In response to mounting criticism over the inclusion of a controversial book in a course syllabus—as initially broken by Ynetnews—Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber has issued his first public statement, emphasizing the institution's commitment to academic freedom and to "fostering a welcoming environment for students." This development comes on the heels of Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) publicly urging the removal of the book in a letter earlier this week.
The book in question, titled “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability,” is part of the syllabus for NES 301: The Healing Humanities — Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South, a course taught by Prof. Satyel Larson. The book's description characterizes Israel as using "liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies."
Efforts to remove the book from the syllabus have been met with resistance from various campus groups, including the left-leaning Alliance of Jewish Progressives and the pro-free speech Princeton Open Campus Coalition.
Gottheimer’s letter to Eisgruber accused the book of delving into "antisemitic blood libel" and promoting "false" allegations against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He called on the university to reconsider its decision to include the work of author Jasbir Puar on the school's reading list. In his letter, Gottheimer also pointed out that Princeton's inclusion of the book could be viewed as running contrary to the law in New Jersey, which prohibits support for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement.
Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat, represents a district in Northern New Jersey and has previously criticized higher education institutions for allegedly promoting antisemitism. Up until this point, Princeton University had not publicly addressed the controversy surrounding the book, a story initially exposed on Ynet.
However, President Eisgruber recently spoke about academic freedom during a faculty meeting, addressing the growing trend of faculty members being targeted on social media for teaching controversial topics. Eisgruber reaffirmed the university's commitment to supporting faculty in such situations.
“I say this now because it has unfortunately become common for university faculty members here and elsewhere to become the target of viral social media storms focused on controversial materials that they assign or teach”, Eisgruber said.
“That has sometimes extended to demands that the University should ban or condemn a book, cancel a course or discipline a professor. We of course will not do that. Academic freedom protects your right to decide what to teach and how to teach it. That right, like the right to free speech on campus, is very broad indeed, and we will protect it. Of course, people are free to criticize syllabi or assigned readings; that, too, is part of free speech. I would hope that such criticism is undertaken in a constructive spirit appropriate to this scholarly community”.
Eisgruber closed his remarks by saying “I want you to know that if you or a colleague get targeted by one of these social media storms, we hope that you will reach out to his office so that we can provide support where appropriate”.
In his response to Gottheimer's letter, Eisgruber also emphasized his commitment to the safety of Jewish students on campus and cited his personal connection to Judaism. He stated, "I am the son of a Holocaust refugee; I am a scholar of religious freedom, and my last scholarly publication before accepting the presidency was a defense of Zionism."
Eisgruber also reiterated the university's dedication to free speech, stating, "We can achieve our mission, as a polity or a university, only if people of all backgrounds feel welcome, respected, and free to express their opinions. At Princeton, and at other great colleges and universities, we promote inclusivity and belonging in many ways, but never by censoring speech, syllabi, or courses."