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.
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.