Last night, Barnard religion professor Alan Segal lectured on the lack of academic accuracy in the work of assistant professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, whose tenure process has sparked controversy due to her book in which she denies the existence of the ancient Jewish state of Israel.
In his lecture, titled "What Biblical Archaeology Tells Us About the First Temple Period," Segal focused on the role of archaeology in proving certain aspects of the Bible to be true, including the existence of a Jewish state in Israel in ancient times.
"The problem is that everyone wants someone like her for the diversity of the college, and I agree, she looks great on paper. But then you read the book and you say, ‘No, this isn't the right person,'" said Segal, who stated he does not believe that Abu El-Haj, a Fulbright Scholar and Palestinian-American, should be granted tenure.
During his speech, Segal cited several ancient artifacts, including a ninth-century-BCE stone tablet called the Mesha Stele which refers to the "Kingdom of Israel" in Hebrew text, as proof that Abu El-Haj has made false claims. "The point is we do have a lot of evidence that there were people called Israel living in the land," Segal said. He also discussed how professor Abu El-Haj's lack of knowledge of ancient Hebrew causes her to "make mistakes that affect her conclusions."
Dozens of Barnard alumnae have signed an online anti-tenure petition accusing Abu El-Haj of shoddy scholarship in her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. The work is an extension of her doctoral dissertation, which was accepted at Duke University.
According to those alumnae, Abu El-Haj should not be granted tenure because she does not cite sources appropriately, doesn't speak Hebrew, and purposely mischaracterizes or overlooks huge periods of archaeological record. They hope that her review, which according to Segal is currently underway at Columbia after being granted approval at Barnard, will grind to a halt. Alumnae have also signed onto a widely-circulated counterpetition.
"She has her own political agenda, this is clear ... She got her conclusion before she ever had anything to back it up, so why research?" asked Paula Stern, BC '82, the author of the anti-tenure petition, who is Jewish and lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. "She makes absurd claims about archaeology in Israel."
According to Segal, someone within the University requested that he provide a list of expert archaeologists—who "preferably" were not Jewish—to comment on Abu El-Haj's tenure. Segal said he could not provide the list and that religion "has nothing to do with what you say as a professional." Barnard Communications did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Segal's lecture was the first in a series hosted jointly by LionPAC, the nonpartisan pro-Israel activist group at Columbia, and the academic organization Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.
"If it's flawless scholarship and good academics then she deserves tenure, but I think what's clear in this issue is that she doesn't," Jacob Kriegel, CC '08 and president of LionPAC, said. "Professor Segal has said it and many others have said it—the question is, who's not getting the message and why?"
Abu El-Haj has declined to be interviewed on the controversy surrounding her tenure process.
Hayley Negrin can be reached at Hayley.Negrin@columbiaspectator.com.