Thursday, April 10, 2008

on Nadia Abu el Haj's tenure, a prelude to "Not the New Yorker, please"

The New Yorker recently published an article by Jane Kramer on attempted outside interference in the tenure process for Nadia Abu el Haj at Barnard College. The controversy over Abu el Haj’s tenure stemmed mostly from her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. As the magazine puts it (in the closest thing we have to an online copy at the moment):
The book looked at the role of archeology in what was essentially a political project: the Biblical validation for Jewish claims to what is now Israel.
I haven’t read the book, but as I intend to critique the article, I thought it would be appropriate to put up my observations on the book and a bit about the tenure decision-making process.

From the article, Abu el Haj describes Israel as a colonial enterprise, and archeology as a colonial tool. Certainly, archeology began as a colonial project, and I’m sure there’s a great deal worth critiquing in current Israeli archeological practice. Such a book could be brilliant. Or it might not be. A marketing description begins:
Archaeology in Israel is truly a national obsession, a practice through which national identity—and national rights—have long been asserted. But how and why did archaeology emerge as such a pervasive force there?
The seeming provocativeness of this question is bizarre in that numerous answers, some of them even trite, spring readily to mind. I don’t know that it’s necessarily true that archeology is an Israeli national obsession, but if it is, it seems easy enough to explain. That tiny area was significant in the birth to two of the major religions of this world – as well as their older brother, the smaller but historically significant Judaism. Even to Israelis who could care less about the archeology itself, the tourism industry is significant. Or, we could describe Israeli archeology as a happy ending to a history of Christian archeology appropriating ancient Jewish history. In short, the world is complicated, and it isn’t clear to me without having read the book whether Abu el Haj allows for alternatives to her views.

Certainly, "colonial" does accurately describe the Palestinian experience of the formation of Israel. It would be wrong to write that experience and that narrative out of history. However, this is radically different from the Jewish experience of the formation of Israel; and it would be at least as wrong to write the Jewish narrative, including the Diaspora and Holocaust, out of history as colonial justifications. It would be wrong to deny Jews a right to contribute to the construction of historical narratives of their own history by insisting that any such attempt can only be read as colonialist.

There seems to have been no notice of the title of Abu el Haj's work, but the phrase "Facts on the ground" is widely used to refer to Israeli settlements in the West Bank as they dictate "realistic" compromises to just political settlements. By choosing that title, she seems to suggest that Israeli archeology is an intentional obstacle to peace.

Richard Silverstein, who the Kramer article cites as one of those who pointed out how Abu el Haj’s harshest critics misread her, notes that Kramer did manage to preserve a small bit of criticism of the book for its “…tendency to reduce the complexities of Zionism to colonial terms…” He continues:
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.
The article also cites Larry Cohler-Esses, who also had a role in correcting the misreading, as writing that the book was "hostile in fundamental ways to Israel." In further response to the correction, historian Ralph Harrington writes:
The critics who have argued that Facts on the Ground rejects the existence of ancient Jewish states in the land that is now Israel are, in a sense, missing the point. It would not matter whether those states had existed or not: their significance in the development of Jewish nationhood would in any case be nil, because there is no such thing.
While it might be a great work of scholarship, and almost certainly does contain positive contributions, it seems likely to me that the book deserved its controversy. Although the tenure process ought ideally to be independent to outside or political pressure, this is not the same as blanket immunity to criticism – especially noting that the process is flawed and always subject to political considerations. We should look also at the white-supremacist Kevin MacDonald, noting that his harshest critics inside the academy are not willing to go beyond criticizing the process of his tenure review in hindsight. Even during the tenure process, scholars should expect interested parties to contest their work. We can hope that these outside parties will be reasonable and informed and that other faculty will facilitate informed debate, neither of which were the case here, but it's dangerous to simply dismiss them as the unwashed masses.

The biggest problem with the petition over Abu el Haj’s tenure, was not that it dared to be critical or even aimed to influence the process, but that it seemed to insist upon the right to outside interference so stridently as to justify personal nastiness. Not everyone is a nice person. On the other hand, not every not nice person finds their way into the New Yorker.


Werner Cohn said...

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.

Matt said...

Again, I haven't read Abu el Haj's work. I wrote this as a prelude to an intended post on Kramer's article, which I find deeply distubing. I might have avoided dealing specifically with this if I thought it were possible to only deal with the Kramer article in isolation.

For anyone interested, here is an article by Alan Segal which disputes many of Abu el Haj's claims and also makes disturbing charges about the way he was treated. However, Werner, it does seem that you are making a mistake. According to those I cited including Ralph Harrington who is damning even in admitting this, Abu el Haj does not dispute that Jews have some history in the Holy Land. She disputes the extent and modern significance of that history.