John Berger is gone; he passed away on January 2, 2017. A great silence has now entered the world. There are few, if any, people today like Berger, who across the span of his life wove together in his creative and critical work aesthetic sensibility and political commitment that never succumbed to the cynicism of success or the apathy of the pessimist, even as he witnessed countless cruelties. While writers, artists and intellectuals came to be increasingly disengaged from politics in the latter half of the 20th century, Berger continued to sustain and expand the range of his commitments to the dispossessed and exploited, the refugee and the worker, the artist and the poet. A quiet and reserved observer, Berger saw the violence of modernity in our time, and also the possibilities for a different future. His art, fiction, essays and translations represented the quotidian brutalities of capitalism, and also the extraordinary beauty of resistance, that persistent struggle to overcome injustice.
At the center of Berger’s more explicit political commitments was Palestine. He was a co-translator of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry and wrote compelling essays about his visits to Occupied Palestine. In 2006 he published what is referred to as The Berger Letter, endorsing the cultural boycott of Israeli institutions. It reads in part:
Daniel Boyarin, a citizen of the USA and Israel, is the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, UC Berkeley, a position he has held since 1990. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has held Guggenheim, NEH, and Ford Foundation Fellowships. He is currently in Germany as the holder of an Alexander von Humboldt Forschungs Preis.
I am on record, even on Israeli television, as a supporter of BDS and of a limited academic boycott as well. By limited boycott I mean that I do not countenance boycotts of individuals (Let he who is sinless cast the first stone) but of institutions and institutional cooperation. Israeli academic institutions are deeply complicit with occupation and Israeli discrimination against Palestinians, and, as such fit objects for boycott. Israeli Apartheid is now quite similar structurally to its South African models and similar tactics and ethical, political justifications for boycott are fully in order. I support completely the MLA boycott resolution.
Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She served as Founding Director of the Critical Theory Program. She is the author of Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (1987), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993), The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection (1997), Excitable Speech (1997), Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (2000), Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning (2004); Undoing Gender (2004), Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging (with Gayatri Spivak in 2008), Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?(2009), and Is Critique Secular? (co-written with Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, and Saba Mahmood, 2009) and Sois Mon Corps (2011), co-authored with Catherine Malabou. Her most recent books include: Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012) and Dispossession: The Performative in the Political co-authored with Athena Athanasiou (2013), Senses of the Subject (2015). Her book, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, will appear in 2015. Her future projects include work on messianic gestures in Kafka and Benjamin, philosophical fictions in Freud’s work, and gender in translation. She is also active in gender and sexual politics and human rights, anti-war politics, and serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. She was the recipient of the Andrew Mellon Award for Distinguished Academic Achievement in the Humanities (2009-13). She received the Adorno Prize from the City of Frankfurt (2012) in honor of her contributions to feminist and moral philosophy, the Brudner Prize from Yale University for lifetime achievement in gay and lesbian studies, and the Research Lecturer honor at UC Berkeley in 2005. In 2014, she was awarded the diploma of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Cultural Ministry.
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is a non-violent tactic within a larger political struggle to achieve equality, justice, and freedom for Palestinians. The movement seeks to address and rectify long-standing discrimination, dispossession, and the absence of substantive political and human rights. Boycotts have a time-honored place in the history of political expression. The BDS movement opposes discrimination on the basis of citizenship, and so opposes all forms of boycott that target individuals. It has clearly opposed anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, These principles constitute its official policy for more than ten years. The boycott campaign addresses those institutions that support and help to reproduce inequality, dispossession, and injustice. What it asks is that Israeli institutions become part of the struggle to realize political freedoms and international rights, that institutions oppose the Israeli government until such time as those important political rights, principles, and freedoms are realized through the dismantling of occupation, the institutionalization of political and legal equality, and the formulation of a just solution for those who, in accord with international law, have the right to return to lands forcibly taken from them. BDS is a movement for freedom, a call for the realization of democratic ideals, the demand for a world in which co-habitation might one day become possible. It opposes violent solutions, but so too does it oppose those forms of collaborations that ratify the status quo take colonial rule for granted as an inevitability, or refuse to name it as such. The BDS movement opposes all efforts to render normal or necessary inequality and rightlessness. Only with a common commitment to freedom, equality, and justice is a life together possible – and that commitment can only be realized once the structures of inequality, dispossession, and institutional violence have been dismantled. Perhaps as this new year begins, we can all still hope for that day.