Once again, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, is mired in controversy regarding anti-Israel activities on campus involving Vassar faculty.
The controversy surrounds the February 3, 2016, appearance of Rutgers Associate Professor Jasbir Puar at the invitation of several Vassar departments, including Jewish Studies.
At the outset of the appearance, according to the Vassar alumni/parent/friends group Fairness to Israel (FTI), a request was made by the Vassar professor introducing the speaker not to record the event, although it was acknowledged that it was legal to do so:
Before I give my brief remarks, I would like to request that you silence your devices you brought with you so as not to disrupt the conversation with Professor Puar is conducting with us today. I would also like to request on her behalf and on behalf of the rest of the assembly that you refrain from recording this evening's proceedings, in the spirit of congeniality and mutual respect, though it is not against the law, to record someone vocation professional labor without informing them, it is quite unseemly and violates the modest contract of trust essential to the exchange of ideas.
Requesting non-recording of an open, public event on the pretext that non-recording is "essential to the exchange of ideas" is odd.
When I make public appearances I almost always record them because I am not afraid that what I say will be used against me, but because I don't want people claiming I said something I didn't say. I have posted several of my appearances on YouTube precisely to facilitate the "exchange of ideas."
If exchange of ideas was the goal, why would the Vassar faculty sponsors of the Puar event not want it recorded?
As you will read below, Puar's appearance amounted to an anti-Israel propaganda event at which Israel was portrayed in a manner reminiscent of ancient blood libels. A major theme of the talk was that Israel treats Palestinians as part of a type of scientific experiment developed to "stunt" Palestinian bodies.
Background – Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism at Vassar
Frenzied anti-Israel activity at Vassar in early 2014 resulted in gross displays of anti-Jewish hostility, as I documented at the time, Anti-Israel academic boycott turns ugly at Vassar.
Thirty-nine Vassar professors signed a letter in the student newspaper supporting the American Studies Association's academic boycott of Israel, and aggressive protests by Students for Justice in Palestine created a pervasive climate of fear on campus.
When I was invited by a student group to speak on campus, no academic department would co-sponsor my appearance despite the fact that several departments co-sponsored the appearance the week before of the anti-Israel activists Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal.
I had offered to debate any or all of the 39 Vassar faculty who had signed the letter. Not only did none of the faculty agree to debate, one professor circulated an email calling on other faculty to boycott my appearance.
Since then, there has been near continuous anti-Israel activism on campus, including an appearance by the leader of national Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and a dining hall boycott of Sabra Hummus (which later was reversed).
On February 1, 2016, Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine and Vassar Jewish Voice for Peace formed a coalition to push an anti-Israel resolution as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The resolution would require divestment from investments in, and bar purchases from, a variety of companies, including Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
The BDS launch was announced by Puar early in her speech, to the roar of the crowd.
Shortly after Puar's appearance, anti-Semitic messages were posted on a student message board in which arguments about Zionism were met with "F–k Jews."
Academic Departments Behind Puar's Appearance
Puar is an Associate Professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department at Rutgers University, who specializes in Queer Theory. Puar is 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) activities in academia. She was active in the American Studies Association resolution to boycott Israeli academia, and also has written extensively in support of the "anti-pinkwashing" movement which claims that Israel uses it's LGBTQ-friendly policies to "pinkwash" crimes against Palestinians.
Puar's appearance was not a student-run event. Rather, Puar's appearance was sponsored by the Vassar American Studies Department and co-sponsored by several other departments, including Africana Studies, English, International Studies, Jewish Studies, Political Science, Religion and Women's Studies. According to reports I received, a dozen or so Vassar professors attended the event.
The remarks introducing Puar reflect not only this departmental backing, but also coordination with SJP and JVP student groups:
The American Studies Program would like to recognize those who partnered with us to make this night possible. We are quite grateful for the support of our colleagues in the departments of Political Science, Religion and English, and the programs of Africana Studies, International Studies, Women's and Gender Studies, and Jewish Studies.... In addition, tonight's audience would likely have been thinner had the local chapters of the Jewish Voices for Peace, and Students for Justice in Palestine not postponed their jointly organized program on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
The event was titled Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters, and the event announcement gave this description (emphasis added):
This lecture theorizes oscillating relations between disciplinary, pre-emptive, and increasingly prehensive forms of power that shape human and non-human materialities in Palestine. Calculation, computing, informational technologies, surveillance, and militarization are all facets of prehensive control. Further, the saturation of spatial and temporal stratum in Palestine demonstrates 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, infrastructural chaos, and metric manipulation, what kinds of fantasies (about power, about bodies, about resistance, about politics) are driving this project?
During the introduction of Puar, the context of her presentation and its attack on Israel was explained to the audience:
Professor Puar is a Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University who has established herself as one of the preeminent scholars of Queer Theory.
Having produced work on par with Judith Butler, Robyn Wiegman, Jack Halberstam, and Sara Ahmed. Her widely acclaimed book Terrorist Assemblages published in 2007 explores the ascendant phenomenon of homonationalism, arguing that the new sexual inclusiveness of Western nations is not so much a sign of social progressivism but rather a tactic to shore up and re-invigorate existing hierarchies of race, gender and sexuality toward the end of furthering military initiatives like the U.S. war on terror. This evening, Professor Puar returns to a site of inquiry that to her offers a particular example of how states re-engineer sexual cultures for the purposes of making war: the State of Israel.
The treatment of Israel's self-defense actions as sexual in nature is not unique to Puar, and has been espoused by her fellow academic BDS supporter, controversial professor Steven Saliata:
Fairness to Israel
FTI was formed in the wake of the 2014 anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activism on campus.
Members of Fairness to Israel (FTI) attended the event. FTI prepared a transcript of the lecture, which it recorded.
FTI issued a Press Release regarding the event which reads in part:
On Feb. 3, 2016, at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a Rutgers University professor gave a talk in which she evoked the centuries-old blood libel against Jews, suggesting that Israel uses Palestinian bodies for research and experimentation. Several departments and academic studies programs sponsored the event, among them the Jewish Studies program.
Professor Jasbir Puar, a teacher of women's and gender studies at Rutgers, gained notoriety as one of the promoters of "pinkwashing," the notion that Israel, unique in the Middle East for protecting the rights of gay people, does so only to disguise its oppression of Palestinians. In her presentation, titled "Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters," Puar contended, without citing sources, that there were "more than 120 deaths by field assassinations of young Palestinian men, largely between the ages of 12 to 16, by IDF soldiers" and that Israel "manifests an implicit claim to the right to maim and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control." In summarizing her allegations and distortions, she gave unqualified support to violence against Israeli civilians.
This lecture is being exposed by Fairness to Israel (FTI), a group of Vassar alumnae/i, parents of Vassar students and friends of Vassar, who are united in the belief that Israel has a right to exist as a nation and as a recognized homeland for the Jews. FTI supports students, faculty and staff at Vassar who want to exercise their right to express beliefs favorable to Israel without being bullied, intimidated or ostracized. FTI was organized to fight the rising tide of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on campus that has been encouraged by the BDS movement and its supporters.
BDS As Part of the Armed Stuggle
At the start of her lecture, Puar issued a call to support the campus BDS effort:
Thank you very much for that emotion and thank you for the welcome; it is very much appreciated. I was told today that Students for Justice in Palestine has put forward a BDS resolution at Vassar that will be voted on in March so I wanted to congratulate you. That is an incredible amount of work, so here's to you. (loud applause, whoops, chant of "free free Palestine") Good luck, I will be anxiously awaiting the results of that resolution vote.
The transcript reflects that Puar put BDS in the context of assisting the armed struggle:
... [BDS is] a platform that emerges from civil society. It is such a minor piece of how Palestine is going to be liberated, it's a liberal platform and it's the very least that we can do to sign on to BDS. But we need BDS as part of organized resistance and armed resistance in Palestine as well. There is no other way the situation is going to change.
That's a very important admission on the part of a leader of the academic boycott movement. I have long argued that supposedly non-violent BDS, particularly academic BDS, cannot be separated from the violence directed at Israel; BDS is simply war by other means. Puar's statement confirms my view.
Israel Organ Harvesting and Field Executions
Substantively, Puar leveled a plethora of accusations against Israel, including speculation about organ harvesting and claims that the shooting of Palestinians involved in knife and other attacks are just field executions:
Since October of 2015, new uprisings in the West Bank have ignited what many are now calling the third intifada. 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. On January 1st, 2016, 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 for their detention. Some speculate that the bodies were mined for organs for scientific research. 17 ambulances, each with one body, stretched out along a convoluted route between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
The false and misleading accusation of organ harvesting has been addressed and debunked here before, Incitement: Bassem Tamimi spreads claim Israel arrests Palestinian children to harvest organs. Puar was careful to phrase the accusation as "some speculate," yet makes it a central allegation in her presentation; there has been speculation, but no proof. Israel has specifically denied the charge, something Puar failed to inform the audience.
Puar also framed Israeli actions as part of a experiment:
These are all pivotal elements. These are also about the machinery of biopolitical control itself, the experiment of expanding and entrenching power to such an extent that at certain moments it can barely be recognized as this incorporative mechanism. Israeli computational sovereignty is invested in entities and populations far below and beyond the human form and territories far more complex than the proper ownership of land that is invested in the control of controlled self. Algorithmic computations are rationalized in the service of a liberal yet brutal humanism and humanitarianism, whether through the calculation of deaths of Hamas members, whereby 28 deaths are understood as humanitarian killing and the 29thdeath is collateral damage, whether by perfection of drone technology as a rationalization for the slaughter of Gazans or the development of a national biometric database to tell who is, quote, really Jewish, Israeli.
Maiming, Stunting and Violation of Medical Neutrality
There were so many accusations in Puar's speech it's hard to address them all, but on the core issue of Israel experimenting with "stunting" Palestinian bodies, here is the key passage:
Medical neutrality is a doctrine that says that medical personnel and medical infrastructure is off limits in terms of any kind of firing and has been in effect for quite some time, over 150 years. And this violation of medical neutrality is something that Israel has not paid any attention to. The assault on infrastructure, a central component of the biopolitical regulation of a malleable humanitarian collapse whereby the supporting infrastructure of ordinary life becomes both target and weapon. The terrain is thus dependent on the withdrawn colonizer's infrastructural support which modulates calories, megawatts, water, telecommunication networks, to provide the bare minimum for survival, but minimal enough to attempt to defeat or strip resistance. Reflecting the turn from a regulatory to an asphyxiatory application of power, the target here is not just life itself but resistance itself. Omar Jabary Salamanca quotes Israeli politician Dov Weissglass [sic], he states, quote, Israel's policy would be like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner but they won't die. End quote.
This ignores widespread evidence, documented here many times, that Hamas used Gaza hospitalsas headquarters and military facilities, rendering them legitimate military targets. Even so, Israel did not attack the main hospital in Gaza which was proven to be a Hamas interrogation and command facility, and from the vicinity of which rockets were launched. Hamas also launched rockets from next to residences.
Moreover, the Weiglass claim, widely spread by anti-Israel activists, is disputed and in any event, takes a concept of making sure Gazans received enough food and twists it into a supposed calorie restriction. In fact, Gaza has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, with weight-loss clinics one of the few growing industries.
Yet deliberate stunting of Palestinian bodies was repeated throughout the appearance, including as a means of "degendering" Palestinians:
Targeting youth, not for death but for stunting, which is an official medical diagnosis, for physical and psychological and cognitive injuries, is another aspect of its biopolitical tactic that seeks to render impotent any future resistance. Future capacity to sustain Palestinian life on its own terms, thereby debilitating generational time. This is the epigenetics, the weaponized epigenetics....
And yet stunting can be understood as another form of gendering or perhaps ungendering that may discharge or perhaps even preempt male-female binaries for a biopolitics that is not only driven through human reproduction but through the durational capitalist instrumentalizations of inhuman entities. So gender is not tethered to human reproductive capacity, rather distributed across [inaudible] and temporalities of control. Dismemberment of reproduction is a source of profit within this speculative rehabilitation economy where keeping labor alive but docile is not the only goal. The Palestinian laborer is a tenuous and evacuating category, given the importation of foreign laborers since the Oslo Accords.
Dismantled and dismembered bodies accomplish more than dead ones.
Puar also treats the Israel trend of not shooting to kill as a policy of "maiming" which is worse than death and part of biological control:
Maiming functions as will not let die and will not make die. Maiming masquerades as let live when in fact it acts as will not let die. So for example, the IOS policy of shooting to maim, not to kill, is often misperceived as the preservation of life. In this version of attenuated life, neither living nor dying is the aim....
It is not merely a byproduct of war, of war's collateral damage. It is used to achieve a tactical aims of settler colonialism. So this functions on two levels: the maiming of humans within a context that is utterly and systematically resource-deprived, an infrastructural field that is unable to transform the cripple into the disabled. This point is crucial for part of what gels the disabled body that is hailed by rights discourses is the availability of the process of domestication of that disability. And second, the maiming of infrastructure in order to stunt or decay the abled body into debilitation through the control of calories, water, electricity, health care, supplies, fuel and also mobility....
Maiming and stunting then forces bodily change. It weaponizes bodily change. The objects of gendering and genreing then are about biopolitical calculations, population metrics, reproductive capacities, biogenetics and eugenics.
The conclusion to the speech again focused on Israelis deliberately transforming Palestinian bodies:
Technologies of measure, algorithmic computing, architecture and infrastructure — prehensive gendering operates at the sub, para and intimate levels as body parts and the kinds of changes that come with epigenetic deterioration take hold. In the context, then, of Palestine, hacking is not a computational metaphor, rather a distinct practice of reshaping the forms of human bodies and parts informed by computational platforms.
Thank you. (thunderous applause)
In the Question and Answer that followed, no one tried to challenge any of Puar's factual or theoretical accusation, not even the professors present. To the contrary, the notion of "genocide in slow motion" was introduced, along with the notion that Israeli Jews need to keep Palestinians alive to sustain the militarized economy:
New Question: Taking together the things you describe, does it rise to the level of genocide in slow motion?
Puar: Do you, it can be called that. I think one of the reasons why the term genocide is contested obviously is because it remains tethered to the Holocaust and cannot be removed from that association. So or that's the kind of "ur" event of genocide. Right? So we would have to have a conversation about what genocide is. Which people are having as well. But is slow death a version of genocide? Then we are talking about a lot of populations. We are talking about a lot of populations. And again part of my argument is that keeping Palestinians alive is crucial to this economy and it's precisely crucial to this equation of who is the genocided population. The Jewish Israeli population cannot afford to hand over genocide to another population. They need the Palestinians alive in order to keep the kind of rationalization for their victimhood and their militarized economy.
What was not said during the Puar event was as important as what was said.
In this supposedly academic appearance, there was no attempt to balance the presentation by discussing the goals and tactics of groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. There was no context to the 2014 Gaza War, such as Hamas' relentless firing of long-range rockets at Israeli cities, and Israel's acceptance after one week of fighting of an Egyptian cease fire proposal, which Hamas rejected. Instead, this was a propaganda event. None of the Vassar professors challenged the presentation at all.
Fairness to Israel plans on publicizing and addressing Puar's appearance. I don't know what its goal is, but I think the key issue here is not that she spoke on campus, but that Puar was sponsored by multiple academic departments, thus giving the event legitimacy it otherwise would not have had if it were just a student-run event. When numerous academic departments put their weight behind an event, it also sends a message to the student body as to what is and is not acceptable ideology on campus.
At Vassar, for at least the past several years, one cannot separate the anti-Israel agitation by many faculty from the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic events on campus. When Israel is so demonized and dehumanized that it is turned into a Mengele-like figure experimenting to stunt Palestinian bodies, no one should be surprised with the results on campus.
Perhaps that is why the faculty did not want the event recorded.