U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the Democrat from Wyckoff, has waded into the debate over Israel on college campuses with a letter challenging a pair of speakers and a classroom text that critics call antisemitic.
Gottheimer last week wrote to Princeton University and his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. He asked Penn to disinvite the two speakers — rock musician Roger Waters and former CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill — and urged Princeton to reconsider the use of a book that he said "spews Jewish hatred and anti-Israel rhetoric."
Both universities responded with statements saying they abhor antisemitism but must also defend academic freedom and oppose censorship on campus.
Gottheimer, in an interview with Northjersey.com and The Record, said he was surprised at the college leaders' refusal to budge. "I'm all for debate and promoting different ideas," he said. "But this is hate speech masquerading as scholarship."
'The Right to Maim' draws complaints of antisemitism
In his Sept. 10 letter to Princeton, Gottheimer urged the school to remove Jasbir Puar's text "The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability" from a class syllabus. Puar is a professor and graduate director of women's and gender studies at Rutgers University whose book, according to its website description, characterizes Israel as using "liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies."
The text is on the syllabus of a Princeton course called The Healing Humanities: Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South, being taught by Satyel Larson, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies.
Gottheimer said Puar's book is an "offensive, antisemitic blood libel" that promotes falsehoods about the Israeli military, including a charge that Israel has harvested the organs of deceased Palestinian children. Puar writes in the book that the Israeli Defense Forces have a pattern of "shooting to maim rather than to kill. This is ostensibly a humanitarian practice, leaving many civilians permanently disabled."
In a 2016 article, Puar wrote on the website Jadaliyya that some in the Palestinian community "speculate that their bodies were mined for organs for scientific research." She cited reporting in the Israeli press about coroners who had illegally taken the organs of dead Palestinians and says she was highlighting "the daily terror that imbues Palestinians' lives and the ways that fear for their bodily integrity animates every interaction with the Israeli state."
Said Gottheimer: "She is promoting falsehoods that are aimed at undermining Israel and Jews. No university should promote lies."
"The use of materials containing antisemitic tropes and anti-Israel sentiment in a Princeton classroom clearly contradict the university's mission of inclusivity, which includes protecting Jewish students," he wrote in his letter.
Larson and Puar did not immediately respond to a reporter's requests for comment.
Princeton's president responds
Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber responded last week with a public letter to Gottheimer, saying he is sensitive to issues surrounding antisemitism because he is "Princeton's second Jewish president and its first Jewish undergraduate alumnus to serve in that role; I am the son of a Holocaust refugee; I am a scholar of religious freedom; and my last scholarly publication before accepting the presidency was a defense of Zionism."
His statement emphasized the school's commitment to academic freedom and "fostering a welcoming environment for students" and stressed that such freedom protects the right of faculty members to determine what texts they will assign and how best to cover the subject matter in their own courses.
Eisgruber added: "Your letter concludes by asserting that colleges 'must protect all students, including Jewish students,' from being 'made to feel unsafe by curricula.' That assertion misunderstands the role of a university, where students inevitably encounter controversial and sometimes disturbing ideas. As I said earlier, Princeton will work vigorously to ensure that all students can thrive here, but not by censoring our curriculum."
The book's inclusion in the curriculum has drawn criticism from groups including The International Legal Forum, a nonprofit organized based in Tel Aviv which advocates for equality in the Middle East;, Israel's minister of Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism; the World Jewish Congress and the Zionist Organization of America in New York.
Other groups on and off the campus, including Alliance of Jewish Progressives, the Princeton Open Campus Coalition and PEN America, a nonprofit that says it advocates for free speech and the rights of authors, have rallied in favor of Princeton's right to teach the book.
Gottheimer criticizes Penn for allowing two speakers
Gottheimer's letter to the University of Pennsylvania centered on the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, a planned Sept. 22-24 conference that includes speakers who have been criticized for antisemitic and anti-Israel statements. Among them are Waters, co-founder of the rock group Pink Floyd, and Hill, the former news commentator who was recently hired as a professor by the City University of New York.
Palestine Writes bills itself as a literature festival dedicated to "promoting cultural productions of Palestinian writers and artists," according to its website. Neither Waters nor Hill is Palestinian. The festival coincides with Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar.
Earlier this year, Waters was denounced by the Biden administration and European officials after a Berlin concert in which he wore a Nazi-style uniform onstage. The State Department said the musician has "a long track record of using antisemitic tropes," an accusation Waters has denied. He has also drawn the ire of the pro-Israel community for his outspoken support of the BDS movement, which calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israel.
Hill, meanwhile, was dismissed from CNN after controversial statements he made about Israel, including a call for a "free Palestine from the river to the sea." Critics say the phrase is used by militant groups to advocate for the death of Jews and destruction of Israel; Palestinian activists say it is merely an expression of their desire for self-rule.
Hill said he is opposed to antisemitism and that his comments have been misinterpreted.
"While policy discussion and differing views are a welcome and critical part of building cultural understanding, they can't provide a bully pulpit for those who seek to divide others," Gottheimer wrote in his letter to the University of Pennsylvania. "If the university's goal is to promote mutual understanding and bring students together, it will fail so long as antisemitism and anti-Israel advocates are given a platform to spew hate."
University President M. Elizabeth Magill released a statement saying the Palestine Writes festival is not organized by the school.
We 'fiercely support the free exchange of ideas'
"While the Festival will feature more than 100 speakers, many have raised deep concerns about several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people. We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values.
"As a university," she continued, "we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values."
The Palestine Writes Literature Festival rejected Gottheimer's criticism in a Facebook post: "Unsurprisingly, the original letter speaks of 'anti-Israel bias and antisemitism' as if these are interchangeable concepts. The latter is a form of religion-based bigotry with a legacy of violence and profound harm, while the former is a wholly legitimate and necessary criticism of a settler colonial state with one of the worst human right records in the world."
Rising fears of antisemitism on campus
Gottheimer's move comes at a time when Jewish students at colleges around the country have reported growing antisemitism on campus. A recent survey commissioned by the nonprofit group Jewish on Campus asked more than 3,000 undergraduate students at colleges about their experiences with campus antisemitism and found that nearly 60% reported having personally experienced or witnessed such activity.
Northjersey.com recently interviewed nearly 50 college students from around the country who all shared their own experiences with anti-Jewish harassment.
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.