Nadia Abu El-Haj “witch-hunt” at Barnard: is Shulamit Reinharz a “racist” or just “curious?”

The New York Times just wrote about the campaign to deny tenure to Palestinian American academic Nadia Abu El-Haj.

A tenure bid by an assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard College who has critically examined the use of archaeology in Israel has put Columbia University once again at the center of a struggle over scholarship on the Middle East.

The professor, Nadia Abu El-Haj, who is of Palestinian descent, has been at Barnard since 2002 and has won many awards and grants, including a Fulbright scholarship and fellowships at Harvard and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Barnard has already approved her for tenure, officials said, and forwarded its recommendation to Columbia University, its affiliate, which has the final say.

It is Dr. Abu El-Haj’s book, “Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society,” that has made her a lightning rod, setting off warring petitions opposing and supporting her candidacy, and producing charges of shoddy scholarship and countercharges of an ideological witch hunt.

Judith R. Shapiro, Barnard’s president, who is also an anthropologist, said in a statement that the tenure process was “one of the linchpins of academic freedom and liberal arts education,” and that despite the passions, it must be conducted “thoughtfully, comprehensively, systematically and confidentially.” She added, “This case will be no different, both in its rigor and its freedom from outside lobbying.”

1982 Barnard graduate and West Bank settlement resident Paula Stern started a petition that now has some 2,000 signatures, including a few from Columbia faculty members. aying “demonstrably inferior caliber, her knowing misrepresentation of data and violation of accepted standards of scholarship.”

We urge you to protect Columbia’s reputation for scholarship and integrity by upholding the principal that research must be based on a disinterested consideration of evidence.

But El-Haj has many defenders who are academic colleagues who regard her work as extremely important, if not “brilliant”. Many of them have signed on to a counter petition with some 1,400 signatures which says:

Moreover, we wish to register that we find to be deplorable such unsubstantiated attacks on the autonomy of free academic inquiry and academic self-government from outside the academy. Ms. Abu El-Haj’s work has undergone peer review and has been published by a premier academic press (University of Chicago) and it stands on its own merits, which have been widely recognized in the academic community. We believe that these attacks on Ms. Abu El-Haj are part of an orchestrated witch-hunt (reminiscent of course of McCarthyism) against politically unpopular ideas. We also believe that Ms. Abu El-Haj has been singled out from among many other authors who make the same points essentially because of her last name, thus, we suspect that something like simple ethnic prejudice is at issue here.

Hat tip to Tikun Olam for highlighting the particularly shameful advocacy of Israel-right-or-wrong-firebrand Brandeis women’s studies professor Shulamit Reinharz (wife of president Yehuda Reinharz, who y all accounts is a good guy).

Inside Higher Education’s Scott Jaschik writes:

Many in Middle Eastern studies have been particularly alarmed by a recent column by Shulamit Reinharz, a Barnard alumna who is a professor of sociology at Brandeis University and wrote about her decision to skip her reunion and her concerns about El-Haj. Much of the column is similar to other criticism of El-Haj’s scholarship, but one paragraph in particular is drawing attention.

Reinharz writes: “According to information on the Web, El-Haj is a Palestinian. I was unsuccessful in my efforts to find exactly where she was born, a topic that interested me because I am not sure if she identifies as a Palestinian as a consequence of being born in what some people now call Palestine or because she identifies with Palestinians and was born elsewhere. I couldn’t find the facts.”

In an interview, Reinharz said that this was a legitimate question to ask. “She makes a point of calling herself a Palestinian scholar so I was curious about why she did that. The word Palestinian is a contested term,” Reinharz said. “There is no country yet called Palestine so I didn’t know what she meant by that.” She added that “people who call themselves palestinian garner sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and this is a book that is an attack on Israeli archaelology so I thought maybe it was relevant.” She stressed that she wasn’t inquiring about El-Haj’s religious beliefs, just what she meant by Palestinian.

“It’s not racism, it’s curiosity,” she said.

But others see this as the latest sign of how bitter the debates have become.

Lockman of NYU, called the comments “slimy” and said “I find it incredibly offensive to question someone’s place of birth or nationality.” Noting that he is Jewish, Lockman said it was inconceivable that a professor would publish a column critiquing another professor’s scholarship and devote a paragraph to wondering about what that professor meant about being Jewish. “People would acknowledge that as outrageous,” he said.

“Her origin is irrelevant to her scholarship,” Lockman said. “It’s clear people are pulling out all the stops.”

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