Public Comment

The Berkeley Divestment Campaign and the Problem of Antisemitism

By Ronald Hendel
Tuesday May 04, 2010 - 02:28:00 PM

In the wake of the emotional debate about the divestment bill in the Berkeley Student Senate (titled, “A Bill In Support of UC Divestment from War Crimes”[1]), a number of antisemitic incidents have occurred on campus. Most notably, last week there were two instances of large swastikas drawn on the walls of student dorms. We don’t know if the perpetrators were mischief-makers or sociopaths. During the official public discussion of the bill, some participants uttered offensive speech. One woman accosted a yarmulke-clad man and said, “You really look like a Nazi.” Later that evening a male student shouted to a group of Jewish students, “You killed Jesus.” On the one hand, the perpetrators of these and other recent antisemitic gestures are exceptions to the normal standard of behavior at Berkeley, which generally prizes tolerance of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. On the other hand, tolerance for the rights of others has taken a beating during this emotion-laden debate. 

The problem is neatly summarized by my faculty colleague, Judith Butler, a prominent supporter of the bill, with whom I will interact in my comments below. She wrote in 2003, “we distinguish between anti-semitism and forms of protest against the Israeli state (or right-wing settlers who sometimes act independently of the state), acknowledging that sometimes they do, disturbingly, work together.” [2] This is the problem: critical speech about the policies of the government of Israel sometimes works together with, or excites, antisemitism. Most people who protest against Israeli policies or actions are not themselves antisemites, nor do they indulge in antisemitic speech or actions. But sometimes these critics produce what Butler elsewhere calls “excitable speech,” that is, speech that has the capability of suppressing, subordinating, and “othering” a particular group.[3] Antisemitic speech is an obvious example of excitable speech. Calling Jews “Nazis” or “Christ-killers” is excitable hate-speech, which performs the effect of anathematizing and dehumanizing in the speech-act itself. 

But what of speech or actions that are clearly not antisemitic, but which can have the effect of exciting or inciting antisemitic speech or actions by others? Butler rightly maintains that speech or actions critical of Israel must not be silenced by the fear of being wrongly understood by others as antisemitic. She writes:


even if one believed that criticisms of Israel are by and large heard as anti-semitic (by Jews, anti-semites, or people who could be described as neither), it would become the responsibility of all of us to change the conditions of reception so that the public might begin to distinguish between criticism of Israel and a hatred of Jews.[4]


I agree with Butler’s position. We must create a space where legitimate political criticism of Israel is clearly distinguished from antisemitism. I maintain that the best way to create this space is to insist on clear and reasoned political discourse, which eschews propagandistic methods and deceptive half-truths. In other words, we should reject the kinds of visceral and angry words that one often sees on Fox News (on the right), MSNBC (on the mid-left), and the radical media (on the far left). We should reject the tone of discourse that has colored this debate on the Berkeley campus. To cite an enlightening philosophical tract by Harry Frankfurt, we should eschew “bullshit.”[5]  

Frankfurt defines bullshit as speech that is not only deceptive and untruthful, but that is oblivious to its untruthfulness. It is speech that simply doesn’t care about being truthful, since it has other ends, such as selling products, political positions, or personalities. For example, the title of the divestment bill at Berkeley is “A Bill In Support of UC Divestment from War Crimes.” Now, every person of good will opposes war crimes. Such a bill ought to be as controversial and divisive as a bill in support of motherhood and apple pie. But this bill’s title is obviously deceptive, since the content of the bill is entirely devoted to criticism of Israel.[6] Serious allegations have indeed been made against Israel for violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the supplementary Protocol in its war with Gaza and its settlements in the West Bank. These allegations ought to be fully investigated and, if substantiated, the perpetrators ought to be punished and restitution made. I think most people of good will would agree. But to insinuate that Israel is the sole or primary perpetrator of war crimes in the world, the Middle East, or in the Israel/Palestine conflict is an obvious falsehood.  

The bill brazenly says that it is using “the Israel/Palestine conflict” simply “as a case-study.” But it omits the relevant detail that the Hamas government of Gaza has been accused of war crimes by the very same human rights groups that have accused Israel. This omission falsifies the bill’s claim to address war crimes in the Israel/Palestine conflict. The bill also condemns Israel’s blockade of Gaza, but omits the relevant detail that Egypt is a partner in the blockade. In other words, the bill isn’t about war crimes as a global or regional issue, nor is it about war crimes in the Israel/Palestine conflict. It is only about criticizing and stigmatizing Israel, and in so doing it seeks to create a semantic association between “Israel” and “war crimes” as if the two terms were analogous or synonymous. This is, according to Frankfurt’s definition, an obvious case of bullshit. The bill doesn’t even care that it is untruthful, since truthfulness is not its goal. Its goal is to portray Israel as a pariah nation, as the instantiation of the evil of war crimes. 

This kind of bullshit, if it is slung properly, creates an intelligible space where Israel is promoted as the world’s misfortune. From this cognitive space, the jump to the inference that the Jews are the world’s misfortune is a small one. With some trepidation, I would like to cite an illustration of this dangerous slippage from Butler’s recently published speech in support of the bill. [7] She begins with her moral education, which roots her remarks in Jewish authenticity:


The worst injustice, I learned, was to remain silent in the face of criminal injustice. And this tradition of Jewish social ethics was crucial to the fights against Nazism, fascism and every form of discrimination, and it became especially important in the fight to establish the rights of refugees after the Second World War. Of course, there are no strict analogies between the Second World War and the contemporary situation, and there are no strict analogies between South Africa and Israel, but there are general frameworks for thinking about [such matters].


In these stirring comments, Butler attests that her criticism of Israeli policies is based on Jewish social ethics, which are intrinsically opposed to Nazism, fascism, and discrimination. I don’t doubt her sincerity. But by framing her criticism of Israel with an ethical stand against Nazism, she implicitly proposes an analogy between Nazi Germany and Israel. She both acknowledges and qualifies this analogy in her statement: “Of course, there are no strict analogies between the Second World War and the contemporary situation, and there are no strict analogies between South Africa and Israel.” But by saying “there are no strict analogies,” a phrase that she repeats twice, she implicitly affirms that there are general or loose analogies, the scope and content of which she does not address.  

Since the implied analogies among Israel, Nazi Germany, and Apartheid South Africa are left open, Butler’s speech creates a semantic a gap that asks to be filled in by the listener. Her statement seems to perform what she seems to deny, that is, the establishment of an ethical analogy among these regimes. I would suggest that this rhetorical strategy is a perspicuous example of excitable speech, which aims to anathematize and “other” Israel as the world’s contemporary misfortune, just as the analogous states were in the past If to some degree Israel ≈ Nazi Germany ≈ Apartheid South Africa, then of course we should hate it. This is propagandistic speech, characterized by inflammatory half-truths, and which seems unconcerned with its truth-content. It is speech that lends at least qualified support to those who would lump together these nations as instantiations of evil. The accusations of “Nazi” and “Apartheid” pepper contemporary anti-Israel discourse, and such accusations clearly create a space that excites and incites antisemitic speech and acts. 

I want to be clear: I am not accusing Butler of intending or condoning antisemitism in her criticisms of Israel. But I do want to point out that, as she says of these types of discourse, “sometimes they do, disturbingly, work together.” We need to be self-critical and vigilant to ensure that our political debates do not shade into or excite antisemitic speech and actions. The only way to do this is to eschew half-truths, deceptions, propaganda, and “bullshit.” Only by embracing the virtues of clear thought and rational discourse can we hope to create a space where political diversity and ethical community can coexist. To this end, we must be careful not to sow the seeds of hatred. As the biblical prophet Hosea says, “They who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind.” We are responsible for exercising our free speech with malice towards none if we truly want to change the world. 


N.B. This speech was delivered at a rally against antisemitism in Sproul Plaza on April 30, 2010. 

[1]The text of the bill is available at The initial vote in favor of the bill was vetoed by the Student Senate President, and the veto was subsequently sustained by the Senate. 

[2] Judith Butler, “No, It’s Not Anti-Semitic,” London Review of Books, vol. 25, no. 16 (August, 2003), pp. 19-21, available at 

[3] Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (London: Routledge, 1997). 

[4]“Not Anti-Semitic.” 

[5] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). 

[6]The last sentence, added in committee, raises the possibility of future resolutions against Morocco and the Congo. 

[7] Judith Butler, “You Will Not Be Alone,” The Nation, April 13, 2010, available at  


Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.