always Israeli life, the life that is considered to be more worthy of grief.  How interesting then, that the Rabbi in New York, Sharon Kleinbaum, who sought to honor both Israeli and Palestinian losses by speaking the names of those who had been killed in Operation Protective Edge, was censored by some leading members of the Jewish community.  How dare she stand for the principle that all the lives lost in this last Gaza war are equally grievable?

The criminal character of the attack on civilian populations ought properly to be considered and adjudicated by the International Criminal Court, and the arguments made for this by the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and numerous other legal associations cannot be heard unless and until the Palestinian authority agrees to become a signatory to the ICC.  There are those of you here today who know better than I do why that petition was initiated and then withdrawn.  My own lay view on this matter is that as long as the ICC cannot adjudicate these matters, then the derealization of Palestinian losses continues.  At stake in this matter is not only the documenting of deliberate targeting of civilian populations, their schools, mosques, and shelters, in effect, the infrastructural conditions of life, but  also the military and financial assisting of this operation by the US government.   The ICC, through the Rome Statute, offers the opportunity to establish a war crime, a crime against humanity, and/or genocide.  The most cynical interpretation of the withdrawal of that petition by Abbas is that he seeks to keep favor with Israel and the United States by doing so, or that he seeks to gain permanent power over Hamas in whatever unity government survives.  I do not know if this interpretation is correct, but I do think that for a global consensus on the value of Palestinian lives to emerge, the ICC is one important venue that ought not to be refused, especially for short-term strategic reasons.

As you may know, I am a professor of the humanities, and not a politician, not even a policy wonk.  I read what I can, and I offer analyses that make use of whatever conceptual resources I have.  I would like in the last section of this paper to return to Edward Said, although it is strange to talk about “returning” to Said.  Although he is gone, his thought remains with us, as both inspiration and guide.  I began today by asking whether we might be able to extend our ideas about political equality to the equality of the grievable, that is, the idea that all lives are equally valuable and equally grievable. I cautioned against a quick solution to this problem, one that would abstract people from the concrete realities of their lives, including the concrete inequalities with which they live.  Although I do think that international criminal courts rely importantly on a notion of “humanity” when they articulate crimes against humanity, I think that forms of equality emerge when people are able to make historical connections between conditions of suffering and demands for redress, conditions of subjugation and struggles for political self-determination.  Said gives us some ways to think about these ways of making connections among different sorts of suffering, suggestion that we have to be capable of juxtaposing one historical form of suffering with another, not to assert their concrete identity with one another, but to see how different forms of subjugation can, and ought to, speak to one another.   The demand to represent Palestinian suffering and aspiration is important to make it legible, to allow it to become grievable, the condition of outrage and redress, the demand for emancipation from colonial rule and for political self-determination.  But how do we understand this demand to represent collective suffering?

Said’s view was that Palestinian suffering had to be detailed in its specificity, but it also had to be framed in terms of its connection with other subjugated peoples.   His concern was with those in exile, those hundreds of thousands who had been displaced from their lands in ‘48 and again in ‘67 and again in ‘83.  So he wrote about those possibilities of connection among exiled peoples.  In that context, he cites Hanan Ashrawi, who wrote some years ago  that the Palestinian people are those whose national experience “belongs with that of the Armenians, the Jews, the Irish, the Cypriots, the American blacks, the Poles, the American Indians, at those terrifying frontiers where the existence and disappearance of peoples fade into each other, where resistance is a necessity, but where there is also sometimes a growing realization of the need for an unusual and, to some degree,  an unprecedented knowledge…..at best, I feel about these various Palestinian existences that they form a counterpoint (if not a cacophony) of multiple, almost desperate dramas, which each of us is aware of as occurring simultaneously with his or her own.”  Said, drawing inspiration from Ashrawi’s remarks, writes the following:
“To this terribly important task of representing the collective suffering of your own people,   testifying to its travails, reasserting its enduring presence, reinforcing its memory, there must be  added something else, which only an intellectual, I believe, has the obligation to fulfill…For the intellectual the task, I believe, is explicitly to universalize the crisis, to give greater human scope to what a particular race or nation suffered, to associate that experience with the sufferings of others.”

As much as the idea of belonging to a common “humanity” seems crucial to the perspective of the International Criminal Court, there is another form of belonging that is also universal, or universalizing, in Said’s view.  When and how does this universalization happen?  For Said, it happens in “the practice of associating, not identifying, one’s own experience of suffering to that of others.”  He continues in this way:  “It is inadequate only to affirm that a people was dispossessed, oppressed or slaughtered, denied its rights and its political existence, without at the same time doing what Fanon did during the Algerian war, affiliating those horrors with the similar afflictions of other people… This does not mean a loss in historical specificity,” he writes, “ but rather it guards against the possibility that a lesson learned about oppression in one place will be forgotten or violated in another place or time.”   It follows then, that to represent the sufferings of one’s own people does not relieve a person of the duty “of revealing that your own people now may be visiting related crimes on their victims.”

Indeed, this was the view of the writer, Primo Levi, the survivor of Auschwitz, who objected to the bombing of Lebanon in 1982, and who objected to Israeli complicity in the slaughters in Sabra and Shatila.  He insisted that one form of suffering cannot be used as the pretext for causing another form of illegitimate suffering.  And that if one were to learn from one’s own suffering, it would mean generalizing the unacceptable character of that suffering so that, indeed, no one should suffer in that way, or in an equally illegitimate way.  That is not to say that all sufferings are the same.  They are not.  But that that they can become the basis for widening circles of solidarity, especially when we are willing to undertake a comparative analysis, make the links, and engaged in a practice of cultural and political translation.

Said knew exceedingly well that these are distinctly different histories of displacement, and that there is no absolute structural analogy to be drawn between them.  After all, it is most often the case the displacement of the Jews which lead to the establishment of Israel was the cause of the dispossession of the Palestinians – a situation quite brilliantly and poignantly relayed in Kanafani’s “Return to Haifa.”  The claims of one group dispossessed cannot justify dispossessing another group.  After all, the establishment of Israel as a sanctuary for European Jewish refugees produced a new refugee problem, that of the Palestinians, which means that a refugee problem continues to be reproduced in the twentieth century up until the present. A comparative approach to the refugee problem (again, Said was importantly a Professor of Comparative Literature, a field that fosters the recognition of uneasy or unexpected parallels between different texts and contexts, or which regularly undergoes shifts in frame) becomes possible only when the vision is widened to include several instances (Arendt’s approach in On Totalitarianism for sure).  In drawing the analogy between Jews and Palestinians (significantly distinct from any analogy between Israelis and Palestinians) Said is seeking to widen the lens on the refugee problem, mobilizing the potential for a diasporic understanding between those in the diaspora or whose diasporic past continues to inform their ethical and political sensibility as well as their public policy.

“Diaspora” or sometimes “exile” is not foregrounded as the aim or goal of politics nor can it possibly describe a fixed location.  It is, rather, proposed as a critical perspective on forms of political nationalism that have required the repeated expulsion of those perceived as non-national.  In the case of Zionism, those who favor expulsion are understood as “self-segregating”, continuing a form of settler colonialism that is bound up with the historical and ongoing dispossession of Palestinians from their homes, and the building of dwelling structures on those appropriated lands, and the destruction of homes, and the expanding and debilitating practice of indefinite detention.

As a scholar of comparative literature, as someone living among different languages, he thought that the work of bringing disparate cultural traditions into contact with one another could produce a more expansive solidarity as long as the translation of one cultural situation into another was not an act of assimilation or domination.   His perspective was the one of someone who had lost his home; he used the term “exile”.  But we have to also understand what it is to be in exile in one’s own home, or on the land where one’s home used to be, or on the land across the wall from where one’s home used to be, or on the grounds of a devastated structure that used to be called one’s home.

Said wrote that the exile is one who see things as there were and as they are, as they were there, as they are here, and so sees double, and cannot do otherwise.  And yet, there are possibilities of seeing that emerge from the exilic condition:  “an idea or experience is always counterposed with another, making them both appear in an unpredictable light…”  He then suggests that this practice of juxtaposition and contrapuntal reading brings us back to his ideas about universality, about what he calls “human rights” and to matters of justice.  He writes, “from that idea of juxtaposition one gets a better, perhaps even more universal idea of how to think, say, about a human rights issue in one situation by comparison with another.”

Of course, we do need abstract principles to make the point that all lives are valuable, that they ought to be treated as potentially grievable, and that losses have to marked, acknowledged, and mourned.  We need that “universalizing” moment when we say “all lives”.  But to make the point politically, we have to be able to communicate that Palestinian lives are lives, and ought to be treated as such.  It is of course both astonishing and appalling that this case has to be made at all.  But we have seen how effectively certain losses can be de-realized, or how quickly populations are defined as targets, as shields, as attackers, renamed and re-imagined within a scenario of war.  When a child is figured as a shield, he or she is turned into metal, into an instrument to shield rockets or instruments of war.  That means that that child, even the one playing on the street or hanging out in the playground, the one who moves too close to the sea on a hot summer day, that child is somehow, somewhere, hiding and shielding a bomb, a rocket, a rocket launcher.  At this point the human body is transfigured by those who are targeting that body into an instrument of war, and the destruction of that child is understood as the destruction of a war instrument.  How to stop or reverse that most nefarious of transfigurations?  The simple photograph will help, but it will not suffice.  The publishing of the statistics will help, but it will not on its own do the job.  I do not know the practical way, though I think that nothing will happen without building a global consensus.  I asked at the beginning of this talk, why is it so difficult for there to be a powerful global consensus on the grievability of Palestinian lives?  I think that can be built through forms of solidarity with other struggles against colonialism not only to show that the situation in Palestine continues to be that of colonial domination, and to show that orientalist and racist figures of the Palestinian continue to function as popular justification for the elimination of their lives.   We can and must say that Palestinian lives are also lives, but to do that, we have to fight a colonial and racist legacy with all the resources from other anti-colonial struggles.  And we have to do this as well by pursuing those juxtapositions between forms of suffering that are not always set against one another.  I think Said tried to do this by claiming that Jews and Palestinians both suffered forms of dispossession, and that this might become the basis for a common commitment not only  to the rights of refugees, but for the right not to become a refugee in one’s own land. Perhaps that moment of hopefulness seems very unlikely at this moment.  I can understand that.   But there is Jewish Voice for Peace, there is a non-violent Palestinian resistance movement in BDS, there are legal associations and institutes such as this one, there are grass-roots struggles on the ground for prisoner’s rights (Samidoun, Adameer),  local resistance movements to stop or reverse the wall, for saving the trees and the land, and there is, despite the failure of many international institutions to condemn Israeli aggression, a growing sense that a terrible massacre has happened, and that many ruses have gotten in the way of grieving those losses, demanding redress, and making sure it does not happen again.  We could say that all those lives killed suffered human rights violations, and they surely are. And yet, the framework of human rights cannot quite grasp the systematic character of this destruction, the violent character of militarization and colonial rule.  I do think there are shifts happening in the broader global understanding of what has happened.  Those political objections still remain too quiet and they have to grow louder and more precise.  One reason I am in favor of pursuing justice through the ICC is that I think there is the chance to make the analogies between what is happening in Palestine and what has happened in other places where populations have suffered expulsion, destruction, and statelessness.

Following Said’s view, it is only consistent for a people to affirm their own rights to be relieved of statelessness, their rights to sanctuary under conditions of persecution, and to make that case by establishing the general and transposable character of such rights.  And even if the historical conditions of displacement differ, and even if one people – or its emerging and continuing state apparatus – is responsible for the displacement of another, reparation begins precisely through a recognition of the general and transposable character of the rights of the stateless to a the political conditions of belonging, to the rights of political self-determination.  Making that claim in the global arena allows for that process to begin, the transposability of rights accorded one population to another, in the name of equality, and with the hope that translations such as these, juxtapositions such as these, lead to an institutional recognition of the equal value of lives, now extended to Palestinian lives.   The task is to forge a world in which no one has to ask, ever again, what is the value of Palestinian lives?

Video and Edited Transcript 
Dr. Judith Butler
Transcript No. 416 (13 October 2014)

Judith Butler has, since the posting of the above article, published a short piece in The London Review of Books (Vol. 45, Nº 20, 19/10/2023), entitled “The Compass of Mourning”, which we recommend.

On the 26th of October, Judith Butler gave an incisive and blunt interview to the Democracy Now news service on the Israeli government genocide in Gaza. See here and here.

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