It's been a busy week in terms of Middle Eastern politics on Ivy League turf. Harvard and Yale refused to sign a petition in support of Israeli universities, and now Columbia is joining the fray with yet another petition-based controversy, this time surrounding an Arab anthropologist's tenure.
Nadia Abu El-Haj, assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard is the author of Facts on the Ground, which questions the archaeological record behind Israel's Jewish origin. The ancient kingdom of Israel and Judah, Abu El-Haj writes, are "pure political fabrication." Citing lack of academic rigor and throwing the "pure... fabrication" label back at Abu El-Haj, the "Deny Nadia Abu El-Haj tenure" petition had 1240 signatures at press time, nearly all of which were accompanied by the undersigned's academic qualifications, mostly from Columbia and Barnard. Petition author Paula Stern, Barnard '82, runs the Stern Group, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
Some say Stern's position in international business and policy gives her petition ulterior motives. "Grant Nadia Abu El-Haj Tenure" had 266 signatures at press time, nearly all boasting impressive academic affiliations. "Grant" also gestures to racial prejudice, claiming Abu El-Haj "has been singled out from among many other authors who make the same points essentially because of her last name." "Grant" petition author Paul Manning of Trent University writes, "We believe that these attacks on Ms. Abu El-Haj are part of an orchestrated witch-hunt (reminiscent of course of McCarthyism) against politically unpopular ideas." Manning is the Ivy academic to cry "McCarthyism" this week. On Tuesday Harvard sociologist Neil Goss announced his finding that "A greater percentage of social scientists today feel that their academic freedom has been threatened than was the case during the McCarthy Era," with Middle East researchers leading the quashed-freedom brigade. Yesterday Yale University Press narrowly escaped a lawsuit that, in the UK, forced Cambridge University Press to pulp its stock of Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, by Matthew Levitt (meaning the American edition remains in print). Abu El-Haj's criticism comes mostly heavily from Jewish organizations, whereas Levitt's detractor is KinderUSA, a pro-Palestine non-profit that claimed libel.
More on Abu El-Haj's reception among scholars, Barnard president Judith Shapiro's position, excerpts from the book, and Columbia's history with touchy topics, after the jump.
Academia remains divided over Facts On the Ground, published by the University of Chicago Press. JTA, a Jewish news organization, reports,
Scholars are divided on the book's merits. David Ussishkin, a Tel Aviv professor and one of Israel's most celebrated archaeologists, has defended the excavation methods Abu El-Haj criticized. William Dever, an emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona and the author of many books on the ancient Near East, told the New York Sun late last year that Abu El-Haj should be denied tenure, calling her work "faulty, misleading and dangerous." On the other side, Michael Herzfeld, an anthropology professor at Harvard, characterized Abu El-Haj's work as "meticulous scholarship and even-handedness" in a blurb published on the book's back cover. Others have lauded Abu El-Haj's contribution to understanding how national priorities shape academic work on history and archaeology.JTA also reports on Barnard's stance:
Neither Barnard nor Columbia would reveal any details about the status of Abu El-Haj's tenure application, though Barnard has confirmed that the tenure process is under way. Abu El-Haj and Barnard President Judith Shapiro denied requests for comment. The wall of silence has fueled speculation that Shapiro, herself a professor of anthropology, has secretly endorsed the tenure application. If correct, final approval would rest with a committee appointed by Columbia Provost Alan Brinkley, sources familiar with the university said. Brinkley's office also declined requests for comment.No matter what, though, this can't get as bad as the time Columbia accidentally invited Iranian president and Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be a guest speaker. Poor Barnard -- always second place to Columbia, even at politically insensitive faux pas.
From the Nadia Abu El-Haj's Facts On the Ground foreword: