Democratic Rep. Gottheimer calls on universities to censor Israel critics

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  September 16, 2023

Rep. Josh Gottheimer is pressuring Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania to censor pro-Palestine sentiment on their campuses.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) is calling for two universities to censor pro-Palestine sentiment on their campuses.

In open letters to Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber and University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill, the New Jersey congressman calls for a book on the IDF to be removed from a class syllabus and two Israel critics to be removed from an upcoming panel.

The book is The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability by Jasbir K. Puar (Duke University Press, 2017). “Drawing on a stunning array of theoretical and methodological frameworks, Puar uses the concept of ‘debility’ — bodily injury and social exclusion brought on by economic and political factors — to disrupt the category of disability,” reads a description of the book on the publisher’s website. “She shows how debility, disability, and capacity together constitute an assemblage that states use to control populations. Puar’s analysis culminates in an interrogation of Israel’s policies toward Palestine, in which she outlines how Israel brings Palestinians into biopolitical beings by designating them available for injury.”

Mondoweiss‘s Gaza Correspondent, Tareq Hajjaj, explored the initial controversy surrounding the inclusion of Puar’s book in the Princeton class syllabus, while illustrating to great effect how Puar’s thesis has been borne out in Mondoweiss coverage of Israel’s policy of deliberately maiming Palestinian protestors during the Great March of Return.

Puar’s text is on the syllabus for ‘The Healing Humanities — Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South,’ a course taught by Professor Satyel Larson.

“Princeton University must protect all students, including Jewish students made to feel unsafe by curricula that incites violence and signals tolerance for Jewish hate and anti-Israel rhetoric,” reads Gottheimer’s letter. “Given New Jersey’s strict anti-BDS laws and Princeton’s own anti-discrimination policies, the University is not only reminded, but obligated, to safeguard its students.”

The Democratic lawmaker isn’t the first pro-Israel voice to condemn its inclusion. Larson’s selection has been criticized by right-wing websites and Zionist lawfare organizations. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of the University’s Center for Jewish Life (CLF) penned his own open letter, expressing concern over the “potential impact of including this text” and calling on Larson to pick a book that is “written by a less inflammatory author.”

Steinlauf says the CLF has also written to Larson and Near Eastern studies department chair Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi requesting that they “reconsider the impact of this text and to explore alternative ways to teach the course without including an author whose rhetoric and writing have deeply hurt many in the Jewish community, and could do real harm to Jewish students on our campus.”

Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli also wrote a letter to university leadership attacking the book. “It was shocking to see that this book includes explicit insinuations that Israel uses a deliberate strategy of maiming Palestinians,” he wrote. “This delusional and false accusation is nothing but a modern-day antisemitic blood libel.”

In a response to Gottheimer, Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber defended the school and the concept of academic freedom.

“Your letter concludes by asserting that colleges ‘must protect all students, including Jewish students” from being “made to feel unsafe by curricula,” wrote Eisgruber. “That assertion misunderstands the role of a university, where students inevitably encounter controversial and sometimes disturbing ideas…Princeton will work vigorously to ensure that all students can thrive here, but not by censoring our curriculum.

“Your assertion also underestimates the strength and resilience of Princeton students.  Indeed, many of our students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have spoken up for the importance of academic freedom and defended the right of Professor Larson to assign Dr. Puar’s book,” he continues. “I have no doubt that they have the intelligence and independence to interrogate, challenge, and learn from texts with which they disagree. This University will continue to foster those discussions inside and outside the classroom, and we will adhere steadfastly to the principles of free speech and academic freedom that are essential to our mission.”

Gottheimer’s other target is The Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which will be hosted by the University of Pennsylvania in late September. The event features a number of speakers, including the musician Roger Waters and CUNY professor Marc Lamont Hill; both vocal critics of Israel’s human rights record.

Earlier this year, Waters prevailed in a legal battle to play a concert in Frankfurt, Germany. City officials had originally canceled the show over “the persistent anti-Israel behavior of the former Pink Floyd frontman, who is considered one of the most widely spread antisemites in the world.”

In 2018, Hill was fired from his job at CNN after he gave a speech in support of Palestinian rights at the United Nations. His recent hiring at CUNY has also angered pro-Israel groups and lawmakers. “That Marc Lamont Hill was even considered as a professor at CUNY is reprehensible,” declared City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov (R-Brooklyn). “Every day that Marc Lamont Hill keeps his job at CUNY is a stain on this institution.”

“I am dismayed that this is now occurring at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. While policy discussions and differing views are a welcome and critical part of building cultural understanding, they cannot provide a bully pulpit for those who seek to divide others. If the University’s goal is to promote mutual understanding and bring students together, it will fail so long as antisemites and anti-Israel advocates are given a platform to spew hatred,” reads Gottheimer’s letter to President Magill. “As we begin the fall semester, I hope your Administration will consider disinviting these two speakers from campus, and instead welcome speakers who better reflect the University’s values.”

The literary festival is facing increasing scrutiny beyond Gottheimer’s effort. “In a moment when antisemitism has reached an indisputably historic level, it’s mind-boggling to think that [the University of Pennsylvania] is hosting this gathering of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activists, some of whom have a long history of antisemitic statements and comments,” tweeted Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has issued an action alert calling on their supporters to call for the festival to be canceled. The group refers to the event as a “hate fest” that will bring “danger to the University of Pennsylvania community, especially the Jewish [community].”

President Magill has put out a statement defending academic freedom, but it also aims to distance the school from the event, and embraces the narrative put forward by those trying to shut the festival down.

“While the Festival will feature more than 100 speakers, many have raised deep concerns about several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people,” it reads. “We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values. As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”

Mondoweiss is one of The Palestine Writes Literature Festival’s sponsors

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss