By Petra Marquardt-Bigman
Supporters of the BDS campaign that singles out Israel for boycott, divestment and sanctions have been circulating a letter addressing the “Controversy concerning Jasbir Puar’s Talk at Vassar.” The letter responds to a recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) op-ed entitled “Majoring in Anti-Semitism at Vassar” by Mark G. Yudof and Ken Waltzer; it denounces the op-ed by the two respected academics as “ugly” and rejects the “heinous and misinformed attacks [that] are the direct result of the talk Prof. Puar presented at Vassar on Feb. 3.”
ACF has already published two posts in response to Prof. Puar’s talk at Vassar (see here and here), and it seems fair to assume that her supporters would view these posts with as much disdain as the WSJ op-ed.
But while the letter of Puar’s supporters is highly partisan, it contains one claim that should arguably be welcomed by her critics. Thus, the letter asserts: “As anyone who heard her Vassar lecture […] can attest, her words are carefully chosen.” This is obviously very important when evaluating Puar’s statement about Palestinian accusations that Israel “mined” the bodies of killed Palestinian terrorists “for organs for scientific research.” Puar not only failed to distance herself from these utterly baseless speculations that so obviously echo ancient blood libels, but also suggested later on that Israel might be pursuing “a weaponized epigenetics where the outcome is not so much about winning or losing nor a solution but about needing body parts, not even whole bodies, for research and experimentation.”
If Puar’s words are indeed “carefully chosen,” they would seem to indicate that she endorses Palestinian speculations about Israel’s theft of organs from dead Palestinians. This conclusion seems all the more warranted given the context of her lecture, where she emphasized that she regarded her project “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters” as “a solidarity project” that presents Palestinian views while excluding any Israeli perspectives. Furthermore, Puar’s own speculations that Israel might be pursuing “a weaponized epigenetics where the outcome is […] about needing body parts […] for research and experimentation” would have to be understood as “carefully chosen” to lend further credence to this modern version of the age-old blood libel.
It has to be noted, however, that Puar’s supporters not only claim that “her words are carefully chosen,” but also that they are “grounded in serious scholarship and thorough research.” They also claim that “her work […] is of the highest professional and scholarly rigor.” The inescapable conclusion is that the people who drafted this letter and the hundreds of academics who signed it believe that speculating about Israel stealing organs from dead Palestinians due to the requirements of a “weaponized epigenetics” is “grounded in serious scholarship and thorough research” and reflects “the highest professional and scholarly rigor.”
If so, we live in times almost as dark as the Nazi era.
However, Puar openly acknowledged at the beginning of her talk that it is part of a “solidarity project” that “seeks to invite new participants in the global quest for Palestinian liberation” – and it is hard to see how such a project could be “grounded in serious scholarship and thorough research.” Almost by definition, Puar’s project has to frame the longstanding conflict between Palestinians and Israel as a conflict between good and evil, and that is exactly what she did at Vassar.
Puar’s supporters also highlight an article by her that provided the basis for her talk at Vassar. The article is entitled “The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine,” and in one arguably particularly revealing statement Puar writes there:
“Given that Israel in particular and Jewish populations in general have thoroughly hijacked the discourse of trauma through exceptionalizing Holocaust victimization, Palestinian trauma is overshadowed, classified into impossibility through ‘an assemblage of laws, policies, narratives, symbols, and practices that re-named trauma and suffering of the dispossessed with colonial terminology’.”
To say that “Palestinian trauma is overshadowed” because “Israel in particular and Jewish populations in general have thoroughly hijacked the discourse of trauma through exceptionalizing Holocaust victimization” could be understood as suggesting that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is comparable or perhaps even equal to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. For good reason, this comparison is widely regarded as antisemitic: there is no evidence, let alone any “serious scholarship and thorough research” that would justify such a comparison. One would have hoped the “scholars, educators, and and [sic] academicians” who drafted and signed the letter in support of Puar would have known this, but alarmingly, this seems not to be the case.
If Puar wants to insinuate that it is somehow unfair if “Palestinian trauma” is “overshadowed” by Jews “exceptionalizing Holocaust victimization,” it also has to be noted – as I have already documented in my previous post on her talk at Vassar – that the Palestinians are among the fastest growing populations in the world; dramatically reduced infant mortality and increased life expectancy among Palestinians are largely due to improvements introduced by Israel; and every year, many thousands of Palestinian patients are treated in Israeli hospitals. One could also add that the UN Human Development Index ranks Palestine at 113 – just a bit lower than Egypt, which is ranked at 108 – out of 188 countries. So according to the UN, the populations of 75 countries and territories are worse off than the Palestinians; yet, Puar and her supporters are concerned that the Palestinian plight is being “overshadowed” by Jews “exceptionalizing Holocaust victimization.”
There is thus obviously no point in trying to refute Puar’s endless list of unspeakable Israeli atrocities: her “solidarity project” that “seeks to invite new participants in the global quest for Palestinian liberation” cannot be “grounded in serious scholarship and thorough research,” as her supporters claim. Instead, it has to be grounded in a completely one-sided presentation of carefully selected data shorn of any inconvenient context, supported by material that reflects Palestinian “testimonies” and “narratives” of victimization and the work of like-minded “scholars” and anti-Israel activists. Only such an approach will transform the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel into the stark good-vs-evil narrative that Puar needs to present in order to achieve her stated goal of recruiting “new participants” to her “solidarity project.”
Last but not least, it is worthwhile noting the blatant dishonesty displayed in the letter of Puar’s supporters. The letter asserts that Puar’s “lectures and the article on which they are based […] concern Israeli military actions in Gaza in 2014 and their aftermath that have resulted in the systematic debilitation of Palestinian bodies and environments. Professor Puar did not make up these facts, which the Wall Street Journal has condemned as a ‘blood libel’ and classical anti-Semitism.”
But the WSJ op-ed didn’t condemn any of Puar’s cherry-picked facts “as a ‘blood libel’ and classical anti-Semitism.” The relevant portions of the op-ed state:
“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. Yet characterizing Israel and Zionism in ways that anti-Semites formerly characterized Jews has become a stock in trade among anti-Israeli activists on college campuses.”
Fantasies about Israel stealing organs from dead Palestinians are not “facts” but indeed just “vicious lies […] updating the medieval blood libel against Jews.” Likewise, there is no factual evidence whatsoever that Israel is deliberately starving Palestinians – on the contrary: research and media reports show that overweight and obesity are prevalent in the Gaza Strip; demand for cosmetic surgery procedures in Gaza includes liposuction and “tummy tucks,” and business for Gaza’s restaurants is brisk.
On the other hand, Puar and her fellow BDS activists have provided plenty of evidence that “characterizing Israel and Zionism in ways that anti-Semites formerly characterized Jews has become a stock in trade among anti-Israeli activists on college campuses.” In order to justify their goal of eliminating the world’s only Jewish state, BDS activists – including Puar supporters like David Palumbo-Liu and Richard Falk – frequently resort to demonizing Israel in ways that echo the demonization of Jews as an all-powerful evil that has to be eliminated to make the world a better place. Indeed, Falk has been explicitly criticized for writings “resonant of the longstanding antisemitic practice of blaming Jews (through the State of Israel by proxy) for all that is wrong in the world.”
Puar may just claim that Israel is to blame for all that is wrong in Palestine (including organs believed to have gone missing), but this requires her to completely ignore the role of Islamist groups like Hamas – which after all rules a sizeable portion of the Palestinian population. As the historian Jeffrey Herf has pointed out in an article on “Hamas’ Too-Little-Known Fascist Charter”, the terror group has long asserted that there is “no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad,” while justifying its openly stated genocidal ambitions with quotes from Islamic scripture along with conspiracy theories that “could have been taken, almost word for word, from Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish propaganda texts and broadcasts.” Herf also noted that even though “Islamism owes a considerable debt to Nazism, the Hamas Covenant claims that it is Israel that is the equal of Nazi Germany” – which is of course a comparison that BDS activists also like to make. In addition, Puar and her supporters also prefer to ignore inconvenient facts such as findings by the respected Pew research center that document that Palestinians are among the Muslim populations with the most extremist views about the role of Islam in society and have long been the strongest supporters of suicide bombings targeting civilians “in order to defend Islam from its enemies;” indeed, support for terrorism among Palestinians is widespread even if the target is not Israel.
Ignoring the energetic efforts of Hamas to provide outlets for this well-documented Palestinian support for terrorism while blaming ostensibly totally unprovoked “Israeli military actions in Gaza in 2014” for “the systematic debilitation of Palestinian bodies and environments” may be the right approach for Puar’s “solidarity project,” but to claim that it reflects “serious scholarship and thorough research” makes a travesty of academia and masks what is ultimately an insidious effort to update age-old anti-Jewish tropes for the 21st century.