Politicizing Tenure Continues with Attack on Barnard's Abu El-Haj

Denying Norman Finkelstein tenure was, it seems, just the start.

Nadia Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard College, is now the target of a petition (with over 1200 signatures) to deny her tenure, on the basis that her book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self Fashioning in Israeli Society, "fails to meet the standards of scholarship that are expected of Columbia and Barnard undergraduates."

The book was published by the University of Chicago in 2001. The back cover of the edition I have includes praise from Timothy Mitchell of NYU, who calls it "a brilliant study of the interplay of scientific method, cultural imagination, and political power," and Michael Herzfeld of Harvard -- "a sophisticated study characterized by meticulous scholarship and even-handedness."

The petition's points of disagreement, as in the case of Finkelstein, have little to do with scholarship and everything to do with politics and the stifling of more open and diverse debate on issues of Israel and Palestine in the United States.

The petition: "We fail to understand how a scholar can pretend to study the attitudes of a people whose language she does not know."

Really? So every American scholar on the Middle East is fluent in Arabic, or Farsi? Every anthropology professor speaks the language of his or her localized areas of study?

The petition's signatories ought to supply a short list of who in their minds are "acceptable" scholars on history and anthropology, to see how many academics, under their own criteria, are unworthy of tenure.

Not only should Abu El-Haj have the freedom to critique Israeli archaeological practice (at least, one would hope at such highly regarded institutions as Barnard and Columbia), but, as anyone who has read the book critically would understand, Facts on the Ground does not center on such a blanket critique.

Rather, it is a well-grounded, relatively fair and entirely academic critique of archaeology as a science, as traditionally understood. Abu El-Haj posits, convincingly, that archaeology is less an objective science in today's societies than a forum upon which current politics and national and religious aspirations leave their marks.

Obviously, Barnard's consideration of their professors' tenures suffer wildly under these same influences.

The coming battles over Abu El-Haj's and fellow Columbia professor Joseph Massad's tenure suggest not only a decline in the standards of free and diverse academic inquiry, but a dangerous encroachment of politics and (financially powerful) interest groups on the America's college campuses.

There is a counter-petition in support of El-Haj's tenure.