As disturbing as Nadia El Haj's past work is, her future "research" seems to be even more chilling.
Nadia Abu El Haj, has announced her intention to write what her colleague Joseph Massad describes as "a book about the "Zionist movement('s)…desperate contemporary search for Jewish 'genetic markers' " to support "its continued investment in the racial separateness of the Jews." Following are some details about Nadia's use – and misuse – of genetic research by nationalists.
Among the talks Abu El Haj has given while working on this book are
- "The Descent of Men: Genetics, Jewish Origins, and Historical Truths,"
- "Jews – Lost and Found: Genetics and the Evidentiary Terrain of Recognition"
- "Bearing the Mark of Israel? Genetics, Geneaology and the Quest for Jewish Origins"
In these titles, and in the text of the lone formal paper she has presented on the subject to date, "A Tool to Recover Past Histories: Genealogy and Identity after the Genome," there is more than a whiff of racial essentialism.
In the paper, for example, for example, she cites and dismisses the normative opinion that the Lemba (an African group recently discovered to bear genetic markers common among cohanim) are not Jewish, in favor of "recognizing the Lemba's Jewishness…." And asserting that they are "Now recognizable Jews by virtue of their descent…" She goes on to discusses groups working to "integrate" the Lemba into the Jewish community despite her awareness that the groups working to integrate the Lemba are "kooky."
In Facts on the Ground Ab El Haj denies that Jews descend from the ancient Israelites, the claim of Jewish "nativeness," was "self-fashioned," just as archaeological evidence for cultural continuity between the ancient Israelites and modern Jews is, according to Abu El Haj, nothing but a "pure political fabrication" on the part of nationalistic archaeologists. When such a scholar begins to talk about "Genetics, Jewish Origins, and Historical Truths," and to use such racially-loaded phrases as "Bearing the Mark of Israel," her work bears looking into.
Someone recently attended a Brown Bag luncheon last spring to hear Abu El Haj speak on "Jews and Arabs: The Shifting Boundaries of Kinship and Difference." What this person heard was simply chilling.
She chose to focus on what she called the "Jewish Racial Science" as practiced by Jewish physicians in Mandatory Palestine. Eugenics was fashionable and more than respectable in that era. Today, we look back with horror at a time when respectable people advocated selective breeding and Justices of the United States Supreme Court now recalled with the greatest respect for other decisions they signed, endorsed forced sterilization of the genetically inferior.
In that era, I am quite certain that Barnard undergraduates could hear talks in Sulzberger Parlor about how the members of the eugenically superior races and classes had an obligation to bear large families while the inferior races were to be discouraged form doing so. Of a certainty, such talks were given to the young women attending most colleges in this country.
Abu El Haj did not offer so much as a nod to the history or wide international acceptability of eugenics in the period. She focused solely on the racial science of the Jews. The story she told was of a small group of Jewish physicians in Mandatory Palestine who conceived of themselves and their ethnic and social peers as a physically, mentally, and eugenically superior race. This superior Jewish race was to be encouraged to bear more children. It was imperative to limit the breeding of the benighted ultra-religious Jews and of the short, dark-skinned Jews then immigrating in substantial numbers from Yemen.
She gave descriptions of these Jewish physicians that made them sound like Joseph Mengele, although the Nazi scientists were not actually discussed, and these eugenist physicians did not sterilize anyone – they merely talked, mostly about who should breed and who should not. No context of the international eugenics movement was discussed, only what was made to appear as the appalling racialism of the Jewish professional class in Mandatory Palestine. The vile racialism and eugenic proposals of that group were alone held up for revulsion. During the discussion period, all questioners appeared to accept that early twentieth century Jewish racial science was a unique phenomenon.
We cannot know what Abu El Haj's next book will contain, but there was certainly no indication in her work-in-progrress talk that it will take a more balanced or evidence-based approach than Facts on the Ground.