A course offered by Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern studies (NES) has come under sustained criticism from off-campus publications and public figures in recent weeks due to the inclusion of the book, “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability” on the course’s syllabus. A description of the book describes it as arguing that Israel “relies on liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies.” Critics, including a minister in the Israeli government, have argued that the book invokes the antisemitic blood libel trope, while others have defended the use of the book on grounds of academic freedom and human rights. The course, NES 301: The Healing Humanities — Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South, is scheduled to be taught by Professor Satyel Larson this fall.
Criticism of the book originated in the conservative media and has since been picked up by outlets with larger reaches. On Monday, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91 of the University’s Center for Jewish Life (CJL) sent a letter to the CJL community expressing concern over the inclusion of the text and urging the NES Department to reconsider its use.
The University has not spoken publicly about the affair and declined to comment for this article. Professor Keith Whittington, chair of the academic committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance, criticized attempts to get the book removed in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “It would be outrageous if a university president were to unilaterally prohibit the assignment of any given book in university classes, and I am completely confident that President [Christopher L.] Eisgruber would not yield to such demands,” he wrote.
Larson did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
National and international criticism grows
The inclusion of the book was first reported on Aug. 4 by The College Fix, a conservative publication with a history of probing and reporting on syllabi of college courses it perceives to carry left-wing biases.
In the past week, the story has gotten wider attention, primarily from right-leaning outlets, including a story in the New York Post on Aug. 12, and a story discussing Larson’s class more broadly on Fox News Digital on Aug. 13.
Amichai Chikli, a conservative former lawmaker and the Minister of Diaspora Affairs of Israel, also weighed in. In a letter to Eisgruber and Dean of the Faculty Gene A. Jarrett, Chikli condemned the book and challenged the university’s judgment in allowing Larson’s assignment. Chikli characterized the discussion of intentional maiming of Palestinians in the book as “nothing but a modern-day antisemitic blood libel.”
Chikli wrote that he “trust[s] the University administration will act immediately to remove the book from the curriculum of any of its courses.”
The CJL weighs in
Steinlauf addressed the situation on Monday, Aug. 14 in a letter to the CJL community at Princeton.
“While we at the CJL recognize academic freedom and the right of professors to present materials based on their expertise and educational goals, and we respect the professor’s expertise in crafting the course, we are still deeply concerned about the potential impact of including this text,” he wrote.
He also wrote that the book’s author, Jasbir Puar, who is the graduate director of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, has “previously and falsely accused the Israeli military of intentionally harming Palestinian children, harvesting Palestinians' organs, and other crimes reminiscent of classic antisemitic tropes stemming from the blood libel of the middle ages.”
Steinlauf said that the CJL has written to the Near Eastern studies department chair Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi and Larson requesting that they “reconsider the impact of this text and to explore alternative ways to teach the course without including an author whose rhetoric and writing have deeply hurt many in the Jewish community, and could do real harm to Jewish students on our campus.”
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Steinlauf said that this request entails asking Professor Larson to consider teaching a different book “written by a less inflammatory author.” He clarified that “she has the full authority and right to make whatever decisions she deems best as the professor and that we fully respect free speech on this campus and the way that the university supports that.”
Steinlauf also requested that Professor Larson “provide greater context to the author of the book and her background, and to talk about some of the ways in which that author and that book lands for many in the Jewish community.”
The Princeton Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP), a student group, disagreed with the approach taken by the CJL. A statement by the AJP, shared with The Daily Princetonian by President Emanuelle Sippy ’25, describes the issue as a “right-wing Zionist attack” against Larson’s curriculum.
They criticized the CJL’s response as characteristic of a nationwide pattern of right-wing censorship of educational materials dealing with race, gender, and sexuality.
“We are deeply troubled by the attempt to censor Larson, ban Puar’s book, limit intellectual inquiry, and silence faculty-student exchange within and beyond the classroom, particularly on issues of such political, moral, and philosophical significance,” the statement read.
The back-and-forth is the latest flashpoint in a debate about public statements by CJL staff, with the AJP charging that the CJL does not represent progressive Jewish students on campus. The AJP previously criticized the CJL’s decision to host the scholar Ronen Shoval and for hosting “Israel Shabbat” in April.
“While far-right Jewish leaders in America and Israel claim to speak for us, they do not,” the statement continued. “This latest attempt to silence educational discourse related to Israel-Palestine is part of a pattern in which the CJL aims to interfere with academic and co-curricular events, inquiry, and debate on campus.”
The statement also pushes back on claims that denounce the validity of the book’s assertions, adding, “Rather than contending with the horrific fact that Israel, like other countries, engages in human rights violations — having illegally harvested the organs of both Palestinians and Israelis, which is well-documented — the CJL perpetuates a rhetoric of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism, which is deeply problematic.”
Policies of academic freedom
The request to remove the text comes into contention with Princeton University's policies on Academic Freedom and Free Expression. Rights, Rules, Responsibilities declares in the Statement on Freedom of Expression, “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”
In order to generate academic debate, the University policy encourages civil disagreement and protects both students and faculty who may convey unpopular sentiment.
“Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” Rights Rules, Responsibilities reads.
“The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University,” the guidelines state.
Whittington, author of “Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech,” described the liberty to assign books according to an individual professor's discretion as “one of the most fundamental features of academic freedom in the United States” in an email to the ‘Prince’.
He defended the University policy as necessary for intellectual discourse and an expectation that students and faculty should anticipate at “serious scholarly institutions.”
“It is a routine feature of university classes to criticize and analyze controversial materials and not simply to absorb them uncritically,” he wrote. “But the mere fact that a professor assigns a controversial or mistaken text for undergraduate students to read is no reason to think that the professor is engaged in unprofessional misconduct.”
Rebecca Cunningham is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’
Associate News Editor Annie Rupertus contributed reporting for this article.
Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.
Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that the course was discussed on air on Fox News on Aug. 10.