Middle East studies in the News
Petition to Deny Nadia Abu El-Haj Tenure at Barnard College
by Paula R. Stern
As concerned alumni and friends of Barnard and Columbia, we urge you to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El Haj, a professor of anthropology whose claim to scholarly recognition is based on a single, profoundly flawed book.
In "Facts on the Ground. Archeological Practice and Territorial Self Fashioning in Israeli Society," Abu El Haj alleges that archaeologists have "created the fact of an ancient Israelite/Jewish nation," where none actually existed. She asserts that the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a "pure political fabrication."
We are submitting this petition because the use of evidence in "Facts on the Ground" fails to meet the standards of scholarship that are expected of Columbia and Barnard undergraduates.
* Much of the evidence regarding the pre-exilic Israelite kingdoms is in the form of writing excavated from archaeological sites and securely dated to the period before the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE. This evidence includes monumental inscriptions and surviving documents (some preserved as cuneiform tablets) that come from Moab, Egypt, Babylonia and other ancient kingdoms. From Israel and Judah there are literally hundreds of written sources in PaleoHebrew script, including not only monumental inscriptions, but graffiti, seal impressions, amulets (one containing a Biblical passage) and labels embossed on containers, (notably containers labeled for use in the royal storehouses.)
In addition to all of this, hundreds of written documents ranging from receipts, to letters, to school exercises survive because they were written on pieces of old pottery (ostraca.) Abu El Haj fails to mention the existence of this truly vast body of written evidence that proves her assertion to be false.
We object to the appointment of a professor whose work fails to encounter the evidence on the topic about which she writes.
* Facts on the Ground purports to be an anthropology of Israeli archaeology and of Israeli attitudes about archaeology. However, Abu El Haj does not speak or read Hebrew, the language Israelis speak and the language in which Israeli archaeologists regularly publish.
We fail to understand how a scholar can pretend to study the attitudes of a people whose language she does not know.
* In a section that approaches slander, Abu El Haj has accused prominent archaeologist David Ussishkin of "bad science," using "large shovels," failing to sift dirt "in search of very small remains," and of using bulldozers "in order to get down to earlier strata which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible."
Shockingly, Abu El Haj's offers as her only evidence for making this serious charge a conversation with unnamed "archaeologists and student volunteers" at a dig in which she was not participating. None of these anonymous "archaeologists and student volunteers" has stepped forward to corroborate her story. On the contrary, many archaeologists have come to Ussishkin's defense, and he has been put to the trouble of publishing a refutation of these evidence-less allegations.
We are shocked that a member of the Columbia faculty would lay a serious accusation against a fellow scholar without providing any evidence to support her assertion.
* Facts on the Ground regularly makes assertions of fact supported exclusively by conversations that Abe El Haj reports holding with unnamed individuals. The book is peppered with such assertions as: "One archaeologist told me of a right-wing colleague who was constantly labeling Christian sites Jewish."
No professor would pass a student paper that makes an assertion of fact without a source. We fail to understand how this can be acceptable in a scholarly book.
*Abu El Haj's use of unsourced facts is mixed with demonstrations of her ignorance of history and of archaeology. To give just one example, she writes of the post-1967 dig in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, " In this (anonymous) Israeli archaeologist's words, ‘It was one of the largest excavations and one of the worst'; it was too large to ‘digest scientifically.' It was too large to control: ‘Somewhere in there are the complexes of the Palaces of Solomon,' he insisted, ‘but they dug buildings with no sections and lost a lot of data that way.'
Of course, if the "Palaces of Solomon" exist,they would be in the area of Jerusalem known as the City of David, not in the modern Jewish Quarter, an area that was not part of the city in the tenth or even the ninth century BCE (the period called Solomonic.)
We are embarrassed that Columbia would consider granting tenure to a scholar who is so patently ignorant about the subject of her only book.
We are aware that Abu El Haj excuses herself from the expectation that scholarship will be based on evidence. In her introduction, she informs the world that she "Reject(s) a positivist commitment to scientific methods…"
Instead of using scientific standards of evidence, her work is "rooted in… post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory… and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements."
We reject the idea that Marxism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism or any other approach can nullify the obligation of scholars to base their work on evidence.
As the Columbia University Faculty Handbook states, "irreversible damage can result from breach of academic commitment to truth in investigative activities… lack of integrity in conducting basic or clinical investigations involving dishonesty, knowing misrepresentation of data, and/or violation of accepted standards can destroy public trust in the academic community as a whole and in our own institution in particular; it can shatter individual careers; it can undermine sensitive relationships between investigators, students, and the public."
We very much fear that the appointment of a scholar of Abu El Haj's demonstrably inferior caliber, her knowing misrepresentation of data and violation of accepted standards of scholarship will indeed destroy public trust in the University and undermine sensitive relationships between Columbia, Barnard and the graduates who used to be proud of the high standards of scholarship that Columbia and Barnard always stood for.
We urge you to protect Columbia's reputation for scholarship and integrity by upholding the principal that research must be based on a disinterested consideration of evidence.
Sincerely,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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