Campaign to deny Nadia Abu El-Haj tenure at Barnard: Is tenure process no longer the domain of academic peers?

The irony, of course, is that the concept of tenure was created precisely so academics could work without the threat of external political pressure. Now, thanks in large part to politically motivated right-wing blogs and campus watchdog groups, tenure battles are starting to become the front line in the battle over Israel politics and US foreign policy.

Emboldened, no doubt, by Alan Dershowitz’s successful campaign to deny Norman Finkelstein tenure at DePaul, (and other campaigns, as Richard Silverstein at Tikun Olam points out, against  Rashid Khalidi, Juan Cole,  Khalil Shikaki and Natana DeLong-Bas) some Israel advocacy organizations and a group of Barnard and Columbia alumni are trying hard to prevent the tenure of Palestinian American academic Nadia Abu El-Haj.

Some are threatening to withhold funds, others are signing petitions, others have met with university staff. As far as we can tell, the campaign is not being led by archaeologists or academic peers, who apparently gave El-Haj high marks (It is believed that Barnard has recommended her for tenure, but Columbia must approve their recommendation), but rather, people with a clear political orientation: to defend Israel right or wrong.
The campaign against El-Haj started because:

Nadia Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard, is the author of “Facts on the Ground,” a 2001 book that questions archaeological claims regarding the ancient Jewish presence in Israel and argues that Israeli archaeologists legitimize the Jewish state’s “origin myth.”

(This is interesting. As an undergrad, in my class on Jewish historiography with arguably the country’s best-known Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner, we learned how Jewish historiography served as a secular replacement for Judaism as a mechanism for preserving the narrative of Jews as the chosen people. I wrote an entire paper on it and got an A. The basic concept seems to me to be hardly different from El-Haj’s critique of Israeli archeologists. At the time, however, I don’t recall an outcry about Neusner because of his thesis.)

For a substantive, line by line vetting of the distortions in the petition that opponents of El-Haj have posted, read Tikun Olam’s excellent analysis. Silverstein also talks about archeologists Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein, who, like El-Haj, “also take on the Israeli archaeological establishment and its sacred cow notion of a glorious united Davidic kingdom.” Their work certainly has created a stir, but is well within the tradition of Neusner and other scholars who, like good academics, seek to look beyond myth-making.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

August 15, 2007

Alumni Group Seeks to Deny Tenure to Middle Eastern Scholar at Barnard College

Controversial research on Israel and the Palestinian territories has become the basis of yet another campaign to prevent a professor from winning tenure. A group of Barnard College alumni has drafted an online petition asking their alma mater to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology whose scholarship, they say, is flawed and skewed against Israel.

The group’s criticisms of Ms. El-Haj focus on her book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (University of Chicago Press, 2001), which argues that Israeli archaeologists have produced biased research that bolsters the “origin myth” of the Jewish state.

The petition, which has drawn just over 1,000 signatures, accuses Ms. El-Haj of ignoring or mischaracterizing large parts of the archaeological record, of not being able to speak Hebrew, and of treating Israeli archaeologists unfairly in her work. Ms. El-Haj was unavailable for comment today.

The petition comes on the heels of a high-profile campaign — led by Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor — to persuade DePaul University to deny tenure to Norman G. Finkelstein, a professor known for his criticisms of Israel and what he calls the “Holocaust Industry.” Mr. Finkelstein was denied tenure. —John Gravois

Ben Harris over at the JTA writes:

Neither Barnard nor Columbia would reveal any details about the status of Abu El-Haj’s tenure application, though Barnard has confirmed that the tenure process is under way. Abu El-Haj and Barnard President Judith Shapiro denied requests for comment.

The wall of silence has fueled speculation that Shapiro, herself a professor of anthropology, has secretly endorsed the tenure application. If correct, final approval would rest with a committee appointed by Columbia Provost Alan Brinkley, sources familiar with the university said. Brinkley’s office also declined requests for comment.

The controversy over El-Haj threatens to raise questions anew about the integrity of Columbia’s scholarship on the Middle East, which first came under fire in 2004 with the release of a documentary film alleging university professors intimidated and embarrassed pro-Israel students who challenged them in class. A committee of inquiry subsequently found only one example of improper behavior, leading critics to call the report a whitewash.

Since then, pro-Israel groups have become ever more vigilant in monitoring university campuses. Meanwhile, Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, has labored to improve the school’s tarnished image, most recently by becoming the lead signatory to a statement published in the New York Times opposing an academic boycott of Israel.

If El-Haj’s tenure is approved, much of that progress could be undone. It could also hurt the university financially.

Bloom, Maxine Schwartz and Helene Berger — all Florida-based Barnard alums — met with Shapiro in March in Miami to communicate their concerns about Abu El-Haj. Schwartz and Berger both told JTA they would cease support for Barnard if the professor is granted tenure.

“The credibility of Barnard is on the line,” said Berger, who has contributed to Barnard for each of the 52 years since she graduated.

“It’s one thing to have different points of view, but to have someone with this perspective — I think as a Barnard graduate, the damage that so-called scholars can inflict on a university that I care about is very strong,” she said. “There’s no pursuit of truth here. It’s just merely a book to support her own political objectives.”

Here’s what Harris reports experts have to say about her work:

At issue is Abu El-Haj’s only book, which argues that archaeology in Israel was used to legitimize the “colonial” enterprise that was the founding and territorial expansion of Israel. Among her accusations is that Israeli archaeologists bulldozed Palestinian artifacts to more quickly access Jewish ones.

Scholars are divided on the book’s merits. David Ussishkin, a Tel Aviv professor and one of Israel’s most celebrated archaeologists, has defended the excavation methods Abu El-Haj criticized. William Dever, an emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona and the author of many books on the ancient Near East, told the New York Sun late last year that Abu El-Haj should be denied tenure, calling her work “faulty, misleading and dangerous.”

On the other side, Michael Herzfeld, an anthropology professor at Harvard, characterized Abu El-Haj’s work as “meticulous scholarship and even-handedness” in a blurb published on the book’s back cover. Others have lauded Abu El-Haj’s contribution to understanding how national priorities shape academic work on history and archaeology.