Middle East studies in the News
Defending the Tenure Process [on Nadia Abu El-Haj]
by Evan Goldstein
The Chronicle of Higher Education Blog
August 20, 2007
Last week The Chronicle reported that a group of Barnard College alumni have drafted an online petition asking their alma mater to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology, because of perceived biases against Israel. According to a story published today, that petition has drawn more than 1,000 signatures. A counterpetition in support of Ms. Abu El-Haj has receieved more than 400 signatures.
Jeremiah Haber (the nom de plume of a Jewish-studies professor based in Israel) views this latest episode as part of a disturbing trend of tenure decisions coming under fire from outsiders -- "and in tenure decisions, anybody outside the regular channels, even other faculty members, is an 'outsider.'" He believes that a good measure of the blame for this has to be placed at the doorsteps of the universities, "which never bother to explain to their students some of their values, like academic freedom and tenure."
"Signatories should be intellectually flogged for presuming to influence a tenure decision," Haber writes. "I don't care if the professor in question is a Holocaust-denier, a Nakba-denier or -- well, pick your own intellectual sin. Alumni and friends can express their dismay over a tenure decision or their hope for a reversal of one. They can be upset about the views of a controversial faculty member, and they can stop contributing money to their alma mater. But for outsiders...to appeal to a university to deny someone tenure is outrageous. There is a process, and that process has to be respected."
Evan Goldstein | Posted on Monday August 20, 2007 | Permalink
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.
Bravo to Prof. Haber for supporting academic integrity.
— B. Martin Aug 20, 10:59 AM #
Actually, a good measure of the blame for this has to be placed at the doorsteps of the universities that appoint Holocaust-deniers, Nakba-deniers, or in the case of Nadia Abu El Haj, Temple deniers. Abu El Haj has written a book length denial of all of ancient Jewish history. In her book, there were no Israelite kingdoms, even Jerusalem in the time of Jesus was "not a Jewish city." This cannot be supported by evidence. The evidence that those kingdoms existed is vast and undeniable – a lot of it is carved in stone. The existence of the ancient Iraelite kingdoms is as undeniable as the fact that the Holocaust happened and the fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were left stateless in the wake of 1948.
Of course the alumni are upset. And it is the fault of the universities for making indefensible appointments of crank scholars like Nadia Abu El Haj.
— Anna Aug 20, 11:09 AM #
This book is an effort to deconstruct the relationship between modern Jews and ancient Israel for the sake of "proving" that Israel is an illegitimate, colonial intrusion on the Middle East by people (Jews) with no ancient connection to the land.In Facts on the Ground Nadia Abu El Haj denies the existence of the ancient Israelite kingdoms, those kingdoms area a pure political fabrication, "a tale best understood as the modern nation's origin myth." She also denies the connection of contemporary Jews to any ancient Jewish people in the near east – however defined, and even states that Herodian Jerusalem "was not a Jewish city." A substantial literature on the El Haj book exists in cyberspace, much of it intemperate.
Readers looking for evidence and rational discussion might start with these: phdiva.blogspot.com/2007/05/nadia-aby-el-haj-and-use-of-evidence.html
two recent news articles:
The best academic review of the book is
Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, Alexander H Joffe. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. Chicago: Oct 2005. Vol. 64, Iss. 4; p. 297
It can be found at: http://www.solomonia.com/blog/archives/008510.shtml
— Anna Aug 20, 02:54 PM #
Apparently, I did not make my point clear, because the discussion has been diverted by a partisan voice to discuss the merits of the case.
My point is that outside pressure and interference are inappropriate and damaging to the tenure process. If you disagree, please say so and give an argument.
For a fuller statement, you can read what I have to say on the Magnes Zionist blog.
— Jeremiah Haber Aug 20, 03:22 PM #
Interesting to note that the ‘best academic review of the book' is by Alexander Joffe, who was at the time of the review Director of Campus Watch, which has as its goal monitoring "...the often erroneous and biased teachings and writings of U.S. professors specializing in the Middle East…" Campus Watch is a pressure group, working to enforce pro-American and pro-Israeli stances in Middle Eastern Studies.
Still more interesting to note that that affiliation is not given in Dr. Joffe's review in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. It would, I suppose, be rather hard to argue that the review was unbiased if his job with Campus Watch was known at the time.
— Scott Aug 20, 03:29 PM #
Prof. Haber, I agree that "[t]here is a process, and that process has to be respected." But, when or how in your view is it appropriate to review, question, or criticize that process? Individual cases and anecdotal accounts are often times the starting point for wide-spread change. If the tenure system is rock solid, it will withstand the forces of change. If not, it will begin to erode and start to look like something else – maybe even improve upon itself. But, how will we know if we do not question the process? I would see it as anti-intellectual to not question that process. Maybe we should paraphrase Thomas Jefferson and say that "the tree of [academic freedom] must be refreshed from time to time with the [sacrifices] of [scholars] and tyrants."
— M. Aug 20, 04:09 PM #
One must be on the tenured track to understand the importance of consistency in the process. Futures, for both academics and family, are planned around the tenured process being consistent and open. The freedom to agrees/disagrees with the belief of another is the bases of this country's strength. Intolerance is the bane of society and its continued existence. Given the though by alumni, it only follows that Ms. Abu El-Haj should have the "right" to have a say in those dissenters job performance and future employment. An old rancher once told me "Be careful not to kick over a rock, You may nor like what is under it."
— Bill Kuba Aug 20, 05:26 PM #
But the point of all this is that we who graduated from Barnard are not outsiders and should have a right to express our opinion. Had El Haj written a scholarly work, perhaps it could be left to the scholars to debate its merit. That is not what she did – what she did was to twist and ignore facts in order to push forward her political agenda. Where the "facts" don't match reality…she simply ignores them. Columbia and Barnard are filled, unfortunately, with biased and often anti-Israel professors in many departments. In those cases, one might argue as you do that academic integrity must be preserved. In this case, there is no academic integrity. I have collected peer reviews with clear examples of where El Haj's book parts with reality. For more – www.paulasays.com.
— Paula Stern Aug 20, 05:39 PM #
Ms. Stern, your being a Barnard alumna does not grant your "insider" status on matters of tenure and promotion.
Ditto for me, a Columbia alum. Even if you were a Barnard faculty member, it would be inappropriate for you to organize an external letter- writing campaign that seeks to influence a tenure and promotion decision.
I do not deny your right to express an opinion, or to share relevant materials with a tenure committee.
I hoped Norman Finkelstein would get tenure at De Paul, but I only put in my two cents at the Magnes Zionist blog after the final decision was made — and then I questioned the fairness of the proceedings, based on a reading of the De Paul president's letter, not the merits of Finkelstein's case.
That, by the way, is my short and inadequate answer to M. Tenure proceedings have to strike a balance between confidentiality and openness, primarily for the sake of the candidate. They are not, or should not be, election campaigns.
— Jeremiah Haber Aug 21, 01:45 AM #
I think that the Barnard alumni are making a big disfavor to themselves, because one needs to think how good the university is if their graduates don't understand how certain very basic procedures work. There are many professors and universities that will take a negative view on graduates from both Barnard and De Paul, and supporting the independence of the tenure process does not preclude me or others to keep defending and supporting the state of Israel.
— F. Barrio Aug 21, 08:28 AM #
Can we discuss the differnece between expressing an opinion and interfering in a process.
What Paula Stern is doing is conducting a boisterous public conversation, highly politicized, noisy, angry, but, still, it's only talk.
She doesn't have an alumnae seat on the tenure committee. She isn't bribing the committee members. She isn't offering them free trips to a beach vacation in Eilat if they vote her way.
In what manner are these alumnae tampering with the process?
Professors have such thin skins.
What, nobody is allowed to ciriticize a professor?
— Anna Aug 21, 08:30 AM #
Tenure decisions should be made at the institutions according to the policies and procedures established by the faculty. However, administrators should be blamed for not following the policies and procedures.
— Kan Chandras Aug 21, 08:55 AM #
Anna, I would ike to agree with you, but it seems that the message to the universities authorities is that if they grant tenure to people that think differently, the impact may be felt during capital development campaings…still, I think that you are right in one thing: the ultimate blame rests on the universities' authorities that leave these letters to interfere with the tenure process, but the alumni should realize that such interference is bound to have impact on the "value" of their degrees (if teachers will be judged by whether their scholarship offends or not some groups, science in those institutions cannot be relied upon, and in historical perspective we still would be thinking that the earth is the center of the universe)
— F. Barrio Aug 21, 09:08 AM #
"if teachers will be judged by whether their scholarship offends or not some groups, science in those institutions cannot be relied upon, and in historical perspective we still would be thinking that the earth is the center of the universe"
It aappears to me that el Haj's type of scholarship wishes to do exactly that: reverse scientific scholarship for a politically self-indulgent Palestinian narrative. It is she who wishes to re-instate the equivalent of "the earth is the center of the universe)" thinking.
I say, in the name of academic freedom, and for the sake of preserving sacredly intact that tenure-decision process, she ought to be allowed to teach these anti-historical histories to a bunch of ignorant students who will then carry this information within them as though it were gospel truth.
Likewise, maybe "creationism" should be given its full rights to be regarded as science within Physics.
Alternatively, maybe the university should have to courage to admit that her book is a work of fiction and maybe offer her a seat in the Depratment of English Literature, where she will fit in more snugly. It was, after all, Edward Said, a professor of English Literature, who started this fashion of denying Jews their peoplehood when he wrote his book about Moses and Freud, in which he made a psychoanalitical historical analysis proving that the Jews were really Egyptians.
— Noga Aug 21, 10:02 AM #
The chief question here is supposedly the "independence" of the tenure evaluation process and its insulation from outside pressure and commentary. My own view is that while this is an admirable ideal in the abstract, it presupposes a corresponding ideal in the intellectual and ethical standards of the academics formally involved in making tenure decisions. That is, it assumes a professorate detached to a great degreee from ideological and political passions and committed to some notion of objectivity. The trouble is, as it seems to me, the latter assumption is no longer very tenable at certain institutions and within certain fields, and that, in turn, has bred a justifiable suspicion in the public mind, even within the community of the highly educated who, in general, embrace liberal values. To put it in a nutshell, there is a widespread and justified belief that in many areas of study, doctrinaire politics and a kind of ideological cronyism are in the saddle, determining who thrives, who survives, and who is given the boot. Cultural anthropology is certainly such a field. Moreover, the dubious reputation clinging to this kind of scholarship understandably leads to a wider disdain for universities as such and undermines the tacit social understandings that enable them to survive. This situation is made worse when the indignation of the professorate at public intrusion into a realm supposedly reserved for trained specialists of considerable seniority is perceived, with some justice, as mere professorial snottiness, a song-and-dance routine performed by mediocrities who want to keep jobs and funds under their exclusive control, despite the slanted partisanship of their ostensibly scholarly views.
This leads to the rather sad conclusion that in some cases, at least, it is wiser to acknowledge that the educated public has something to say about "professional" matters, and even to take it into account when pondering individual cases, than to fill the air with pompous resentment when such criticism arises. It seems to me, futher, that the el Haj case is a prime example of the situation.
That said, I admit to my own strong feeling about el Haj, all the more intense because I am, inter alia, a parent who has forked over plenty of dough for his daughter's Barnard education (and his son's Columbia degree), and who is therefore constantly importuned by those institutions for hard cash. At a visceral level, I feel that if they want my money, they have to take my opinions as well (as is also true of my own alma mater, Harvard—but that's another story).
My opinion of el Haj, bluntly, is that she's a practitioner of the worst kind of junk scholarship, that she's impelled entirely by the narrowest kind of political fanaticism, and therefore that she's not worth a damn as a faculty member. She conjoins the extremism of Rejectionist Palestinian activism with the intellectual slop that characterizes so much of academic "postmodernism". I note with some asperity that she marshalls, on behalf of her dubious assertion of the unreality of Jewish history, the stock phrases and double-talk that originates in postmodernist, social constructivist "sociology of scientific knowledge", borrowing the idle nonsense of such tainted sages as Bloor and Latour in order to claim that there is no such thing as objectivity or science, that all such claims are traces of political power plays, and that therefore, one may publish away, endlessly, without any attempt to consult hard evidence or to face up to its implications. Since I have personally commented, at some length, on the futility and self-contradiction of this crackpot version of philosophy of science (and flatter myself that I have had something to do with its current retreat into the academic backwaters), I am grimly pleased to see el Haj resorting to this shabby bag of tricks.
In view of all this, I would like to believe that Barnard and Columbia have the guts to send this baggage packing. If not, I shall be considerable disgusted—and tell them not to expect any checks!
— Norman Levitt Aug 21, 01:00 PM #
So, one needs to assume that all of these professors' peer reviewers were stupid and ignorant, but yours were all geniuses (interesting interpretation of scientific standards)...I still dislike these teachers "scholarship", but I agree with the original post that we are outsiders and it seems that the issue is so politically motivated that even illustrious academics enter into kids-level contradictions to defend what they wouldn't have defended if some anti-Semitic but rich group had opposed their tenure long time ago when they got it: the previous post justifies the letter (and the campaign) by saying that "it assumes a professorate detached to a great degreee [sic] from ideological and political passions and committed to some notion of objectivity. The trouble is, as it seems to me, the latter assumption is no longer very tenable at certain institutions and within certain fields" to then say that "borrowing the idle nonsense of such tainted sages as Bloor and Latour in order to claim that there is no such thing as objectivity". So, is there objectivity or not? or depends whether it suits you? Again, the political and ideological attack to Israel should be swiftly dealt with, in the political and ideological arena, but to claim that the rules of the academic game are fine unless I don't like the result put a taint in everyone, even in the tenure of those writing here.
— F J Barrio Aug 21, 03:39 PM #
The situation has generated the awkward situation where, due to the irrationality and improperty of the letter and their supporters, some who don't like this professor scholarship have to stand in her tenure case defense. When it is said that "she's a practitioner of the worst kind of junk scholarship", is it also implied that the fact that "she held fellowships at Harvard University's Academy for International and Area Studies, the University of Pennsylvania Mellon Program, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeto [and that] [s]he is, in addition, a former Fulbright Fellow and a recipient of awards from the SSRC-McArthur Grant in International Peace and Security, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the National Endowment for the Humanities among others [and that the fact that] Professor Abu El-Haj has lectured widely at the New York Academy of Sciences, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, the University of Cambridge, the London School of Economics (LSE), and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London" means nothing? I think that the state of Israel is strong and legitimate enough to be able to survive and thrive after her writings, and the attacks to her only fuel those who are looking for excuses to attack Israel. Jeremiah Haber is right, let the tenure process in peace and concentrate in produce scholarship refuting her strange findings.
— F. Barrio Aug 21, 06:04 PM #
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