Cary Nelson

Jasbir Puar Launches Women’s Studies on a Death Spiral

In the 1970s and 1980s the emerging field of Women’s Studies embodied the hopes and goals for transforming humanities disciplines. It led a long overdue effort to hire more women faculty. It promoted the drive to show how rigorous, well-researched scholarship could contribute to a progressive social mission. Of course WS faculty members and popular writers sometimes went to ludicrous extremes in contesting patriarchy, but academic training and the desire for academic respectability eventually moderated these impulses for many. WS meanwhile help set the agenda for faculty in other fields, though it never settled its internal conflict between political and academic impulses.

Feminist historians meanwhile investigated the neglected experiences of women throughout history. Literary critics rediscovered and analyzed the work of neglected women writers, even as they challenged those critics who defined the literary canon as masculine. A body of theory evolved to identify the structural forces that had long sustained gendered inequities in social and cultural life. I have contributed both to the defense of feminist theory and to the effort to recover and analyze the work of women poets.

Such work continues to be published, and we are immensely better for it. But the organization that represents many faculty members and graduate students in the field—the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA)—has increasingly embraced political aims that display contempt for the objective, self-critical standards that guide the best scholarship. Now it is clear politics has won; the NWSA’s political mission will not be qualified by objective standards. The organization is committed to criminalizing and delegitimating the state of Israel. In 2015 it passed the most far reaching anti-Israel resolution of any major professional association, going well beyond an academic boycott to isolate, and condemn, and do as much economic and cultural damage to Israel as possible. With that NWSA became officially intolerant of all alternative political opinion.

The NWSA has now crossed a further line in self-discreditation by honoring Jasbir Puar’s December 2017 book The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, a publication that discards evidentiary standards and instead bases its accusations against the Jewish state on its author’s personal fantasies. In September 2018 the NWSA awarded The Right to Maimits Alison Piepmeier Book Prize, describing the book as a “major milestone.” It has now officially endorsed an irresponsible and discriminatory research agenda for feminist faculty and students.

My book in manuscript—Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, & the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State—devotes its longest chapter (30,000 words) to an analysis of Jasbir Puar’s publications. Most anti-Israel faculty publications focus on debatable propositions. Not Puar. You can debate the claim that Israel discriminates against its Arab citizens, but so long as there is evidence of racism among some Israelis you cannot wholly discredit the accusation. Puar, however, makes arguments that can actually be proven factually right or wrong. They are consistently false.

Take one example: she claims that Israel has been stunting the growth of Palestinian children. Stunting (below normal height) means children are at greater risk for illness, reduced cognitive capacity, and premature death. The WHO, UNICEF, and other groups publish statistical reports on this and other health concerns. So does the Palestinian Authority. There are scores of published academic papers on the subject. All come to the same conclusion: comparing stunting rates across the world proves it is not a major health problem in Gaza or the West Bank. The WHO standard for classifying stunting as a major health concern is 20%. Stunting in the West Bank Gaza runs at 7-10% of children aged 1-5 years. By comparison, Egypt’s rate is 19.8%. Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia include countries with dramatically higher stunting rates: India (38.4%), Ethiopia (38.4%), Zambia (40%), Pakistan (45%), Madagascar (49.2%), Eritrea (50.2%), and Burundi (57.5%). Puar cites none of this research. If Israel is stunting the growth of Palestinian children it is doing a very poor job indeed.

To publish an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic book without factual proof Puar did not have to find the long lost publisher of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. She simply gave the manuscript to Duke University Press. There it would be judged by people within the echo-chamber of anti-Zionists who don’t care about facts. Their standard for original scholarship is “Tell us something bad about Israel we don’t already know.” Duke obviously did not do any independent fact-checking. It then added the Duke University imprimatur to a book that dishonors the University and should be withdrawn from publication. Instead, The Right to Maimwill probably earn Puar a full professorship at Rutgers. After all, distinguished scholars like Judith Butler have endorsed the book on its jacket. Credulous audiences in universities across the country applaud its arguments when Puar lectures. And now the book has a national award.

Moreover, Duke is not unique. Puar could as easily have offered the book to the University of California Press or the University of Minnesota Press; both have committed anti-Zionist lists as well. That highlights a broader problem: the elimination of responsible peer reviewing at University presses that promote antagonism to Israel’s right to exist.

Why does NWSA’s endorsement and its embrace of faux scholarship matter? Because NWSA members are thus encouraged to write and teach with a fiercely anti-Zionist bias and train their students to think and write that way. Several other humanities groups, most notably the American Studies Association, have launched themselves down the same rabbit hole.

The NWSA award raises other troubling issues: should faculty travel to blatantly political organizations that masquerade as academic enterprises be funded? Should funding requests by departments that have become political propaganda machines be honored? Can humanities disciplines survive their ruthless politicization? How much worse can matters get?

About the Author
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the coeditor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, published this January. He spent a month in Israel from December to January, lecturing at Israeli universities and elsewhere, with the support of Jewish organizations in the US.