OpinionU.S. News

The Princeton case: ‘Academic freedom’ to attack Jews

It is unacceptable that Jewish students don’t merit protection from "macroaggressions," especially when they have nothing to do with academic freedom.

McCosh 50, the largest lecture hall on campus, renovated in 2021. Credit: Politics Is Exciting via Wikimedia Commons.
McCosh 50, the largest lecture hall on campus, renovated in 2021. Credit: Politics Is Exciting via Wikimedia Commons.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus
Lori Lowenthal Marcus

“Wokeness” and cancel culture operate in reverse when it comes to the Jews. For all other minorities, the Woke Police eagerly sniff out barely perceptible (or non-existent) “harm” caused by a teacher’s stray phrase in a classroom, an actor’s comments, an author’s opinion or a physician’s acknowledgement of biological facts.

When such a “sin” is discovered, the woke world demands not merely a retraction and a craven apology, but also abnegation of the sinner. And then the offenders are often officially “cancelled”—literally removed from the rolls of respectability in “polite” society—driven from jobs, deprived of clients, their names rendered unmentionable by anyone who does not him or herself want to become the next victim of an auto-da-fe.

But then there are statements about Jews. Even the most outrageous and wildly unfounded assertions about Jews and/or the Jewish state are not only tolerated, but also tweeted and retweeted, expounded upon and, most significantly, taught as truth in classrooms.

When someone is so naive as to demand that a baseless and false attack on the Jews be treated the same way as a statement about any other minority, a unique phenomenon is revealed. In this case, the speaker is not embarrassed into a craven apology, or obliged to endure a struggle session in which he confesses his sin and promises to be an ally of the Jews. Rather, when Jews or Israel are the subject of such a statement, the same bevy of Moral Inquisitors who demand cancellation of anyone allegedly maligning any other ethnic group piles on not to demand cancellation of the antisemites, but to protect them and to excoriate the Jews.

This precise drama is playing out at Princeton University, where professor Satyel Larson will be teaching a fall course titled, “Decolonizing Trauma Studies.” The curriculum for this class includes a book called “The Right to Maim,” by Rutgers professor Jasbir Puar, which claims that the Israeli government directs soldiers to shoot only at the lower limbs of Palestinian activists engaging in violence. But this humanitarian policy, aimed at avoiding deaths, is instead alchemically transformed by Puar into an expression of a policy of “colonization,” intended specifically to permanently immobilize and debilitate Arab Palestinians in order to perpetuate control over them.

The Deborah Project, a public interest law firm of which I am the legal director,  asserts and defends the civil rights of Jews, wrote to Christopher Eisgruber, the president of Princeton University, about the use of Puar’s book. We did not demand that the course’s professor be fired or that the book be withdrawn, as many other critics of the class have done. Instead we called Princeton’s attention to the legal problems they create for themselves when they protect political advocacy in their classrooms.

Both Puar and Larson have signed an online manifesto, Palestine & Praxis, in which they publicly assert and commit themselves to advancing a specific political ideology. As our letter to Eisgruber explains, signers are “committed to a particular political agenda.” Signers of the manifesto affirm that all their work, in the classroom and on campus, centers on the goals of the manifesto, to:

• Never conduct research in Palestine or on Palestinians without a clear component of political commitment;

• Ensure that Palestinians are “sources of authority ”simply by virtue of being Palestinians;

• Advance the claim that “Israel’s sovereignty over its territory is founded on belief in the racial supremacy of Jewish-Zionist nationals”;

• Commit to “pressuring the academic institutions with which they are associated for the Boycott of Israel” and “center” the accounts of people because of who they are and not because of the validity of their analysis.

Many defenders of the course, the book and the professor, including President Eisgruber, have thrown on the sheltering cloak of “academic freedom” to justify their refusal to do anything about Larson’s course and Puar’s book. What this defense misses is that what Puar has written, and what Larson is providing to her students, is not entitled to the shield of academic freedom because it is not “academic” at all: It is blatantly political.

In addition to the abandonment of truth as a goal, as a source, or as an inspiration, the activity of this professor and the use of this book violates the Internal Revenue Service Code section governing tax-exempt entities such as Princeton. IRS regulations, rephrased and enshrined by Princeton’s own internal rules, make clear that at all tax-exempt non-profit corporations, of which Princeton is one, “Studies which in and of themselves might be bona fide academic research might also be designed for partisan political purposes. The University’s resources cannot be used for such work nor to advance other causes not directly related to the mission of the University, unless it is paid for from non-University funds and at the regular rate plus the standard surcharge applicable to such work.”

Our letter to Princeton’s president noted his “commitment to ensuring academic freedom, including the need to protect members of Princeton’s academic community when they advance ideas that some may find troubling or even wounding.” But as we explained to Eisgruber, “Larson’s ‘political commitment’ to advancing her own political agenda in the classroom is, quite plainly and by her own proclamation, not academic activity; it is instead ‘pressure’ intentionally placed on her students and others, to further her own political goals and the conferral of status as ‘authoritative’ upon particular people simply by virtue of who they are and not based on their credentials or analysis.”

Even as legal advocates for a people that has been, throughout history, on the receiving end of murder-inducing vitriol, we readily acknowledge the duty to endure and indeed to be open-minded toward unpleasant or painful ideas when advanced in the cause of the search for truth. But no member of the Princeton community has any such duty to submit to tax-exempt Princeton’s funding of attacks on his or her nationality, ethnicity or religious commitments, when such attacks come not in the course of an open-minded search for truth but as part of a frankly and publicly acknowledged ideological campaign.

The use of the book “The Right to Maim” and the signing of Palestine & Praxis make clear that Larson and Puar use the academy as a weapon in a political and ideological and antisemitic battle. That is not an intellectual pursuit. It is not entitled to the shield of academic freedom. It is antithetical to western intellectual freedom, reaching back to the Greeks and the roots of intellectual heritage that brought Princeton University into being, committed as all these traditions are, to the search for truth and not the advancement of ideology.

It is unacceptable that while non-Jewish students get protection from microaggressions, Jewish students don’t merit protection from macroaggressions, especially when those aggressions have nothing to do with academic freedom.

Originally published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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