Most of the usual suspects linked with the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) have come swiftly to the aid of Dr. Jasbir Puar, a Rutgers faculty member and participant on the USACBI advisory board, claiming in a circulating scholars’ letter that she is the victim of a rightwing smear campaign designed to silence her and other critical voices on Palestine.
Far from it. We authored an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled “Majoring in Antisemitism at Vassar,” focusing among other things on her talk there, and we are interested in stirring open and robust conversation about Israel and Palestine on campuses. At no time did we call for silencing. We believe strongly in free speech and academic freedom, and we called on the president of Vassar and on Vassar faculty to speak out and exercise their own rights of free speech. President Hill has begun to do so, recently speaking against BDS, while seeking to broaden the range of perspectives heard on campus.
The so-called “campaign of intimidation and harassment” the USACBI letter refers to exists mainly in the minds of the signatories, who cry victim and don the self-righteous cloth of speakers searching for global justice. Puar tours colleges and universities and, to our knowledge, has not been “silenced,” although she canceled a subsequent appearance after Fordham University required that her lecture there be recorded. Since her talk at Vassar, she has not contributed to clarifying her meaning, so we rely on the available transcript.
Most interesting to us is that the USACBI scholars in their letter say nothing serious about the content of Puar’s talk, strongly affirming it without examining it. In our view, Puar’s talk updated the classic anti-Semitic claim known as the blood libel, the accusation against Jews for allegedly stealing Christian children to use in ritual practices. She did this when she repeated speculative claims by others as her own, without either critical assessment or examination, that Israel harvests Palestinian organs, and practices “a weaponized epigenetics” about “needing body parts, not even whole bodies, for research and experimentation.”
Dr. Puar employed the rhetorical device “Some have speculated,” a device that is often employed by those seeking to make accusations without themselves accepting full responsibility. Under the cloak of such rhetorical games, Dr. Puar toyed openly with the blood libel; indeed, her entire talk sounded echoes of anti-Semitism, linking to classic charges of Jewish conspiracy, innate Jewish cruelty, and, now, bio-political control. A sorrowful reality is that none of the USACBI scholars has thus far called her on it. Instead, their letter offers the preposterous claim that Puar’s claims are “grounded in serious scholarship and thorough research.”
Finally, the USACBI letter self-servingly charges that “Universities have frequently been pressured by advocates for Israel to cancel lectures and events, block speakers and restrict funding or even fire faculty who criticize Israeli state policies.” We do not believe this is the whole story and, to the contrary, believe that real pressure to shut down lectures and events, block speakers, and silence faculty or students in recent months has come mainly from BDS-supporters on campuses. Such disruptions have occurred at Israel-related events at the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas, the University of Chicago, DePaul, Northwestern University, and the University of California-Davis. Those who believe in academic freedom and free speech need to understand the real threat posed to reasoned intellectual exchange on our campuses.
Kenneth Waltzer, Professor Emeritus of History, Michigan State U. Mark G. Yudof, President Emeritus, University of California