Scott Jaschik interviewed Shulamit Reinharz about her Jewish Advocate column on Nadia Abu El Haj, which I wrote about here. He elicited further damning opinions from the neocon spouse of Brandeis president, Yehuda Reinharz. In her column, she states she declined to attend her Barnard reunion for the strange reason that no one at Barnard would tell her whether or not Abu El Haj had been granted tenure. She adds another odd statement–that she could not find anywhere Abu El Haj’s birthplace:
I am not sure if she identifies as a Palestinian as a consequence of being born in what some people now call Palestine or because she identifies with Palestinians and was born elsewhere.
One cannot help wondering what the point of all this is. Thankfully, Jaschik has smoked out her prejudices for the world to see:
In an interview, Reinharz said that this was a legitimate question to ask [about Abu El Haj’s birthplace]. “She makes a point of calling herself a Palestinian scholar so I was curious about why she did that. The word Palestinian is a contested term,” Reinharz said. “There is no country yet called Palestine so I didn’t know what she meant by that.” She added that “people who call themselves Palestinian garner sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and this is a book that is an attack on Israeli archaelology so I thought maybe it was relevant.” She stressed that she wasn’t inquiring about El-Haj’s religious beliefs, just what she meant by Palestinian.
You see, if you’re a scholar and call yourself Palestinian anything you write on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is immediately suspect. Reinharz neglects to say whether or not Jewish scholars should be similarly suspect though since she is one I’d guess her answer would be an emphatic No. In addition, calling oneself “Palestinian” seems to be a propganda tactic rather than a legitimate expression of ethnic identity for Reinharz.
It’s also telling that she raises the hackneyed old “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” canard used by Israeli nationalists and those as far to the right as Kahanists. One of my readers reveals that Reinharz was a leader of the David Project, a conservative Jewish group which attacks alleged Islamism on campus and in society.
The topping on the cake for this interview is this closing quotation:
“It’s not racism, it’s curiosity,” she said.
So questioning a scholar’s scholarship based on their ethnicity is not racism, but rather mere intellectual curiousity. Makes sense to me…Thankfully, the president of the Middle East Studies Association disagrees:
But others see this as the latest sign of how bitter the debates have become.
[Zachary] Lockman of NYU, called the comments “slimy” and said “I find it incredibly offensive to question someone’s place of birth or nationality.” Noting that he is Jewish, Lockman said it was inconceivable that a professor would publish a column critiquing another professor’s scholarship and devote a paragraph to wondering about what that professor meant about being Jewish. “People would acknowledge that as outrageous,” he said.
“Her origin is irrelevant to her scholarship,” Lockman said. “It’s clear people are pulling out all the stops.”
Personally, I think Reinharz is out of her academic element. She’s a women’s studies professor. Yet all of a sudden she’s expert enough in the fields of archaeology and anthropology, which are Abu El Haj’s specialties in her book, to render unbiased judgment.
All this raises an interesting question. Now that the wife of Brandeis’ president has weighed in on another school’s internal tenure decisions can we expect the wife of Barnard’s president (if he’s an academic) to intervene in Brandeis’ tenure process? Just where does this end? There’s a reason DePaul should’ve told Alan Dershowitz to butt out of the Finkelstein tenure decision–because if you don’t, pretty soon you’ll have national campaigns by academics and outsiders regarding ANY unpopular or controversial scholar up for tenure. If we think Congress can’t govern due to intense partisanship wait till we see what the tenure field could turn into. There could be blood in the halls of academe–and only some of it figurative.
Well thank you, Richard, for shining the searchlight on this sorry episode. The racism (ethnic hatred? what do you call it?) is just shocking. This Brandeis first lady must be a horrible bigot – and I am sure she thinks she is just a righteous warrior. Lord have mercy.
My father used to insist that Americans – and yes, Jews – hate Arabs and want to destroy our culture, demean us, suppress our every expression of self and identity. I would argue with him. I thought he was being paranoid. Unfortunately this sort of episode confirms his paranoia (may he rest in peace). However, the strenuous objections of all the other parties to this argument remind me that my view is also correct: decent people do exist in this country; bigotry and thoughtless, irrational prejudice do not rule everywhere. I am so glad to read about Lockman’s statement.
Nadia Abu El Haj ought to work for al-Jazeera. Her sympathies are clear. And she is using her academic post to press her political interests. That violates the basic purpose of an academy which is to seek truth. It is what Aristotle wold have called Sophistry. That is, elegant lies. Let’s hope Barnard has the courage to turn down her tenure and send her somewhere with lower standards for truth.
Richard Silverstein says
Sorry to disappoint but Barnard has already approved her tenure. Columbia is the only recourse you & the other academic with hunters have left. If they approve her, as I expect, then you’ll be out of luck.