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Truth or Neo-Consequences

By Morgan Strong
April 29, 2008


An obscure academic dispute – over whether Israeli archeology sought to obscure the land’s last two millennia of history and promote a continual Jewish claim of ownership – has shown again how tensions in the Middle East can reverberate in unlikely ways in the United States.

The dispute centered on whether Barnard College should grant tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj, an American-born scholar of anthropology who, in the 1990s, challenged the scientific integrity of what she saw as the Israeli use of archeology in a politically motivated way to justify Jewish settlements on territory that had belonged to Palestinians.

Although the controversy wasn’t new – it had been argued out within archeological circles in Israel for years – El-Haj became a lightning rod because she was the first academic of Palestinian descent to publicize the debate in a 2001 book, Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society.

This academic debate boiled over the past two years when El-Haj – who had been a professor at Barnard College since 2002 – applied for tenure in 2006 and became a target of neoconservative attack groups determined to punish her for undermining Israel’s claims to the Holy Land.

On Aug. 7, 2007, a petition entitled “Deny Nadia Abu El-Haj Tenure” was posted on, describing her as a scholar of “demonstrably inferior caliber” who had unfairly assailed the methodology of Israeli archeological digs.

The petition – prepared by Paula Stern, a 1982 graduate of Barnard and a resident of the occupied West Bank – also accused El-Haj of calling the ancient Israelite kingdoms a “pure political fabrication” and of lacking basic skills to undertake her studies, including an ability to “speak or read Hebrew.” The petition said, “We fail to understand how a scholar can pretend to study the attitudes of a people whose language she does not know.”

The petition became a hot topic among American neoconservatives.
Campus Watch, a right-wing organization that monitors the teaching of Middle Eastern studies in the United States, joined in the attacks on El-Haj. Campus Watch was founded in 2002 by Daniel Pipes, a prominent neoconservative and son of Richard Pipes, a key figure in the Cold War-era Committee on the Present Danger.

A blog of pro-Israeli professors known as Scholars for Peace in the Middle East also joined in the anti-tenure campaign. Stern’s petition eventually attracted about 2,500 signatures including many alumni from Barnard and its affiliate, Columbia University in New York City.

Errors Admitted

However, two months after Stern posted the petition, she acknowledged to The Jewish Week that some of the petition’s criticisms of El-Haj and her book were inaccurate.

Stern “incorrectly quotes from Abu El-Haj’s book in charging she is grossly ignorant of Jerusalem geography,” according to The Jewish Week article by Larry Cohler-Esses. “Stern also conceded attributing to Abu El-Haj a viewpoint that Abu El-Haj does not voice as her own in her book. The petition does so by taking a quote fragment from a section in which Abu El-Haj describes others as having the opposite viewpoint.”

The article also noted that the petition ignored references in El-Haj’s book to Hebrew language sources and an acknowledgement to her Hebrew tutor. [The Jewish Week, Oct. 25, 2007]

Despite its inaccuracies, the petition – and the anti-tenure campaign – threatened to exact a price from Barnard and Columbia for granting tenure to El-Haj; the schools would stand to suffer financial harm from offended alumni withholding contributions.

This pattern of ugly controversies whenever a Muslim or an Arab-American criticizes Israel or is seen as promoting some Islamic agenda has become more and more common, with influential neoconservative groups now operating in a concerted way to destroy careers and livelihoods.

Often the strategy succeeds, as the New York Times reported on April 28 in connection with the forced resignation of Debbie Almontaser, the founder of New York’s Khalil Gibran International Academy, which had a goal of teaching Arabic to children of various ethnicities, including Arab-Americans.

Almontaser, who had a reputation as a Muslim moderate, stepped down after confronting a campaign that labeled her a “radical,” a “jihadist” and a “9/11 denier.” The Times reported that the campaign was part of “a growing and organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life.”

Some of the leaders of the battle against Almontaser – such as Daniel Pipes – also participated in the anti-tenure campaign at Barnard against El-Haj, reflecting how these activists view the marginalizing of Muslims as a coordinated national struggle.

“It’s a battle that’s really just begun,” Pipes told the Times, claiming that this new enemy – “lawful Islamists” – must be stopped before they made enough inroads to enable them to impose sharia law from the Koran on Americans.

“It is hard to see how violence, how terrorism will lead to the implementation of sharia,” Pipes said. “It is much easier to see how, working through the system – the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like – you can promote radical Islam.” [NYT, April 28, 2008]

So, this strategy holds that Muslims and their non-Muslim allies especially in academia must be marginalized and denied legitimacy. To achieve these ends, neoconservatives and sympathetic media outlets often turn small issues into huge controversies that create enormous pressure on mainstream politicians to distance themselves from the targets.

That was the case with Almontaser when Rupert Murdoch’s neoconservative New York Post linked the school principal to a group that lent office space to an Arab-American organization that promoted t-shirts reading “Intifada NYC.” Amid the furor, the mayor’s office of New York City pushed Almontaser into resigning, although federal judges have since agreed that the Post “inaccurately reported” her words.

Barnard’s El-Haj tenure struggle followed a similar pattern, with key roles played by some of the same activists. In both cases, the battle involved neoconservatives who distorted the words of their targets in order to build a public hysteria strong enough to overwhelm the principle of academic freedom.

The Barnard Battle

El-Haj was born in New York, the daughter of a mother of French-Norwegian descent and a Palestinian father, who had received his Doctorate in Economics from Columbia in the late 1950s.

In 1975, her family lived in Teheran, where her father was employed by the United Nations and where she learned Farsi. A few years later, the family moved to Lebanon where she became fluent in Arabic. Her family frequently visited her father’s relatives in East Jerusalem.

In 1980, she undertook her undergraduate education at Bryn Mawr. In 1990, as a graduate student at Duke University, she decided on a project in epistemology, “to examine knowledge in a social context, connected to time, place, politics and identity.”

Wanting to find a place where that identity was in dispute, she chose Israel/Palestine. She then spent months in Israel learning Hebrew and examining Israeli archeology’s role in the creation of, and establishment of, the State of Israel.

Israeli archeology, from the founding of Israel in 1948, claimed to have uncovered evidence supporting an ancient and continuous Hebrew presence, which in turn provided legitimacy to Israeli government claims that Palestinian land should be part of the modern state of Israel.

After achieving her Doctorate in 1995, she adapted her doctoral thesis into a book, Facts on the Ground, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2001.
The book examined the role of Israeli archeology in what was essentially a political context. El-Haj traced the history of how archeological discoveries – pottery, ancient stones, even human remains – were used in a manipulative way to establish the legitimacy of Israeli claims to Palestinian land.

El-Haj questioned the veracity of some Israeli claims, saying the science of archeology had been exploited in the "formation and enactment of [Israel’s] colonial-national historical imagination and ... the substantiation of its territorial claims."
Her book cites the example of an archeological dig in Jezreel, in the Galilee region. El-Haj said British and Israeli archeologists used bulldozers “to get down to the earlier strata, which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible."

Bulldozing a site – or using large shovels – to a specific depth of an archaeological dig, where one could expect to find remnants of an ancient Hebrew settlement, or not excavating to lower levels eliminates the possibility of finding evidence that other civilizations preceded or followed the Hebrews.

Israeli archeologist David Ussiskin of the University of Tel Aviv denied that bulldozers at the site were used in the fashion alleged by El-Haj’s book or that evidence of more recent strata had been damaged.

Despite a spirited debate about her book, El-Haj’s academic career continued to advance. She taught at the University of Chicago before moving to Barnard College in 2002 and sought tenure in April 2006.

That’s when El-Haj was caught up in the surging neoconservative campaign to keep Islam – and criticism of Israel – as far out of mainstream American thought as possible.
In this case, however, the neocons did not prevail. El-Haj was awarded tenure on Nov. 1, 2007, representing at least one moment when free speech and academic freedom won out over the sophisticated political pressure that neoconservatives have made their hallmark.

[For more on the El-Haj controversy, see The New Yorker's edition of April 14, 2008.]

Morgan Strong was an adviser on the Middle East to CBS News “60 Minutes.” He is a former Professor of Middle Eastern History at MercyCollege and S.U.N.Y.

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