A heated controversy has erupted in the wake of a lecture on “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters” delivered at Vassar College on February 3 by Jasbir K. Puar, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. While Puar’s critics charge that her lecture provided especially offensive examples of contemporary anti-Semitism in the form of age-old anti-Semitic tropes updated and applied to Israel, her supporters insist that her work is based on solid scholarship and that the criticism of her talk at Vassar should be seen as a threat to academic freedom and the right to free speech. But the claim that Puar is merely exercising her academic freedom and right to free speech in her lectures does not seem to imply that everyone should have the right to hear what she has to say: Puar recently cancelled a scheduled lecture on “the biopolitics of debility in Gaza” at Fordham University when the university administration insisted on recording her talk and making it publicly available; and she has also threatened legal action against anyone who would make an existing audio recording of her Vassar lecture public.
The circumstances leading to Puar’s cancellation of her talk at Fordham were reported by the New York Daily News, which had previously published a scathing editorial on her lecture at Vassar. According to the paper’s report, “Fordham President Rev. Joseph McShane has made clear that, as an institution, the school condemns much of Puar’s outlook on Israel,” but that the university was nevertheless prepared to host Puar for a lecture “as a matter of free expression.” However, in the interest of “academic transparency” and in order to shield Puar from the alleged “mischaracterizations” that followed her talk at Vassar, McShane reportedly “directed aides to inform Puar she could speak only if she was recorded and the recording was made public.” Professor Puar preferred to cancel her talk at Fordham.
Puar’s reluctance to be recorded was also highlighted in one of the first reports about her lecture at Vassar, when William A. Jacobson of Legal Insurrection noted that the speaker introducing Puar at Vassar requested that audience members “refrain from recording” Puar’s talk, even though it was explicitly acknowledged that such a recording “is not against the law.” Despite this, an alumni group called Fairness to Israel attended Puar’s talk and prepared a transcript on the basis of a recording that was obtained by the group.
In the context of the ensuing controversy about Puar’s talk at Vassar, it is important to note that her supporters claim that “anyone who heard her Vassar lecture…can attest [that] her words are carefully chosen.” If so, it would obviously be in Puar’s interest to refute her critics with the help of the existing recording of her Vassar talk. This is especially true given that Puar faces serious allegations. In the words of Mark G. Yudof and Ken Waltzer, whose Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Majoring in Anti-Semitism at Vassar,” seemed to enrage Puar’s supporters in particular:
Ms. Puar passed on vicious lies that Israel had “mined for organs for scientific research” from dead Palestinians—updating the medieval blood libel against Jews—and accused Israelis of attempting to give Palestinians the “bare minimum for survival” as part of a medical “experiment.”…Ms. Puar’s calumnies reached a new low. She spoke of Jews deliberately starving Palestinians, “stunting” and “maiming” a population. The false accusation that a people, some of whose members were experimented on at Auschwitz, are today experimenting on others is a disgrace.
But it seems that Puar has no interest whatsoever in clearing herself of the charge that she “passed on vicious lies…updating the medieval blood libel against Jews.”
When members of a closed Facebook group got involved in a prolonged and highly contentious debate over whether the criticism of Puar was justified, one group member decided to contact Puar in order to prove that she would welcome the publication of the recording to ensure that her words could be accurately cited in the context she intended. However, Puar responded by threatening legal action if the recording was made public; a follow-up request for clarification of her stance remained unanswered.
Given that even her supporters have implicitly acknowledged that Puar’s “views are controversial,” Puar’s conduct means in effect that the controversy she generated by exercising her academic freedom and her right to free speech cannot lead to a serious debate that reflects academic norms and contributes to a deeper understanding of the complex discussions about contemporary anti-Semitism. Puar is obviously intent on forcing her critics to rely on unpublished documentation that was shared with a very limited number of people under the strictest fair use conditions, while her supporters passionately denounce the criticism of her Vassar talk as “heinous and misinformed attacks” against a well-respected academic. As I have argued elsewhere, the people who drafted the cited letter in support of Puar and the hundreds of academics who signed it seem willing to endorse the preposterous notion that speculating about Israel harvesting organs from Palestinian corpses to satisfy the requirements of a “weaponized epigenetics” is “grounded in serious scholarship and thorough research” and reflects “the highest professional and scholarly rigor.”
The massive support Puar received from hundreds of her colleagues in the wake of her lecture at Vassar highlights that the controversy that erupted has implications far beyond Vassar. Indeed, as Puar’s supporters point out, there is a published article that served as the basis for her talk at Vassar; however, the article, entitled “The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine,” arguably provides plenty of material for Puar’s critics to bolster their case. Puar’s own website also lists several lectures she has given on topics related to her talk at Vassar as well as several relevant publications; furthermore, the website states that “she is working on her third book, Inhumanist Biopolitics: The Prehensive Occupation of Palestine,” and that she “participates regularly in forums on Palestinian self-determination, the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), and building solidarity coalitions.”
The controversy that followed Puar’s talk in Vassar should also be seen in the context of another heated debate that followed recent revelations published by The Tower, which documented the conspiracy theories promoted on Facebook by Oberlin College professor Joy Karega. The initial response of Oberlin’s president was criticized as “tepid,” and there was broader (self-)criticism of the Left’s reluctance to condemn the “vile, high-octane, Klan-grade anti-Semitism” displayed by Karega.
In stark contrast, the few and reluctant Left-wing critics of Puar’s Vassar lecture—such as Mira Sucharov at Haaretz—barely conceded that “the unsubstantiated charge of using ‘body parts for experimentation’ cuts close to the bone of blood libel myths,” arguing at the same time that this was “not necessarily…in and of itself, anti-Semitism.” But if Sucharov invokes the qualification “in and of itself,” what about the rest of Puar’s lecture? Sucharov claims to have the transcript, and if she actually read it, she must know that it is full of cherry-picked “facts” shorn of any relevant context, which are used to “bolster” completely unsubstantiated speculations, resulting in a demonization of Israel that can hardly fail to evoke the echoes of similar efforts to demonize Jews throughout the centuries.
But if Puar has her way, the controversy generated by her lecture at Vassar will not develop as a reasoned debate that addresses important questions about contemporary anti-Semitism. Instead, it will simply be a display of the unquestioning partisan loyalty she enjoys among many of her colleagues who are all too ready to denounce criticism of her as “heinous and misinformed attacks.” Anyone eager to get the information to assess the various claims will be thwarted because Puar prefers to withhold this information in order to stifle the debate that her lecture at Vassar triggered.
Petra Marquardt-Bigman is a German-Israeli researcher and writer with a Ph.D. in contemporary history.
[Photo: American University of Beirut / YouTube]