Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Princeton University
A book included on a course syllabus at Princeton University has sparked controversy on and beyond the New Jersey campus. Some Jewish campus community members and onlookers contend that the book peddles antisemitic tropes and false assertions about Israeli policy and should be removed from the course. Others—including some academic freedom advocates and a non-Zionist Jewish student group—say the book raises valid concerns about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and scrubbing the text from the course would infringe on the professor’s rights.
The book at the center of the debate is The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability by Jasbir Puar, professor and graduate director of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University. It was included in a sample reading list for a fall course called The Healing Humanities: Decolonizing Trauma Studies From the Global South, taught by Satyel Larson, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies.
Puar writes in the book’s introduction that there’s a theme “long present in Israeli tactical calculations of settler colonial rule—that of creating injury and maintaining Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
Larson, Puar and Princeton administrators did not respond to requests for comment.
News of the book’s inclusion in the course spread through conservative and Jewish media outlets and prompted criticism. Amichai Chikli, Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs and combating antisemitism, wrote an Aug. 9 letter to Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, and the dean of faculty expressing his “profound condemnation and dismay.”
“It was shocking to see that this book includes explicit insinuations that Israel uses a deliberate strategy of maiming Palestinians. This delusional and false accusation is nothing but a modern-day antisemitic blood libel,” he wrote.
Chikli wrote that the book would contribute to a “hostile and divisive atmosphere against Jews and Israelis” and recommended that university leaders “act immediately” to remove the book and “conduct a thorough review” of university course materials “to ensure that they align with the principles of academic integrity and are free from any form of discrimination, including antisemitism.”
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, an international Jewish advocacy organization, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Princeton was “not only sanctioning hate speech, but establishing fertile ground for a new generation of antisemitic thought leaders.” He called on university leaders to cancel the course, fire Larson and issue an apology.
Some academic freedom advocates are pushing back against the calls for removal of the book and the firing of Larson.
Jonathan Friedman, program director for free expression and education at PEN America, an advocacy organization, said in a press release this week that removing the book from the syllabus or firing Larson would be “highly misguided—not to mention an overt violation of academic freedom.”
“If we scrubbed college campuses of any book that could cause any offense, we would be left with a fairly barren environment for academic inquiry,” Friedman said. “Suppressing an academic text some find controversial would be antithetical to the University’s mission. While we can and must confront the scourge of antisemitism, censorship is not the answer, nor is the inclusion of this book in a course an invitation for antisemitic violence, as implied.”
The Middle East Studies Association of North America also came to Larson’s defense in a letter to university leaders Thursday. Leaders of the national academic association argued that the book’s critics are trying to shut down critiques of Israeli policies.
“We regard this campaign as yet another distressing instance in which self-described supporters of Israel have tendentiously weaponized false allegations of antisemitism and ‘anti-Israel bias’ in order to silence criticism of that state and of its policies and practices toward the Palestinians,” the letter reads.
A Campus Divided
This controversy at Princeton is hardly an outlier. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is frequently and hotly debated on college campuses nationwide. Some students and scholars have called for a boycott of partnerships with Israeli companies and higher education institutions as a form of protest, while some campuses have actively sought to build ties. Students, scholars and campus organizations on different sides of the issue have repeatedly protested and sometimes shut down each other’s speakers.
As outside voices weigh in, Princeton students, alumni and employees are divided.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life and a chaplain of Princeton’s Hillel, wrote an email to Jewish campus community members on Aug. 14 expressing concerns about the book and telling them he’d written to Larson and the chair of her department, Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, asking them to reconsider its inclusion. He also asked to meet with them and other university officials “to facilitate a campus culture of deep listening, dialogue, mutual understanding, and communication across differences.”
“We are concerned about the negative impact of Jasbir Puar’s damaging and unproven views on the discourse on our campus, as well as the safety and wellbeing of our Jewish and Israeli students,” he wrote in the communitywide message.
Steinlauf told Inside Higher Ed via email that he and other staff members at the center feel obligated to air concerns about issues that affect Jewish students but also support “the right of any professor to include what she deems appropriate on any course syllabus.”
“With the rise of antisemitism and so many other forms of social hatred and division in our country and around the world, we believe that creating a culture of understanding and sensitivity between our Jewish community and others is more important than ever,” he wrote. “All of our efforts at the CJL have been offered in this spirit of respect and building bridges between all sides and viewpoints on this difficult issue.”
Ghamari-Tabrizi, chair of Near Eastern Studies, said he and Eisgruber have received a flood of emails about the book, but “very, very, very few” of those messages have been from students or colleagues. He believes pressures from outside the university have created a “manufactured crisis” and the complaints against the book are part of the same conservative push for colleges not to teach concepts such as critical race theory or subjects such as queer studies.
“The way this is portrayed as a major crisis in the Jewish world is uncalled-for,” he said, noting that the criticisms are an overreaction to a section of a book. “This is just a chapter from a book in a class of a few students at Princeton University.”
Larson and Ghamari-Tabrizi are both signatories of Palestine and Praxis, an open letter that calls on scholars to commit to supporting campus policies that divest from “complicity and partnership with military, academic, and legal institutions involved in entrenching Israel’s policies” and community efforts and legislation that push governments “to end funding Israeli military aggression,” among other charges.
Ghamari-Tabrizi said professors inevitably have political stances and share them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t foster “fruitful and meaningful discourse” among students who profoundly disagree with them and each other. He said he wants to see “dissent” in classes.
“When I open my mouth, everybody knows that I am speaking from a particular position,” he said. “But my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure that I create an environment in my classroom that all voices can be heard and not to judge and evaluate students’ work based on their political affiliation … but based on the way they show the ability to articulate their own positions and the ability to represent other people’s accurately and without prejudice.”
He noted that he’d welcome an academic discussion among colleagues about the ideas in the book, but outsiders calling for the firing of a junior faculty member is “very unsettling.” He also noted that Jews on campus have expressed varied opinions about the book’s inclusion.
The Alliance of Jewish Progressives, a non-Zionist Jewish student group, published an open letter defending Larson in The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper that has reported on the ongoing debate. The letter has since garnered more than 350 signatures from students, alumni, faculty and staff members.
“We are deeply troubled by the attempt to censor Professor Larson, ban Puar’s book, limit intellectual inquiry, and silence faculty-student exchange within and beyond the classroom, particularly on issues of such political, moral, and philosophical significance,” the letter reads. “While far-right Jewish leaders in America and Israel claim to speak for us, they do not.”
The group also criticized the Center for Jewish Life for taking a stance against teaching the book.
“This latest attempt to silence educational discourse related to Israel-Palestine is part of a pattern in which the CJL aims to interfere with academic and co-curricular events, inquiry, and debate on campus,” the letter noted, referring to pushback the English department received from Hillel leaders and others after inviting Palestinian writer Mohammed el-Kurd to speak on campus.
Alyza Lewin, a Princeton alum and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a Jewish civil and human rights organization, said concerns about the book have to be understood within the context of broader concerns about antisemitism on campuses. She noted that Jewish students have all kinds of views on Israel’s policies, plenty of them critical, but many still see a connection to Israel as part of their Jewish identities. Jewish students or groups are sometimes excluded from campus activities by their peers because of that dynamic, she said. For example, a student book club and a sexual assault support group at the University of Vermont reportedly excluded Zionists from participating.
Against that backdrop, she believes the book risks spreading a “highly controversial, one-sided criticism,” and with it the “notion on the campus that Israelis are evil, because they do these horrible things, and by association, then anybody who could even possibly support Israel is also evil,” she said. “And what that does is that gives license to students on campus to shun and marginalize Jewish students.”
She wants university leaders to speak out against the book and to invite a campus speaker or promote a book or article that presents a counternarrative.
Kenneth Stern, director of the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College, said he understands why some members of the campus Jewish community find the book offensive, but he believes getting rid of the book sets a “dangerous” precedent. He’d also rather critics speak out against it, organize a public forum to discuss it or invite scholars with different perspectives to speak on campus.
“Listen, when I teach, I assign Mein Kampf,” said Stern, whose book The Conflict Over the Conflict is about campus debates about Israel. “Even if a professor has an agenda—and I don’t know if this particular professor does or doesn’t—the response is, ‘let’s put forth other ideas, let’s examine why we think this is a problem,’ rather than just say we should shield students from a particular book.”
He said Jewish campus organizations often make similar arguments for open discourse at times when student protesters have tried to shut down Zionist or Israeli speakers. It’s “disturbing” to him that some of the book’s critics aren’t calling for those methods at Princeton.
Too often, “each side wants to censor the other, as opposed to finding other ways of combating ideas,” he said.
Ghamari-Tabrizi said no changes will be made to Larson’s curriculum.
“If we are busy trying to accommodate all these external pressures for what is taught at a university … we are going to be totally paralyzed,” he said. “So, no, absolutely not. We are not planning to do any kind of changes or interfere with the pedagogy or the plan of any professor in our department.”