On Friday afternoon Barnard College announced that Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist who has become a controversial figure in recent months, has been granted tenure. Much of the controversy surrounding Abu El-Haj stems from the accusations of Paula Stern, a Barnard alumna who drafted an online petition highly critical of Abu El-Haj's scholarship. (As of Friday afternoon it had garnered 2,592 signatures.)
According to Larry Cohler-Esses, many of the charges in Stern's petition are simply not true. Writing in The Nation, he quotes Stern admitting that, "the petition takes pieces of criticisms from experts. It may not be quoted 100 percent accurate."
Cohler-Esses, editor-at-large for the Jewish Week in New York, situates Stern's alleged fabrications within a larger context that he ominously labels "The New McCarthyism."
Here is how it works (according to Cohler-Esses): A network of right-wing activists ignites an online furor based on distorted or provably false charges against someone involved in Middle East studies. Right-wing media promptly disseminates the charges, stoking the furor. And mainstream media ultimately take note, focusing their stories on the controversy rather than the facts.
Stern, who currently lives in the West Bank, attempts to answer Cohler-Esses on her blog, calling his article "somewhere between objectionable and insulting."
The concern Cohler-Esses gives voice to is echoed by the recently formed Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University which is circulating an online petition of their own that takes explicit aim at "groups portraying themselves as defenders of Israel," which, the committee alleges, are disseminating "unfounded insinuations and allegations ... of anti-Semitism" and pressuring university administrations by threatening to withhold donations.
(Bonus Reading: In this week's issue of The Chronicle Review there is a "Critical Mass" column on how the Ad Hoc Committee's petition was received by its critics.)