In defense of the freedom to speak out against genocide

Judith Butler writes the leadership of Hebrew University in defense of renowned scholar Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who has faced intimidation and pressure to resign since signing a letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Internationally renowned scholar Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian has been under fire since joining over 1,000 child researchers in signing a call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Following her signature, the leadership of Hebrew University of Jerusalem sent Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian a letter denouncing her and pressuring her to resign. This letter was then leaked to the media, including major Israeli television channels, and Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian has subsequently been the target of a public hate campaign.

In response, an international letter-writing movement has begun in Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s defense. Below is a letter from Dr. Judith Butler, Distinguished Professor in the Graduate School at the University of California-Berkeley, to Hebrew University leadership that illuminates the legal and moral meaning of genocide and the obligation of university administrators to uphold academic freedom.

Please consider sending your own letter to University President Asher Cohen and University Rector Tamir Sheafer. Please follow this link for further details, including a suggested text for the letter to Hebrew University.

– Rosalind Petchesky and Lama Khouri, JVP-NYC

October 31, 2023                                                                                                   

To: Professor Asher Cohen, President of  Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Professor Tamir Sheafer, Rector, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

I join an expanding chorus of scholars imploring you to respect the rights of association and speech exercised by Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian who is currently the Lawrence D. Biele Chair in Law at the Faculty of Law and the Institute of Criminology and the School of Social Work and Public Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Global Chair in Law- Queen Mary University of London. I presume you know how important her research has been on issues such as trauma, surveillance, and gender violence. Her work on children in conflict zones has been taken up by scholars and policy makers throughout the world. Her scholarship, and her critical voice, are important to the world today as we seek to produce a more just and less violent world. 

I shall presume that you know full well the academic and institutional importance of the work of Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian. Her early work on the effect of militarization on women in conflict zones is a model in the field.  And her work on security and the politics of fear is a stunning investigation of the psychosocial dimensions of securitarian regimes. Her book on Palestinian childhood introduces the idea of “unchilding” which has been widely praised as an original and trenchant understanding of the accumulated trauma of children living under militarized regimes.  She has worked assiduously to develop models of campus-community understanding in conflict zones, and hers is a voice for peace, for enhanced mutual understanding, and for the alleviation and repair of accumulated human suffering.

It makes sense that Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian would speak up in the face of contemporary violence waged against Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Although you have stated your disagreement with her viewpoint, it is your responsibility as administrators to protect against viewpoint discrimination and to foster rights of association and extra-curricular free speech. Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian now suffers threats against her life by virtue of the steps taken against her. These steps should be rescinded immediately so that university administrative actions do not further the violence that has already overwhelmed the region.

As you doubtless know, the views of Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian comport with a number of international legal viewpoints. The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York issued a document warning that Israeli actions may well be prosecutable as acts of genocide.  They write, “mass killings are one means by which genocide is committed, but that is not the only method by which a group is “destroyed” or exterminated (in whole or in part). Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer credited with coining the term, said that genocide often includes “a coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups so that these groups wither and die like plants that have suffered a blight . . . . It may be accomplished by wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and dignity.”

In your rebuttal, you offer only the stated aims of the Israeli military policy in Gaza, but Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian joins many legal and historical scholars who are consulting both The Genocide Convention and Article II of the UN Resolution on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which defines the term as  any effort to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” by causing “serious bodily or mental harm” to group members, imposing “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”   You have every right to disagree with Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian, but it is a travesty of justice to ask that she suspend her own informed viewpoint in favor of reproducing explicit state policy. That constitutes, as you surely know, an unjustifiable intervention into both academic freedom and extra-curricular rights of expression. You may not like the fact that there is a growing chorus of people who are using “genocide” to describe the horrific situation in Gaza, but then it is your obligation as representatives of a major research university to engage the debate, and to make room for an informed discussion of the matter free of threats. Anything else is rank censorship that destroys the aims and ideals of the university itself that you are charged with safeguarding.


Judith Butler

Distinguished Professor in the Graduate School, University of California-Berkeley