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 criteria."
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.