By Petra Marquardt-Bigman
Vassar advertises itself as “a highly selective […] liberal arts college” that has “[c]onsistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country.” In recent years, however, Vassar has attracted much critical coverage for extreme anti-Israel activism that included some antisemitic incidents and created an atmosphere where anyone “voicing a pro-Israel view” risks being branded “a fascist, a racist, a colonialist and morally compromised.”
How this atmosphere is sustained was illustrated again recently, when Vassar’s American Studies Program (later joined by several other departments, including Jewish Studies) sponsored a guest lecture by Jasbir K. Puar, Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Already the announcement of the lecture – entitled “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters” – included statements that prompted Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) Vice President Laurie R. Josephs to express concern about the demonization of Israel that seemed to form the core message of the lecture. Josephs quoted from the announcement and suggested that if one substituted the word “Jew” for “Israeli,” some of Puar’s claims read like “lifted straight out of Der Sturmer, the Nazi propaganda paper that regularly portrayed Jews as filthy manipulators driven by a mad lust for power, intent on destroying the German nation.”
Audio recordings and notes taken by people who attended Puar’s lecture at Vassar unfortunately confirm these concerns. Puar’s well attended talk, which reportedly drew an estimated audience of about 100 - 120 people, offered updated versions of pretty much every anti-Jewish calumny ever invented in history and applied to the Jewish state.
Puar started her talk re-affirming her well-known support for the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement targeting Israel and emphasizing her work for “Palestine Solidarity” activism. In Puar’s telling, Palestinians exist exclusively as victims of a monstrously evil Israeli occupation. Early on in her talk, she thus ignored the fact that the current wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks has killed some 30 Israelis and wounded more than 300 since September 2015; instead, she preferred to present the perpetrators killed during or after attacking as victims of “field assassinations” by the IDF.
Puar then proceeded to claim that in early January, Israel returned the bodies of 17 killed Palestinians without any explanation, noting that some “speculate that the bodies were mined for organs for scientific research.” She not only failed to reject this baseless and bigoted speculation that echoes the ancient anti-Jewish blood libel, but also ignored the fact that the reasons for withholding the bodies were widely reported in the Israeli press when the decision was first taken in mid-October 2015, and were once again explained in reports about the release of the bodies in January: Israel’s security cabinet had decided to withhold the bodies in order to prevent further incitement at funerals glorifying the terrorists, but eventually yielded to the assessment of the defense ministry, which rejected the measure as futile.
Most of Puar’s lecture was devoted to presenting Israel as the almost unfathomably evil “occupier” that controls every aspect of Palestinian life with the express purpose of gradually strangulating Palestinian life. Thus, she spoke of Israel’s “asphyxiatory control” of Gaza, ignoring not only Israel’s complete withdrawal from the territory in 2005, but also the fact that Gaza shares a border with Egypt, which makes it plainly impossible for Israel to exert “asphyxiatory control” over Gaza. But according to Puar, Gaza is “an experimental lab for Israeli military apparatuses, infrastructural chaos, and metric manipulation;” the fact that Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups have used Gaza as a launching pad for more than 11,000 rockets attacks against Israel since 2005 remained as unmentioned as the fact that the rockets are frequently launched from civilian areas – including mosques, schools, hospitals and residential neighborhoods; likewise, there was no mention of the fact that almost two thirds of Israel’s population are threatened by these rocket attacks. Unsurprisingly, Puar also preferred to ignore the proud boasts of Hamas leaders about the continuing building of tunnels and the testing of rockets to attack Israel.
But the truly vicious and antisemitic nature of Puar’s accusations against Israel is most obvious in her focus on what she refers to as Israel’s “intentional maiming” of Palestinians. According to Puar, Israel has many reasons that make the maiming of Palestinians preferable to simply killing them: the IDF’s alleged “policy” of “shooting to maim” keeps the death toll lower and can easily be presented as a somehow humanitarian effort to preserve life, even though it only masks the “slow death” that is the result of this “intentional maiming,” which supposedly also serves the purpose of stunting Palestinian population growth by reducing Palestinian reproductive capabilities. Of course, Puar’s sinister fantasies about evil Israel policies and designs are squarely contradicted by reality: as reports from 2008 indicate, the Palestinian territories “have one of the fastest growing populations in the world;” a more recent report confirmed this trend for Gaza: according to a Gaza government official, the “increase of the population in the Gaza Strip is excessive; it is very large. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of Gazans increased by more than 687,000 people.” The director of a Palestinian think tank described the uncontrolled population growth as “a bomb that can explode at any time,” and he warned of negative “economic, social, educational and health consequences.”
Perhaps Puar could just switch from accusing Israel of trying to stunt Palestinian population growth to blaming Israel for this “excessive” growth, because dramatically reduced infant mortality and increased life expectancy among Palestinians are largely due to improvements introduced by Israel.
For Puar, no fantasy about Israel is too sinister: towards the end of her lecture, she suggested that Israel might pursue a “weaponized epigenetics” to debilitate Palestinians in the long term and that this might mean Israel would be “needing body parts … for research and experimentation.” Her failure to distance herself at the beginning of the lecture from speculations about Israel harvesting the bodies of Palestinian terrorists “for organs for scientific research” was thus apparently not accidental.
The question-and-answer period after her lecture provided yet more examples of Puar’s deeply antisemitic views. When asked if the treatment of the Palestinians she had described could be called a “genocide in slow motion,” she agreed that “it can be called that,” though she emphasized that using the term “genocide” was problematic because it is too closely associated with the Holocaust. Moreover, she argued that Israel’s Jewish population actually needed the Palestinians alive “in order to keep the kind of rationalization for their [own] victimhood and militarized economy.” So there was yet another self-serving reason why Israel’s Jews would cynically prefer to just maim Palestinians, instead of killing them.
In response to another question, Puar again brought up her favorite theme of “maiming,” mentioning that among Palestinians, one could meet “father after father after father … having shattered knees.” But while Puar seemed to imply that these fathers with shattered knees were just another example for Israel’s systematic efforts to inflict long-term debilitation on Palestinian society, knee-capping is actually a well-known practice used by Hamas and Fatah to take revenge on their opponents. A 2009 report by Amnesty International denounced the practice; and a fascinating TIME documentary from 2010 showed some of the victims of this Palestinian practice undergoing rehabilitation in an Israeli hospital.
While Puar’s vile fantasies about Israel don’t deserve to be refuted with facts any more than all the other antisemitic libels invented by Jew-haters throughout history, her repulsive obsession with imaginary Israeli plots to curb Palestinian reproductive capabilities and damage their genetic material should be considered in the context of one particularly relevant story about a severely disabled toddler from Gaza who spent the first years of his life in an Israeli hospital. The boy, named Mohammed, is a victim of a genetic disorder caused by “several generations of cousin marriages in his family.” According to the AP report, Mohammed’s plight “demonstrates a costly legacy of Gaza’s strongly patriarchal culture that prods women into first-cousin marriages and allows polygamy,” and the boy’s abandonment by his family illustrates “the harsh treatment some families mete out to the disabled, particularly in the more tribal-dominated corners of the Gaza Strip.” As the report also notes, “Mohammed’s Israeli doctors, who’ve grown attached to the boy, fund-raise to cover his bills, allowing him and his grandfather to live in the sunny pediatric ward.” While Mohammed’s case is extreme, there are numerous other reports that document just how many Palestinian children (and adults) are regularly treated in Israeli hospitals, some of them thanks to a longstanding program by the Peres Center.
After listening to Puar’s lecture, I have no doubt that she would effortlessly spin this as yet another “proof” of Israeli perfidy. Indeed, Puar is known as an ardent promoter of the “pinkwashing” charge against Israel – i.e. the absurd claim that Israel is only gay-friendly to cover up its unspeakable crimes against Palestinians – and as the estimable Eve Garrard recently argued in a post at the popular blog Harry’s Place, “the Pinkwashing Manoeuvre” has almost limitless potential “to protect us from seeing anything good in Israel.” While Garrard didn’t refer to Puar, she described her method perfectly when she sarcastically observed:
“This is an amazingly powerful logic, since it can so easily be generalised. Why, after all, should we stop at pinkwashing? The same logic will enable us to say that Israel gives the vote to all its citizens, but only to cover up its crimes against Palestinians – votewashing, we might say. Israel protects the rights of women, but only to cover up its crimes against Palestinians (femiwashing?). Israel gives medical treatment to Palestinian children, provides university education as much for its Arab citizens as for its Jewish ones, has a very diverse and lively free press, has Arab senior academics, senior judges, senior members of parliament – but all, all in order to cover up its crimes against etc etc. You get the idea. This logic is really going places – in particular, it’s taking its practitioners to a place they very much want to be, a place in which they are fully protected against the possibility of any evidence shaking their conviction of Israel’s unrelieved wickedness.”
In order to understand why a lecture that follows this simplistic and bigoted method to demonize Israel would be sponsored by several Vassar departments and would be rewarded with enthusiastic applause from a Vassar audience, one would perhaps have to read Eve Garrard’s Fathom essay on “The pleasures of antisemitism.” But in addition to her recent talk at Vassar, Puar has certainly already had other platforms to spread her fantasies about Israel’s unfathomable evil. Her page at Rutgers University indicates that in 2013-14, she was a Society for the Humanities Fellow at Cornell University “working on her third book, titled Inhumanist Occupation: Sex, Affect, and Palestine/Israel.” Her own website, which at the time of this writing is accessible only in a cached version dated 27 Jan 2016, states that Puar is currently “working on her third book,” which by now has acquired the more jargon-loaded title “Inhumanist Biopolitics: The Prehensive Occupation of Palestine.” According to Puar’s description, the book is supposed to be “about the status of non-human entities and their relationships to the fields of postcolonial theory, questions of imperial occupation and settler colonialism, and disability studies. An interrogation of the emergent fields of object oriented ontology, new materialisms, and posthumanism, this project puts these otherwise geopolitically uninflected theories of object-relations into direct conversation with fields concerned with power, exploitation, and violence, and asks, How do objects occupy?”
So in a way, it’s clearly unfair to accuse Puar of a Stürmer-style demonization of Israel: the infamous Nazi rag demonized Jews in plain German, whereas Puar demonizes the Jewish state in pseudo-sophisticated academic jargon. Der Stürmer helped to justify the murderous Nazi campaign of eliminating Europe’s Jews, whereas Puar just intends to further the BDS goal of eliminating the world’s only Jewish state. But in both cases, the elimination is justified by the monstrous evil the Jews – and now their state – are said to represent: whatever the language of the time and the precise details, the elements of fantasized Jewish evil have always included ideas about ambitions to gain manipulative, all-pervasive control over victims that will be slowly poisoned and drained of their resources and life energies. Even when they were completely powerless, the Jews have been suspected of designs to commit some form of “genocide in slow motion” while profiting from their victims in the process; perhaps it was entirely unrealistic to hope that a Jewish state with real power would not have to contend with new versions of these age-old fantasies.
Image credit: Screenshot of Facebook post by Students for Justice in Palestine at Vassar praising Prof. Puar’s lecture.