Middle East studies in the News
Email Correspondences With Barnard President Shapiro [about Nadia Abu El Haj]
by Phil Orenstein
The following are excerpts from a flurry of email correspondences between Barnard President Judith Shapiro and myself regarding the tenure bid of Assistant Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj. Originally I had sent a letter to President Shapiro imploring that she do the right thing and deny tenure to this academic impostor who passes off a political agenda demonizing the State of Israel and its legitimate historic roots, as if it were methodical archaeological scholarship. Shapiro replied to my letter initiating the correspondence on an "unbecoming" note comparing me to the bumbling patsy, Mr. Collins in Jane Austin's novel Pride and Prejudice, and SUNY Trustee Candace de Russy to her lordship, the blue-blooded Lady Catherine. This was all aimed at throwing up a smoke screen in order to divert attention from the serious issue of El-Haj's upcoming tenure decision, since there seems to be a lack of credible defenses available to contest allegations of El-Haj's scholarly falsehoods and slander of a distinguished archaeologist. One positive development that came out of this will be future meetings between Candace de Russy and Shapiro. Candace will try to convince her to deny tenure to El-Haj on the basis of faulty and misleading scholarship. For those intent on writing to President Shapiro, feel free to do so despite her whining about the "hysteria it is generating". This may be one of those rare incidences of a bona fide academic debate taking place representing both sides of the coin, with input from genuine scholars, the Va'ad ha-Emet, which seems to send the academic establishment flying off into a tailspin.
JS: I find your communication somewhat strange, since Candace de Russy is certainly more than able to speak for herself. The effect of your letter is thus very much like Mr. Collins talking about Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I can assure you that I am aware of the materials you mention.
PO: I was really taken aback by your reply and I expected something a little more considerate from a president of Barnard. I'm glad to hear that you know your Pride and Prejudice, but I do hope you know your Near East history as well. The issue I'm concerned with is a little more serious than British fiction. The concern I addressed in my letter to you wasn't fiction. It was about one of your professors who is palming off fiction as if it were scholarship. I would think twice about who you are brushing off so quickly, since you have no idea whether or not I am a donor or what connections I have with the alumni. By the way, since you neglected to acknowledge it in your reply, I am speaking on behalf of those who are unable to speak for themselves for fear of recriminations. This scenario doesn't sound much like a venue for the free exchange of ideas and opinions to me. I will continue to pursue this further.
JS: Well, at this point I can thank you for your original message in that Candace de Russy and I are now in direct contact and are looking forward to getting together. Fortunately, she was less offended (and more amused) by my response than you were. I know that you must have a very high regard for her, but must stand by my original observation; your message came across as presumptuous rather than respectful, which might be useful for you to understand for the future. In terms of what you say about others you are representing: the idea that you are speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves strikes me as hyperbole. Somehow, quite a few people have found it possible to comment publicly on Professor El Haj's work - one way or the other - without fearing for their safety or professional welfare. Indeed, peer review, which is basic to the tenure process, depends upon just that kind of public, professional speech. You may be sure that I take the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis very seriously myself, but I take a dim view of the way it is being mobilized in this context. Whatever the merits of this tenure case one way or the other, I find the level of hysteria it is generating to be totally inappropriate. The fact that many of the communications I have received on this case have come to me anonymously is especially ironic, since one of the main criticisms these nameless people are making of Professor Abu El-Haj's work is that she cites anonymous sources. In terms of your being taken aback by the tone of my message: I will admit that my rhetorical style is indeed somewhat unusual for a college president, but most people seem to enjoy it. It does keep them awake, which is not an accomplishment all college presidents can claim. I will, in turn, point out that claiming you might be an important donor or have ties to influential alumnae was not the best note to strike, at least not for me. Better to take the high road than the low road. But, all of this aside, I do wish you the best in your own work.
PO: It was my own intention originally to call your office to speak with you directly. Your secretary invited me to express my concerns in writing, which is the reason behind the detailed letter. I just wanted to set the record straight on this. You mentioned that many of the communications you received were anonymous. Then I fail to understand why you should also say that my speaking on their behalf strikes you as hyperbole. Despite claims to the contrary, the coercion of those with pro-Israel views is a fact of campus life that leaves good professors out of the conversation and living in fear for their livelihoods. The few bold enough to speak out receive death threats as the moderate Alan Dershowitz often does. An open forum in Manhattan hosted by the American Jewish Congress dealt with these issues of the hostile climate of intimidation at Columbia revealed in the documentary Columbia Unbecoming which incidentally was initiated by Barnard students. Several professors testified that any Columbia faculty member who openly supports Zionism is marginalized, ostracized and denied tenure. I trust that you are also aware of this phenomenon. That said, I'm pleased that you'll be meeting with Candace, and I look forward to some productive discussions taking place.
JS: To clarify and provide some additional information: I do not myself believe that the people who are getting in touch with me anonymously truly need to do so. Nadia Abu El-Haj has also received death threats from those opposed to her work. I might also note, since you invoke the David Project, that I have not received a single student complaint about her teaching, advising, mentoring, or anything that has gone on in the classroom. There are indeed places where Jews or Zionists are endangered and marginalized, but Morningside Heights in the year 2007 does not happen to be one of them. Given the strength of the Jewish community at Barnard, it is, in fact, unbecoming - to use a familiar word - for members of the Jewish community to cast themselves in the role of victims here.
PO: I've been away for a couple of days, but I did want to take a moment to thank you for your consideration of my original letter, although we did get off track a bit from my original intent. My main concern is El-Haj's tenure bid and all the rest is smoke and mirrors. I trust you'll do the right thing for Barnard College's academic repute regarding the upcoming decision.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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