[Marxism] Tenure battle at Barnard

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 20 07:12:51 MDT 2007

The Chronicle of Higher Education 

Today's News

Monday, August 20, 2007

Newest Battlefield of Middle East Conflict Is Tenure Case at Barnard College


Scholars of anthropology and of Middle East studies are rallying around 
Nadia Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard 
College whose tenure bid, like that of Norman G. Finkelstein at DePaul 
University earlier this year, has become the subject of an online 
skirmish in the larger conflict over research on the Middle East.

Central to the controversy is Ms. Abu El-Haj's book, Facts on the 
Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in 
Israeli Society (University of Chicago Press, 2001), which argues that 
Israeli archaeology has been shaped by Israeli national identity, and 
vice versa.

This month a group of Barnard College alumnae posted an online petition 
urging that Ms. Abu El-Haj be refused tenure and outlining several 
criticisms of her book (The Chronicle, August 15). That petition, which 
has drawn more than 1,000 signatures, accuses her of being unfamiliar 
with Israeli archaeological research, of relying on anonymous sources, 
and of not being able to speak Hebrew. It also characterizes Ms. Abu 
El-Haj's book as a partisan indictment of Israeli archaeology that 
denies outright the existence of an ancient Israelite civilization.

Last week supporters of Ms. Abu El-Haj posted a counterpetition. Many of 
them cited the high esteem Ms. Abu El-Haj's research has been accorded 
in the fields of anthropology and Middle East studies, and many others 
directly countered the accusations leveled against the assistant 
professor -- including the allegation that she does not speak Hebrew.

"Anybody who reads her work can see that it is replete with Hebrew 
sources, both written and oral," Lisa Wedeen, chair of the 
political-science department at the University of Chicago and a scholar 
of the Middle East, said in an interview. She said that the book 
contains Ms. Abu El-Haj's own translations from Hebrew, and that they 
are "fluid and idiomatic."

Accusations that Ms. Abu El-Haj cannot speak Hebrew stem from an earlier 
scrutiny of her work by a group called the Va'ad ha-Emet, or Truth 
Committee, which said that she repeatedly confused the Hebrew words for 
"settlement" and "stream."

Paula R. Stern, a Barnard alumna and one of the authors of the petition 
against Ms. Abu El-Haj, reprinted last month on her blog, PaulaSays, an 
essay critical of Ms. Abu El-Haj's work. That essay, by Ralph 
Harrington, an independent scholar in Britain, argued that the Barnard 
assistant professor had a "conscious strategy of ideologically motivated 
misrepresentation" and that her "target is not Israeli archaeology at 
all, but the existence of Israel itself." Mr. Harrington published a 
disclaimer on his blog, Graycat, saying he takes no position on the 
tenure dispute.

However, Ms. Wedeen said that the thesis of Ms. Abu El-Haj's book is 
inspired more by the philosophy of science than by any strain of 
political argument. "Her book is basically highlighting how science and 
nationalist imaginings work together, how they basically shape each 
other," she said.

Jean Comaroff, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, 
writing about Ms. Abu El-Haj before the petition against her was posted, 
said that Ms. Abu El-Haj's work displays a "refusal ever to reduce 
knowledge to mere politics."

On Page 8 of the book, Ms. Abu El-Haj says that the Israeli 
archaeological research she studied was "not driven by ideological 
positions writ large, but rather, as is typical of scientific work, good 
or bad, ... by paradigmatic conceptions of history and methods of 
practice, and by specific epistemological commitments and evidentiary 

So at least some of the controversy over Ms. Abu El-Haj hinges on 
questions that awkwardly blend the philosophy of science with 
high-stakes politics. Namely: Is describing an archaeological find -- or 
a claim to nationhood -- as socially constructed different from denying 
its existence? From calling it a lie?

Others among the 400 or signatories to the petition in support of Ms. 
Abu El-Haj said that it is standard practice to protect the identity of 
ethnographic subjects -- hence the anonymous sources in her work. Many 
more said that the mechanisms of peer review, and not online popular 
campaigns, are the proper gauges of a scholar's work. Moreover, Ms. Abu 
El-Haj has fared well in that regard, they said, with several prominent 
grants, awards, and appointments to her name.

Ms. Abu El-Haj has declined to comment on the petition against her.

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