Middle East studies in the News
The New Yorker Hearts Nadia
Jane Kramer's New Yorker article about Nadia Abu El Haj is a piece of one-sided puffery in which Abu El Haj is depicted as a martyr to the dark forces that threaten scholarly freedom of inquiry and expression in the academy, and any notion that there might be serious criticisms of her work based on scholarship rather than politics or ideological bias is dismissed out of hand. The less than even-handed approach taken by Kramer to Abu El Haj's work is made clear from the outset, in passages such as this, discussing the responses to Facts on the Ground:
The book was praised by colleagues who responded to the critical tropes that were Abu El-Haj's legacy from scholars like Michel Foucault, Ian Hacking, Bruno Latour, and Edward Said, and dismissed by colleagues with a theoretical or a political or simply a turf interest in dismissing it.
So those who liked the book were scholars engaged with the intellectual movement of which it was part; those who didn't were acting from motives of bias or vested interest.
Perhaps the most striking and questionable aspect of the article, however, is its depiction of Abu El Haj as an innocent abroad, a high-minded scholar taken aback by the very idea that anyone could see her work as controversial in any way that goes beyond ‘an exchange of letters in the kind of scholarly journals no one outside the academy reads'. Kramer quotes Abu El Haj's description of herself as 'not a public intellectual. I'm drawn to archives, to disciplines where the evidence sits for a while. I don't court controversy'. Perhaps she is sincere in saying that: after all the view that Israel is a repressive illegitimate colonial state is hardly controversial within the academy. On the contrary, it's Middle East Studies Groupthink 101. It's when people outside her own inward-looking peer group start to challenge the things she says - pointing out, perhaps, that she certainly didn't let ‘the evidence [sit] for a while' in her sympathetic account of the violent destruction of Joseph's Tomb in Facts on the Ground - that she finds things uncomfortable. If you write books containing that kind of thing, and publish them, and have people buy them and read them, controversy will find you out. If you don't like it, perhaps you are in the wrong line of work.
The account given by Kramer of how Nadia Abu El Haj came to be working on Israel is rather touching. If we are to believe what Kramer tells us, Abu El Haj was this close to devoting herself to the anthropological study of Palestine: ‘She wanted to figure out the place, the issues, the source of nationalism there'. But her dissertation adviser at Duke University changed the current of her studies by suggesting that she look at Israel instead: ‘you need to understand the institutions that have the power - the institutions of Israeli nationalism'. And that was that. This promising young scholar would henceforth devote herself to the study of Israeli national identity and Israeli institutions of power. What a radical choice to make. Picture the scene:
Dissertation Adviser: So, you want to analyze and critique the sources and nature of Palestinian nationalism and national identity?
Promising Young Scholar: Yes, that's right. Palestine needs serious study. I want to figure out the place, the issues, the source of nationalism there.
Dissertation Adviser: Nah. Power's the thing. Israel has the power. Study Israel.
Promising Young Scholar: Gosh, could I? That had never occurred to me. I bet hardly anyone ever critiques Israeli nationalism.
Dissertation Adviser (thinks): Booya! Another victory for intellectual diversity in the academy.
It's hard to see what good Kramer's article, with its patent biases, will do: it doesn't inform, it doesn't analyze, it doesn't investigate, it doesn't question. Written as it is in the dead-in-the-water prose that characterizes so much American big-title journalism, it doesn't even entertain. It fails to engage with any of the serious criticisms of Nadia Abu El Haj's work, and barely acknowledges their existence. It seeks to relate the Facts on the Ground controversy to the wider issue of the politicization of Middle East Studies, but does so in a way so skewed and blinkered that what it tries to say is rendered worthless; how seriously can you take someone who quotes Rashid Khalidi as an authority on academic ethics, and does so apparently with a straight face?
On the plus side, this being The New Yorker, there are some good cartoons in there.
Jane Kramer on Nadia Abu El Haj: further reading
‘The Petition': link to the original article in PDF format
Phoebe Maltz: A balanced account
Orthodox Anarchist: The New Yorker takes aim at the Zionist thought police
Solomonia: The New Yorker dances to Nadia's tune
The Bwog: Nadia Abu El-Haj speaks
Martin Kramer: Are Columbia's Palestinians … Palestinian?
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