Professor Strips Thesis of Judith Butler Sourcing, Calls for RDS – ‘Retractions and Disavowals in Scholarship’ – to Oppose BDS (INTERVIEW)
by Joshua Levitt
Israeli artist, playwright and professor Dahn Hiuni on Tuesday said he launched a new movement called RDS – Retractions and Disavowals in Scholarship – to encourage academics to revisit their work to excise references from scholars who have since lost credibility as public intellectuals because of their bias against Israel and support of BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanction movement, that threatens to isolate and punish Israel.
In Hiuni’s case, his attempt to remove any mention of University of California at Berkeley professor Judith Butler from his 2005 doctoral thesis at Penn State was met with resistance by the school — “though, they had probably never had such a request,” he admitted to The Algemeiner in an interview — so he began circulating a strongly-worded addendum via email and on the Internet, where it has received echo from other scholars also fed up with the anti-Israel tone from reflexively left-wing colleagues on campus.
Hiuni described RDS as “anti-BDS and pro-Israel,” in general, and included the following conclusion:
I am a proud Jew and a proud Israeli. I come from an historic, beautiful and friendly country that has given much to world civilization. In its recent reincarnation as a modern state, Israel continues to bestow its gifts—scientific, technological, literary, artistic and academic. I brought my intellect, inquiry and scholarship to Penn State, as well as my sense of social justice to help improve the campus community in the four-and-a-half years I was there. Had I known of Judith Butler’s unconscionable politics, as they were brewing, I never would have included her writings along with mine. Let it be known to any reader that I lament the inclusion of biased and socially irresponsible writers in my dissertation, and I am confident that history will vindicate me… I hope that you will join me in this struggle against bias in academia, and wherever else it may surface.
In the nine years since Hiuni published his thesis, Judith Butler has been accused of “trying to use ‘Jewish ethics’ to prove that Zionism is illegitimate,” by pro-Israel blogger Elder of Ziyon, for example, while Asaf Romirowsky, Middle East analyst and adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense for Democracies and the Middle East Forum, wrote, in an article published by The Algemeiner entitled, ‘The Voices of BDS,’ that Butler now “loathes Israel to a point where she has unapologetically whitewashed Israel’s foes, labeling Hamas and Hezbollah [now recognized internationally as terrorist groups] as ‘social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.'”
At the time he was working on his thesis, Hiuni told The Algemeiner, Butler’s recent political views weren’t in the forefront.
“My PhD is in art education, focusing on the history of performance art in the 20th century, so the chair of my thesis committee suggested I refer to Butler’s work, and it was natural that I would look to her research and refer to it, as her specialty is about rhetoric and comparative literature, not about the Middle East,” Hiuni said. “What’s called her credibility into question is really because of her extra curricular activities, and I’d have to say that I’m particularly angry with her right now.”
As Butler’s critics have pointed out, as does Hiuni in his “Addendum,” Butler is a Jewish, lesbian intellectual, who might thrive within Israel, but could be stoned to death by the very same Hamas or Hezbollah parties that she supports.
“Obviously, my request for Penn State to allow me to remove references to her work is symbolic, really a political gesture, and I was hyperbolic and dramatic about it to make this point. But, really, even having her name associated with my writing makes me very ashamed,” Hiuni said.
“Of course, nine years later, for Penn State to get an email from me out of the blue, actually a chain of emails to get to the right person, to add a one-page retraction, even just to slip it into the thesis in the middle of the night, was met with bafflement. They never had anything like this before — probably the typical change request being for a clerical correction, and probably within a year of publishing, and I think they could tell from the tone that this was something more than a typo.”
“One administrator suggested I write the editor of the student newspaper, which I appreciated, while the dean of the graduate school thought I should write a blog,” he said. “But I thought this was a very explosive issue, and a very personal one, and I decided to make a statement, with my statement.”
Hiuni said he was frustrated with the relentless Israel bashing in the academic environment and felt that his pro-Israel and pro-Jewish views had made him a pariah on his own campus. In fact, Hiuni said, he left two better-paying, tenure-track teaching jobs to be able to maintain his independence and pro-Israel stance in his art. He is now working as an adjunct professor for the School of Visual Arts, in New York, and teaching occasionally at the Pratt Institute, the Fashion Institute of Technology and in online programs for the State University of New York and for Shepherd University. Meanwhile, his independence may also be better for the art world as Hiuni is able to produce and exhibit artwork and performance pieces and write screenplays that adhere to his vision of humanity, uninterrupted by the many anti-Israel voices he’d once encountered on campus.
Son of the late Israeli film producer and writer Amatsia Hiuni, known for the movie ‘Three Days and a Child,’ which won the Cannes Award for best actor, Hiuni said the differences between his father’s generation and today’s couldn’t be more stark.
“I’m an Israeli, born in Tel Aviv, and my parents were Sabras, and we left Israel in the early 1970s, and moved to New York City then Canada, where I grew up. My father was a filmmaker, and he, himself, studied in New York City in the 1950s, and when his film won at Cannes, in 1967, [Israelis] were the darlings of the world.”
“Now, in one generation, I never thought I’d live to see the day, but it feels like Germany in the 1930s.”
He described the anti-Israel phenomena on campus as “perfect for all the lefty professors who know nothing about this area, no matter what field they’re in, but it props up their politics, their self-righteousness and it’s really affected my career. I feel so uncomfortable now in academia, and in terms of tenure track positions, I’ve walked away from two, as I felt that I could only do what I believe from the outside, because academia is ground zero for this new anti-Israel, anti-Semitism.”
Even in the New York theater world, Hiuni spoke of the frustratingly limited impact of speaking out. In one example, he mentioned the play, ‘My Name is Rachel Corrie,’ about an activist who was killed while standing too close to an Israeli bulldozer, that was to be performed at the prominent New York Theater Workshop.
“It’s a very unsympathetic play and supporters of the theater, mostly Jewish, threatened to withdraw funding and they actually cancelled it, but that’s rare, and what was a very poisonous anti-Israel play is simply performed elsewhere, and now, translated into dozens of languages, spreads hate around the world.”
What New York City needs now is a venue that does not reflect that “ultra-left” point of view, but the opposite, he said, “as the time of Jewish or Israeli-themed plays or Israel-themed artists has really come and gone in New York — now is the time when people need to take a stand, especially because it’s unpopular.”
His own recent artistic work has been informed by a historical understanding of Jews and Israel, and by his own “moral code.” His last play was performed in 2013, in New York. Titled ‘Murmurs and Incantations,‘ it is described on the play’s website as telling “the story of a gay, New York performance artist with creative block who fatefully travels to Poland in an attempt to revive his art career, only to be further confounded by the disapproving ghost of his grandfather, a rabbi killed in [his synagogue during] the Holocaust.”
“It was really an amazing experience to be able to bring up some of these issues in a public performance, about the ghost of my grandfather, really, and the historical consciousness, the moral consciousness, a need to witness, to continue, to integrate our world with the past,” Hiuni said.
Hiuni said, as “a gay man of a certain age,” his earlier work dealt extensively with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s as he tried to use his art to tell the important stories of his time. His next play will deal with a gay love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian.
“Now I’m turning my attention to what I find is going to be my responsible role in all this. It can’t just be about me, about my aesthetic responsibilities. We’re in this bizarro world where everything is backwards, but we have to keep our sanity and prevail,” he said.
Having spent years within academia, Hiuni says he has learned the language of the left, “their crazy post-modern language,” and he has made a point of emailing his “Addendum” far and wide to other professors to let them know their words have repercussions.
At the root of it all, he says, what he’d like to know is how there came to be so many professors like Judith Butler: “I am very frustrated with their ambivalence, people who have never even been to Israel, a Jew, a lesbian, an intellectual, faulting Israeli democracy and praising its opposite, Hamas or Hezbollah. The world has gone mad, but it’s our duty as artists to find ways to tell the truth.”
Professor Dahn Hiuni’s full Addendum about retracting Judith Butler’s references from his doctoral thesis is posted below:
An Addendum To My 2005 Doctoral Dissertation
As an Israeli artist and scholar, and as a secular liberal humanist, it is a source of great anguish for me to know that one of the writers to which I refer in my doctoral dissertation turns out to be a rabid anti-Israelist, anti-Zionist and, for all intents and purposes, an anti-Semite.
According to her vocal activism, Judith Butler, Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that Israel is a colonialist occupier and an inhumane oppressor.[i], [ii] She and others like her often equate Israel with South Africa, mischaracterizing it as a violent Apartheid state.[iii]
Butler’s views are manifestly acted upon through her support of the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement, whose aim is to continually vilify and isolate various aspects of Israeli society—especially academia.
Such characterizations of Israel, propagated by Butler and her cohorts, amount to biased, false propaganda. When Butler expresses such views, she betrays a lack of knowledge of the ancient and modern Israel, one that represents dangerous ignorance at best, and at worst—willful, ideological erasure.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex one. Butler seems to lack both an informed historical context and basic, on-the-ground factual information needed to make fair observations. (She is of course a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature, and not a scholar of Middle East history.) This leads her and her cohorts to reduce challenging geopolitical conflicts to surprisingly simple binaries of oppressor and victim, good and evil[iv]—the kind of binaries poststructuralists like her generally disavow.
One wonders: what makes Butler deviate from her own espoused philosophies on this particular issue? For someone so familiar with critical theory, she is a strangely uncritical critic of my country. And yet there is much irony here. The country Butler vilifies is the only thriving democracy in the Middle East where someone like her—a woman, a lesbian, and a political agitator—would be protected. The people in whose name she purports to speak, however, would oppress, punish and possibly put her to death merely for who she is.
In light of this selective blindness, it can only be surmised that Butler et al are operating with a special kind of bias, a scapegoating that is all too familiar to students of history. To those who would distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, I retort there is no difference: to be anti-Israel is to be anti-Jewish. Israel is the Jewish state.
Of course, the other great irony is the fact that Butler herself is Jewish. Despite this fact, she seems to have little to no appreciation for her people’s history and the kind of deep memory and moral responsibility it entails. Instead, she opts to identify with neo-Leftist academics whose zealous and sanctimonious policing of global injustices have cultivated this special and disproportionate animosity toward Israel. Instead of allowing her own persecuted status as a Jewish lesbian to inform a subtle, empathic interpretation, Butler seems to preemptively apologize for her own academic success and social acceptance by self-effacingly criticizing her own people—a classic and all too common unconscious self-hatred (See Marx, Arendt, Chomsky, etc.)
To appease her colleagues and ostensibly to ensure her status, she performs this brand of self-righteous academic extra-curricular activism. Unfortunately, Butler’s behavior is symptomatic of the false sense of security that many American Jewish intellectuals suffer, now 70-plus years removed from the gas chambers of Europe. As though it could never happen again.
Apparently, it bears repeating: The Jewish people have a painful history. Centuries of exile, persecution and violence culminated in the well-organized European Holocaust. This finally lead the community of nations in 1948 to help re-establish the State of Israel where it had always been, two millennia before the advent of Islam or the Roman word Palestine. And while Jews agreed to share the land with the peoples who had since taken up residence there in their absence, their unfriendly neighbors rejected the offer. Israelis have been fighting ever since to safeguard their extremely small country, the only viable safe haven away from historic European anti-Semitism and now its Western and Islamic manifestations.
Therefore, Butler’s characterization and neat distinction between Israel as colonialist and exploitive, and Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘leftist’ and ‘progressive’ (her words)[v], [vi], [vii] is bizarre as it is fundamentalist. Her strange sympathies with and tacit activism on behalf of such known terrorist organizations calls her understanding, judgment and therefore her scholarship into question. If she is interested in colonial land-grabbing and oppression of a native people, she could start much closer to home.
Butler is of course not alone. She is a product of American and European academia, where, to prove their grasp of and allegiance to ‘progressive politics,’ many a provincial professor cynically and expediently jumps on the politically correct bandwagon of the decade. In this particular case, ground zero for this misguided and dangerous anti-Zionism has indeed been California institutions of higher education,[viii], [ix] where Butler has used her tenure to help breed a resurgent and virulent anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism from the Left. The rhetoric is couched in the guise of an erudite, theoretical, post-colonial, multiculturalist critique and, needless to say, is delivered in a lather of postmodern gibberish so self-referentially incoherent it could be termed anti-social. The half-baked, ahistorical ideations that brew there tend to metastasize through self-congratulatory academic publishing and conferences, and had indeed reached Penn State by the time I was there.
So uncomfortable has the situation gotten in academia, with both veiled and overt anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hostilities, that I can no longer remain silent. That is why I have decided to start my own movement called Retractions and Disavowals in Scholarship, or RDS. This movement calls on all academics to examine and re-examine ongoing and completed research, for questionable sources, and where necessary, to retract and disavow portion that originate with biased writers—however veiled or fashionable their speech. While dissertations and theses cannot be changed after their publishing, addendums may be added, like this one.
I am a proud Jew and a proud Israeli. I come from an historic, beautiful and friendly country that has given much to world civilization. In its recent reincarnation as a modern state, Israel continues to bestow its gifts—scientific, technological, literary, artistic and academic. I brought my intellect, inquiry and scholarship to Penn State, as well as my sense of social justice to help improve the campus community in the four-and-a-half years I was there. Had I known of Judith Butler’s unconscionable politics, as they were brewing, I never would have included her writings along with mine. Let it be known to any reader that I lament the inclusion of biased and socially irresponsible writers in my dissertation, and I am confident that history will vindicate me.
Dahn Hiuni, MFA, PhD
New York City
[i] Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes, “The Discourse of Terror: An Interview with Judith Butler,” in Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto Press, 2013). [ii] Judith Butler, “No, it’s not anti-Semitic.” London Review of Books 25 no. 16 (2003): 19-21, accessed February 6, 2014, [iii] Corey Balsam, “Judith Butler to speak at Israeli Apartheid Week in Toronto,” rabble.ca, March 4, 2011, accessed February 6, 2014, [iv] Judith Butler. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 210-213. [v] “Judith Butler on Hamas, Hezbollah & the Israel Lobby (2006),” radicalarchives, January 13, 2014, accessed February 6, 2014, [vi] Seyla Benhabib, “Ethics without Normativity and Politics without Historicity On Judith Butler’s Parting Ways. Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism,” Constellations 20:1 (2013): 150, accessed February 6, 2014, DOI: 10.1111/cons.12028. [vii] Richard Landes and Benjamin Weinthal, “The Post-Self-Destructivism of Judith Butler,” The Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2012, accessed February 6, 2014, [viii] Larry Greenfield, “The Rise of Campus Anti-Zionism in California,” inFocus Quarterly Winter (2008), accessed February 6, 2014, [ix] Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, “Anti-Zionism and the Abuse of Academic Freedom: A Case Study at the University of California, Santa Cruz,” Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs, January 5, 2009, accessed February 6, 2014.