A 2017 book that is part of a sample reading list for an upcoming Princeton University humanities course has drawn charges of antisemitic blood libels. It also raises broad questions about academic freedom and what kinds of scholarship are appropriate for classroom study.
The controversy surrounds The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, by Jasbir Puar, a professor of women's and gender studies and director of the graduate program in women's and gender studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Duke University Press, which published the book, refers to it as a "pathbreaking" study of disability, which draws "on a stunning array of theoretical and methodological frameworks."
"Puar's analysis culminates in an interrogation of Israel's policies toward Palestine, in which she outlines how Israel brings Palestinians into biopolitical being by designating them available for injury," the press states. "Supplementing its right to kill with what Puar calls the right to maim, the Israeli state relies on liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies."
With Edward Said's 1978 work Orientalism and others, the book is listed on a "sample reading list" for the Princeton course "The Healing Humanities: Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South," taught by Satyel Larson, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton. The course is listed as an offering in fall 2023-24.
"Re-orienting healing as a decolonizing process 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," per a description of the course on the Princeton site. "The course participates in a new project to help illuminate how the humanities itself can offer new paths to understanding trauma and healing."
Arsen Ostrovsky, CEO of the International Legal Forum, shared a letter with JNS that he penned to Christopher Ludwig Eisgruber, president of Princeton, and Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, chair of the university's Near Eastern studies department.
"The book in question contains a number of very serious and defamatory accusations, primarily that the Israel Defense Forces is harvesting the organs of Palestinians, including by 'shooting to maim, rather than to kill,' in order to create a 'mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies,'" Ostrovsky wrote. "This charge is not only demonstrably false, but a modern-day antisemitic blood libel."
He told JNS that the forum was "requesting that the book be removed, not as part of a debate about the limits of free speech on campus, but because of its lack of educational value and potential for incitement to racial hatred and violence against the Jewish community by the use of age-old antisemitic blood libels."
'Students shortchanged by virulently anti-Israel syllabi'
Ostrovsky told JNS that he has read parts of the book that relate to Israel and has reviewed comments from the publisher and author, as well as external reviews.
"There are circumstances where, depending on context, it is appropriate to teach antisemitic material, provided there is an educational or scholarly component to it," he told JNS. "In this case, we do not believe there was any such educational merit to it, for reasons explained in the letter."
In the letter, Ostrovsky noted that Princeton hosted a lecture in February by Mohammed El-Kurd, "a notorious Jerusalem-based Palestinian activist, whom the Anti-Defamation League has called an 'unvarnished, vicious' antisemite, and who himself has also sickeningly accused Israelis of harvesting and eating the organs of Palestinians."
Duke University Press, Princeton University and the author of the book did not respond to queries from JNS. An email to the professor teaching the Princeton course returned an automatic response: "Thank you for your email. Please expect a response to non-urgent matters within 1-2 business days. Thanks for your patience."
Rutgers confirmed to JNS the book author's current employment at the university but declined to comment on the charges that her work is antisemitic.
"Every semester, on campuses across the United States, students are shortchanged by their biased, one-sided and virulently anti-Israel syllabi that present materials uncritically," wrote Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, on X (formerly Twitter).
"The proposed (now vetted and approved) course isn't focused on Israel, but is reportedly an anthropology course with cross-national case studies on 'decolonizing trauma,'" she wrote. "To be clear, faculty have the academic freedom to teach course material in their area of expertise as they see fit. They get to choose and select topics, readings. But they don't have a right to be free of criticism, and this Princeton syllabus deserves to be critiqued!"
"The instructor is apparently still junior faculty, not yet tenured. She is learning, needs mentoring," Elman added. "Senior faculty and curriculum vetting committees could help here with syllabi recommendations."
"Welcome to one of America's top educational institutions, Princeton ... where they teach that 'Israel harvests Palestinian organs,'" wrote Adam Milstein, who co-founded an eponymous family foundation. "No, it's not a joke. This blood libel is actually on the syllabus for a humanities course this coming year."