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The Queering of Antisemitism

How an unlikely alliance between LGBTQ studies and anti-Zionism conquered American universities

Corinne Blackmer
February 03, 2023
Aldara Zarraoa/Getty Image
‘The fact that the academic notion of queerness and hostility to the Jewish state are now virtually synonymous, is largely the accomplishment of a small group of postmodern leftist scholars of whom the most prominent is Judith Butler’Aldara Zarraoa/Getty Image
Aldara Zarraoa/Getty Image
‘The fact that the academic notion of queerness and hostility to the Jewish state are now virtually synonymous, is largely the accomplishment of a small group of postmodern leftist scholars of whom the most prominent is Judith Butler’Aldara Zarraoa/Getty Image

Some years ago, I was the target of a series of antisemitic, homophobic, and anti-Zionist hate crimes on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University, where I teach. Aside from the death threats and property defacement, what troubled me most was how authorities and colleagues only acknowledged the homophobic part of the crime. Despite my protestations, the anti-Zionism was erased and the antisemitism, which was not subtle—a swastika drawn on my car with mud—was severely minimalized. On college campuses these days, LGBTQ concerns (as well as racial ones) always count. Anti-Zionism never does, and antisemitism only when it occurs alone—not in relation to other forms of social animus.

This series of hate crimes against me took place—in a way I have never found coincidental—during one of the periodic eruptions of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Several days later, I again found my office door defaced, and death threats left on my office telephone. One faculty member I knew who had read about the hate crime on the front page of The New Haven Register rushed to empathize, calling me the victim of “the homo-hating patriarchy.” I winced at my colleague commiserating with me in an ideological language that I knew targeted me in other ways.

As a lesbian Zionist academic, I have felt my once-solid alliances shatter, and my beloved communities of belonging descend into warring camps. Over the past few decades, as the academic field of queer studies has become more visible and influential, some of its leading proponents have pushed the idea that opposing Israel’s existence is a natural position for gays and lesbians to adopt. But, of course, it is not at all obvious why the progressive academics I once considered allies, who see themselves as champions of LGBTQ rights, have come to regard Israel—which has a sterling record of civil rights for gay people, ranging from housing and workplace protections to adoption and inheritance rights—as the “hetero-patriarchal,” homophobic, and “homo-nationalistic” enemy of queers.

The fact that the academic notion of queerness and hostility to the Jewish state are now virtually synonymous is largely the accomplishment of a small group of postmodern leftist scholars, the most prominent of whom is Judith Butler. It is therefore worth examining the ideas expounded by Butler and others in her camp, and the effects they have had on universities and the broader political culture of the left, to understand my own sense of vulnerability and isolation.

As the academic field of queer studies has become more visible and influential, some of its leading proponents have pushed the idea that opposing Israel’s existence is a natural position for gays and lesbians to adopt.

According to my former allies, Israel’s protections for gay people and its thriving gay culture in cities like Tel Aviv should not be thought of as positives, but are in fact evidence that the country is guilty of “pinkwashing” its sins. Israel gives gays and lesbians rights, these critics contend, only as a means of deflecting attention from the country’s mistreatment of Palestinians. Moreover, Israel’s queer critics claim that touting the country’s liberal record on gay rights is a form of racism and Islamophobia used to paint Arabs as homo-hating barbarians. In stunning contrast, these same progressives regard Arab countries, which inflict state-sponsored, culturally accepted horrific punishments on queer people (lengthy prison sentences, honor killings, or death sentences) as subaltern allies.

When I pointed out to my colleagues that gay Saudi Arabian men were in fact flogged, and Iranian homosexuals hanged from cranes in public for the crime of homosexuality—and offered proof from human rights organizations—I was treated with condescending disdain. According to my colleagues, I had bought into the “Zionist narrative”—the pro-Western, pro-Israel, pro-settler colonialist, and, above all, Islamophobic media propaganda that represented Islamic countries as barbarous.

My colleagues’ responses introduced me to the post-factual, Alice in Wonderland mindset of the academic left. First, I was Islamophobic for daring to broach the subject, since I had “no right,” as a “colonizing Westerner,” to speak critically about Islamic cultures. Second, I was told that most of the videos and still photos showing the hangings, floggings, and other brutal punishments were somehow forgeries or “fake news.” Third, supposing some of the representations were accurate, the “victims” were punished not for being gay but because they were anti-Islamic and pro-Western collaborators, out to “corrupt” and “destroy” their cultures—in other words, according to these enlightened progressives, they had it coming. Fourth, and relatedly, I was told that Arab countries resorted to homophobia only because of Western colonialism. Thus, even if these men were targeted for torture or death, they were partially at fault because they had courted danger by imitating “foreign fashions,” following the “Western model” of coming out of the closet. By this torturous logic, identifying themselves as gay or homosexual in public made these men accomplices of Western imperialism which meant, once again, that they should be seen as responsible for their own victimization.

These deplorable arguments did not, however, originate with the self-styled progressive academics I found myself debating. Rather these arguments originated in the work of three popular postmodern intellectuals: Joseph Massad (Columbia University), Jasbir Puar (Rutgers University), and, above all, Judith Butler (UC Berkeley). In Desiring Arabs (2007), Massad argues that “Western male white-dominated” gay activists, under the aegis of the “Gay International,” have undertaken a “missionary” endeavor to impose the binary categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality onto cultures where no such subjectivities exist. According to Massad, the Arab world is actually more “gender fluid” and tolerant of sexuality differences that do not express themselves in a Western fashion. Puar, the most antisemitic and anti-Zionist of the bunch, takes this logic even further, arguing in Terrorist Assemblages (2007) and The Right to Maim (2017) that Arab queers have more “sophisticated and nuanced” perspectives on sexuality than their Western counterparts, not to mention a “healthy skepticism” about Western identity classifications. Moreover, in a twist on the pinkwashing allegation, she argues that the Israeli government, which is pro-natalist, gives gay and lesbian Israeli Jews civil rights only because, as parents, they will become “incorporated” into the Israeli “national project” and produce offspring who will maim or otherwise incapacitate Palestinians.

But the most influential of these postmodern critics is Judith Butler, a founding figure in queer studies who developed the now-ubiquitous concept that gender is a “performance” and that individuals perform their identities against a natural state of “gender fluidity.” Butler has been at the helm of the fields of queer and gender studies since the publication, in 1990, of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which helped earn her an academic position at Berkeley. In the years since, Butler has become one of the few genuine celebrities of the postmodern academic left and a hero of sorts for the small clique of anti-Zionist Jews in America who wield an outsize influence in the academy and media landscape.

In Gender Trouble, which remains her most famous book, Butler rejects the idea that there are two biological sexes. Rather, she defines gender and sex as “essentialist” (a dirty word) concepts imposed on humans who are in fact “gender fluid.” Butler thus hones in on sex and gender as socially constructed performances. People who call themselves heterosexual mistakenly believe that their behaviors reflect an underlying truth and thus engage in coerced gender performances, made up of the gestures, language, and social signs conventionally associated with “masculinity” or “femininity.” Through myriad institutions, they enforce such performative illusions as if they were real in some foundational, preconscious, or biological sense. Relatedly, heteronormative people demean or punish performances outside these policed boundaries as unnatural, perverse, immoral, or inferior.

Such arguments undergird Butler’s fight against heteronormativity. However, like other postmodernists, she overstates the role of language in fashioning the human sense of reality. These same problematic claims about the inordinate power of language end up playing a crucial role in her fervently anti-Zionist work, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2014), where she (like Puar), is loose and inventive with the facts. One example can be found in comments Butler made during a 2006 teach-in held at Berkeley to address the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Butler was asked whether the left’s hesitation to support terrorist groups due to their use of violence hurts Palestinian solidarity. Here was her response: “Understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.” Hezbollah and Hamas are both explicitly fundamentalist, religious organizations with charters that are reactionary—to say the least—in their attitudes toward women, gays, lesbians, and religious minorities. Yet Butler confidently declares them a part of the left, as if the statement itself is more important than the material realities of life under Hamas and Hezbollah rule.

Deepening the absurdity, Butler claims that she opposes the Jewish state because of her allegiance to a personally invented tradition of Jewish ethics which, according to Butler, not only repudiates “state-sponsored violence” but also enjoins Jews to live as benevolent “cohabitees” with the Other. According to the Jewish ethical “tradition” Butler spins in her intellectual Mixmaster, Jews should abjure having their own nation-state to avoid marginalizing the Other—meaning the Palestinians, who are supposedly indigenous inhabitants who were displaced by Jewish “settler colonialism.”

Although Butler herself lives in a nation-state that exterminated and displaced indigenous peoples, she insists that Jews unwind the spool of history and dissolve their state, which she interprets as an errant project based on a misreading of the lessons of 19th-century European nationalism and the Holocaust. Although she never says so, Butler implies that in response to the Holocaust, Jews need to recognize the terrible nature of all nation-states, and they should take their chances living in others’ states despite their historical experiences with persecution and mass destruction. Unlike Butler, most Jews believe that having their own imperfect home is far preferable.

In place of a Jewish homeland, Butler argues for a single “state” which would end the Right of Return for Jews, dissolve current borders, and eliminate the institutions and symbols of Jewish sovereignty. Jews would “integrate Palestinian identities” into their own “personality-identities.” What Butler means exactly remains tantalizingly and perhaps deliberately vague, for this concept is phantasmatic. It is unclear how this scheme would work in an actual political framework, or how such people would form viable modes of institutional, economic, or social exchange. If history and the geopolitics of the Middle East are any guide, the situation in a binational “state” would swiftly dissolve into mayhem and destruction. Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border, provides a useful example to people who actually live in that part of the world, though it may be hard for Butler to see the facts on the ground from her office in California.

Butler claims that she opposes the Jewish state because of her allegiance to her personally invented tradition of Jewish ethics.

Despite these and other fatal problems with her binationalist (or bi-ethnic) fantasy fiction, academic audiences living far from the realities and complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict greet her ideas with enthusiastic gratitude. At last, an ideal solution to an intractable problem that privileges the “victimized Other” while returning Jews to their traditional “ethical” (if marginalized) positions as disempowered (if indispensable) “middlemen.” Further, since a world-famous Jew endorses this plan, it cannot possibly be antisemitic. Despite her objections to the concept of authenticity, Butler performs the role of the “virtuous Jew” for her audiences.

And that performance, it must be said, has been something of a success. In universities today, Butler’s doctrines are repeated like religious dogma. Occasionally, there are quips about her inscrutable prose or whispers about her intellectual and ethical misadventures, but she is mostly embraced as a queer and Jewish intellectual icon. Her canon has become something that wields such power in the humanities and, increasingly, in the social sciences, that it threatens academic freedom and intellectual innovation. As I have observed and have been told, graduate students, particularly Jewish ones, are regularly subjected by “woke” professors to harangues about Jews (and Israelis) that they would never contemplate with other minorities. Those who object to the singling out and demonization of Israel are often treated coldly, given bad grades, or refused letters of recommendation should their identities or alliances become known. Jewish undergraduates are assailed in their professors’ and adjuncts’ offices with posters reading END THE OCCUPATION OF PALESTINE, or maps that erase Israel.

Nor is this limited to university campuses. Dyke marches in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other cities across the country have banned the Israeli flag from their parades on the grounds that these are anti-Zionist events, and displaying the Jewish Star of David might “make people feel unsafe.”

Jewish and Zionist allies are getting the message that they are despised and unwanted. In queer and women’s studies programs, the topic of Palestine is regularly inserted into the most unlikely contexts, to the extent that one student in a class about queer history told me that they discussed nothing but Palestine. The bitter irony is that by ostracizing and marginalizing Jews in the name of a postmodern ideology of queerness, actual queer people are made less safe. I would know: I am one of them.

Corinne Blackmer teaches English and is the director of Judaic Studies at Southern Connecticut State University. Her most recent publication is Queering Anti-Zionism: Academic Freedom, LGBTQ Intellectuals, and Israel/Palestine Campus Activism.