Middle East studies in the News
On Academic Freedom [on Nadia Abu El-Haj, refs. Joseph Massad and Norman Finkelstein]
by Athar Abdul-Quader and Ahmad Diab
Whatever words are added to the "controversy" over Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj's bid for tenure are already framed to aggrandize the campaign of intimidation leveled against academics who are critical of Israel. More op-eds and letters-to-the-editor will only lend attention to what would otherwise be a calm, thorough, confidential procedure. The tenure process involves a careful consideration of whether the professor's body of work is up to the standard of the institution—it is not a popularity contest, nor a popular vote, and for good reason. A tenure committee is comprised of informed, qualified academics who have the best interest of the university in mind. They are far removed from the opposition that has come up against Professor Abu El-Haj. As expected from a distinguished institution such as Barnard College, the committee appointed to review her bid for tenure managed to shield itself from charged external influences. After what we can assume was careful consideration, the committee granted her tenure, and she is now under consideration by Columbia University. The emotionally-charged debate that has emerged surrounding her tenure is an attempt to disrupt the quiet orderly fashion it normally takes, and inappropriately influence the committee's decision.
Academia may be able to tolerate a debate over, say, the war on Iraq, but when the issue at hand is Israel, questions tend to be divided into two realms: those that can be asked, and those that cannot. In line with widely accepted studies on nation-states and archeology, Professor Abu El-Haj's disputed book made the argument that the state of Israel, like many other modern states, seeks legitimacy from ancient history at a damaging cost. Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner demonstrate, in other, now canonical works such as Imagined Communities, the efforts of modern states in instilling national pride and identity in their citizenry by claiming a timeless past through state apparatuses such as museums. Professor Abu El-Haj's point is that political legitimacy can be manufactured and sustained through manipulation of archaeology.
The book in debate, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," is not an amateur study. It was a co-winner of the Albert Horani Annual Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association. Various prestigious institutions have deemed Professor Abu El-Haj's work not only credible, but praise-worthy on many levels. She has held fellowships at Harvard University's Academy for International and Area Studies and the University of Pennsylvania Mellon Program, amongst many others. Professor Abu El-Haj should not be held to a higher burden of proof simply because her conclusions may be unpopular amongst some. Those of us who are unqualified to comment on her scholarship should recognize that those who are have acknowledged her work as both credible and significant.
Had "Facts on the Ground" been a book on, say, Sweden or Burkina Faso, the debate would have been limited to discussion in specialized scholarly journals. However, Israel-sympathizers have repeatedly assigned themselves the authoritarian role of stifling any debate that challenges a monolithic Zionist Israeli narrative. So much so that on-"Campus" scholarly debate now needs a quasi-papal "Watch" that specializes in defaming critics of Israel. The tumultuous, recent history of Israel (6 major regional wars in less than 6 decades) makes for a very emotionally-charged, "long-distance nationalism" (a term coined by Anderson) that is not particularly trained or willing to accept criticism. The roots of this almost obtuse mindset may be found in the classical colonial settler anxiety inherent in Israeli society.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that Paula Stern, the Barnard alumna who started the original petition, chooses to live as a settler on occupied land in Palestine's West Bank. Settlers – notorious both inside and outside Israel for disregarding international law and agitating political climate – are constant revivers of the national paranoia that spills over well beyond its borders, only to later infiltrate American campuses. This same superior attitude has manifested itself in the petition to deny the professor tenure, and in registering an Internet domain under Professor Abu El-Haj's own name only to use as a defamation platform. This practice of emotionally-instigated academic witch-hunts has so far targeted a number of other accredited professors like Norman Finkelstein of De Paul University and Columbia's Joseph Massad. To allow it to go on is to let Academia usher in new Middle Ages where taboos are resurrected, and critics are silenced.
As with trials, when the tenure review process becomes public and publicized, the jury's ability to make independent decisions is put in danger. The attention, the articles, and the petitions (both supporting and criticizing) are like two unruly groups of protestors in a courtroom yelling at the jury's faces. While alumnae support is needed and welcome, courtesy and ethics obligate that it comes with no strings attached. A true wish for a college's prosperity must require that academia remains open to all opinions. Whether it's God, U.S. national security, or Israel, questions should never be prohibited, their posers never penalized. Anything short of that would mean we are on the doorsteps of a new Inquisition.
Athar Abdul-Quader is a Columbia College senior majoring computer science and mathamatics. Ahmad Diab is a student in the Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences.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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