Middle East studies in the News
Editor with a Hatchet: Larry Cohler-Esses [on Nadia Abu El-Haj]
by Paula Stern
Larry Cohler-Esses is a man on a mission. He's an editor with a hatchet, ready to wield it in the noble cause of "gotcha" journalism. Of course, he refuses to focus on the little details, like the voices of experts on the very subject on which he writes nothing about his inability to focus on the forest when the tree beckons. During a recent interview, so fascinated with one petition, Cohler-Esses managed to miss the forest: that Barnard College is about to give tenure to a professor who has written a wholly inferior and highly political book which fails completely when measured against the scales of truth, integrity, academic honesty and simple facts.
Like many newspapers, the Jewish Week was interested in a story (as was The Nation) about the tenure decision of Barnard professor Nadia Abu El Haj. I became aware of the ongoing controversy more than a year ago and read her book to see if it could possibly be as inaccurate and filled with anti-Israel propaganda as the experts claimed. A quick read suggests this is true; a more in-depth study confirms it. At the time (a year ago), I made notes, highlighted sections, and decided to do what I could to make certain that Barnard and Columbia did not give tenure to a professor who is more of a propagandist than a qualified scholar.
I wrote to the Barnard administration and contacted other Barnard graduates. Barnard doesn't want their alumnae to mess with the process; we are there for giving donations only, it seems. When the administration was unresponsive, I started an online petition. I was in a hurry, after all, the decision was to be soon and Barnard was refusing to give any details of the time schedule (plus I have a business to run, a daughter was getting married, a son was going into the army, three other children needed my attention, etc.). I did a quick review of my notes, wrote up a petition, and posted it.
I asked dozens of people to sign it. I later noticed a couple of minor errors in my text. Little things like – El Haj is virtually ignorant of the Hebrew language instead of completely ignorant. That her reference to one specific dig was wrong, but named a different dig instead. These minor corrections should have been made, but once a petition is posted at petitiononline.com, no corrections to the text are possible.
Historians James Davila and Ralph Harrington concur that the petition was correct in its criticism of El Haj, except that : "I doubt that it is accurate to say that Abu El-Haj did not know Hebrew when she wrote the book. But in it she does make elementary errors that someone with a decent knowledge of the language would not have made, which raises the question whether she knew it well enough to pull off the ambitious project she undertakes in the book."
Several journalists have contacted me and interviewed me. Each focused on the forest - the Barnard tenure decision. Cohler-Esses called me moments before the Jewish Sabbat was to begin and we agreed he would call me back after the Sabbath ended in New York - that meant having a discussion at 12:30 a.m. in Israel. I asked that he speak to the experts on the subject for a detailed analysis of her work, but welcomed him to speak to me about my efforts. Little did I know that Cohler-Esses is a tree-man and likely wouldn't see a forest, even from way up high in the sky. The real question one must ask, is not why the petition is 100% accurate or not, but why Abu El Haj's book isn't accurate. And, of course, why attack-journalist Cohler-Esses devoted his time to seeking tiny criticisms in my petition instead of noting that Barnard is considering giving tenure to Abu El Haj on the basis of a single book that is riddled with serious errors of fact and of methodology.
The petition continued to grow, gaining more than 2,500 supporters, many of whom are Barnard and Columbia graduates. It's a fine showing, a clear message to Columbia University that its graduates are against this latest attempt to add yet another documented Israel hater to its ranks.
During this whole process, I've acted as an archive, posting many articles written by experts on the subject of El Haj's past and current research. It was on the basis of these articles, and not my opinion, that I asked concerned Barnard and Columbia graduates to make a decision. I asked the same of many reporters who contacted me. Most understood that the petition was an expression of concern and condemnation. Only Larry Cohler-Esses gave it the holiness one would normally equate with the Bible. Each word, he studied – more than he probably has ever bothered to study the Torah.
Cohler-Esses' mission can best be summed up in his own pre-determined prejudice, "This is the modus operandi of the New McCarthyism. It targets a new enemy for our era: Muslims, Arabs and others in the Middle East field who are identified as stepping over an unstated line in criticizing Israel, as radical Islamists, as just plain radical or as in some way sympathetic to terrorists."
In other words, Cohler-Esses was the most dangerous of hatchet editors – a man with a preconceived conclusion and the power to wield it. Sadly, he wasn't honest enough to make his opinions known, but hid behind innocuous questions and then minimized El Haj's 281-page manifesto as merely "criticizing Israel."
Rather than attack Cohler-Esses (as a response to his attack on me), this reporter will focus on the "facts" he raised and the answers he should have provided:
The four statements about her book that Cohler-Esses claims are false are that Abu El Haj:
claims the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a "pure political fabrication,"
denies the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE and instead blames its destruction on the Jews,
does not speak or read Hebrew yet had the temerity to publish a book on Israeli archaeology that demanded such expertise,
is so ignorant of her topic that she quotes one archaeologist on how a dig might have damaged the ancient palaces of Solomon--oblivious to the fact that those palaces, if they existed, were far from the site in question.
Nadia Abu El Haj claims the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a "pure political fabrication."
Another, by a leading historian, comes to the same conclusion: http://paleojudaica.blogspot.com/2007_10_21_archive.html#9219122517838600497
Both these scholars agree that El Haj's characteristically convoluted language does not mask her true intent – to say that the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a "pure political fabrication."
Nadia Abu El Haj denies the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE and instead blames its destruction on the Jews.
What Abu El Haj actually says is that that Jerusalem in the times of Jesus was not Jewish. "...for most of its history, including the Herodian period, Jerusalem was not a Jewish city, but rather one integrated into larger empires and inhabited, primarily, by 'other' communities." pp 175-6. El Haj is simply wrong, and pretty much everyone except El Haj (and maybe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) knows it. To claim Jerusalem, whose very name is an Anglicized version of its Hebrew name, as anything but the Jewish city it has always been recognized to be, is a mockery of history, revisionism most insidious.
El Haj then makes herself ridiculous by asserting, with regard to the fires that destroyed a particular site in ancient Jerusalem, that there are "several alternative but equally plausible accounts." Some two thousand years after the destruction of Jerusalem, Nadia Abu El Haj has set herself as the defender of Rome. It is her goal to acquit the ancient Roman Empire and to do so, she must find a culprit. Since there were but Jews and Romans present at the time, she is limited in her choices. Limited but not defeated, she makes her wild and undocumented suggestion, nonetheless, by suggesting that "some of the evidence… could just as convincingly be read as evidence of a class or sectarian conflict within Jewish Society…" pp 145
Here is yet another essay showing how El Haj got this wrong. http://phdiva.blogspot.com/2007/05/nadia-aby-el-haj-and-use-of-evidence.html. Cohler-Esses continues his attack on the petition by focusing on the exact wording while missing the main point that El Haj did, in fact, attempt to shift blame for the burning of Jerusalem to the Jews. That she did this for only a section of Jerusalem and not the entire city, as one might interpret from the petition, means nothing to Cohler-Esses. He can take the petition word for word, but cannot manage to do the same with El Haj's book - again, because that might disagree with his own intention.
Two points down, and one can begin to see a pattern to Cohler-Esses writing, but let's continue.
Nadia Abu El Haj does not speak or read Hebrew yet had the temerity to publish a book on Israeli archaeology that demanded such expertise.
Here one must concede, again, that the petition is correct in its conclusion, but with the added explanation that it seems that El Haj knows some Hebrew, just not enough to read and write intelligently on her chosen topic.
As I wrote on my site, "Any Israeli reading the book will quickly see that the numerous mistakes she makes are a clear indication...this woman is as uncertain and unskilled in her Hebrew skills as she is in her research, her documentation, her ability to draw logical and intelligent conclusions based on real facts on the ground." See http://www.paulasays.com/articles/nadia_el_haj/does_nadia_abu_el_haj_know_hebrew.html
When I tried to admit that the petition was correct in its essence, if not phrased as best as could be expected, one can almost hear the glee in Cohler-Esses pathetic attempt to misplace this "admission" to devalue the entire petition. But luckily, the only thing devalued in this process is the integrity of Cohler-Esses and any newspaper that would print his article without further investigation.
Nadia Abu El Haj is so ignorant of her topic that she quotes one archaeologist on how a dig might have damaged the ancient palaces of Solomon--oblivious to the fact that those palaces, if they existed, were far from the site in question.
Abu El Haj's ignorance of archaeology is monumental. As I mentioned previously, if Cohler-Esses wanted a professional discussion of all facets of El Haj's work, he should have spoken to the experts and he should have conducted a professional interview, not one with someone at 12:30 a.m. who is sitting in her bed wanting to go to sleep, or someone who was not informed that her notes and a copy of the book would be required to answer his questions. Cohler-Esses did a hatchet job because he wasn't interested in truth or the facts on Abu El Haj, but because he wanted to put forth his conspiracy theory of a new McCarthyism sweeping American colleges. Do not take my opinion on this.
As I asked Cohler-Esses to do, those who wish to be informed, should read the opinions of leading scholars, including these:
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