Controversy has been brewing over the past several months regarding the tenure process of an assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard whose views on Israel have been condemned as anti-Semitic by alumnae and outside observers.
Critics have charged that Nadia Abu El-Haj, a Palestinian-American and author of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, ignored or mischaracterized archaeological findings. The Fulbright fellow's book, which explores the relationship between Israeli archaeology and the emergence of a modern Jewish state, states that Jewish archaeologists "created the fact of an ancient Israelite/Jewish nation," in order to justify the existence of Israel.
Paula Stern, BC '82, has led the charge against the tenure of Abu El-Haj, who joined Barnard's anthropology department in 2002, in an effort to stop the repetition of something she said she experienced while a student among present and future Barnardites. While attending the school, she says that she and her peers felt that there was a certain professor whose classes they should not take as Jews.
"How much intelligence does it take for someone to understand that when a Palestinian woman is writing about Israel, there might be an agenda?" she asked.
Stern, who lives in Israel and speaks proudly of her son who is in the Israel Defense Forces, has launched an anti-tenure petition, corresponded personally with Barnard College President Judith Shapiro, and has involved other alumnae in a letter-writing campaign aimed at ensuring that Abu El-Haj does not receive tenure. The petition has gathered over 2,000 signatures and inspired heated responses across the Web.
The petition, which launched this summer, states that Abu El-Haj should be denied tenure because objectors claim she is purposefully ignoring or mischaracterizing large parts of archaeological record, is mistreating prominent Israeli archaeologist David Ussishkin, and because she does not speak Hebrew.
"We very much fear that the appointment of a scholar of Abu El-Haj's demonstrably inferior caliber ... will indeed destroy public trust in the University," the petition states. "We fail to understand how a scholar can pretend to study the attitude of a people whose language she does not know."
In Facts on the Ground, Abu El-Haj accused Ussishkin of conducting investigations where "nationalist politics [was] guiding research agendas," an accusation which he has denied.
"All her accusations are based on talks with anonymous participants after the excavations," he wrote in a public letter in December 2006. "She did not study the excavation reports nor approached the directors of the project to ask their views. This is not a proper and serious way of research."
It is the policy of Barnard College and Columbia University to decline to comment on tenure appointments, even to acknowledge the fact that they are underway. Abu El-Haj did not return a call for comment.
Several scholars have defended Abu El-Haj's work. Deceased University Professor Edward Said, a Palestinian activist and one of the founding figures of post-colonial theory, said in a 2003 speech that he was "greatly indebted" to Abu El-Haj for her work. Paul Manning, assistant professor of anthropology at Trent University in Canada, began a counterpetition which has nearly 1,300 signatures based on his belief that Stern's assertions hailed from ethnic prejudice and, as the petition states, "an orchestrated witch-hunt (reminiscent of course of McCarthyism) against politically unpopular ideas."
In an e-mail, Manning stated that he believes that Barnard has already granted Abu El-Haj tenure. He added that the freedom of tenure committees to exclusively make decisions should be absolute and "should have the force of law."
"At the time of the petition, I knew that Ms. Abu El-Haj had already been recommended for tenure, and indeed, had received it at Barnard, so it was a no-brainer to write a petition that argued on principle, that she should be given tenure," Manning wrote. "Because that decision had already been made by the people who should be making it," he wrote.
If Abu El-Haj has been granted tenure at Barnard, the next step is approval at Columbia.
Shapiro responded to Stern and other concerned Barnard alumnae in a statement posted to Barnard's Web site last November. She thanked alumnae for their feedback, but wrote "at the same time, I will share with you my concern about communications and letter-writing campaigns orchestrated by people who are not as familiar with Barnard as you are, and who may not be in the best position to judge the matter at hand."
Additionally, in June, Shapiro wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times regarding a column about the British University and College Union's proposed academic boycott of Israeli universities. Her argument, which touched on academic freedom, hit close to home.
"In the sphere of higher education, the appraisal of any professor at any institution should be based not on political arguments but on academic criteria—whether that professor is an effective teacher whose scholarly research is deemed by peers to make an important contribution to a field of study."