The Jewish right-wing is on the warpath again against an imagined academic foe of Israel. Groups like Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch and David Horowitz’s Frontpagemagazine have turned their life’s work into making the lives of such academics a living hell. They and their allies have gone on the warpath against Princeton when it offered an endowed chair to Rashid Khalidi, Yale when it did the same to Juan Cole, Khalil Shikaki and Natana DeLong-Bas at Brandeis, and most recently Norman Finkelstein, done in by a full court press orchestrated by Alan Dershowitz. They also generally harass other academics like Stanford’s Joel Beinin on principle though they cannot wound him through a tenure battle since he already has it.
These people are like ultra-Zionist sharks in the ocean. They sniff for the “blood” of alleged anti-Zionist academics and then circle for the kill. And like sharks, their brains are not bothered by complicated weighing of facts, evidence and arguments. Once they find a victim, rhetoric, like blood, enflames and logic goes out the window.
Let’s take the case of Prof. Nadia Abu El-Haj. Her book, Facts on the Ground, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2001. It examines Israeli archeology as an extension of the nation-building process claiming that seminal figures like venerable Yigal Yadin consciously or unconsciously skewed their work to buttress the narrative of the new Israeli state. Opinion is divided on the merits of El-Haj’s work. I have read scathing reviews and I have read glowing ones. I’m not an archaeologist and don’t pretend to judge the merits of her scholarly approach. Nor do I even claim to agree necessarily with her views.
But I know a rat when I smell one and there’s a few huge ones skulking around El-Haj as she proceeds through the tenure process at Barnard College, which has approved it. Final approval rests with Columbia University, Barnard’s academic parent. It seems hard to believe that Columbia’s president would overrule Barnard. But given the shellacking that Columbia went through over Joseph Massad and its Middle East studies program which was savaged by the David Project, anything could happen to El-Haj. Remember that Norman Finkelstein had been approved by two campus committees before he was denied.
Paula Stern has organized a petition against El-Haj. From her profile at IsraelInsider, she appears to be a hard-right pro-Israel nationalist. You have to wonder whether despite Campus Watch’s protestations to the contrary, she hasn’t closely coordinated this campaign with that group and Frontpagemagazine (which slammed El-Haj here).
Let’s examine a few of Stern’s arguments in her petition (and one wonders whether these ARE Stern’s arguments since she is no archaeologist–which would imply that she had help from other right-wing pro-Israel academics). One of the most glaring habits in this petition is to quote selectively phrases from El-Haj and then paraphrase her alleged argument without quoting her. In many cases, the paraphrase is highly charged. But since it is not a quotation we don’t know if this is what El-Haj actually writes or merely what her enemies want us to believe she writes. Take this for example:
Abu El Haj alleges that archaeologists have “created the fact of an ancient Israelite/Jewish nation,” where none actually existed.
Does El-Haj actually believe that no Israelite nation existed? Maybe. But this is far too important an issue for me to rely on the petition’s paraphrase of El-Haj’s view.
In other cases, they quote such a small portion of El-Haj’s writing that you cannot tell whether she is being quoted in context or not. Take this as an example:
She asserts that the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a “pure political fabrication.”
Why wouldn’t it have been possible to quote an entire sentence or paragraph to determine what El-Haj actually wrote and believes on this subject.
Another matter which the petition ignores is that Israeli archaeologists themselves are plowing similar ground to El-Haj. Their conclusion might not be as sweeping as hers, but this certainly shows that El-Haj and her views are squarely within a legitimate academic debate. Ynetnews profiles a new book written by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein, who also take on the Israeli archaeological establishment and its sacred cow notion of a glorious united Davidic kingdom:
…Archeology shows that Jerusalem, which in Solomon’s day was supposed to be the ‘glorious empire,’ was a lowly village in that period, relatively small and remote, and not the city of splendor described in the Bible.”
In their book, Finkelstein and Silberman claim that the kingdoms of David and Solomon did not exist as they were described in the Bible. The story was written, in fact, in Judea in order to justify its rule over large numbers of refugees who came there after the destruction of the Temple.
…”In the entire Bible the Judean writers try to say that Judea is the center and Israel is not legitimate. After all, its kings were all outcasts, they don’t have a good word to say about any of them, but the people are OK, on condition that they take it upon themselves to worship God in Jerusalem under the dynasty of the House of David.”
Here, they refute the notion of Davidic conquest:
“There’s no reason to doubt the fact that there was a David who founded a dynasty in Jerusalem, but in my opinion the united kingdom in the form described in the Bible did not exist. The whole thing of David’s conquests never happened. In traditional archeology, anywhere a layer of destruction from the tenth century BCE was seen, they immediately shouted, ‘David!’ but there is no real basis for this.
And finally, here the archaeologists seem to be criticizing both Israeli nationalism and Israeli fetishizing of the Temple Mount and similar historical monuments to Israeli nationhood and Jewish religion:
“Something interesting has happened here: We, the Jews, who were identified as the People of the Book, have suddenly become a people like all others and we’ve begun to pursue land and monuments. In the past this never interested us.
So if we understand El-Haj’s critique within a tradition like that represented by Silberman and Finkelstein she may strike us as radical compared to them. But she is clearly within a debunking tradition that they represent as well. And as any academic will tell you, all traditions were made to be debunked. If we don’t test hypotheses and challenge underlying assumptions how can we be sure that they are sound? The type of criticism practiced by the archaeologists I’ve cited here is fully within the legitimate scope of academic discourse.
The petition contains further charges against El-Haj’s scholarly method:
In addition to all of this, hundreds of written documents ranging from receipts, to letters, to school exercises survive because they were written on pieces of old pottery (ostraca.) Abu El Haj fails to mention the existence of this truly vast body of written evidence that proves her assertion to be false.
Brendan McKay of the Australian National University writes in a private e-mail to me:
A few quick searches [of the book] shows that in fact these inscriptions are mentioned repeatedly throughout the book. The biggest lie here is [when] the petition…claims that these inscriptions support the Biblical pre-exilic story when in fact the intersection between story and evidence is extremely slight and controversial. Even the meaning of the “House of David” inscription is hotly disputed amongst the experts.
Another charge is also false:
Abu El Haj does not speak or read Hebrew, the language Israelis speak and the language in which Israeli archaeologists regularly publish.
Ted Swedenburg, professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas disputes this claim:
…Among the other scurrilous claims is that Nadia doesn’t speak hebrew. I was in Palestine for a couple months when she was doing fieldwork and made a trip into Tel Aviv with some other friends. sat at a restaurant with her and an Israeli friend, who when hearing her speak Hebrew, said Nadia was quite good.
The book’s bibliography clearly references Hebrew sources so the charge that she doesn’t read Hebrew is also false. I have read in a negative review that her knowledge of Hebrew is “desultory,” though I don’t know on what basis the judgment is made.
But leaving all this aside, in this day and age I’d imagine that most Israeli archaeologists would be using English as their lingua franca and that the most important research would either be published in English-language periodicals or available in English translation from Hebrew. Again, I’m not an expert in the field and don’t know whether this is the case. But it stands to reason that it is likely.
The petition also raises another spurious charge against El-Haj:
Abu El Haj…demonstrate[es]… her ignorance of history and of archeology…[when] she writes of the post-1967 dig in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, “ In this (anonymous) Israeli archaeologist’s words, ‘It was one of the largest excavations and one of the worst’; it was too large to ‘digest scientifically.’ It was too large to control: ‘Somewhere in there are the complexes of the Palaces of Solomon,’ he insisted, ‘but they dug buildings with no sections and lost a lot of data that way.’
Of course, if the “Palaces of Solomon” exist,they would be in the area of Jerusalem known as the City of David, not in the modern Jewish Quarter, an area that was not part of the city in the tenth or even the ninth century BCE (the period called Solomonic.)
Professor McKay again refutes the charge:
…The excavation al Haj is discussing was not in the modern Jewish Quarter but on the south slopes of the Haram al-Sharif, in other words between the Temple Mount and the City of David.
If you note the petition passage carefully, the writers of the petition are the ones who claim El-Haj is talking about a dig in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. They don’t even bother to quote El-Haj on this point which makes their entire argument one based on bad faith and gross manipulation of El-Haj’s actual record.
But what I object to most about the campaign to deny El-Haj is that non-academics are attempting to impose their political views on a university and its hiring process. They are attempting to substitute their gross ignorance of the academic field in question for that of scholars steeped in the discipline. This reminds me of Republican attitudes toward medical science. Tom DeLay practically called himself an M.D. as he pontificated on Terry Schiavo’s vital signs. George Bush allows ideology to trump medical science in the stem cell research debate.
Can we let self appointed enforcers of a pro-Israel academic world view impose their standards on Barnard College as they did at DePaul when they sacked Norman Finkelstein? Do we want academic disciplines in which certain ideas cannot be fully debated? Or in which certain ideas and words cannot be uttered without fear of punishment by outsiders?
Jerry Haber of Magnes Zionist and a professor of Jewish studies also wrote an e mail to me on this subject:
Many controversial and revisionist scholars get tenure. Their tenure allows them the freedom to pursue unpopular lines of inquiry, to the considerable displeasure of more conventional scholars. Sorry, I am a 19th century fuddy-duddy about this –…there is a tenure process, and it has to be respected. The critics should be criticized for interference, and the strategy should be to defend not her but the process.
JTA has published an extremely one-sided article on the controversy which implicitly accepts the validity of the petition’s charges and those of the David Project. Why don’t JTA journalists (and they’re not the only one with this problem) not imagine that there might be another Jewish perspective on such a complex and controversial issue?
Here is one problematic passage:
The controversy over El-Haj threatens to raise questions anew about the integrity of Columbia’s scholarship on the Middle East, which first came under fire in 2004 with the release of a documentary film alleging university professors intimidated and embarrassed pro-Israel students who challenged them in class
Well certainly the controversy “raises questions” about Columbia’s scholarship. But are they legitimate questions and are those asking the question legitimate critics? My answer would be a sound “no.” But you won’t hear that opinion in the article because the reporter didn’t bother to reach out to anyone who might voice it.
Here’s another example of journalism that doesn’t fully explore its underlying assumptions:
Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, has labored to improve the school’s tarnished image, most recently by becoming the lead signatory to a statement published in the New York Times opposing an academic boycott of Israel.
If El-Haj’s tenure is approved, much of that progress could be undone. It could also hurt the university financially.
Bloom, Maxine Schwartz and Helene Berger — all Florida-based Barnard alums — met with Shapiro in March in Miami to communicate their concerns about Abu El-Haj. Schwartz and Berger both told JTA they would cease support for Barnard if the professor is granted tenure.
Who says that the “progress could be undone” if El-Haj’s tenure is approved. The right wing critics do of course. But is that view reasonable and credible? Or is it debatable?
Then Ben Harris raises the fundraising bugaboo. Whenever rightists try to flex their muscle they always threaten financial boycotts. Daniel Pipes did that when Brandeis invited Norman Finkelstein to speak on campus claiming $5 million in donations would just go away if Finkelstein spoke.
But I’m a veteran university fundraiser. I’ve heard these threats before. If you examine 90% of them they’re made by people who’ve given the school $500 in the past 30 years if that. Did Harris bother to ask how much Schwartz and Berger had given to Barnard to find out if their threat was credible?
Finally, a word about the ideologues behind this campaign. Inside Higher Education has done us the service of showing Campus Watch off for the disingenuous dissemblers they are with these passages:
Winfield Myers, director of Campus Watch, a pro-Israel group that publicizes information about professors who are critical of Israel, said that…his group respects the right of faculty members to decide academic appointments. Myers said, however, that non-academics have every right to make their views known and that Middle Eastern studies professors are trying to prevent that from happening. “It is ultimately for faculty to decide. We’re not saying ‘approve this guy and turn this other fellow down,’ ” Myers said. But he said that academics do not have the right to make these decisions in a “cocoon of silence” in which information about scholars’ “politicized work” isn’t well known…
He stressed that all the groups are doing is publicizing information, not trying to intrude on actual decisions…In getting out the word about these people, Myers said, his group “is not part of some effort to silence the Arab voice.” Rather, he said, his group is trying to open up debate. If Middle Eastern studies scholars are offended by the work of Campus Watch, Myers said, “they aren’t used to getting criticism,” adding that information put out by all groups — his own included — should be open for critique.
In truth, Campus Watch identifies an appropriate shill like Paula Stern and has her do their dirty work. That way their fingerprints aren’t on the murder weapon (murdering a career, that is). A dirty business.
If you want to support El-Haj’s tenure you can sign this counter-petition.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.