Critique of Jasbir Puar Feb. 3 Lecture at Vassar

Rutgers Professor Jasbir Puar’s Feb. 3 appearance at Vassar prompted a storm of controversy. Her distortions, baseless assertions and outright lies have been denounced and refuted by numerous sources. (See our original blog report of her speech, “Professor Jasbir K. Puar Spreads "Blood Libel Innuendo.")

As noted in several critical responses (see partial list immediately below) Puar asserted numerous claims that either have no evidence to support them or are completely contradicted by the facts.

Worse, some of her claims echo age-old antisemitic tropes.  These claims have been overwhelmingly rejected, for example here, here and here.  Furthermore, organizations such as The Louis D. Brandeis Center and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East have called on the Vassar administration to condemn and/or distance itself from the demonization of Israel propagated by Puar.

Notwithstanding the outpouring of criticism and refuation by authoritative sources, a letter supporting Puar garnered some 1000 signatures, including those of U.S. academics who support BDS. They assert that Puar's work "is of the highest professional and scholarly rigor" and that "anyone who heard her Vassar lecture ... can attest, [that] her words are carefully chosen and grounded in serious scholarship and thorough research." Another letter of support came from The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Given that Puar’s supporters claim that her lecture reflected the highest standards of scholarship, it is noteworthy that Puar herself noted at the outset:
So "How Palestine Matters" attempts to offer different narratives of occupation, apartheid and settler colonialism that partake in unusual or generally avoided genres of storytelling to solicit less amenable or expected avenues of solidarity affiliations.  So this is a project that seeks to invite new participants in the global quest for Palestinian liberation.  It’s a solidarity project to open up political discourse, genres that might effect different entities into a relation to solidarity that might otherwise appear untenable.

Thus, in her introduction, Puar declared that she had no intention of presenting an accurate, factual or thoroughly researched account; instead, she explicitly acknowledged that she views her work on this issue as part of "genres of storytelling," “a solidarity project” and “a project that seeks to invite new participants in the global quest for Palestinian liberation.” Indeed, it is noteworthy that Puar stated in the Q&A part of the event:
... 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.
(p. 35)

In other words, Puar acknowledged openly that her “solidarity project” is ultimately intended to support “organized resistance and armed resistance in Palestine.”

What follows are extended quotes from Puar's lecture, with the more egregious passages highlighted in boldface. Those passages will be analyzed in turn and their falsity demonstrated by links to relevant, reliable sources.

(Note: Puar's speech was recorded. The legality of recording was explicitly acknowledged during the introduction to her speech. From that recording, a transcript was prepared which reproduces the entire speech to the best of the transcribers’ abilities. The transcript has 48 pages and includes introductory remarks by a representative of Vassar’s American Studies Program, Puar’s lecture, and the question & answer session at the end of the talk. Portions of that transcript are provided here verbatim, with commentary. Page numbers refer to the page numbers of the full transcript except where otherwise noted.)

On Palestinian-instigated violence, Puar claimed:
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.

Note the use of the term "field assassinations." According to Israeli government data, the current wave of Palestinian terror attacks has killed some 30 Israelis and wounded more than 300 between September 2015 and early February 2016; the attacks included “170 stabbings and attempted stabbing attacks, 70 shootings, and 38 vehicular (ramming) attacks.” The Palestinian perpetrators of these attacks included many teenagers, some as young as 13. To describe perpetrators of potentially or actually lethal attacks who are killed during their attacks as victims of “field assassinations” is not just misleading, but comes perilously close to endorsing the attacks. Such an endorsement of terrorism seemed indeed implied when Puar said in the Q&A part of the event:
The creative potential that Wynter and I point to is organized resistance, is resistance in the streets.  It’s BDS, is the nonviolent platform.  It’s 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.

Puar proceeds to assert that "No explanation has ever been given for their detention," referring to the bodies of the Palestinian teenagers. The reasons for withholding the bodies were widely reported in Israel’s English-language 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.

And then Puar hits what may be the nadir of her talk. "Some speculate," she says, "that the bodies were mined for organs for scientific research."  Such speculations are indeed rife in Palestinian society and reflect widespread antisemitism.  The Anti-Defamation League has repeatedly condemned such allegations as "a new version of the ancient blood libel, which alleged that Jews use the blood of Christian children to bake their Passover bread."  For Puar to repeat such allegations is completely outrageous.  However, to make matters worse, Puar actually made similar allegations herself toward the end of her lecture when she said:
What this prehensive control over the present in order to create a certain future might suggest is that the solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict may well, for Israel, be neither one state nor two states, rather, the present status quo and indeed, Netanyahu, in recent, since his re-election, has basically affirmed this, that there’s no plan to actually have a solution to this conflict.  In other words, a terrifying implication is that Israel already has its solution and it is called settler colonialism.  Prehensive time thus also signals 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. 

Let's examine a little more closely Puar’s claims of “a weaponized epigenetics” and “maiming as a deliberate biopolitical tactic.” It takes little expertise in antisemitism to realize that these speculations are not only completely unsubstantiated but also echo vicious antisemitic tropes used particularly in the Nazi era. As reports from 2008 indicate, the Palestinian territories actually “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.”

As a matter of fact, dramatically reduced infant mortality and increased life expectancy among Palestinians are largely due to improvements introduced by Israel [pdf].

Not daunted by facts, Puar continued to repeat this claim several times:
I have been tracing the use of maiming as a deliberate biopolitical tactic on the part of Israel in the occupation of Palestine, especially as it manifested during the 51 days of Operation Protective Edge during the summer of 2014.
So I argue that Israel manifests an implicit claim to the right to maim and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control and as central to a scientifically authorized humanitarian economy.
(p. 19)
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.
(p. 26)

Puar’s baseless speculations are particularly offensive given that numerous media reports document how many Palestinian children and adults are regularly treated in Israeli hospitals, some of them thanks to a longstanding program by the Peres Center. Moreover, Israel takes part in the Save a Child’s Heart program that also benefits Palestinian children. Palestinian patients treated in Israel include family members of Palestinian leaders of all factions; injured Palestinian terrorists and their victims are often treated in the same hospital. Among Palestinian patients treated in Israeli hospitals are also young children requiring extensive and prolonged treatment due to severe disabilities caused by generations of cousin marriages; the resulting medical problems have been researched in Israel in a quest to help affected Palestinian children. Even Palestinian media have acknowledged the co-operation with Israeli health facilities and the training Palestinian doctors and medical staff receive from Israel.

In view of these facts, Puar’s repeated claims about malevolent Israeli designs to cause long-term debilitating health problems to Palestinians are downright obscene.

Puar provided a revealing example of her resolve to avoid inconvenient facts when she claimed in the Q&A part that she had met “father after father after father in refugee camps and in towns and villages, having shattered knees.” (p.34) In the context of Puar’s talk, these “shattered knees” could only be blamed on Israel, but as documented in media reports going back as far as 1995, “kneecapping” is actually a well-known practice used by Palestinian factions to intimidate and disable their opponents. According to a foreign doctor working in Gaza when Hamas seized power in 2007, “during the four days of the takeover, ‘Gaza’s amputee population doubled.’”  A 2009 report by Amnesty International denounced the practice; Human Rights Watch said it had documented 49 cases of kneecappings perpetrated by Hamas in Gaza during fighting with Israel in early 2009; and a TIME documentary from 2010 showed some of the victims of this Palestinian practice undergoing rehabilitation in an Israeli hospital.

A considerable part of Puar’s lecture was devoted to seemingly endless atrocities allegedly committed by Israel in Gaza. Among her transparently false allegations was that Israel exerts “asphyxiatory control” (p.18) over Gaza – which is obviously impossible given that the territory has a border with Egypt. The fact that Egypt keeps this border largely closed is a result of Hamas policies that have prompted Egyptian security concerns regarding the cooperation of terror groups in Gaza and Sinai. 

It is noteworthy that, in this context, Puar also claims that for Israel’s “asphyxiatory application of power, the target here is not just life itself but resistance itself.” “Resistance” – which Puar seems to view favorably – is a euphemism frequently used by Palestine solidarity activists to refer to terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  Puar makes no mention of the fact that since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, these groups have used the territory as a launching pad for more than 11,000 rockets attacks.  Also absent from her account was 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.

Another of Puar’s patently false allegations was that Israel is subjecting Gaza to a “policy of calorie restrictions.” (p.16) However, research and media reports show that obesity is prevalent in the Gaza Strip. Demand for cosmetic surgery procedures in Gaza includes liposuction and “tummy tucks.” At the same time, business for Gaza’s restaurants is brisk: “Many new restaurants, either popular or high-end, are established in the Gaza Strip on a yearly basis. Investors are lured by the high demand in Gaza.”

Having plumbed the depths of the blood libel, Puar descended further into a veritable caricature of antisemitism in this exchange during the Q&A session following her prepared remarks.
Question:  Taking together the things you describe, does it rise to the level of genocide in slow motion? 
Puar Answer:  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. 
One could cynically note that the “genocide in slow motion” perpetrated by Israel is surely the first one in history where the alleged victims are among “the fastest growing populations in the world.” 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, as Puar writes in an article highlighted by her supporters as the basis for her talk at Vassar (“The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine”), the Palestinian plight is being “overshadowed” by Jews “exceptionalizing Holocaust victimization.”
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’.

Like many of her other claims, Puar’s fantasies about why the “Jewish Israeli population” avoids speeding up the alleged “genocide in slow motion” are material one would expect to find on neo-Nazi forums -- not in a lecture sponsored by several Vassar departments, and greeted with enthusiastic applause by a Vassar audience.

Petra Marquardt-Bigman contributed substantially to this report. See her related articles here, here and here.