Students and professors respond to GRID panel

by Zachary Benjamin | 5/12/16 6:58pm

Jasbir Puar’s April 30 presentation at a panel sponsored by the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth remains controversial, both for its content and for attempts to record it.

Puar, a professor of women and gender studies at Rutgers University who in the past has been accused of anti-Semitism for her writings and remarks about Israel, was invited to speak at the panel, entitled “Archipelagic Entanglements.” The panel was part of a larger seminar series organized by English professor Aimee Bahng and postdoctoral fellow Max Hantel entitled “Gender Matters: Feminist Ecologies and Materialisms.” Puar was one of six speakers in attendance at the event.

Puar’s talk, entitled “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters,” was divided into three parts. She began with an overview describing the intentions of the project: to frame discussions about Israel and Palestine by combining various areas of study, including object-oriented ontology, posthumanist theories, postcolonial theories, theories of settler colonialism and disability studies.

Puar then described two examples that she said demonstrate “the mired forms of occupation today.” The first was a gated community built in the city of Rawabi by a Palestinian millionaire, the first of its kind in Palestine, she said. She claimed that despite its many luxuries, the community is devoid of water, and that construction was entirely dependent on receiving permission from Israel, which controls the territory. She also discussed controversies between solidarity activists, whom she described as critical of the project for its complicity with the Israeli government’s occupation of the West Bank, and the property developer, whom she said characterized the project as a counter-settlement strategy.

Puar also discussed what she described as Israeli control over Palestinian telecommunications networks. She discussed forms of “digital fragmentation” that separate geographical areas of Palestine from one another, making it difficult for them to communicate. Puar also criticized the presence of checkpoints in the West Bank and the rise of technologies meant to relieve the boredom of waiting to pass through, saying that they implicitly support and profit from the occupation.

More generally, Puar was critical of what she saw as dehumanizing attitudes that emphasize the use of technology at the expense of human life.

“Algorithmic computations are rationalized in the service of a liberal yet brutal humanism and humanitarianism, whether through the calculation of deaths of Hamas, where 28 deaths are humanitarian killing and the 29th death is collateral damage, or the perfection of drone technology as a sublimated rationale for killing of Gazan civilians,” she said.

The second part of Puar’s lecture was largely a summary of a previously published paper, entitled “The Right to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine.” She asserted that Israel has claimed an implicit “right to maim” Palestinian citizens as part of the occupation of Palestinian territories.

Puar said that Israel has used tactics such as illegally using flechettes and dumdum bullets that splinter in bones, bombing hospitals and a disability center, destroying schools and mosques, destroying an electric power plant and targeting youths, all of which she described as inflicting some form of debilitation. She also said that medical personnel in Gaza and the West Bank have seen shifts away from using tear gas and rubber bullets and a shift towards shooting at knees, femurs or vital organs as a form of crowd control. She also claimed that Israel has sought to attack Palestine’s infrastructure as a means of controlling the population. All together, these sorts of policies manifest what she called “the right to maim,” adapted from Michel Foucault’s “right to kill.”

Puar was also critical of how concepts like collateral damage and shooting without fatal intent have been framed. The concept of collateral damage “disarticulates the effects of warfare from the perpetration of violence,” she said. Shooting to cripple, meanwhile, is framed as “preservation of life,” she said, while it should more properly be framed as “will not let die.”

“What I am explicitly arguing is that from the discoursive and empirical evidence offered by Palestinians, this foundational biopolitical frame is a liberal fantasy that produces ‘let live’ as an alibi for colonial rule and thus indeed facilitates the covert destruction of ‘will not let die,’” she said.

Puar closed her talk by mentioning fieldwork she completed in January in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. She analyzed disability studies in this context, arguing that the Israeli occupation and alleged “right to maim” tactics have rendered the entire Palestinian population debilitated to some degree.

The main focus of disability rights groups in Palestine is anti-occupation activism, she claimed. The two are intrinsically tied, she said, and disability cannot be “reclaimed as an empowered identity” until the occupation ends, she said.

During the question and answer session, anthropology professor Sergei Kan criticized Puar for using what he claimed were biased or unprofessional sources such as left-wing pro-Palestinean websites written in English. He asked whether she had command of Hebrew or Arabic, given the nature of her fieldwork. He also asked why Puar did not discuss Israelis who have been maimed by Palestinian “freedom fighters,” claiming that the exclusion is part of Puar’s “agenda.” While asking the last question, the microphone was taken away from him and given to another attendee.

When she received the microphone back, Puar did address some of Kan’s criticisms. She said that she started learning Arabic while conducting fieldwork in Beirut and will continue to do so. She also claimed that he was selectively questioning her use of translators as a way of attempting to discredit her work, despite there being “many, many, many people who do field work all over the world with translators.”

In response to his questions about her sources, Puar said that she is concerned with finding “subjugated knowledges” that are normally ignored because they are not written by people in power.

“They are sources that are obscured by dominant media, and it’s really important for us to pay attention to the voices that aren’t getting heard in this conversation,” she said.

She did not address his comments on Israelis being maimed.

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Kan maintained his objections towards Puar’s sources. While he is not necessarily opposed to using websites as sources, or to seeking out marginalized voices, he said that Puar did not rely on any other type of source, or on any sources that were not pro-Palestine and anti-Israel. He attributed this to what he believed was a bias on Puar’s part in favor of Palestine, citing a section in her paper “The Right to Maim” that said, “The ultimate purpose of this analysis is to labor in the service of a Free Palestine.”

He criticized Borderlands, the journal that published her article “The Right to Maim,” as “marginal” and ideologically slanted. He also disputed Puar’s claim that he was questioning her use of translators as a way of undermining her, though he said that many of her claims were inaccurate.

Kan also claimed that while Puar never directly mentioned Jews in her speech, her remarks are consistent with a trend where attacks on Israel question not just its policies, but also its very existence. On that level, he said, the speech approaches anti-Semitism.

Chabad co-president Matthew Goldstein ’18 had stronger views. Speaking in a personal capacity, he said that Puar’s statements fit three criteria of how anti-Semitism could potentially manifest in anti-Israel speech: demonization, double standards and delegitimization. For the first, he pointed to Puar’s past statements that claim Israel engages in organ harvesting from Palestinians, which he connected to past anti-Semitic rhetoric of blood libel.

In a blog post from March, Puar wrote that the exact phrasing of her statement was, “Some [Palestinian families] speculate that [their children’s dead] bodies were mined for organs for scientific research.”

In terms of double standards, Goldstein said that Puar placed Israel in a double bind by criticizing their “do-not-kill” policies when she would presumably also oppose the killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces. He also said that Puar has not criticized other countries for similar actions.

For the third point of delegitimization, Goldstein pointed to her association with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Goldstein also said that he believes anti-Zionism, when used to try and argue against the right to a Jewish state, is anti-Semitic, though he said that under some definitions of Zionism it might not be. He also said this does not mean that he believes Palestine should not exist.

Chabad co-president Eliza Ezrapour ’18 said that Chabad is disappointed that students did not have more of a chance to engage in a dialogue with Puar at the event. Speaking as president of Chabad, she said that she considered some of Puar’s statements anti-Semitic, as they draw on traditional Jewish stereotypes while using inaccurate information. She also emphasized that Chabad does not seek to silence any speakers.

Alex Safian, associate director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, also published a point-by-point refutation of Puar’s speech on the website Dartblog on Thursday evening.

Others have maintained their support for Puar. In an email, GRID director Annabel Martín wrote that Puar “is a very esteemed scholar with a well-established intellectual trajectory.”

Audience member and GRID fellow Veri di Suvero ’16 said that the situation in Israel is complex, and that because of the conflicting reports about the situation it is not necessarily possible to know whether or not there is a single truth about what is going on there. They said that some of Puar’s ideas, such as the potential harvesting of organs, have also been investigated by Israeli scholars. They also said Puar demonstrated bravery in her willingness to speak out as a woman of color who is often misidentified as Arab or Muslim.

GRID also published two letters on their website. The first was from Martín, in which she criticized The Dartmouth for what she called inaccurate reporting on Puar’s lecture. She also wrote that no one save for Kan had questioned Puar’s claims at the panel. The second was from a group of academics who called themselves the Bully Bloggers, consisting of New York University social and cultural analysis professor Lisa Duggan, University of Southern California American studies and ethnicity professor Jack Halberstam, New York University performance studies Tavia Nyong’o and University of Arizona women’s and gender studies professor Sandra Soto. In it, they described Puar’s paper as “solidly researched” and supported the quality of her sources. They also said the paper “included nothing even remotely anti-Semitic.” They also criticized The Dartmouth’s previous reporting.

English professor Melissa Zeiger, who also holds appointments in the Jewish studies and women’s, gender and sexualities departments, wrote in an email that she was offended by claims that anti-Zionist arguments are anti-Semitic, as this implicitly claims that all Jews are Zionists. She also expressed support for the letters on GRID’s website.

Women’s, gender and sexualities professor Eng-Beng Lim also supported GRID’s statements in an email.

The talk has also drawn controversy over attempts by audience members to record it. Puar did not grant permission for her remarks to be recorded by anyone other than the College. The CD containing the audio recording has not been made available outside of the Jones Media Center. It was made available Monday afternoon after being catalogued by Jones. GRID submitted the recording the previous Thursday.

Martín said that GRID is legally bound to abide by the wishes of presenters. Before panels, GRID asks speakers for permission to record them and upload copies of their talk to GRID’s website. While most presenters agree to be filmed for educational purposes, allowing a copy of their work to be viewed in the library, not all of them agree to allow other copies to be distributed, she said. In these cases, GRID cannot go against their directives.

Goldstein said that he heard before the speech that there would not be a videotape of the event, and that there only might be an audio recording. He said that given previous pushback from Puar about having her lectures recorded, he was not sure that the recording would actually be made, or how accessible it would be if it were made. Noting that he was speaking as a student and not as Chabad president, he said that he decided to attend the panel and make a recording to hold Puar accountable for her statements.

Martín wrote that during a break between panels before Puar began speaking, she saw Goldstein setting up a camera and tripod. She asked him what he was doing, and upon hearing that he was making a recording told him that he could not because the panelists had not given their permission. After he refused twice to stop recording, she said, she called over a Safety and Security officer. The three of them left the room to discuss the situation, she said, but Goldstein reentered the room and continued to try recording.

After telling Goldstein to stop for a third time, Martín said, she went to the front of the room and announced that unauthorized recordings would not be permitted.

After that, Martín said, she went over to Goldstein for a fourth time and asked him to stop recording and instead to engage as a student. He still refused, so Martín asked a Safety and Security officer to remove him from the room. The three of them, an additional Safety and Security officer and Martín’s office manager all went into the hall and discussed the situation, she said.

Goldstein still refused to stop the recording, she said, and so the Safety and Security officer called the Hanover Police Department. When the officer arrived, Goldstein packed up his camera and left.

Other attendees, as well as Goldstein himself, corroborated Martín’s account. On the audio recording, the interaction between Goldstein and Martín is not audible. Michail Athanasakis ’18, a student Classroom Technology Services technician who was operating the sound and microphones at the event, said that Goldstein was seated behind him and that he could hear the interactions between Martín and Goldstein. He said that Martín asked Goldstein to stop recording, he refused, and they went back and forth for a little bit. Goldstein was warned multiple times that he could not make the recording, Athanasakis said. He also noted that Goldstein could definitely tell a recording was being made, as he was right next to the camera.

di Suvero said that they spoke with Martín afterwards, and that Martín was very upset that the police had to be called.

Goldstein’s version of events was essentially consistent with that of other students. One difference was that he claimed that Martín said that he would be removed “with force” or “by force” if he did not stop recording — while he did not remember the exact phrase, he was positive that the word “force” was used. He was also generally agitated by the interactions and how he perceived her attitude towards him. Goldstein also said that Martín approached him once, not twice, before calling Safety and Security.

Over email, Martín denied that she had threatened any sort of force against Goldstein.

College spokeswoman Diana Lawrence wrote in an email no one was threatened with force or physically restricted during the event.

Zeiger also wrote that the idea of Martín having used force against Goldstein is “laughable.” She commended Martín’s handling of the situation with Goldstein and how she urged him to turn off the camera and stay at the talk.

Neither Athanasakis nor di Suvero said they heard any mentions or threats of force.

Goldstein said he continued trying to record even after being told to stop because he was not confident that the recording would be made available, stating that he did not have much faith in GRID or other supporters of Puar. He also said that audio recordings as a medium are not as effective at holding people accountable as videos, because it is harder to identify people only by their voices and it is possible for people to impersonate others.

After Puar’s presentation, the next panelist, professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Neel Ahuja, made a statement in support of Puar:

“Before I begin I want to thank Jasbir, whose work has been an inspiration to me and to many of us in this room,” he said. “I also want to note the fact that our space has been disrupted and that Jasbir’s space has been disrupted, throughout that last talk. I want to note the irony that controversy about filming or recording Jasbir’s talk fulfills a certain algorithmic militarism that is evident from the comments she gave and capitalizes on the fact that black and brown bodies are on display openly critiquing forms of colonialism and racial power.”

Ahuja wrote in an email, “The attempt to record the talk for online use was part of a larger smear campaign to silence research and reporting critical of Israeli war crimes in Palestine.”

The Dartmouth previously reported that one Jewish student in attendance claimed that Ahuja’s comments might have been anti-Semitic, because Goldstein was wearing a yarmulke. Both Martín and the Bully Bloggers were adamant that Ahuja’s comments were not anti-Semitic. Ahuja wrote that he had been “slandered in print.”

Goldstein is a former member of The Dartmouth opinion staff.