The Case of Nadia Abu El-Haj


Another day, another politicized tenure battle. This time the target is Nadia Abu El-Haj, a Palestinian-American anthropologist who teaches at Barnard College. El-Haj is the author of Facts on the Ground, a controversial book that argues, to quote the publisher's description, that "archaeology helped not only to legitimize [Israel's] cultural and political visions but, far more powerfully, to reshape them." Her tenure is being challenged by Paula Stern, a pro-Israel activist whose petition against El-Haj has gathered more than 1200 signatures. The campaign has attracted some press coverage, and Stern's charges have been uncritically reprinted by the conservative pressure group Campus Watch.

I hold no brief for El-Haj's book. I have not read it, and even if I had I would be in no position to judge the quality of her scholarship. But I am in a position to judge the quality of Stern's arguments: They clearly, unmistakably distort the truth, and they do so in easily checked ways.

Richard Silverstein of Tikun Olam has already noted several potential problems with the petition, in a post based on correspondence with scholars familiar with El-Haj's work. Stern claims, for example, that El-Haj ignores a "truly vast body of written evidence" that the book in fact mentions many times; Stern claims the author does not speak Hebrew when in fact she does; and so on. Silverstein also wonders if the petition's quotes from the book are taken out of context. Stern writes, for instance, that El-Haj

asserts that the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a "pure political fabrication."

Silverstein asks, "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?" The answer: Because quoting the full paragraph would reveal that it does not, in fact, take the radical position Stern ascribes to El-Haj. Using Amazon Reader, I looked up the quote in question. Here's the original text:

While by early the 1990s, virtually all archaeologists argued for the need to disentangle the goals of their professional practice from the quest for Jewish origins and objects that framed an earlier archaeological project, the fact that there is some national-cultural connection between contemporary (Israeli)-Jews and such objects was not itself generally open to sustained discussion. That commitment remained, for the most part, and for most practicing archaeologists, fundamental. (Although archaeologists argued increasingly that the archaeological past should have no bearing upon contemporary political claims.) In other words, the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication.

Pretty stunning difference, huh? Here's another carefully gerrymandered quote from the petition:

We are aware that Abu El Haj excuses herself from the expectation that scholarship will be based on evidence. In her introduction, she informs the world that she "Reject(s) a positivist commitment to scientific methods…"

Instead of using scientific standards of evidence, her work is "rooted in…post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory…and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements."

We reject the idea that Marxism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism or any other approach can nullify the obligation of scholars to base their work on evidence.

Here is the book's original text:

Questions concerning the relationship between interpretation and data and between theory and evidence have come center stage as increasing numbers of archaeologists are debating the politics of their own discipline, including its potential uses and the implications for their professional work. Rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method whereby politics is seen to intervene only in instances of bad science, such critics have argued that archaeological knowledge (as but one instance of scientific knowledge) is inherently a social product. Rooted in multiple intellectual traditions (poststructuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory, a sociology of scientific knowledge) and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements (specifically, demands for the repatriation of cultural objects and human remains by indigenous groups in settler nations such as Australia, the U.S. and Canada), this critical tradition is united, at its most basic level, by a commitment to understanding archeology as necessarily political.

Again, the phrases in quotation marks do appear in the text, but their meaning is distorted radically. While El-Haj obviously has sympathy for the intellectual tradition she's describing, there's a reason why her description is in the third person. There is an obvious distinction between listing the diverse roots of a scholarly movement and saying that you yourself embrace all (or any) of those roots. As for that "positivist commitment to scientific method" business, it sure reads differently when you specify that it's the view that "politics is seen to intervene only in instances of bad science" that's being rejected.

As I said before, I hold no brief for El-Haj's book. But if it is a work of sloppy scholarship, the petitioners are doing its author a favor. Rather than asking her to confront serious charges that might stick, they're firing a volley of easily refuted distortions. If this is the best they can do, I suspect she'll be teaching at Barnard for a long time.

Update: Winfield Myers of Campus Watch objects to my comment that his group "uncritically reprinted" Stern's charges. Myers points to a disclaimer at the bottom of the page in question: "Articles listed under 'Middle East Studies in the News' provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique."

I think my phrase is accurate -- Campus Watch did reprint Stern's charges, and it did not criticize them -- but I appreciate the distinction Myers is drawing. I am pleased to hear that his group does not endorse the misquotes in Stern's petition. I hope that in the future it will be more selective when choosing articles to reprint.