Durham County

Questions for Duke Press follow publication of book on Israel’s ‘right to maim’

The Duke University Press is catching flak over a book it’s published that criticizes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The Duke University Press is catching flak over a book it’s published that criticizes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. rgronberg@heraldsun.com

One person’s academic discourse is another’s high-gloss anti-Semitism, at least in the eyes of some Triangle residents unhappy with Duke University Press’s publishing a new book that criticizes Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs.

The Right to Maim” is the second tome by Rutgers University women’s- and gender-studies professor Jasbir Puar that Duke Press has published.

The book started generating controversy after a preview lecture Puar gave last year at Vassar College that prompted accusations that she was trading in ancient blood libels against Jews.

Those sorts of critiques are continuing now that the book’s out, echoed locally by observers like speech pathologist Peter Reitzes and Duke School of Medicine pathology professor Stanley Robboy.

“I really feel she’s demonizing Israelis, and by extension Jews, as being sadistic and evil,” said Reitzes, who’s penned an article of his own that both attacks the book and questions the Duke Press’ management and judgment. “That’s a well-trod avenue for hatred and racism.”

Robboy likewise said the matter should prompt a look at the Duke Press and at “what are the rules that have allowed Duke to do this.”

University officials don’t see a problem.

The book “uses Israel as a primary example to illustrate its points about the ways in which contemporary governments control their populations” by “weakening or crippling certain sets of people who are disfavored by the state,” said Steve Cohn, director of the Duke University Press.

Cohn added that the press “certainly has no political litmus test on any issue,” and that the works it publishes “represent the views of their authors, not of Duke University.”

‘Settler colonialism’

Puar unquestionably lines up on the Palestinian side of the 70-year-plus conflict over Israel’s formation, and is among those spearheading the push for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

She contends its founders and modern-day leaders alike are adherents of “settler colonialism,” the term some academics apply to the process that sees foreigners move into a region, kill, eject or assimilate its original inhabitants and claim it for themselves.

Suffice to say, that’s happened a lot throughout human history and there are serious arguments that the U.S. itself is one of its products. But the term’s a bit fraught when it comes to a region in the Middle East that’s been a part of empires from the Romans through to the British, without much in the way of autonomous self-government and where modern-day Israelis have a claim themselves to having descended from the land’s indigenous peoples.

The key chapter of Puar’s book skips over all that to focus on the middle of this decade, when in and around the Gaza Strip there was another flare-up of the shooting war that’s continued in the Holy Land since World War II. It yielded what military types would recognize as a siege as Israel tried to clamp down on on its Palestinian opponents.

As sieges do, it generated a lot of civilian suffering, which is Puar’s focus. She contends the Israelis, for propaganda purposes, sought to limit deaths but had no compunction about maiming people, in ways both literal and figurative.

The result is a weakened, easy-to-dominate population, where the triumphant settlers ultimately don’t have to face the choice of pursuing “the elimination of the indigenous through either genocide or assimilation,” she writes.

‘Cycle of destruction’

What riles critics like Reitzes, however, is a passage immediately afterward that contends the “debilitation” of the Palestinians “is extremely profitable economically and ideologically for Israel’s settler colonial regime.”

Puar couples that to an attack on Arab governments, the U.S. and non-governmental organizations, arguing their attempts at humanitarian relief are ultimately self-serving.

“Post-onslaught donor conferences raise billions of dollars for rebuilding infrastructure in Israel – capitalist accumulation that ultimately feeds back into Israel’s regime – despite the inevitability that Israel will destroy Gaza again,” she writes.

She added that the situation profits “numerous actors who are ultimately beholden to the geopolitical and economic legitimation of Israel,” and the boycott movement has to “break open the obscuring frame of humanitarianism and disrupt the cycle of destruction and rebuilding.”

To Robboy, the Duke pathologist, the argument’s simply an update on “this old blood libel that’s probably gone on for almost 1,000 years.”

Instead of acknowledging that Israel is trying “to conduct war” with the minimal number of casualties, she’s saying that “in fact the purpose of what Israel is doing is to maim [people] so they can subjugate them and use them for fodder for economic gain,” Robboy said. “I’ve never seen anybody propose anything like that.”

The criticism of Duke comes as North Carolina officials move to implement a new law that bars public institutions in the state from doing business with corporations that boycott Israel. It made the state the 22nd in the U.S. with such a rule.

A similar but apparently more restrictive law in Kansas faces a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that the “First Amendment prohibits the government from suppressing one side of a public debate.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg