Barnard College religion professor Alan Segal has never met Nadia Abu El-Haj, the controversial anthropology professor at the center of a ongoing tenure fight, even though their offices are in the same building.
But that didn't stop him from pointing out the flaws in her work in a broad lecture this week on biblical archaeology.
"If you're an assistant professor and you live in a country with more archaeologists than you can shake a stick at, you try to say something noteworthy," said Segal in his lecture titled "What Biblical Archaeology Tells Us About the First Temple Period," planned in part as a response to a growing debate over the professor's scholarship.
As a new school year begins at Barnard, Abu El-Haj's tenure bid, which will be decided this fall, took on a fresh urgency with Segal's lecture and with dueling opinion pieces in the pages of Columbia's daily newspaper, The Spectator. The new developments turned up the temperature on the tenure fight, which had been on a relatively low boil over the last year.
Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor in the anthropology department, is the author of "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," published in 2001 by University of Chicago Press. She has been the target of detractors who say her book is an anti-Israel polemic, and the champion of supporters who feel a heated campaign against her amounts to little more than a latter-day witch hunt.
Abu El-Haj has not spoken publicly about the tenure process and did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview.
In one of the editorials, Columbia sophomore Emily Steinberger wrote, "When Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj asserts in her book ... that ancient Jewish presence in the land of Israel is not a matter of history but a mere belief and a tale or historical myth, I cannot help but cringe at what I feel is an attack on Judaism."
Steinberger's opinion piece questioned the professor's research and conclusions along with her implications about the Jewish people. "Denying Israelite connection to the land dismantles Judaism as a religion, a nation, and a culture," she wrote.
"Israel-sympathizers have repeatedly assigned themselves the authoritarian role of stifling any debate that challenges a monolithic Zionist Israeli narrative," wrote Athar Abdul-Quader and Ahmad Diab, Columbia students writing in defense of Abu El-Haj. Their article focused on the problem with disrupting a tenure process rather than the attacks against Abu El-Haj's book, which analyzes the role of archaeology in the formation of Israeli identity, discussing material evidence and lack of evidence that dates the Jewish people to what today are contested areas of modern Israel.
In her book, Abu El-Haj, who is Palestinian-American, suggests Israel's preoccupation with archaeology accounts for the "modern nation's origin myth," and draws conclusions between the physical objects of the past and the current state of post-colonial Israeli-Palestinian relations.
In one particularly contested section, Abu El-Haj writes about observing the use of bulldozers during a dig, proposing that they may have erased the top layers of culture that would have contained evidence of other civilizations. Her focus on bulldozers, her critics say, conjures up a sinister, more contemporary meaning of the machines.
"Archaeology, I suggest, emerged as a principal site for the repeated enactment of Jewish presence. It was through material signs of an ancient and, supposedly, an uninterrupted occupancy that the Jewish national home and nation were continuously brought into view," writes Abu El-Haj in her book, a co-winner of the Albert Hourani Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association in 2002.
Abu El-Haj came to Barnard in 2002 after earning her Ph.D. at Duke and receiving a number of prestigious fellowships.
Barnard has declined to comment on a tenure process it says is confidential, but insiders say she has been passed through Barnard's tenure committee and is now awaiting a decision from Columbia, Barnard's parent university.
Meanwhile, Barnard alumnae have weighed in through an online petition, which had more than 2,200 signatures as of Tuesday, largely from people in the Columbia community. Some have even threatened to pull financial support if tenure is awarded, while others have started a counter-petition in Abu El-Haj's defense.
Paula Stern, who graduated from Barnard in 1982 and now lives in a West Bank settlement, started the petition because of a concern about what she sees as Abu El-Haj's faulty scholarship and overtly politicized viewpoints.
"She had her conclusion first and when the evidence didn't match she threw it out," said Stern, who has meticulously read and addressed perceived inaccuracies in the book, in a phone interview.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Segal, the Barnard professor, said there were ample reasons for the college to grant Abu El-Haj tenure; as a woman with Palestinian roots who approaches her subject from an interdisciplinary angle, she brings needed diversity and a novel outlook to campus.
But her work, he said, is lacking, failing to address specific inscriptions and other material culture that proves evidence of the existence of a people, Israel, in ancient lands. Her sources, too, said Segal, are flawed, sometimes anonymous and other times a small group of biblical minimalists who do not represent the archaeological establishment.
"It's a calumny," said Segal of Abu El-Haj's work. "It's simply not true. It's slander."
In a letter to alumnae written last November, Barnard President Judith Shapiro addressed the campaign against Abu El-Haj saying that as much as Barnard appreciated an outpouring of concern from graduates, she was concerned about campaigns by "people who are not as familiar with Barnard as you are, and who may not be in a position to judge the matter at hand.".
Shapiro taught in the anthropology department at Bryn Mawr College in the 1980s when Abu El-Haj was an undergraduate there, a connection a Barnard spokeswoman said was irrelevant to the tenure process.
In her letter, Shapiro also referenced "Facts on the Ground" and its controversial content, saying, "While it is a legitimate cultural anthropological enterprise to show how archaeological research can be used for political and ideological purposes ... it is, needless to say, of the essence that the archaeological enterprise itself be addressed responsibly and knowledgeably."
According to a recent Hillel study, Barnard is 43.5 percent Jewish, the third highest percentage of Jewish students at any university in the country after Yeshiva University and Brandeis.
This current imbroglio is not the first time Columbia has been embroiled in a debate concerning professors in Mideast disciplines. Three years ago, the university came under attack by students who claimed that professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department (MEALAC) were intimidating them in class and coercive in expressing their pro-Palestinian opinions. One of them, Joseph Massad, is also currently up for tenure, leading to speculation among faculty and other observers that Columbia may pass through Abu El-Haj's tenure bid, painting her as the lesser of two controversial figures.
The context of outsiders getting involved with a tenure decision mirrors a similar one at DePaul University, where the contentious political scientist Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure in part because of a campaign against him by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Finkelstein resigned earlier this month.
Steinberger, the Columbia student who is also a member of LionPAC, a pro-Israel campus group, said the issue of academic integrity is at the core of the debate. Steinberger echoed the views of many current and past Barnard and Columbia students who signed the petition against Abu El-Haj: were the professor to offer her controversial viewpoint with outstanding supporting evidence, she would entertain that even a radical idea may be legitimate.
"But if such a radically new idea has been proven to be shoddy, vague and ambiguous, I can't understand how the university can offer her tenure," said Steinberger in an interview.
Meanwhile, Abu El-Haj, who will not speak about the controversy until it is resolved, is back in the classroom teaching a course in "Race and Sexuality in Scientific and Social Practice" and awaiting the tenure committee's decision.