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Lies and Distortions of Anti-Abu El-Haj Petition Campaign

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the scurrilous campaign waged by Campus Watch, Frontpagemagazine and their allies against Barnard anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj. Distressed that this Palestinian-American academic is verging on earning tenure from a distinguished institution like Barnard College (and by extension, Columbia University), they’ve circled the wagons in a valiant effort to stave off the inevitable and overturn the academic fates.

After doing considerable online research last night, I pieced together much of the negative and positive evaluations of her work and the substance of the arguments against her earning tenure including the petition campaign organized by one Paula Stern Barnard ’82. In the comment thread for my post, one of my readers, Jesse Walker, managing editor of Reason Magazine, did even more painstaking research and discovered that in one instance, the petition actually “quotes” Abu El-Haj saying the exact opposite of what she writes in her book. Here is what the petition says:

She asserts that the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a “pure political fabrication.”

In truth, this is what Abu El-Haj actually writes in her book on page 250:

While by early the 1990s, virtually all archaeologists argued for the need to disentangle the goals of their professional practice from the quest for Jewish origins and objects that framed an earlier archaeological project, the fact that there is some national-cultural connection between contemporary (Israeli)-Jews and such objects was not itself generally open to sustained discussion. That commitment remained, for the most part, and for most practicing archaeologists, fundamental. (Although archaeologists argued increasingly that the archaeological past should have no bearing upon contemporary political claims). In other words, the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as *pure* political fabrication.

Speaking of “pure political fabrication,” Jesse has caught the Stern Gang in an out and out fabrication of the Abu El-Haj record. You leave that “not” out at your peril, Paula.

The petition presents this as Abu El-Haj’s alleged view on scientific evidence and her scholarly method:

We are aware that Abu El Haj excuses herself from the expectation that scholarship will be based on evidence. In her introduction, she informs the world that she “Reject(s) a positivist commitment to scientific methods…”

Instead of using scientific standards of evidence, her work is “rooted in… post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory…and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements.”

This is what Abu El-Haj actually writes (with passages quoted in the petition in italics) on pages 8-9:

Questions concerning the relationship between interpretation and data and between theory and evidence have come center stage as increasing numbers of archaeologists are debating the politics of their own discipline, including its potential uses and the implications for their professional work. Rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method whereby politics is seen to intervene only in instances of bad science, such critics have argued that archaeological knowledge (as but one instance of scientific knowledge) is inherently a social product. Rooted in multiple intellectual traditions (poststructuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory, a sociology of scientific knowledge) and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements (specifically, demands for the repatriation of cultural objects and human remains by indigenous groups in settler nations such as Australia, the U.S. and Canada), this critical tradition is united, at its most basic level, by a commitment to understanding archeology as necessarily political.

What is clear here is that Abu El-Haj, who is NOT an archaeologist herself but rather an anthropologist, is summarizing the beliefs of a school of archaeologists and not her own beliefs at all. Clearly, she has great sympathy for these beliefs, but she is not describing her own.

University of North Carolina anthropologist Gregory Starrett wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education comment thread on this story the following about the mendacity of those attempting to smear Abu El-Haj:

It’s a pity so few of the people who express outrage about Abu El-Haj’s book have read it. Most of the accusations the petition makes are false, distorted, or without evidentiary support, including the claim that Abu El-Haj does not read or speak Hebrew, the claim that she denies the existence of ancient Israeli kingdoms, and the notion that scholars never use unattributed quotations. The latter, at least, is standard practice in cultural anthropology, intended to protect the identity of the individuals with whom we speak. On other occasions, Abu El-Haj’s opponents have claimed that she spent almost no time in Israel for her research (she was there for two years) and that she cites no Hebrew-language sources or archaeological reports, a claim which is easily checked—and disproved—simply by looking at her bibliography. The irony in this latter charge is the odd assumption that Israeli archaeologists and scholars only write for their colleagues in Hebrew, making the Israeli scholarly community sound far more insular than it is. The thoughtless and irresponsible claims of the petitioners, not Abu El-Haj’s research, is the real shame.

Conclusion: the petition is a fraud as is almost everything that comes from organizations like Campus Watch and FrontpageMagazine. To those who disagree with Abu El-Haj’s views I say “fine.” Oppose her or her tenure process. But sign this petition knowing it is a tissue of lies and distortions.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Deni August 18, 2007, 11:18 PM

    I am so glad to see people in the real world discussing the INTERPRETATION of archeological and anthropological data. Even before my degree in Anthropology and learning archeology under Patty Jo Watson, it was obvious to me that a word for x in language y TRANSLATES as z, which is subject to the bias of the explainer and the anthroplogist/translater/data collector. An archeological find a is found at depth b next to object c. that id a physical fact. The INTERPRETATION of what it means and what it is used for is open to bias of the persons formulating the THEORY of what it indicates. The history of anthroplogy in the last 200 years clearly shows the change in theories due to change in the class and culture of the commentors (anthroplogist and archeologists and museum -ists). My arrowhead is your early xyz culture and someone else’s pdq culture and may have been a new technique abandoned or the first attempt at a new idea or the last good one left or a antique accidentally lost or any one of a number of things. We need to be clear on whether something is a FACT or a THEORY. Have you not read any history? The Literature of any ‘science’ in the modern (western) world is full of experiments and theories and hypetheses which are later disproved, or refined or re-interpreted. personal attacks are not rational or civilized and a good scientist reveals her bias. background and underlying assumptions as well as her intent, or have you never seen a foreword, disclaimer, bibliography, footnote, and so on. Where did so many people unschooled in the scientific method fail to receive their education? Why is personality still so attatched to theory that ridicule is an expected reaction to a new idea???

  • Paul Manning August 20, 2007, 12:37 PM

    There is a counter-petition in favor of the freedom of the academic process, signed by many prominent academics.

    link to petitiononline.com

  • Richard Silverstein August 20, 2007, 4:39 PM

    Yes, thanks Paul. I’ve signed it & linked to it in another post here. I note that this petition has nearly 600 signatures in the wk or so it has existed. Hopefully, it will soon surpass the negative petition started by Stern.

  • lewa souheil September 11, 2007, 12:14 PM

    It has become very common, for those that dare not stick to the ‘offcial’ history of the jews, to be targeted with such hate and ferocity. It starts by intimidation and ends up by being accused of being anti-semit. WHY????? One starts to wonder about the scale of the cover up .

  • rufus November 5, 2007, 5:56 AM

    This is a fascinating article. It reminds me of those times in which a film critic will say, ”I wish that I could say this is a great movie, but it isn’t…” and the poster will show up with the critic’s name and ”a great movie”!

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