Middle East studies in the News
Letter to Barnard President Judith Shapiro [on Nadia Abu El Haj]
by Phil Orenstein
President Judith Shapiro
I write as a former adjunct from SUNY and CUNY colleges to express my concerns regarding the upcoming tenure bid of assistant professor of anthropology, Nadia Abu El-Haj. I understand that the tenure committee will be meeting shortly and I wish to speak on behalf of my colleague, SUNY Trustee Candace de Russy as well as a number of concerned scholars and students in the field of biblical anthropology, archaeology of the ancient Near East and toponymy, who wish to remain anonymous fearing recriminations from their colleagues due to the antagonistic political environment on their respective campuses.
Recently a group of scholars calling themselves the Va'ad ha-Emet (Truth Committee) appealed to Dr. de Russy for her help in publicizing their statement regarding the tenure bid of El-Haj. Their statement was consequently published in articles in FrontPage Magazine and National Review Online, which are enclosed for your reference.
The Va'ad ha-Emet vehemently opposes granting tenure to El-Haj on the basis of the flawed and politically driven scholarship in her recent book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. They charge that the author fails to meet the minimal academic standards on the basis of her lack of familiarity with previous scholarship in the field, her use of unnamed sources and unsourced statements, her failure to understand the value of evidence, her unfamiliarity with Hebrew resulting in evasion of serious research in the subject matter and misrepresentation of nuanced words, as well as the unfounded slander of preeminent archaeologist David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, the head of the Jezreel Valley excavations, who was the target of El-Haj's uninformed accusations that he intentionally destroyed historical Islamic remains to suit the state agenda. Ussishkin defends his credibility against her personal attacks by distinguishing his own legitimate methodology from her lack of valid methodology, revealed by her failure to study the excavation reports, failure to consult with him or any of the excavation project directors, and the subsequent use of hearsay, unnamed participants and student volunteers to support her erroneous assertions.
Another academic who prefers to remain anonymous who wrote for a Solomonia.com blog discussed the basis of Barnard's criteria for granting tenure to young scholars who have little respect for hard evidence and "reject a positivist commitment to scientific methods…" Instead El-Haj's scholarship is "rooted in…post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory…. and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements." El-Haj's book, the basis of the scholarship upon which Barnard will form its tenure decision, is a politically driven polemic based on unsubstantiated assertions and hearsay. This tome, cloaked in cosmetic scholarship, professes: "What was considered to have been ancient Jewish national existence and sovereignty in their homeland" is "a tale best understood as the modern nation's origin myth…pure political fabrication." This scholarship clearly does not fall in the realm of social science or archaeology, but postcolonial politics as El-Haj herself asserts, based upon philosophical approaches that seek to deconstruct not only the sacred cows of Western Civilization but the very legitimacy of the State of Israel as well.
Dore Gold, Israeli ambassador to the U.N. from 1997-1999, calls this recent phenomenon Temple Denial. According to Ambassador Gold, the 2000 Camp David Summit was the event that triggered this political movement to wipe out Israel's historical origins. At the summit Arafat asserted that Solomon's Temple of Jerusalem never existed which shocked Prime Minister Barak as well as President Clinton and the other delegates. It was the postcolonial political movement that El-Haj was responding to, as she herself asserted, which portrays Israel as a European colonial power that marched into the Middle East in the late 19th and 20th centuries and seized the land from its native inhabitants. Temple Denial, the belief that there never was an ancient Kingdom of Israel or Judah, spread all over the Middle East becoming commonplace in academic settings, seminars and lecture halls. The secular universities of Europe summarily joined in, since they tended to reject the historicity of the Bible anyway, and this germ continued to spread to the world. This political academic movement was intended to promote the justice of the Palestinian cause, by causing doubt in the legitimacy of Israel's roots. Thus the Arab position in the battle for the control of Jerusalem could prevail by portraying Israel as a recent foreign imperialist with no historical record. Two years later El-Haj published her book, which added momentum to the growing academic syndrome expunging Jewish roots from the Middle East, which was a milestone for the Palestinian cause. Politicization of academic disciplines in the social sciences, especially archaeology and anthropology is easily accomplished as high standards of responsible and evidence-based scholarship give way to the political agendas of campus pressure groups. Of course one is free to advocate for the Palestinian or any other cause, but to do so concealed in the framework of dispassionate research and scholarship is unconscionable and dangerous.
It is distressing that Barnard would consider granting tenure to a scholar who has deliberately allowed her politics to surmount responsible science. Dr. de Russy laments the make-up of the committee that will decide on El-Haj's tenure, since one of its members, Barnard Art History Professor Keith Moxley seems to dismiss fact and scientific evidence in the face of "political convictions" and writes approvingly of "the abandonment of an epistemological foundation for history" and "that historical arguments will be evaluated according to how well they coincide with our political conviction."
It is even more distressing to me that some distinguished insiders do not have a voice in academia today. Instead they need to clandestinely appeal to "unsolicited outsiders" such as Dr. de Russy, Barnard alumni, and bloggers in order to communicate their scholarly opinions out of fear of reprisals. This is a shameful commentary on the state of intellectual diversity and openness on such campuses as Barnard and Columbia that are supposed to be bastions of the free and open exchange of scholarly ideas and opinions. Instead, academics who dare to express such unpopular viewpoints as pro-Zionist perspectives are roundly demonized, marginalized and denied tenure, while second-rate scholars such as El-Haj are endorsed and readily granted tenure by willing peers, as we shall see. Rather we hope that Barnard will uphold it's outstanding reputation as a fortress of high academic standards and evidence-based scholarship by denying tenure to this academic impostor.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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