Barnard Tenures Scholar Opposed by Massive Campaign

Nadia Abu El-Haj was attacked by supporters of Israel over her book on archaeology in Israel, but wins promotion.
November 5, 2007

In one of the most publicly contested tenure cases of the year, Barnard College announced Friday that it would promote Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist whose work on archaeology in Israel led to a major campaign against her.

A statement released by the college did not directly speak to the controversy that has raged around Abu El-Haj. "Like all tenured members of the Barnard faculty, Professor Abu El-Haj has successfully passed a highly rigorous review that involves both Barnard's own independent process and a university-wide review [at Columbia University] that reflects Barnard's partnership with Columbia and the participation of Barnard faculty in Columbia's graduate programs," the statement said.

"The tenure process includes extensive, confidential peer review by leading scholars in the candidate's field; clear documentation of teaching effectiveness; and a candidate's record of service to the institution and her profession. Tenure, together with the norms of academic freedom that pertain to all faculty, gives scholars the liberty to advance ideas, regardless of their political impact, so that their work may be openly debated and play a critical role in shaping knowledge in the scholar's academic field." (A Barnard spokeswoman said that college officials would not discuss the tenure decision beyond the statement.)

The El-Haj case is among several involving scholars of the Middle East (generally seen as critics of Israel) that have set off national debates on their views and on academic freedom. Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University and after threatening to sue, reached a settlement with the university in September. Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, had departmental backing for a position teaching Middle Eastern history at Yale University, but ended up losing his bid for the job.

Opposition to Finkelstein, Cole and Abu El-Haj was part of the motivation for a new group of scholars to form last month to defend academic freedom and to call for an end to outside campaigns against scholars' work. At the same time, other scholars -- among them those who have argued that most Middle Eastern studies scholars are too hostile to U.S. foreign policy and to Israel -- to form a new group of their own last week.

While Finkelstein and Cole are among the more public of public intellectuals, jousting online and in person with their critics, Abu El-Haj has led a low profile, not commenting publicly on her case. Had her critics not mobilized against her tenure bid, most people outside of her immediate area of scholarship probably wouldn't have heard of her.

The controversy over Abu El-Haj focused on her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, published by the University of Chicago Press. The book was honored with an award by the Middle East Studies Association and Abu El-Haj's résumé features fellowships and other honors. The book deals with a topic that is sensitive politically to both Israelis and Palestinians: the evidence of the ancient Jewish presence in what is now Israel. The modern Israeli state has revered archaeology's role in establishing the historical Jewish roots in the region -- which is important to Israelis in distinguishing themselves from colonial powers that took control of lands to which they were not connected.

In her book, Abu El-Haj writes critically of the way Israeli leaders have used archaeology to justify certain policies and views of their country. But the controversy over her book centers on the claims of some critics that she denies that there was a Jewish presence in the land. An example of this critique, by two of Abu El-Haj's prominent critics, may be found here. However, others who have read the book argue that Abu El-Haj's critics have distorted her words and that she does not contest the ancient Jewish presence in the region. Another analysis arguing that Abu El-Haj's record has been distorted appeared recently in The Nation, with the headline "The New McCarthyism." Both sides in the debate have continued to critique the critiques, and petitions have circulated to oppose her tenure bid and to endorse it.

Many of those opposing the tenure bid identify themselves as Barnard alumnae, with some threatening never to donate to the college again. Many of those signing the petition on behalf of Abu El-Haj identify themselves as academics and say that freedom of intellectual thought has been endangered by the campaign against her. Abu El-Haj herself has been notably absent from the debate. When the Middle East Studies Association issued statements recently expressing concern about the academic freedom of some scholars whose work has been attacked, it approached her to ask if it should send letters to Barnard, and officials in the association report that she asked them not to do anything, and to let the regular process run its course.

Paula Stern, a blogger who was among the chief organizers of the anti-Abu El-Haj movement, blasted Barnard's decision and said it was a victory for anti-Semitism. She also linked the decision to a recent incident in which a Jewish professor at Teachers College of Columbia University found a swastika painted on her office door.

"The anti-Semites think they have won -- and they are painting their glory across the campus with swastikas.... The battle, some would thus argue, is lost. But I would say we were victorious. We won because we made tens of thousands of people aware that Barnard and Columbia had lost their place in the halls of respect," wrote Stern. "El-Haj will teach at Barnard, but Barnard's students will not learn about truth. They will not learn about the facts on the ground, because the ground under El-Haj's world doesn't exist. Her dissertation consists of a poorly written diatribe, and her book, a bastardized version of the dissertation, has been further poisoned by intentional lies."

The blog Interprete featured two comments from people who have studied with Abu El-Haj and who praised her as a teacher.

Richard Silverstein, a blogger who has been publishing criticisms of the attacks on Abu El-Haj, predicted that there would be more such fights. He wrote: "Campus Watch, Front Page Magazine, the David Project and their allies among Barnard alumni who campaigned against Abu El-Haj have lost this round. I say round because to them this clearly is a never-ending ideological war.... No doubt they will be trolling for the next Abu El Haj to whom they can take an ax. But the good news is that they have been stopped here. Academia finally said to them: here and no farther."


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