Middle East studies in the News
Fracas Erupts Over Book on Mideast by a Barnard Professor Seeking Tenure [on Nadia Abu El-Haj]
by Karen W. Arenson
A tenure bid by an assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard College who has critically examined the use of archaeology in Israel has put Columbia University once again at the center of a struggle over scholarship on the Middle East.
The professor, Nadia Abu El-Haj, who is of Palestinian descent, has been at Barnard since 2002 and has won many awards and grants, including a Fulbright scholarship and fellowships at Harvard and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Barnard has already approved her for tenure, officials said, and forwarded its recommendation to Columbia University, its affiliate, which has the final say.
It is Dr. Abu El-Haj's book, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," that has made her a lightning rod, setting off warring petitions opposing and supporting her candidacy, and producing charges of shoddy scholarship and countercharges of an ideological witch hunt.
Judith R. Shapiro, Barnard's president, who is also an anthropologist, said in a statement that the tenure process was "one of the linchpins of academic freedom and liberal arts education," and that despite the passions, it must be conducted "thoughtfully, comprehensively, systematically and confidentially." She added, "This case will be no different, both in its rigor and its freedom from outside lobbying."
The fracas is one of a growing list of bitter disputes over the Middle East in academe, including charges a few years ago by Jewish students at Columbia that they were being intimidated by professors of Middle Eastern studies. A university investigation found no evidence of anti-Semitic statements by professors, but it criticized one professor for becoming angry at a student in his class in a discussion of Israel's conduct.
At DePaul University in Chicago, a tenure fight led to the resignation last week of an assistant professor, Norman G. Finkelstein. He has written that Israel and Jews have used the Holocaust for their own purposes, including to oppress Palestinians.
Zachary Lockman, a professor at New York University who is the president of the Middle East Studies Association, said, "It's a very conflicted field, given the passions about the Middle East, and there are a lot of people outside academe who have very strong feelings."
Dr. Abu El-Haj, who is teaching a course on "Race and Sexuality in Scientific and Social Practice" this semester, declined to be interviewed while her tenure was under consideration.
Born in the United States in 1962, Dr. Abu El-Haj studied at Bryn Mawr College and earned a Ph.D. at Duke. In her book, which grew out of her doctoral research and was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2001, Dr. Abu El-Haj says Israeli archaeologists searched for an ancient Jewish presence to help build the case for a Jewish state. In their quest, she writes, they sometimes used bulldozers, destroying remains of other cultures, including those of Arabs.
She concludes her book by saying the ransacking by thousands of Palestinians in 2000 of Joseph's tomb, a Jewish holy site in the West Bank, "needs to be understood in relation to a colonial-national history" of Israel and the symbolic resonance of artifacts.
The Middle East Studies Association, an organization of scholars who focus on the region, chose her book in 2002 as one of the year's two best books in English about the Middle East. The other was "Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship," by Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled, published by Cambridge University Press.
Jere L. Bacharach, a historian at the University of Washington who presented the awards, said at the time that both books were "nuanced, nonpolemic works on subjects that too often lend themselves to political tirades and polemics."
Critics of Dr. Abu El-Haj's book, however, said her aim was to undermine Israel's right to exist, and challenged her methodology and findings.
"Serious people are outraged when people who are rank amateurs come in," Jacob Lassner, a professor of history and religion at Northwestern University who wrote a negative review of her book, said in an interview. "It's insulting. Brain surgeons would be offended if a medical technician criticized their work. That's what's happened here. The problem, of course, is that she is politically driven."
As Dr. Abu El-Haj's tenure deadline approached, Paula R. Stern, a 1982 Barnard graduate who lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, began an online petition against the professor for what it called her "demonstrably inferior caliber, her knowing misrepresentation of data and violation of accepted standards of scholarship." As of yesterday, it had more than 2,000 signatures, some of them from Columbia faculty members.
"I am horrified," Ms. Stern said in an interview, "that Barnard would even consider tenure for a professor who is so clearly unqualified."
But Dr. Abu El-Haj also has many supporters, particularly in her field, who say her book is solid, even brilliant, and part of an innovative trend of looking at how disciplines function.
They have produced a counter-petition, signed by about 1,300 people, including many professors around the country and abroad, urging that she receive tenure and calling the attacks on her "an orchestrated witch hunt" by those trying to shut down legitimate intellectual inquiry.
Paul Manning, a linguist in the anthropology department at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, who initiated the petition supporting her, said that he acted in part because "Nadia has been targeted a long time, for years, and she's not been having a very good time of it."
He was also concerned about the "concerted attack on the autonomy of the tenure process," Professor Manning said. He added that people were "particularly angered" about the Barnard case because it came on the heels of the DePaul case, in which Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, campaigned to derail Dr. Finkelstein's tenure bid.
Dr. Abu El-Haj has some opponents at her own college. "There is every reason in the world to want her to have tenure, and only one reason against it — her work," said Alan F. Segal, a professor of religion and Jewish studies at Barnard. "I believe it is not good enough."
He said he was particularly troubled by her suggestion that ancient Israelites had not inhabited the land where Israel now stands, and he said that she had either misunderstood or ignored evidence to the contrary. "She completely misunderstands what the biblical tradition is saying," he added. "She is not even close. She is so bizarrely off."
He also said that a Barnard official, whom he declined to name, had asked him to suggest people who were not Jewish to comment on Dr. Abu El-Haj's work for the tenure review, and that he had refused.
Elizabeth Gildersleeve, a Barnard spokeswoman, said that a high official of the college had met with Professor Segal on the tenure case and asked him to submit names for letters of reference. But Ms. Gildersleeve said that "the charge that restrictions were put on that request is absolutely untrue."
Dr. Abu El-Haj's supporters say that she has come under attack partly because she is a Palestinian-American and that her opponents often quote her out of context to distort her arguments.
"She is a scholar of the highest quality and integrity who is being persecuted because she has the courage to focus an analytical lens on subjects that others wish to shield from scrutiny," said Michael Dietler, an anthropology professor at the University of Chicago, "and because she happens to be of Palestinian origin."
Whether Dr. Abu El-Haj will win tenure is expected to be decided in the next few months. The tenure rate at Barnard in recent years has been high: The college said that of 37 faculty members nominated for tenure by departments since 2002-3, tenure was granted to 33.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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