≡ Menu

New Yorker Magazine’s Kramer Takes On Abu El-Haj’s Pro-Israel Defamers

It’s not often one gets mentioned in The New Yorker as my blog did today, so I’m wearing a small intellectual glow. I used to read the magazine religiously back when I was a literature major in college and grad school. I read it from cover to cover. I can still remember vividly profiles by John McPhee and Pauline Kael’s remarkable film reviews. I’m trippin’.

Jane Kramer writes a long article, The Petition: Israel, Palestine, and a Tenure Battle at Barnard, about Nadia Abu El Haj’s ultimately successful battle for tenure at Barnard College. It profiles her anthropological research and the pro-Israel detractors who made her tenure process a cause celebre for the Israel-First crowd. Many of you know that I devoted considerable time, energy and words to this subject before she earned tenure. I thought a gross injustice was being perpetrated by the Campus Watch-Frontpagemagazine crowd and that the Barnard anthropologist deserved someone monitoring the campaign against her, which was what I did.

Kramer notes that this blog was one of the first to take up the cause, something of which I’m very proud:

Stern’s facts were wrong. Within a few months, she was exposed in the progressive Zionist blog Tikun Olam and in the Jewish press–most notably in the Jewish Week…

She goes on to credit Larry Cohler-Esses’ work there in unmasking Stern’s vilification and falsehoods. I’m also proud of the teamwork between myself and Cohler-Esses which advanced this story, though I want to make clear that Larry did all his own research and drew his own conclusions. Hell, he even spent 10 days wading through Facts on the Ground for which he deserves a medal since it is a VERY DENSE text. Even I didn’t do that.

Kramer doesn’t note the critical role played by Jesse Walker of Reason Magazine. While I was already interested in Abu El Haj’s battle, Jesse first brought to my attention the deliberate misquotations of the academic’s work by her opponents. This in turn opened up the subject in a way it might not have otherwise done. Jesse published his research in his publication.

Abu El Haj new yorker cartoon

The New Yorker story is interesting not just for its recap of the tenure battle, but because the author puts that battle in the context of a furious tug of war taking place in higher education over academic freedom and the right of third party advocacy groups to intervene in the tenure process and inject political considerations into scholarly discourse.

I never thought of this analogy until just now, but it appears to me that what Campus Watch and Paula Stern did was akin to the Terry Schiavo circus. In the latter case, a group of religious fanatics with a vested interest attempted to intervene in both a personal family tragedy and a medical process out of which they should’ve kept their noses. Their effort demeaned the family involved and dragged the field of medicine into a political arena in which it had no business being. I’d argue that the Schiavo fiasco contributed significantly to the Republican defeat in the 2006 elections.

The Abu El Haj detractors have paid no such price. In fact, they’ve gone on to new targets of opportunity in their propaganda battle on behalf of Israel. But articles like Kramer’s and efforts like mine help shine a light on such smearmongering so that it may be discredited even more firmly the next time it rears its ugly head.

I thought one particular section of Kramer’s essay was particularly evocative and helpful in understanding the political motivations of Abu El Haj’s opponents. Here she quotes Jonathan Boyarin, an Orthodox Jewish academic and friend of the Barnard professor:

Sometimes, I think the Jews who attack Nadia are really grasping at the idea that Israel is THE standard of Jewish life and faith–so, for them, defending Israel, even against scholarly debate, becomes the way to express Jewishness. I haven’t advanced much in my understanding of this kind of anxiety. But I know that if you’re looking for a reasoned, progressive scholar who’s on the same side as those guys, you’re not going to find him.

This is an important epiphany. The mission of Campus Watch and Paula Stern has everything to do with Jewish identity (and a narrowly defined identity at that) and little or nothing to do with academics. That is why their efforts should be derided and disqualified by the academy.

Pipes reinforces the intolerance and extremism of his approach in this passage:

…I very much dispute the notion that academics cannot function freely and be accountable at the same time. It doesn’t come free, this very special set of privileges they have, and there’s nothing to be said for the abstracted position that they can disdain the public, the students, and only engage with each other. They are financed by the public and are thus accountable in some way to the public. They say, No, only we can judge and evaluate each other’s work. Well, that’s not how things work in this country.

This is a profoundly important distillation of Pipes’ anti-intellectual philosophy. The academy is not to be trusted with decisions affecting itself. The public and its representatives like Pipes are the best judges of what is best for the academy since they take into account not just academic needs, but society at large’s needs. I can’t think of a much more pernicious approach, one that is more inimical to the very foundations of scholarly inquiry and academic freedom, than this.

While I tend to think that Kramer bent over backwards to portray Abu El Haj in the most favorable light possible, in this passage she finds a weakness in the latter’s work which bothered me during my entire time writing about this. Kramer notes:

…a tendency to reduce the complexities of Zionism to colonial terms…

I think this idea deserved amplification because it does deeply inform Facts on the Ground and renders it a less persuasive critique than it might otherwise have been. There is too much dismissive ideological grandstanding and speech that trumpets an academic anti-colonial approach that detracts rather than amplifies.

There were a few moments in reading the New Yorker piece when I thought the author stretched too far in portraying Abu El Haj as a mainstream academic figure:

[Virginia] Dominguez [Abu El Haj's dissertation advisor] says that Facts on the Ground was received by Israeli social scientists “not as a scathing critique but as right in line with what they were doing there.”

In fact, I have read no Israeli social scientists who defended Abu El Haj’s work. I’m not saying there aren’t any since I don’t read Israeli academic publications. I AM saying that there were many Israeli academics, especially archaeologists, who reacted with high moral dudgeon to her attacks on them. Again, I’m not saying their views were correct or justified. But I believe we should call a spade a spade and not ignore the academic uproar her work caused in certain Israeli circles, as both Kramer and Dominguez seem to do. [NOTE: Ms. Kramer informs me that the Columbia Spectator does feature comments by Israeli academics who support Abu El Haj's work, so I stand corrected on that score.]

A tidbit: those of you who follow the Jewish right will enjoy Charles Jacob’s (founder of the David Project) description of himself as a “classic liberal.”

I wish there had been a little more in Kramer’s article about the mysterious “Hugh Fitzgerald” who wrote the Frontpagemagzine-Campus Watch article which helped fuel the tenure battle.  Personally, I don’t believe that Fitzgerald is a real person. I would love for Kramer to have gone back to that original story and researched its origins further, including Fitzgerald’s real identity.  [NOTE: Ms. Kramer informs me that she made a considerable effort to do just that and was ultimately unsuccessful.]

A note about the New Yorker cartoon above: I thought it was an interesting and powerful evocation of the conflict. It portrays the lone academic standing on the steps of Columbia’s Low Library (precisely where the Alma Mater statue normally sits), battling against political forces outside herself and the campus. In that sense it conveys well some of the issues involved. But it also misses something important. While Abu El Haj may see herself as purely an academic and scholar, in her work she does take a political position. She is engaged in the debate though perhaps in a more nuanced way than Pipes or Stern. If she was not engaged, then she would have used a different set of rhetorical tropes to describe Israeli archaeological practice than she did. Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with her being engaged in this way. But I think that everyone needs to put all their cards on the table and in this battle none of the parties have fully done so, though Abu El Haj has done so much more transparently than her enemies.

Thanks to Seth Flaxman and Dan Sieradski for almost simulateneously notifying me about my 20 seconds of New Yorker fame.

Bufferfacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmailfacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail
youtubeyoutube

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Leila April 9, 2008, 11:17 AM

    Good for you, Richard, congratulations. Persistence furthers and you are the proof. Thank you!

  • Lance I April 9, 2008, 4:14 PM

    Her work is not typically political it is completely political. The entire subtext of her work is conspicuously and blatantly in terms of a political agenda to deligitimize Jewish claims to Israel, Judea – Samaria etc…
    Reason defended her not bcs of the quality of her work, which has been pretty much destroyed or basically laughed at by almost every major respected archeologist… but the fact that she has the libertarian right to her views however narrow, purpose driven they are…
    And this is not to say that one can’t see anyone’s else’s work through the prism of where they see them politically on an issue or issues… however, her work is so blatant in its singular purpose and shoddy in its quality it is particularly obvious in its singular intent…
    The question is would an academic who questioned Palestinian existence in Israel/Palestine be so defended by the likes of you and others? This I very much doubt.
     

  • americangoy April 9, 2008, 4:42 PM

    Congratulations.
    Usually blogs are looked upon as an echo chamber, or at best information founts.
     
    It is great when a blog affects the world outside the blogosphere (I hate that word, btw) and has such positive consequences.
     
    What happened here is, in simple English, racial/ethnic profiling.
    Which should be illegal in America, last I checked…

  • werner cohn April 10, 2008, 8:26 PM

    Jane Kramer’s “The Petition” (April 14) fails to report the purely scholarly objections that have been raised against Nadia Abu El-Haj.

    Readers who see only this article will not suspect that Abu El-Haj believes that the Jews have no ancient history in the land of Israel at all, that there is nothing whatever in the Old Testament account beyond myth.  This is the viewpoint of the most radical political forces among the Palestinians, but it is not supported by the archeological evidence.  Professor Alan Segal has shown that Abu El-Haj’s references to archeology and biblical studies — areas in which she has no competence — are grossly propagandistic.  It is Abu El-Haj, not her scholarly critics, who has introduced ideological warfare into her writings.

    Jane Kramer mentions Segal’s article (in the Columbia Spectator of Sept. 21 of last year), but she does not disclose what that article was about.   Kramer talks about Professor Segal quite a bit in her piece, and  she appears not to like what she sees.  That, of course, is a New Yorker writer’s prerogative.  But Kramer should at least let the reader in on what Segal has written.

  • Richard Silverstein April 11, 2008, 12:17 AM

    “Jane Kramer’s “The Petition” (April 14) fails to report the purely scholarly objections that have been raised against Nadia Abu El-Haj.”

    We’re going over ground that’s been well-ploughed here before.  I urge anyone who intends to write any comments here along the same lines to spend some time searching for the numerous posts I wrote about Abu El Haj before writing anything here.  I’ve gone over virtually every argument you can come up with.  Pls. do us all the favor of reviewing this before you write something which has been discussed here a number of times over at least.

    To a small extent, I agree w. yr criticism of Kramer’s piece.  She should have dealt w. the criticism more.  But not because it was valid or even academically rigorous which it largely wasn’t.  She should’ve dealt w. it in order to examine the underlying prejudicial assumptions it validated.

    “Abu El-Haj believes that the Jews have no ancient history in the land of Israel at all…”

    Wrong.  That’s not what she believes.  You’ve been reading too much Campus Watch or Frontpagemagazine. Where do you get yr information from?  And can you support this claim w. any evidence whatsoever??

    “…that there is nothing whatever in the Old Testament account beyond myth”

    I’m not sure what this means as many Jewish scholars accept that much of the Old Testament narrative is not historical fact.  But as wild a generalization as this is–it too is incorrect & does not reflect Abu El Haj’s views in any way whatsoever.

    “Professor Alan Segal has shown that Abu El-Haj’s references to archeology and biblical studies — areas in which she has no competence — are grossly propagandistic.”

    He’s shown no such thing.  And it’s laughable that you accuse Abu El Haj of having no competence in archaeology or Biblical studies when it’s Segal who has no scholarly expertise in this field as he teaches an entirely diff. subject at Columbia.  Not to mention that academic peers of Abu El Haj reviewed Segal’s claims & found them baseless.  But of course you have some academic expertise on this it seems & you trust Segal over the tenure process of a major Ivy League academic institution.

    Abu El Haj is an anthropologist, not an archaeologist.  But she certainly has great expertise in both fields as she chose to study archaeology by applying anthropological analytical principles to it.

    “Kramer should at least let the reader in on what Segal has written.”

    As Segal’s criticisms were not scholarly based I would disagree.  But I do believe that Kramer should’ve included some of the criticisms leveled at Abu El Haj by real archaeologists even if Kramer wished to refute them.

  • Richard Silverstein April 11, 2008, 12:55 AM

    “Her work is not typically political it is completely political.”

    So let’s see, Lance I, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz and Paula Stern think her work is “completely political,” while the University of Chicago Press, the Middle East Studies Association which gave her a top publishing award for her book, several Barnard tenure committees and the presidents of Barnard College and Columbia University, who granted her tenure, disagree.  Gee, I know whose side I’d be on in this fight.

    “The entire subtext of her work is conspicuously and blatantly in terms of a political agenda to deligitimize [sic] Jewish claims to Israel, Judea – Samaria etc…”

    No, her scholarly agenda is to examine the underlying national assumptions that inform contemporary Israeli archaeology.  That’s an entirely diff. purpose than the one you ascribe to her.  Apparently such an examination threatens you deeply.

    “the quality of her work, which has been pretty much destroyed or basically laughed at by almost every major respected archeologist…”

    Again, this is false.  Numerous U.S. AND Israeli archaeologists and anthropologists have supported her work while many have opposed it.  Problem is you’re a propagandist & not a fair & balanced observer.

    “her work is so blatant in its singular purpose and shoddy in its quality it is particularly obvious in its singular intent…”

    And you know this because of what specialized advanced academic knowledge you have???

  • davidb April 11, 2008, 6:18 AM

    Does the article addresses claims that Prof. Bu El-Haj “knows very little, if any, Hebrew.”  http://www.spme.net/cgi-bin/articles.cgi?ID=2851 It would be rather extraordinary for an institution like Barnard to tenure someone whose research focuses “on how Israel’s Jewish national ‘self’ came to be constructed” who is not reasonably fluent in Hebrew. 

  • Scott April 11, 2008, 7:43 AM

    As to the quality of her work and its reception by professional archaeologists, it might be instructive for folks to take a look at the names and comments of the people who signed the dueling petitions over her tenure case. What you’ll see there is a great deal of support for Abu El-Haj among professional archaeologists, and very few comments (by professional archaeologists) in opposition. The small number of archaeologists who opposed her case have gotten a lot of media attention, but they ar enot representative of the discipline as a whole.

    As for the comment that Abu El-Haj “…believes that the Jews have no ancient history in the land of Israel at all, that there is nothing whatever in the Old Testament account beyond myth…” – well, this is a nice illustration of the persistence of myths on the Internet. It’s not the comment of someone who has actually read her work.

  • Walter April 11, 2008, 8:50 AM

    “Nadia Abu El Haj’s ultimately successful battle for tenure at Barnard College”?  It was not Nadia’s battle. She—sensibly—ignored it, as did—properly—Barnard and Columbia. The tenure decision was made, as it should be, on the basis of a careful review of research, service, and teaching.

  • Marc April 11, 2008, 9:04 AM

    Richard-

    This is very interesting.  I had read Alan Segal’s long piece in the Columbia Spectator criticizing Prof. Abu El-Haj’s work and it seemed to be well reasoned to me.  I had no idea that it had been discredited.  Is there anyplace I could read the basis for that discrediting?  (Predictably, the comments to the Spectator piece fall back on namecalling rather than addressing his criticisms.)

  • Andy Gardner April 11, 2008, 10:05 AM

    As Scott points out, some of the comments above do illustrate the persistence of myths on the Internet. This is particularly distressing because going forward, the people propagating these myths will have little or no credibility even if their arguments have merit. In effect, they will have cried wolf once too often.

  • Richard Silverstein April 11, 2008, 12:51 PM

    Does the article addresses claims that Prof. Bu El-Haj “knows very little, if any, Hebrew.”

    As I wrote above, if you want to cast aspersions on Abu El Haj’s academic record please do a search of this site BEFORE you present these aspersions as fact. In fact, the issue of whether or not she knows Hebrew has been addressed here and elsewhere. She does in fact know Hebrew. She did in fact study Hebrew for quite some time. The fact that anyone could believe that someone writing about Israeli archaeology would presume, in a serious academic setting, to do so w/o knowing Hebrew is ludicrous. Don’t believe the propaganda that SPME puts out about Abu El Haj.

  • Richard Silverstein April 11, 2008, 12:57 PM

    “Nadia Abu El Haj’s ultimately successful battle for tenure at Barnard College”? It was not Nadia’s battle. She—sensibly—ignored it, as did—properly—Barnard and Columbia. The tenure decision was made, as it should be, on the basis of a careful review of research, service, and teaching.

    That’s all well & good in Nadia’s particular situation where she had the absolute support of her department and the university administration plus a stellar academic record. She in effect didn’t need to worry. But what about other academics who may be more borderline? What about administrations like DePaul which are willing to allow external factors to intervene in such decisions (cf. Finkelstein)?

    I don’t think it’s as neat & pretty as you’re making it out to be. I’m not sure that Nadia entirely “ignored it.” I’m sure she wished she could’ve ignored it. But when people are lying about you right & left & potentially endangering yr career–how do you entirely ignore this? Maybe you & Nadia are made of sterner stuff than I. If so, more power to you.

  • Richard Silverstein April 11, 2008, 1:14 PM

    I had read Alan Segal’s long piece in the Columbia Spectator criticizing Prof. Abu El-Haj’s work and it seemed to be well reasoned to me.

    I’m probably not the right person to ask. Every quote I’ve read fr. Segal seems precisely the opposite to me. He seems to be rehashing all the claims by her detractors like Hugh Fitzgerald, Lassner & Joffe. Esp. since Segal’s own academic field has nothing to do w. either anthropology or archaeology I didn’t feel he was a serious critic. So I didn’t pay too much attention to him. The only diff. was that he’s actually a Columbia faculty member which seems to have given him greater standing to criticize her in her detractors’ eyes.

    The fact that at the end of Kramer’s article Segal invites Abu El Haj to debate in his classroom confirms to me his lack of seriousness. The tenure battle is over. He has lost, yet he still wants to continue it. Segal to me is like a minor Dershowitz–a wind up toy who keeps saying the same things ad infinitum/ad nauseum.

  • Ruthy M April 11, 2008, 4:06 PM

    In regards to Depaul are you speaking about Finkelstein or Klocek? The latter was fired for taking offense to students calling Israel Nazis the former was physically and verbally abusive to a female teacher for simply disagreeing with him and he’s also been denied at several schools – so at some point you ask is it a Zionist conspiracy against him or perhaps is he an over confrontational person who seeks smite out anyone who disagrees with him – which is part of what the school said in their denial btw.

    In regards to this story –

    What happened here was the right to someone’s free speech was defended and upheld regardless of their opinion and the quality of her work.

    The championing of her as an underdog fighting evil forces is and unfortunately as expected  over the top.
    (American goy above)

    Every professor seeking tenure is and should be evaluated however political it is.

    What happened here is simple. A professor who in Mr. Silverstein’s language is a ‘Palestinian First Extremist’ of the 1rst order was given tenure. Her work is extremely political and agenda driven a fact she doesn’t even try to conceal. What’s more her work has been consistenly proven to be sloppy and extremely un-impressive. Whether or not she should be given tenure should be solely based on the quality of her work.

    However, here the conversation became about the fact that she is pro Palestinian and thus as a result being descriminated against, thus she benefited.
    However, in my opinion she likely would have been granted tenure regardless of the quality of her work due to the situation at the school she works at.
    The question is would those seeking to make this into a ‘descrimination case’ due to their belief in the 1rst Amendment etc.. do the same for someone on the polar opposite of politics? Would they defend an academic shunned for simply making politically supportive statements towards Israel? The answer is a very likely no. We saw this at Depaul by the way.
    Reason magazine is a libertarian magazine in this case defending one’s right to free speech or opinion. However, the rest of the agenda biased minions involved in this case the answer is a very likely no.