Middle East studies in the News
Greatest Victory, Even in Defeat [on Nadia Abu El-Haj, Joseph Massad]
by Paula Stern
"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."—Edmund Burke
Nadia Abu El-Haj, a controversial professor of anthropology at Barnard College, has been given tenure. This is a warning to Jewish students at Barnard and Columbia—you will now have one more professor to avoid. Already, the lowest forms of life are crawling out amid the ivy. A swastika was painted on a door of a Jewish professor at Columbia, a noose on a black professor's door, more hate incidents in other places—do you think that there is no connection?
When a school opens its doors to a man such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and when it hires people like Abu El-Haj and Joseph Massad, it invites hate and controversy into its once-hallowed halls. Too many waited too long, and Abu El-Haj's acceptance is the result. Let no one think this woman earned this honor. You only need to read her book to see the poor level of her scholarship—the errors that are readily apparent. Even a small child in Israel can point out the errors in language, and most high school students here have a better understanding of archaeological practice in Israel. But Barnard's administration under Judith Shapiro was not interested in facts, and there remains the smell of something rotten just underneath the decision.
Shapiro conveniently withheld the fact that she was a professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College while Abu El-Haj majored in anthropology there. This is the same president who admitted to not having read all of Abu El-Haj's book—the same woman who is leaving Barnard having lowered its standards for Abu El-Haj. As most people know, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Abu El-Haj would receive tenure. She is, after all, the darling of the anthropology department, where no less than 21 professors signed an anti-Israel boycott. She is among friends. No one honestly thought Shapiro would have enough courage to go against the department's recommendation. At a time when most people would wonder what legacy they leave behind, Shapiro can have little doubt that while some may remember her leading Barnard in positive new directions, many others will remember her for the seeds she planted that will live on long after she is gone. Shapiro has helped lower the standards. Mediocrity is now acceptable—if you are politically correct enough to hate Israel and brave enough to hide your political agenda in a book rather than your doctoral dissertation.
While I was a student at Columbia, I took an amazing class, the History of Zionism with Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. It was an enlightening class by a brilliant man. He put forth the idea that you should not fight a battle unless you know you can win. To lose, he told us, is to damage yourself more. Better not to fight at all. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. You fight injustice even knowing you will likely lose—you fight it so that the next time the battle will be easier.
Sometimes, the right is in the fight itself and not in the results. No doubt Abu El-Haj is celebrating, but the victory is not hers or Columbia's. The victory goes to those who fought against her tenure, because Barnard knows it has damaged itself in the eyes of many graduates. I recently attended a graduate gathering in Israel. Most of the women there signed a petition against Abu El-Haj's tenure. The visiting dean of the college, Dorothy Denburg, was forced to offer a rambling explanation, but mostly, she asked not to be held responsible for the decision. The oldest alumna there, class of '43, listened, and was livid. "I want nothing to do with Barnard. I'm finished with Barnard," she said to me, the anger so apparent. This woman has held on to letters and notes from 60 years ago, and when she went home that evening, she left the notes and the book on the table. It was sad, heartbreaking. This is Columbia's loss. A petition with over 2,500 names proved that thousands thought that Abu El-Haj's tenure was the wrong decision. They will think twice before sending their children to Columbia, and certainly those yearly requests for money will go unanswered. This too is Columbia's loss. But more importantly, Columbia and Barnard have lost their respect.
At the same dinner, a young graduate approached me and spoke of her negative experiences taking a class with Massad and of the anti-Israel comments he slipped into the lectures. I urged her to tell Denburg about what she experienced, but she refused. All it takes for prejudice to prevail is for good men (and women) to be silent. Denburg was silent.
She wanted to talk about the new building going on at Barnard. She wanted to talk about progress. She told us about a new kosher dining room. And I thought, how silly, by granting tenure to Abu El-Haj, and by opening their doors to Ahmadinejad, Columbia is announcing to its Jews—don't come here and expect to feel comfortable. Why bother with a kosher kitchen, when anti-Semites walk the halls, teach in the classrooms, and lecture from the highest platforms available at the University? This too is a sign that Columbia has lost its way.
The battle, some would thus argue, is lost. But I would say we were victorious. We won because we made thousands of people aware that Barnard and Columbia had lost their place in the halls of respect. National and international newspapers have interviewed those who fought against the tenure.
Massad, Abu El-Haj, Ahmadinejad... Columbia is a laughing stock—and the greatest joke is on University President Lee Bollinger and Barnard, because Shapiro is leaving, and Bollinger and Barnard will be left to pick up the pieces of her favoritism. Abu El-Haj will teach at Barnard, but Barnard's students will not learn about truth. That's the biggest joke of all. Her dissertation offers a mediocre and poorly written diatribe. Her book, a version of the dissertation in which suspect facts have been poisoned by intentional lies, remains to baffle and amuse all those who attempt to read its rambling diatribes.
Though our hearts are heavy, victory goes to those who fought a good fight, a clean fight, an honest one. Victory goes to those of us who stood up against the odds and soon, when more of Abu El-Haj's racist attitudes on Jewish genetics become widely publicized, Barnard will lose even more respect and be ridiculed that much more. Our victory will be in the fact that having separated ourselves now, we will not sink with Barnard.
Most importantly, our victory will come in the next battle, when the anthropology department or some other department attempts to bring yet another unqualified professor forward because of his or her political agenda. At that time, Barnard and Columbia students and alumni will have a choice, abandon the University completely, or stand up and say, "Enough."
Those who stood up have shown that it is sometimes easier to stand and protest now than stomach having professors like Abu El-Haj at Barnard. Our efforts now will make it easier for others in the future. As for Abu El-Haj, let her be warned—the fight will continue to be waged. She can deny Israel's right to exist all that she wishes and attempt to rewrite Israel's history, but the study of archaeology continues and each day. As Israeli archaeologists dig, they uncover more and more proof of the facts on the ground that Abu El-Haj wants to deny desperately.
Recently, Muslim authorities ordered a trench dug on the Temple Mount ... and what did they find as they carelessly dug? Remnants of our first Holy Temple. Abu El-Haj can lie all she wants, but the earth does not lie, and from its depths comes the truth she is trying to deny.
And that truth, here in this land, is our greatest victory of all.
The author is a graduate of the Barnard College class of '82.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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