By: Paula R. Stern
B.A., Barnard College, 1982
When a college of international renown hires a professor of questionable ethics and scholarly practice, it is to be hoped that the college will realize its error before reaching the stage where it would offer that professor tenure. This was the case many Barnard graduates hoped to find themselves in a few months ago when protests were made over the offer to grant Nadia Abu El Haj tenure.
Abu El Haj is not an anthropologist in the tradition of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, scholars who went into the field, learned the language, and interacted with the people they wrote about. Nadia Abu El Haj does none of this. She has written an anthropology of the role of archaeological knowledge in Israeli society based almost exclusively on published sources in English. She doesn’t exhibit any familiarity with the vast literature in Hebrew on the subjects she wrote about, or give any evidence that she has a working knowledge of Hebrew, a critical flaw in someone supposedly determined to write a scholarly work on anthropology and archeology in Israel.
To make matters even more absurd, her anthropology of Israeli archaeology is based on a single, one-day visit to a single dig, visits to a handful of archaeological museums in Jerusalem, and a standard tourist walking tour of the Old City – Abu El Haj cites the walking tour guide repeatedly. Her great scholarly work…is limited to one book – her dissertation, hypocritically called “Facts on the Ground.”
Abu El Haj scorn for evidence-based scholarship is explicit. In her own words, she writes within a scholarly tradition that “Reject(s) a positivist commitment to scientific methods…” Rather, her work is “rooted in… post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory… and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements.”
Barnard’s administration rejected comments from many alumnae who protested Barnard’s offering tenure to this young, clearly biased woman.
The protests were not based on the fact that Abu El Haj is a Palestinian American, but on her inability to follow correct scholarly procedures and actually document anything of truth or value. “Abu El Haj has written a flimsy and supercilious book, which does no justice to either her putative subject or the political agenda she wishes to advance. It should be avoided.” So says, Alexander H. Joffe, Lecturer in Archaeology, Purchase College, SUNY who has dug for several seasons at Meggido, Israel.
Other experts have been equally harsh: “Alas, a detailed reading reveals that this book is a highly ideologically driven political manifesto, with a glaring lack of attention both to details and to the broader context. So says, Aren Maeir, Professor of Archaeology, Bar Ilan University and one of the most distinguished archaeologists now digging in Israel.
“The politicization of archaeology is nothing new. What is new in Facts on the Ground, is the length to which author Nadia Abu El-Haj of the Columbia University Anthology faculty has gone to ignore, distort, revise, imply and assert the inaccuracy of historical fact. Her political motive is to deconstruct the legitimacy of the State of Israel.” So says, Dr. Sondra M. Rubenstein, PhD in International Relations, Columbia University and currently a Distinguished Professor at Haifa University. Dr. Rubenstein continues “Facts on the Ground reverses standard academic practice. It is highly politicized where it should be disinterested, and, worse, the author begins with a an apparently dogmatic belief, that archaeology is a process “through which ‘facts’ are actually made and agreed upon,” (p. 9) to support the inherently illegitimate “precise claims and conceptions of Jewish nationhood,”(p.6) and goes about picking and choosing evidence to support her beliefs.”
An international campaign among Barnard graduates was ignored. We were called “outsiders” because we dared to express our view that it is morally unacceptable and completely unethical to accept someone of El-Haj’s obviously low quality.
“Nadia El Haj’s work is a thinly veiled attempt to thrust her political agenda on Barnard by hiding it in the guise of academic freedom and terminology” I wrote to the Tenure Committee several months ago. “She denies me my past in an attempt to steal my future. She justifies the desecration of archeological sites by Arabs while falsely accusing respected Israeli scientists of flagrantly and intentionally demolishing historical sites. She absurdly attempts to suggest that the Jews destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, in direct contradiction to the only historian who was there at the time.”
Despite the many letters and calls, Barnard voted to give Nadia El Haj tenure and now the process moves to Columbia University for approval. If Columbia denies the deal, El Haj will not get tenure; if they uphold Barnard’s decision, she will. This is where Barnard’s shame turns into Columbia’s dirty deal.
Joseph Massad is a professor of in Columbia’s Middle East department. According to reliable sources, “Prof. Massad has openly supported Islamist terrorism against Israel, including suicide bombings of civilians. In his class on Israeli-Palestinian politics, Massad openly engages in conspiracy theories, teaching students about the connections between Nazis, Rothchilds, international bankers, and a host of other nefarious characters… Massad has also come close to belittling, if not denying the Holocaust outright.” In short, Joseph Massad is a major political embarrassment, and he too is up for tenure.
Some would argue that Abu El Haj is not a major political embarrassment because she has not attracted a fraction of the attention that Massad has. So, Columbia has cut a deal with the out-going president of Barnard in which Barnard and Columbia will grant tenure to El Haj in exchange for financial backing. This money will go towards the financing of a new student center replacing MacIntosh Hall where the fundraising is not going well. This tenure, despite whatever “small” controversy will result, will give Columbia the political cover to deny tenure to Joseph Massad. The expected loss in income from horrified and furious alumae will be compensated for by the grant from Columbia.
By voting to grant tenure to Nadia Abu El Haj, my alma mater has chosen to give one of its highest honors to a woman who rejects the principle that scholarly research must be based on evidence. We are not outsiders – no matter what anyone claims, even the outgoing President of Barnard. We are the ones who attended Barnard, the ones who graduated from there and have hopefully gone on to make lives that better the name of the alma mater we love.
We have the right – even the obligation – to speak out now. This was never an issue for the scholars alone to decide because scholarship was left behind when “Professor” Nadia Abu El Haj turned what should have been a scholarly work into a political tool to get her agenda published.
Columbia’s dirty deal has to be stopped.
If you are a Columbia graduate, a Barnard graduate…or simply someone who believes in the ethics of academia, now is the time to protest. Write to Columbia University, call the administration, write to your local newspapers. Joseph Massad may be an embarrassment to Columiba, but Abu El Haj is a disgrace to Barnard.