PetitionOnline.com is a largely unsung frontier of digital democracy — rowdy, omnivorous, often poorly spelled. Last month on the site, which proclaims "more than 55 million signatures collected," a few of the most active campaigns were "Don't Execute Kenneth E. Foster!" (a prisoner on death row in Texas), "Remake Final Fantasy 7" (a computer game), and "Please don't kill our EJ!!!" (a character on Days of Our Lives).
Also among the most active campaigns were two petitions with an academic theme: "Deny Nadia Abu El-Haj Tenure" and "Grant Nadia Abu El-Haj Tenure."
Ms. Abu El-Haj is a Palestinian-American assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard College who writes about Israeli archaeology and genomics. In early August, a Barnard alumna named Paula R. Stern posted an open letter on the petition-hosting site calling Ms. Abu El-Haj a scholar of "demonstrably inferior caliber" and urging Barnard to reject her tenure bid.
Ms. Stern's petition took issue with Ms. Abu El-Haj's book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (University of Chicago Press, 2001). According to the publisher, the book is an anthropological study of "an Israel where science and politics are mutually constituted."
According to Ms. Stern's more pointed summary, the book "asserts that the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a 'pure political fabrication.'"
Ms. Stern, founder of an Israeli technical-writing company, goes on to claim that Ms. Abu El-Haj cannot speak Hebrew, that she is ignorant of Israeli archaeological literature, and, citing another partial quotation from the book, that she "'reject(s) a positivist commitment to scientific methods'" and hence has a postmodernist's roguish disregard for evidence.
Ms. Abu El-Haj was already a controversial scholar before last month — her work the subject of serious misgivings, defenses, and praise. Ms. Stern's letter, however, introduced the professor to a whole new audience of online citizens.
Within two weeks, the petition had attracted more than 1,200 signatures. Many came from alumni of Barnard or Columbia; a handful came from academics.
During the same period, Ms. Stern's petition also attracted a battery of online counter-arguments, calling nearly all of her claims about Ms. Abu El-Haj false or misleading.
Principle vs. Petition
Many scholars who were rankled by Ms. Stern's petition seemed torn between defending the sanctity of the tenure process and arguing the merits of Ms. Abu El-Haj's research.
That ambivalence showed in the counterpetition that appeared around mid-August.
Championing academic due process but wary of unilaterally disarming on the particulars of the case, it opted to fight on both fronts. It roundly condemned any "unsubstantiated attacks on the autonomy of free academic inquiry and academic self-government from outside the academy" and made its own bid to lobby the tenure process in Ms. Abu El-Haj's favor. A number of academics signed.
Meanwhile, a few of Ms. Abu El-Haj's colleagues came forward to say that she does, in fact, speak Hebrew. They pointed to her translations in the book and to a list of Hebrew sources in her bibliography.
Scholarly critics of Ms. Abu El-Haj whose names do not appear on either petition say the real issue is that she lacks enough Hebrew sources to support her arguments. However, the claim that she speaks no Hebrew at all remained on the "deny" petition.
A blogger for Reason magazine, Jesse Walker, pointed out that the words "pure political fabrication" appear only once in Ms. Abu El-Haj's book, in this sentence: "In other words, the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication." Hardly the straightforward assertion that Ms. Stern describes. Mr. Walker also found that Ms. Stern's quotation about "rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific methods" was similarly taken out of context.
Regardless of that fact checking, in the marketplace of free ideas at PetitionOnline.com, the signatures continued to stack up. A smattering came from crudely named characters like Auntie Semitism and Adolph Zion. By the last week of August, the tallies were Deny: 1,827; Grant: 1,139. The combined total surpassed by a healthy margin the number of copies of Ms. Abu El-Haj's book that have been sold since its 2001 debut.
'Standards of Debate'
The name "Paul Rabinow" is among the signatures on Ms. Stern's petition. However, Mr. Rabinow, a prominent anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, says he was not the one who put it there. He was not even aware of the petition until he received a note one day from Ms. Abu El-Haj, an acquaintance, who had been startled to find his name.
To remedy the situation, Mr. Rabinow contacted an administrator at Columbia to make sure that the incident would have no bearing on Ms. Abu El-Haj's career. But he did not sign the counterpetition either. "Petitions about people's tenure cases are completely out of order," he says. "It's a breakdown of a set of standards of debate. I guess the alternative then is demagoguery."
By contrast, Norman Levitt, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University at New Brunswick and a veteran public intellectual of the "science wars" between scientific realists and postmodernists in the 1990s, felt no compunction about signing the petition against Ms. Abu El-Haj and criticizing her scholarship in a popular forum. (His main disagreements with Ms. Abu El-Haj have to do with what he sees as the politics behind her "social constructivist" approach to science.)
"It is wiser to acknowledge that the educated public has something to say about 'professional' matters," Mr. Levitt wrote in a comment on The Chronicle's Footnoted blog, "than to fill the air with pompous resentment when such criticism arises."
Whether or not scholars do acknowledge that the public "has something to say," the public will almost certainly say more in the future about professional matters in academe — especially where the Middle East is concerned.
There's something strange about these battles, though, that undermines the air of gloves-off democracy: The figure in the middle often stays silent. That's been Ms. Abu El-Haj's stance so far. Officials of Barnard, too, have declined to comment. That's because at the quiet center of the process, no one is supposed to be listening to all the yelling outside.