Judith Butler is speaking at the University of Toronto on March 9. Photo: Hendrik Speck

American academic Judith Butler will be one of the keynote speakers at the 7th annual Israeli Apartheid Week in Toronto, set to take place from March 7-11.

Butler is renowned for her contributions to critical theory, ethics, women and gender studies, queer theory, comparative literature, and post-structuralism.

Perhaps most recognized for her work on gender, Butler argues that gender is performative — an act that is much more about “doing” than it is about “being.” Her work encourages non-conformity and the opening-up of alternative ways of perceiving identity that do not necessarily abide by dominant group and societal norms.

It is thus of no surprise that Butler, who identifies as Jewish, has proven so fearless in the face of the terribly misguided assumption that in order to be considered a “proper” Jew one must defend the state of Israel, and the political ideology of Zionism upon which it was founded.

Butler’s conception of Jewish social ethics is fundamentally at odds with this notion. “How can I fulfill my obligation as a Jew to speak out against an injustice when, in speaking out against Israeli state and military injustice, I am accused of not being a good enough Jew or of being a self-hating Jew?” asks Butler in an interview published last February in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz.

She admits that this tension puts her in a sort of bind, yet she refuses to allow that to stop her from standing firmly against Israeli state violence and in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Nor does she tolerate accusations that non-Jews who speak out against Israel are inherently anti-Semitic.

In a 2003 article published in the London Review of Books titled “No, It’s Not Anti-Semitic,” Butler takes on the former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, for conflating “anti-Israel” views among progressive academic communities with anti-Semitism “in their effect if not their intent.”

“Every progressive person ought to challenge anti-Semitism vigorously wherever it occurs,” writes Butler. “It seems, though, that historically we have now reached a position in which Jews cannot legitimately be understood always and only as presumptive victims. Sometimes we surely are, but sometimes we surely are not.”

The subject of Butler’s Toronto lecture will be the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Launched in 2005 as part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) call signed by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, the growing international boycott campaign represents, for Butler, a crucial means of resistance to ongoing Israeli state violence and occupation.

The academic and cultural boycotts act as a direct challenge to institutions that contribute to the normalization of the occupation, forcing them to not only address Israel’s constant violations of international law but also end their own complicity in these crimes in the process.

We can think of it as a sort of “passive complicity” writes Butler in her Ha’aretz interview. “To work on the side of the problem of the occupation is to participate in its normalization. And the way that normalization works is to efface or distort that reality within public discourse.”

“As a result,” she concludes, “neutrality is not an option.”

Butler insists that there is no one simple approach to heeding the boycott call, but whatever the tactic, it must oppose the process of normalization and bring to light the “basic principles of injustice at stake.”

“There are many ways to articulate those principles, and this is where intellectuals are doubtless under a political obligation to become innovative, to use the cultural means at our disposal to make whatever interventions we can.”

Judith Butler will be speaking next Wednesday, March 9th, at 7:00 p.m. at the University of Toronto’s Bahen Centre, 40 St. George Street, room 1160. She is sure to draw a crowd, so if you want to ensure a seat arrive well in advance.

Corey Balsam is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. He is a member of Students Against Israeli Apartheid and Independent Jewish Voices (Canada).