Rutgers University professor Jasbir Puar. Credit: Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.
by Cary Nelson
Jasbir Puar, the well-known Rutgers University Professor of Women’s Studies, has a right to her opinion. On that I have no disagreement. But that was no reason for Duke University Press to publish her book “The Right to Maim” in 2017 despite its series of malicious, unproven allegations against the State of Israel.
According to Puar, Israelis prefer to maim and disable Palestinians rather than kill them. Israelis ship just enough food to Palestinian children to keep them alive but stunt their growth. She claims that Israelis harvest major organs from Palestinian bodies and contribute them to the international trade in body parts.
No matter that no one has ever documented an Israeli policy of maiming Palestinians. The claim is obscene. No matter that UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Palestinian Authority itself keep statistics that prove childhood stunting is not a documented problem in either Gaza or the West Bank. No matter that Puar can cite no medical studies to support her slander. Duke declared it was all just a matter of opinion.
The stunting accusation is a pure Puar invention. With the organ harvesting fantasy Puar replaces research with rumor mongering. Yes, just like several U.S. states, an Israeli morgue assumed it had consent to harvest corneas and skin from both Jewish and Arab bodies, thereby providing skin grafts for burn victims. Major organs were trafficked only in antisemitic conspiracies, Puar’s among them.
A university press is supposed to make certain its authors’ allegations are documented with evidence. The press’s anti-Zionist staff and readers thought it simply must be true. Why not? It demonized Israel.
“The Right to Maim” received an annual award from the venomously antisemitic National Women’s Studies Association. Puar was promoted at Rutgers and made head of her graduate program.
Now Puar is in the news again because Princeton University is offering an anti-Zionist course that includes “The Right to Maim” on its reading list. The course presents itself “as a decolonizing process” that “enables students to re-politicize personal trauma as it intersects with global legacies of violence, war, racism, slavery, patriarchy, colonialism, orientalism, homophobia, ableism, capitalism, and extractivism.” Whenever you see these terms jammed together you know you are in the presence of a political agenda, and more than that, a course of ideological indoctrination.
Yes, once Princeton approved the course, academic freedom gave the instructor, Satyel Larson, the right to assign Puar’s book. But that does not mean Princeton was exercising good judgment, any more than Duke University Press fulfilled its professional responsibilities. At the very least, Princeton now owes its students the opportunity to take a course that does not urge “decolonizing” the Jewish state.
Anti-Zionism has proven to be a socially acceptable cover for antisemitism. Now the politicized wing of the humanities and social sciences has come up with yet another euphemism for antisemitism: decolonization. It turns anti-Zionism into what purports to be a universal political concept. But Israel was never anyone’s colony. India was, but not Israel.
“Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” is the familiar slogan of the movement to “decolonize” Israel by eliminating it. Larson’s incoherent sequence of terms concludes with “extractivism,” which began its life as a practical concept, referring often to the principle guiding the colonial extraction of raw materials and other resources from subject states. But it has overgrown its meaning to encompass any kind of “extraction”: labor, data, even culture.
Decolonization began its life describing the real post-World War Two movement by which European countries gave up their power over their colonies and new nations were formed in their place. But when the term migrated to Israel it became an anti-Zionist slander, a land that was a Roman colony years ago but has since been reestablished as the Jewish homeland it was before the Roman legions arrived.
When you also add “slavery, patriarchy, colonialism, orientalism, homophobia, ableism, capitalism” to the mix, as Larson does, declaring all these as things your course will righteously oppose, you turn critical and political theory into hogwash. There are passages in Puar that unfortunately read this way as well. But of course she was writing a book, not a mere course description. So she can expand the list into incoherent, semiliterate paragraphs and chapters. Puar’s main arguments are loathsome, but her prose is simply gibberish.
Puar’s book and Larson’s course apparently share more than anti-Zionism. They also share their dedication to a degraded version of humanistic study, one that replaces evidence with political buzz words. You recite the litany of sacred terms and thereby prove your commitment and your worth. There was a time when a serious study of decolonization alone merited a book or a course. Now you have to pack in patriarchy, homophobia, and so forth.
Is there a silver lining in all this? Perhaps. If antisemitism is packed together with all these other concepts, it will lose its meaning along with the others. The whole edifice should collapse with only the smallest encouragement from the rest of us. If not, it proves itself, however hateful, a fool’s errand to boot.
Cary Nelson’s “Israel Denial” (Indiana) includes a detailed chapter on Puar. His “Hate Speech and Academic Freedom” (Academic Studies Press) is forthcoming. This piece originally appeared in the Jewish Journal and is reprinted here by permission.