Opinion: Duke University Press and the demonization of Israel

Peter Reitzes
Peter Reitzes

Duke University Press (DUP) claims it “supports the academic mission of Duke University by disseminating knowledge” and by contributing “most significantly to the University’s … commitment to learning, freedom, and truth.” When it comes to Israel, however, DUP engages in an increasingly troubling anti-Israel agenda that may violate its mission.

In November, DUP published “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability” by Jasbir Puar, a member of the Advisory Board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Puar writes about what she calls “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.” Puar states, “Debilitation is extremely profitable economically and ideologically for Israel’s settler colonial regime.”

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A prominent 2016 piece in the Wall Street Journal by Mark G. Yudof and Ken Waltzer explained that Puar has “passed on vicious lies that Israel had “mined for organs for scientific research” from dead Palestinians – updating the medieval blood libel against Jews – and accused Israelis of attempting to give Palestinians the “bare minimum for survival’ as part of a medical ‘experiment.” The authors add, “The false accusation that a people, some of whose members were experimented on at Auschwitz, are today experimenting on others is a disgrace.”

In “The Right to Maim,” Puar continues what appear to be thinly veiled comparisons of Israelis to Nazis. Puar wonders if Gaza is “not a death camp but a debilitation camp,” asks, “Is Gaza an experimental lab for the production, maintenance, and profitability of biopolitical debilitation?” and states, “The understanding of maiming as a specific aim of biopolitics tests the framing of settler colonialism as a project of elimination of the indigenous through either genocide or assimilation.”

Poor scholarship – what one historian called “academic garbage” – plagues “The Right to Maim.” For example, Puar quotes a professor of psychiatry from Al Jazeera America (not from a peer reviewed study) saying, “Palestinian children in Gaza are exposed to more violence in their lifetime than any other people, any other children, anywhere in the world.” Puar attempts to support this allegation by citing the study, “Effect of Trauma on the Mental Health of Palestinian Children and Mothers in the Gaza Strip” published in the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal. I took the time to obtain and read this study and was surprised to see that it appears to conclude the opposite: “Compared to other types of conflict in war zones, events [in Gaza] were not as acute,” it reports, and “The most common type of traumatic event was seeing victims’ pictures on television.”

Why would DUP publish a book like Puar’s with such poor scholarship and obvious anti-Semitic overtones? Why, in fact, has DUP brought Puar aboard as an editor?

Perhaps the problem lies within bias in DUP’s own staff and policies. At least eight members of DUP’s Editorial Advisory Board and staff have appeared to publicly support initiatives related to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, appearing as signatories of various BDS-oriented initiatives, and often using social media to promote and defend BDS.

At the time of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, Ken Wissoker, the DUP Editorial Director of Books Acquisitions Group, Tweeted, “Tell Congress: you work for me, not for Netanyahu,” which sounds eerily reminiscent of the anti-Semitic canard that Jews are conspiring to rule and dominate the world. In the same Tweet, Wissoker included a link to a Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) announcement on the Iran issue. The Anti-Defamation League refers to JVP as “the largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group in the United States” and warns that JVP uses language “that veers uncomfortably close to age-old anti-Semitic canards.”

Also on Twitter, DUP Editorial Associate Sandra Korn celebrates “our NEW BDS campaign in Durham !!!!!” Korn is listed as a member of the Facebook group “International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.” The group explains, “we struggle against Zionism.” One may wonder if part of the mission or agenda of DUP is also to struggle against Zionism. The official DUP Twitter account has made more than 20 Tweets which include “#BDS.” It would to appear to some that DUP is championing BDS on social media.

Clearly there are a large number of personnel involved with DUP who appear to selectively attack Israel and advocate for positions that delegitimize, demonize, and utilize double standards against Israel. Does DUP staff treat other countries in this manner, or is it just Israel, the only Jewish majority country in the world, which receives such treatment?

The sum of these efforts raises the question of whether DUP is pursuing an agenda that at best shows bias, and at worst promotes anti-Semitic discourse. What, if anything, will Duke University do about the demonization of Israel by DUP? Perhaps the Board of Trustees of Duke University might wish to reflect on Duke’s own published “Anti-Boycott Regulations” that states, “If you run across any language which supports the boycott of Israel, it must be reported to the U.S. government by law.”

Peter Reitzes lives in Chapel Hill.