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'I didn't read it': The campaign to ban a pro-Palestine book at Princeton

The founder of the Jewish Leadership Project, who organised billboards outside the university and rallied politicians behind his cause, admitted to not reading book
A course offered by Princeton's department of Near Eastern studies has come under sustained criticism for featuring a book by Jasbir Puar (MEE/Azad Essa)
By Azad Essa in Princeton, New Jersey

The leader of a Jewish group who spearheaded a campaign attacking Princeton University's president and its students for refusing to censor a pro-Palestine book, has not read the text in question, Middle East Eye can reveal.

The book, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disabilityhas come under sustained criticism since early August, when right-wing Zionist groups discovered it was on the syllabus of a course at Princeton's department of Near East studies (NES).

The book, written by Jasbir Puar, was one of six texts on the curriculum for a course called: "The Healing Humanities: Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South", taught by professor Satyel Larson.

After several letters from Israeli institutions and a US congressman failed to have the book removed from the syllabus, an organisation called the Jewish Leadership Project (JLP) hired trucks with billboards to patrol around Princeton University last week where it targeted the university's president, Christopher Eisgruber, and students who pushed back against the effort.

"Shame on Princeton University and President Eisgruber. The university that provided refuge to Jewish scientists fleeing Nazi Germany is now promoting blood libel against Jews and hiring apologists of a nuclear-armed genocidal regime in Iran," another billboard read.

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"There is nothing progressive about endorsing Jew-hatred by pretending to be for social justice: Moral narcissists," one message on the electronic billboards read.

'If you have a problem with the book, you would really have to argue with the footnotes'

Siraj Ahmed, Cuny

But in an interview with MEE, Ralph Avi Goldwasser, the founder of JLP who organised the truck and billboards that also featured at the Palestine Writes Festival in Philadelphia, admitted that he neither read the book nor had any intention of doing so.  

"I did not read the book," Goldwasser said, before attempting to describe Puar's work.

"I have read about the book. The author has a long history of lying," he added.

"The book is another example of blood libel which accuses Jews of abusing children. This has been used in the past to instigate violence against Jews. That Princeton would allow this book to be taught - is disgusting," Goldwasser said.

'The Right To Maim'

Puar's book, The Right To Maim, argues that Israel has deliberately engaged in maiming Palestinians as a matter of policy.

In 2019, doctors in Gaza told MEE that Israeli snipers had intentionally harmed Palestinians who were demonstrating during the Great March of Return protests that began in March 2018.

United Nations inquiry report later found that at least 80 percent of the 6,106 protesters wounded in the first nine months of the Great March of Return protests were shot in their lower limbs.

In a review of The Right to Maim, Emily R Douglas wrote that Puar demonstrated that "rather than a by-product of war or a means to another end, [maiming] is the goal of Israeli tactics and technologies in Gaza, including for instance, "shoot to cripple plastic and fragmenting bullets". 

Likewise, Ian Hosbach from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte said that Puar's analysis extended beyond the question of Palestine and "reveals the ways in which sub-US populations may be targets of a domestic right to maim and how the US government is implicated in its exercise in Palestine".

"In any case, Puar has produced an invaluable insight into contemporary state violence, and its legitimation functions," Hosbach added.

Siraj Ahmed, professor at CUNY, says Jasbir Puar's book is meticulously researched (MEE/Azad Essa)
Siraj Ahmed, professor at Cuny, says Jasbir Puar's book is meticulously researched (MEE/Azad Essa)

Siraj Ahmed, a professor at City University of New York (Cuny), who taught the book in one of his classes, said it was clear that those who were alleging the book engages in blood libel had not bothered to engage with the material.

"The book is not a critique of Jews. It is critique of Zionism and a critique of colonialism," Ahmed told MEE.

He also said the book was meticulously written, adding that there wasn't a single claim that Puar put forward that wasn't sourced. 

"If you have a problem with the book, you would really have to argue with the footnotes," Ahmed argued.

How it started

The controversy at Princeton first began making waves when organisations such as Stand with Us, as well as Amichai Chikli, Israel’s diaspora affairs and combating antisemitism minister, began attacking the book.

"This delusional and false accusation is nothing but a modern-day antisemitic blood libel," Chikli said.

Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, then called on the university "to cancel the course in question immediately, fire its professor, Satyel Larson, and issue a public apology to its students, the global Israeli community, and Jews all over the world".

In response to the attacks, more than 400 students, faculty and alumni signed a petition initiated by a Jewish student supporting Larson's right to teach the book. 

But the pushback did not end the attacks, instead, it intensified them.

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On 10 September, pro-Israel Congressman Josh Gottheimer joined the fray by writing two letters, one of which expressed outrage for hosting outspoken critics of Israel such as the journalist and academic Marc Lamont Hill, as well as musician Roger Waters, at the Palestine Writes Festival.

Gottheimer described them as "well known antisemetic and anti-Israel speakers".

In his second letter addressed to Eisgruber, Gottheimer described Puar's book as "containing antisemitic tropes and anti-Israel sentiment" [that] "clearly contradict the University’s mission of inclusivity, which includes protecting Jewish students".

"This is political activism masquerading as scholarship," Gottheimer wrote.

Incidentally, Goldwasser, from JLP, similarly told MEE that criticism of Israel was often cover for antisemitism.

On 13 September, Eisgruber wrote back to Congressman Gottheimer and he dismissed the suggestion that Puar's book should be pulled from a university syllabus, asserting that the lawmaker may have misunderstood the role of a university.

"Those who disagree with a book, or a syllabus, are free to criticize it but not to censor it.  Such arguments are the lifeblood of a great university, where controversies must be addressed through deliberation and debate, not administrative fiat," the Princeton president wrote.

"As I said earlier, Princeton will work vigorously to ensure that all students can thrive here, but not by censoring our curriculum."

With the university refusing to relent, Goldwasser deployed his mobile billboards to Princeton and Philadelphia.

Undermining Palestinians

Emmanuel Sippy, the head of the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP) at Princeton, told MEE that attempts to regulate Larson's course were unsurprising, given that Palestinian perspectives are routinely undermined and conflated with antisemitism or blood libel by mainstream pro-Israel Jewish student groups without any consequence or accountability from the university.

Sippy said that the Zionist Hillel student organisation, Center for Jewish Life (CJL), routinely organises trips to Israel, encouraging students to "connect with Israeli entrepreneurs and startup culture" or through the form of annual birthright tours.

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When the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP), made up of several Jewish students, protested against a planned student "Tiger Trek to Israel" in November 2022, in which students were going to engage with entities associated with the Israeli army, they were accused of antisemitism. 

Sippy also pointed to the treatment of Mohammed El-Kurd, who delivered the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at the university in February 2023.

After his presentation, Chabad Rabbi Eitan Webb stood up and shouted:

“I would like to thank you very much for giving a masterclass on how to be an antisemite,” Webb told El-Kurd.

Then, in May 2023, as thousands of Israelis began protesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial judicial overhaul, Princeton hired an outspoken supporter of the said overhaul as a lecturer at the university.

Sippy said that in an environment in which right-wing Zionist ideologues are normalised, it was only natural that Palestinian students were hesitant to express themselves fully at the university. 

Emmanuel Sippy says there is a prevailing hostility towards Palestinian perspectives at Princeton (MEE/Azad Essa)
Emmanuel Sippy says there is a prevailing hostility towards Palestinian perspectives at Princeton (MEE/Azad Essa)

The other digital billboard accused the university of betraying its history as a safe haven for Jews  (MEE/Azad Essa)
A digital billboard accused the university of betraying its history as a safe haven for Jews (Supplied)

Harshini Abbaraju, a Princeton alumni, told MEE that opposition to the book spoke to a fundamental contradiction and hypocrisy among the right wing on the question of academic freedom.

Abbaraju said that given Princeton's position as an assembly line to politically influential roles in government, it was a deliberate ploy to block students from learning, discussing and potentially taking this education to their future jobs as policymakers.

"They don’t want us talking about Palestine at Princeton. That's why they [are] fighting tooth and nail against it." 

"So this is not just a case of censorship. This book reveals some very harsh truths of the incremental genocide which Palestinians have been subjected to," Abbaraju said.

Several Jewish students who signed the petition declined to speak to MEE about their reasons for doing so.

One Jewish student told MEE on condition of anonymity that he had signed it because it "was a cut and dry case of censorship that was coming in part from the Israeli government and from leadership from campus".

The student inferred that he still wanted to be part of mainstream Jewish life at the university but it was "incidents like these" that made him and others feel alienated from these organisations.

Another Jewish student described the attempt by the Israeli minister to dictate what could be taught at Princeton as extraordinary.

"For me, that was shocking. I didn't believe it at first, and then I looked into it," the student said.

The Princeton Committee on Palestine, the local student group advocating for Palestine at the university, did not reply to MEE's request for comment.

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One Palestinian student at Princeton told MEE on condition of anonymity, that as someone who grew up worried about how people might react when they found out she was Palestinian, the developments on campus in recent weeks have been troubling and confusing.

"My initial reaction is to want to go into a shell even further. I would be a little scared to express who I am because I would be afraid of retribution from different groups," the student said.

At the same time, it makes me want to be more outspoken as to who I am because there is this consistent erasure of Palestinians in every form and in every sphere, and it's important that we don't get erased just because people don't agree on who we are as a people," the student added.

Goldwasser, from JLP, told MEE that he was not aware if Puar's book was being taught at other universities, and if so, he would tackle them, too.

In 2023, there were several attempts to censor students and academics critical of Israel on campuses across the US.

In January, Kenneth Roth, the former Human Rights Watch executive director, was denied a fellowship position at Harvard University.

Roth told MEE at the time that the reason for his denial likely had to do with his criticism of Israel.

Princeton University's communications team declined to comment and directed MEE's queries to previous statements issued by the university over the past month.

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