Next month, Duke University Press will publish The Right to Maim, a new book from Rutgers University professor Jasbir K. Puar. A passionate advocate of BDS who had previously accused Israel of harvesting the organs of Palestinians and who threatened to sue anyone who published her talk at Vassar earlier this year, Puar, to say the least, is a controversial figure. But books, even ones written by academics, deserve to be taken on their own merit. And, on its own merit, Puar’s book is an intellectual and moral hoax, a bit of sizzling sophistry designed to stir the faithful into a frenzy of outrage divorced of any and all observable reality.
The section of the book that deals with Israel makes the following claim: The Jewish state’s efforts to refrain from killing innocent Palestinians—everything from the IDF’s cautious open-fire protocols to the “roof knock” policy of warning civilians prior to bombing attacks—are actually a devious scheme to strengthen the stranglehold Israel’s colonialist regime has on its Palestinian subjects.
At first blush, this argument makes no sense. Why would Israel spare the lives of its foes? If it is indeed, as Puar repeatedly argues, a colonialist project, won’t it seek to emulate its predecessors and either destroy the indigenous people it was dispossessing, enslave them as cheap labor, or urge them to assimilate? Security and demographic considerations negate options two and three, which makes it very hard to understand, on Puar’s own terms, why and how Israel benefits from shooting to maim instead of to kill.
Puar has a hard time understanding it as well. “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,” she writes. “Accounting for Israeli settler colonialism and occupation is an encounter with the unspoken thresholds of biopolitical thought,” which “puts analytic pressure on the assumption that the goal of settler colonialism is necessarily elimination.”
What is it, then? What does Israel gain? “Debilitation,” Puar continues, “is extremely profitable economically and ideologically for Israel’s settler colonial regime. Many sectors take on the ‘rehabilitation’ of Gaza in the aftermath of war: Israel, Egypt, the Arab Gulf states, NGO actors who are embedded in corporate economies of humanitarianism.”
If you’re wondering what happened to the rest of the sentence, or what precisely are “corporate economies of humanitarianism,” and how exactly has a month-long military campaign that cost Israel as much as $3.6 billion in any way benefits its economy, you’re out of luck. Puar doesn’t say. All she offers is the further preposterous claim that Israel repeatedly attacks Gaza in order to cause “donor fatigue,” dissuading the very same corporate economies of humanitarianism she was complaining about a paragraph earlier by destroying the strip every time it’s rebuilt.
“Perhaps differing from earlier colonial and occupation regimes where deprivation was distributed in order to maim yet keep labor alive,” Puar thunders, “there is less need for Palestinian labor, for Palestinian production. Rather, profit is derived from the dismemberment of reproduction, a function of capitalism without labor… This inhuman biopolitics flourishes through and beside human populations—economic life growing without human life.”
You can stand up for logic and argue that this sentence is utter twaddle, using jargon to obfuscate its own admission of ideational bankruptcy. You can stand up for the facts, and argue that a book concerned with wounded Palestinians should at least make some sort of effort to observe Hamas’s well-documented policy of using civilians as human shields, or that so much of the money those pesky capitalist humanitarians poured into Gaza was invested in terror rather healthcare. But you’d be missing the point. A book like Puar’s is pure dogma; it believes what it believes, damn nuance, context, or facts.
And that’s fine, unless, of course, you believe academia must cherish its commitment to critical thinking, vigorous reasoning, and empirical argumentation. On these counts, Puar’s book fails miserably, as do the academic institutions that continue to publish and employ her.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.