On Wednesday, February 3, 2016, Jasbir K. Puar, Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Rutgers University delivered a lecture at Vassar College, “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters,” sponsored by the school’s American Studies Department and departments of Political Science, Religion, and English, and the programs of Africana Studies, International Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Jewish Studies.
The lecture examined “the use of technologies of measure to manufacture a ‘remote control’ occupation, one that produces a different version of Israeli ‘home invasions’ through the maiming and stunting of population. If Gaza, for example, is indeed the world’s largest ‘open air prison’ and an experimental lab for Israeli military apparatuses. . , what kinds of fantasies (about power, about bodies, about resistance, about politics) are driving this project?” In other words, Professor Puar’s central thesis was that Israeli military tactics involve deliberately “stunting, “maiming,” physical disabling, and experimenting scientifically with Palestinian lives. Absent any context, this accusation comes perilously close to resurrecting classic anti-Semitic tropes about Jews purposely, and sadistically, harming and killing non-Jews.
Puar, who writes on “gay and lesbian tourism, queer theory, theories of intersectionality, affect, homonationalism, and pinkwashing” (the remarkable theory that Israel trumpets its broad support of LGBT rights to obscure its mistreatment of the Palestinians), is also on the Advisory Board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, a leading coordinator of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement on campuses. More alarming than her open support of the BDS movement, and her vocal support for Vassar’s own ongoing BDS campaign, was Puar’s explicit support for terrorism against Israeli citizens as a corollary aspect of the BDS movement. BDS “is such a minor piece of how Palestine is going to be liberated, [and] we need BDS as part of organized resistance and armed resistance in Palestine as well,” she said. “There is no other way the situation is going to change [emphasis added].”
In her speech, Professor Puar also leveled charges for which she offered not evidence and which are nowhere documented: namely that IDF soldiers harvest organs from Palestinian youths it has summarily executed. These charges made by others, also without any substantiation – indeed, organ theft would be physically impossible for Israel to do – both in response to Israel’s earthquake assistance to Haiti, and in Israel. “On January 1st, 2016,” Puar declared,” the Israeli government returns 17 bodies of these youth that purportedly lay in a morgue in West Jerusalem for two months. No explanation has ever been given [sic] for their detention.” Puar then noted, “Some speculate that the bodies were mined for organs for scientific research.” This is in classic conspiracy mode: present a deed as inexplicable, then attribute the most dastardly of motivations to the actors.
Not surprising, in her effort to depict the IDF as gratuitously cruel, sadistically experimenting on defenseless and innocent Palestinians, Puar left out entirely any context in which Palestinian assaults on Israeli civilians – women and children – including the current “knife Intifada,” might necessitate military intervention by the IDF. In her presentation, Palestinian “protests, stabbings, flagrant refusals of IDF control, clashes and revived commitment to a peoples’ rumble,” have resulted in more than 120 deaths by field assassinations of young Palestinian men, largely between the ages of 12 to 16, by IDF soldiers who randomly, and recklessly, target medical facilities and other infrastructure as a deadly way “to provide the bare minimum for survival, but minimal enough to attempt to defeat or strip resistance” where . . . “the target here is not just life itself but resistance itself.” In so doing, according to Puar, the IDF “Target[ Palestinian] youth, not for death but for stunting” as a “tactic that seeks to render impotent any future resistance.” “Maiming masquerades as let live when in fact it acts as will not let die,” and this technique “is used to achieve a tactical aims of settler colonialism.”
At no point during or after the speech did any faculty or student audience member challenge any of Puar’s outrageous, inflammatory, and unproven claims; in fact, she was cheered at the conclusion of her speech.
“Professor Puar’s speech, and the other examples of virulent anti-Israel activism we have witnessed over the past several years at Vassar, have to be seen for what they are,” said Dr. Richard L. Cravatts, president of SPME, “thinly-disguised anti-Semitism and the promulgation of tropes about Jews and Israelis which characterize them as brutal, inhuman, sadistic, and genocidal, in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The BDS activity on the Vassar campus, and the content of Professor Puar’s lecture, mirroring other BDS radicalism world-wide, is about demonizing and delegitimizing Israel and Jews, with the ultimate purpose of weakening and destroying the Jewish state. To minimize the virulence of this rhetoric and activism is to overlook the lethality of the BDS narrative and the harm it does to academia by parading as scholarly debate and potentially causing a campus climate of intimidation and fear for Jewish students.”
In January of 2014, Catharine Hill, President of Vassar and Professor of Economics issued a letter in which she, and Jonathan Chenette, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Music, denounced recent calls for academic boycotts of Israeli institutions, particularly the boycott resolution passed by the American Studies Association. “We are opposed to boycotts of scholars and academic institutions anywhere in the world, and we strongly reject the call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” they wrote. “Vassar’s commitment to academic freedom not only leads us to reject the call for a boycott, it helps ensure that our faculty and students may pursue their academic interests wherever they may lead, engage in unconstrained discussions, and express their views freely.”
While SPME applauds this statement, it is concerned that the true intent of the BDS movement, as well as the actions of such groups at Vassar as Students for Justice in Palestine, is not being taken seriously by university administrators, as well as some faculty and students. In fact, some 39 Vassar faculty members immediately responded to President Hill’s courageous letter by publicly opposing it, contending disingenuously that “by not acknowledging the concrete realities [sic] which led to the ASA resolution, their statement sidesteps ethical questions about our responsibility for the plight of Palestinians and our obligations as scholars and human beings to speak out against gross injustice.”
“SPME welcomes, and encourages, vigorous scholarly debate on campus about a broad range of topics involving the Middle East,” said Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, SPME’s Executive Director. “But a toxic campus environment created by unrelenting anti-Israel activism and the campaign at Vassar to demonize pro-Israel faculty and students and position Israel as a racist, colonial oppressor is not academic discourse, or, as its supporters regularly contest, simply ‘criticism of Israel,’ but instead represents an abandonment of academic integrity, the failure of scholarly inquiry, and unbiased dialogue when discussing the Middle East.”
“The inability of both faculty and administrators to stand up for academic commitments to accuracy and integrity, the passive if not enthusiastic response of scholars in the face of such ugly displays of hatred and slander, the inability of voices of protest to get a hearing, all contribute to a state of radical disorientation,” noted Professor Richard Landes, chair of SPME’s Council of Scholars. “As a result, campuses become politicized, knowledge falls prey to ideological exigencies and intellectual terrorism. The losers are not only the direct targets – Israelis and Palestinians who would like to live in peace, but the students, the silent, bullied faculty, and in some very concrete ways, the very fabric of a free and open society.”
SPME calls on the administration of the Vassar College to continue to address this instance of very clear radicalism and perverse scholarship concerning Israel, as well as the related events which led to the anti-Semitic events and campaigns by Students for Justice in Palestine towards Jewish supporters of Israel, in an unambiguous, public, and forceful way, just as universities immediately have done when hate speech or acts of racism or prejudice have been directed at gay students, African-American students, Muslim students, or other minority groups on campus. We also call on faculty members to shed their reluctance to confront this wave of lethal propaganda, and speak out for the values that make American universities the centers of learning and research.