Middle East studies in the News
El-Haj and the Wall of Silence [on Nadia Abu El-Haj]
by Phil Orenstein
The tenure battle of Nadia Abu El-Haj, an assistant anthropology professor at Barnard College has been heating up in the New York news media recently, although no one outside the hallowed walls of Morningside Heights seems to know what is really happening. Karen Arenson, the education writer for the New York Times discusses the warring camps of Barnard alumni and outsiders, on the one hand, claiming that El-Haj's scholarship is shoddy, politically driven and based on misrepresentation of data, while on the other hand, supporters charge that she is the target of an "'orchestrated witch hunt' by those trying to shut down legitimate intellectual inquiry." Arenson also quotes outgoing Barnard President Judith Shapiro stoically defending the secretive tenure process stating: "This case will be no different, both in its rigor and freedom from outside lobbying."
The other day, a news story in New York Sun, highlighted the protests against El-Haj's tenure bid and the hysterical reaction from her supporters. Professor Laurie Brand, former Middle East Studies Association (MESA) president, is one of her supporters who stated that protests coming from outside the walls of academia are "just preposterous." She said that tenure decisions should be based on the opinions of experts, not on critics who want to silence her because they disagree with her conclusions, implying the opposition is composed of dishonest and bigoted critics trying to shut her down.
As an "outsider" who "lobbied" President Shapiro, and as someone who is personally acquainted with the downfall of Colombia and Barnard from world-class status, which I'll touch on later, I have a stake in the outcome of this tenure case. There is good reason for "outsiders" to be vigilantly involved with the frivolities behind the hallowed walls and closed-door tenure process. The so-called experts and administrators cannot be trusted and the public demand for more transparency and an open door policy to tenure proceedings must be met. The closed fortress of academia must be opened and held accountable to the public and the current tenure case is a good reason why.
The imminent tenure grant for this professor of questionable qualifications is a perfect example of how academic standards of peer-reviewed research and verifiable fact are being trumped by biased political ideologies. The sum of El-Haj's scholarly work and the basis of the tenure decision is her book, "Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society" which is based upon her premise that the historical connection of the Jews to the land of Israel is a "pure political fabrication," and charges Israeli archeologists with manufacturing evidence to legitimize the "modern nation's origin myth." She exhibits a post-modern disdain for such empirical facts as archeological evidence of ancient Israelite kingdoms, which she casts as the perpetuation of a myth to serve the interests of the colonial powers. Much to the dismay of academic insiders, many more alumni, donors and concerned outsiders are noticeably getting involved in the protest, including over 2000 signatories to an online petition initiated by Barnard alumnus, Paula Stern against El-Haj's tenure. She started the petition after all other efforts to communicate her concerns to the Barnard administration were ignored and President Shapiro brushed her off as an "outsider." Stern urges all to sign, whether Barnard/Columbia alumni or not. If you haven't as yet signed the petition, you may do so, here.
A brief recap of recent developments in the on-going protest leading up to the petition is in order. Not too long ago, a group of scholars calling themselves the Va'ad ha-Emet (Truth Committee), wishing to remain anonymous out of fear of repercussion for openly going public, appealed to former SUNY Trustee and academic standards advocate Dr. Candace de Russy to publicize their findings. They found that El-Haj's book failed to meet minimal academic standards, repudiated verifiable evidence and slandered distinguished Israeli archaeologist, David Ussishkin, and upon that basis she should be denied tenure. Upon further investigation, de Russy found that some of the tenure committee members, as well as much of the Columbia faculty largely share a similar disdain for evidence-based scholarship and a predilection toward promoting their own pet political agendas under the guise of scholarship. One of the committee members is Barnard Professor of Art History Keith Moxey, who according to his book, "The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History," exhibits the postmodern view that history should be liberated from the real world of verifiable facts and figures acknowledging "that historical arguments will be evaluated according to how well they coincide with our political conviction."
Following the publication of the Va'ad ha-Emet statement, more people outside the Barnard community became enraged and involved, including my own letter to President Shapiro and subsequent email discussions. In one message she fumed at the way outside pressure "is being mobilized," and "the level of hysteria it is generating," and even cast El-Haj as the victim of "death threats from those opposed to her work," which have so far been proven unsubstantiated following an unanswered inquiry by Campus Watch director, Winfield Myers, for Shapiro to produce evidence.
Ever since the mounting involvement of Barnard alumni protesting El-Haj's tenure and the online petition, Columbia and Barnard have erected a wall of silence and huddle in fear of publicity deep in their hallowed chambers crying "censorship" and "witch hunt." Rather than participating in an open and honest public debate over the issues, they choose to stonewall and conceal themselves in their ivory bunkers safe from public scrutiny and interference from the unwashed "outsiders." Their silence speaks volumes to the resentment of outsiders who are growing increasingly outraged over the wall of silence. After I blogged my email correspondences with Shapiro, making them public, she exploded with a venomous reply, which according to my subsequent letter of apology I promised not to post. In my letter, which was not answered, I reiterated my position that "higher education is on a public stage" and administrators shouldn't insist on maintaining their archaic status quo as defenders of "a sacrosanct ‘gentlemen's club,'" in response to a series of long winded admonitions to keep my nose out of private academic business.
As I mentioned before, I have a personal interest in the outcome of this tenure battle, among other critical issues at Columbia. Ever since I experienced a rude awakening several years ago at a lecture held at Columbia Law School, I have been following the alarming downward spiral of intellectual integrity and academic standards at what was once considered an esteemed institution. As part of a series of outside speakers sponsored by the Law School, this lecture featured the controversial pro-Palestinian activist, Alison Weir. In meticulous detail for over an hour, she compared the State of Israel, armed and funded by the U.S., to the Nazi regime, now perpetrating a holocaust of its own on the Palestinian people, bombing villages and murdering Palestinian children. She received thunderous applause and approval from the audience as she appealed to them to join her in petitioning the U.S. government to stop funding this atrocity. During the question and answer session when I stood up to question her revisionist perspective on the Holocaust and why Arafat was living large, and wealthy Arab neighbors swimming in oil money, while the Palestinian people were dirt poor, the audience composed of a couple of hundred students, faculty and activists shouted me down. Before I could continue, a student stood up and asked me, "What holocaust are you talking about?" to accompanying hoots and hollers from everyone in the room. As I left in bewilderment, an embarrassed law student approached me to apologize on behalf of the Law School for the animal behavior of the students and urged me to return for future lectures. In retrospect, I can now attribute the causes of this horror show of intellectual disintegration to "bloody-minded professors...running amok in politics" in the inimitable words of Peter Viereck.
Subsequent incidents at Columbia University have been all too frequent and often proved ruder than the previous ones. Shortly after this lecture, an antiwar demonstration saw thousands of students and professors cheering to Professor Nicholas De Genova's remarks calling for "a million Mogadishus" and the defeat of the U.S. military forces that had just entered Iraq. A prior event in 2002, which seemed to set the tone for all others to come, deemed a "path-breaking conference" and subsequent book, advised by Columbia history professor Eric Foner, was entitled: Taking Back the Academy, History of Activism, History as Activism. The theme of the conference was to change the mission of higher education to be one of advocacy and social change. It featured a presentation entitled "Teaching Student Activism," calling campuses battlefields to incite student unrest in order to bring "students out of their classrooms and into the streets."
These events and incidents, inside and outside of the classroom, continued ad nauseam, leading up to the recent violent mob attack to silence guest speaker Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, by Columbia students who charged the stage and started a brawl. Apparently they learned their lessons well on "student activism." I wrote a letter to President Bollinger, imploring him to "take swift action to bring the student perpetrators to justice" and to assure us that "future events sponsored by the Columbia College Republicans (will) have adequate security to fully protect the expression of diverse opinions" even those which don't always jive with the Columbia "mission" for social change. The letter went unanswered and nothing but lip service was paid to the reign of student anarchy and hostility to freedom of speech and conscience that prevails at Columbia.
I invite President Shapiro, President Bollinger, Professor Brand and other supporters of El-Haj to respond publicly, especially with regard to the current tenure case, which Shapiro has assured me "depends upon just that kind of public, professional speech" that concerned alumni and others have initiated. I will post legitimate intellectual replies if they rise above the level of innuendo and personal insults of the sort comparing me to Mr. Collins from Austen's Pride and Prejudice. But please spare us the "censorship" and "orchestrated witch hunt" nonsense. There is a great difference between "public, professional speech" which we are engaged in and mob violence to shut down a speaker with whom one disagrees.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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