‘The Right to Maim:’ Jasbir Puar’s Pseudo-Scholarship and Blood Libels Against Israel

A new spin on centuries-old anti-Semitic defamation.

Jews have been accused of harming and murdering non-Jews since the twelfth century in England, when Jewish convert to Catholicism, Theobald of Cambridge, mendaciously announced that European Jews ritually slaughtered Christian children each year and drank their blood during Passover season.

In the regular chorus of defamation against Israel by a world infected with Palestinianism, a new, more odious trend has shown itself: the blood libel has been revivified; however, to position Israel (and by extension Jews) as demonic agents in the community of nations, the primitive fantasies of the blood libel are now masked with a veneer of academic scholarship.

No more salient example of that type of mendacious academic output can be found than in a new book by Rutgers professor Jasbir K. Puar published by Duke University Press, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. The thesis of Puar’s book is formed by her examination of “Israeli tactical calculations of settler colonial rule,” which, she asserts, is “that of creating injury and maintaining Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.” 

In other words, Puar’s core notion is that Israeli military tactics—as an extension of its political policies—involve the deliberate “stunting, “maiming,” physical disabling, and scientific experimenting with Palestinian lives, an outrageous and grotesque resurrection of the classic anti-Semitic trope that Jews purposely, and sadistically, harm and kill non-Jews.

Puar, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, boasts that she regularly writes on a hodgepodge of currently fashionable academic fields of study, including “gay and lesbian tourism, queer theory, theories of intersectionality, affect, homonationalism, and pinkwashing,” the latter being the perverse theory that Israel trumpets its broad support of LGBT rights in its society to furtively obscure its long-standing mistreatment of the Palestinians.   

“The Israeli Defense Forces (idf) have [sic] shown a demonstrable pattern over decades of sparing life, of shooting to maim rather than to kill. This is ostensibly a humanitarian practice,” she admits, although it results in “leaving many civilians ‘permanently disabled’ in an occupied territory of destroyed hospitals, rationed medical supplies, and scarce resources.” So, while Puar reluctantly admits that Israel purposely limits the lethality of its self-defense through restraint and tactical control, she still accuses it of using violence and injury as a tactical tool of a settler state to maintain control of a vulnerable indigenous population. It is both sadistic and exploitative, she contends, because it maintains a purportedly unjust and illegal occupation and the oppression of a victim people.

“I am arguing that debilitation and the production of disability are in fact biopolitical ends unto themselves,” she explains, “ . . . what I call ‘the right to maim’: a right expressive of sovereign power that is linked to, but not the same as, ‘the right to kill.’” 

“Maiming,” she contends,  “. . . is a sanctioned tactic of settler colonial rule,” without ever bothering to offer an explanation of why it is strategically more productive for Israel to permanently injure, as opposed to eliminating, a population which is perpetually an existential threat. 

In a 2016 speech Puar delivered at Vassar College, which presaged the content of her book, she presented this same noxious theme, that Israel is intent on “Targeting youth, not for death but for stunting” as a “tactic that seeks to render impotent any future resistance.” “Maiming masquerades as let live when in fact it acts as will not let die,” she said, and that this technique, as part of a sadistic, imperialistic militancy on the part of Israel, “is used to achieve . . . tactical aims of settler colonialism.”

Unsurprisingly, Puar is also on the Advisory Board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, a leading coordinator of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement on campuses. And more alarming than her open support of the BDS movement is Puar’s explicit support for terrorism against Israeli citizens as a corollary aspect of the BDS movement. BDS “is such a minor piece of how Palestine is going to be liberated, [and] we need BDS as part of organized resistance and armed resistance in Palestine as well [emphasis added]” she has said. “There is no other way the situation is going to change.”

Puar also accuses Israel of randomly, and recklessly, targeting medical facilities and other infrastructure as a deadly way “to provide the bare minimum for survival, but minimal enough to attempt to defeat or strip resistance” where “. . . the target here is not just life itself but resistance itself.”  But Puar’s view that Israel’s military operations are characterized by disproportionality and a disregard for human life—even of its mortal foes—was, in fact, totally contradicted by a report prepared by The High-Level International Military Group on the Gaza Conflict in 2014, which found that “during Operation Protective Edge . . . Israel not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard.”

Professor Puar is a feminist and gender studies specialist, and one may wonder why she has invested so much of her academic energy in vilifying Israel. But her obsession with Israel and its various perceived modes of oppression and brutality toward a weak, innocent victim group is consistent with many academics in the humanities and social sciences who increasingly find a linkage as they seek to affirm the rights of the victimized and name the villains responsible for this oppression.  

This trend is called “intersectionality,” and it has meant that someone who is a gender studies professor, or queer theorist, or American studies expert can, with no actual knowledge or expertise about the Middle East, readily pontificate on the many social pathologies of Israel, based on its perceived role as a racist, colonial oppressor of an innocent indigenous population of Arab victims. For Professor Puar and her fellow academic travelers, to know one victim group is to know any victim group—with Israel being a tempting and habitual target of their opprobrium.

In The Right to Maim, Puar discusses the supposed linkage between Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, seeing in both struggles a common theme of weak victim groups being oppressed by the forces of racism and colonialism, respectively.

“‘Hands up, don’t shoot!’ is not a catchy slogan that emerges from or announces able-bodied populations,” Puar suggests, assuming that black victims of police shootings are always innocent and their deaths are the result of police brutality as opposed to the consequences of criminal behavior. “Rather,” she continues, “this common Black Lives Matter chant is a revolutionary call for redressing the debilitating logics of racial capitalism. It is a compact sketch of the frozen black body, rendered immobile by systemic racism and the punishment doled out for not transcending it.” 

And just as the black male is a perennial victim of “racial capitalism” and “systematic racism,” the Palestinian terrorist is also a victim, never a perpetrator. The Black Lives Matter story, for Puar, is analogous to and also “ . . . is the story of a Palestinian resister shot dead for wielding a knife (if that) against an idf [sic] solider who has the full backing of the world’s military might. ‘I can’t breathe!’ captures the suffocation of chokeholds on movement in Gaza and the West Bank as it does the violent forces of restraint meted out through police brutality. ‘Hands up, don’t shoot!’ and ‘I can’t breathe!’ are, in fact, disability justice rally cries.”

Supporters of the Palestinian cause have come to accept the fact that Israel will not be defeated through the use of traditional tools of warfare. Instead, the Jewish state’s enemies, abetted by the academic and media elites in the West, have begun to use different, but equally dangerous, tactics to delegitimize and eventually destroy Israel in a cognitive war. By dressing up old hatreds against Jews, as Puar has done in this new book, combined with a purported goal of seeking social justice for the oppressed, and repackaging ugly biases as seemingly pure scholarship, she and Israel’s other ideological foes have found an effective, but odious, way to ensure that the Jew of nations, Israel, is still accused of fostering social chaos and bringing harm and death to non-Jews.

It is a vicious and ugly trope in the centuries-old history of the world’s oldest hatred: that Jews still harbor murderous, sadistic, and inhuman impulses against non-Jews and wish to injure or murder them—in the current day with the Palestinian Arabs as long-suffering victims of the Jew of nations, Israel.

Richard L. Cravatts, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.

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