The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Another tenure denial campaign by Israel activists?

Update: Sign the counter-petition, which has already been endorsed by a number of A-list academics.

Alumni Group Seeks to Deny Tenure to Middle Eastern Scholar at Barnard College:
Controversial research on Israel and the Palestinian territories has become the basis of yet another campaign to prevent a professor from winning tenure. A group of Barnard College alumni has drafted an online petition asking their alma mater to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology whose scholarship, they say, is flawed and skewed against Israel.

The group’s criticisms of Ms. Abu El-Haj focus on her book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (University of Chicago Press, 2001), which argues that Israeli archaeologists have produced biased research that bolsters the “origin myth” of the Jewish state.

The petition, which has drawn just over 1,000 signatures, accuses Ms. Abu El-Haj of ignoring or mischaracterizing large parts of the archaeological record, of not being able to speak Hebrew, and of treating Israeli archaeologists unfairly in her work. Ms. Abu El-Haj declined to comment today.

The petition comes on the heels of a high-profile campaign — led by Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor — to persuade DePaul University to deny tenure to Norman G. Finkelstein, a professor known for his criticisms of Israel and what he calls the “Holocaust Industry.” Mr. Finkelstein was denied tenure.
Do read the petition and look up its early signatories. For instance signatory #1, Paula Stern, whose website shows she is an enthusiastic supporter of Israel (indeed she is Israeli) and campaigns on various issues in defense of Israel, including against Nadia Abu al-Haj.

One things that strikes me about all this is that if Nadia Abu al-Haj's book, Facts on the Ground, was published by the Chicago University Press, not exactly an amateur outfit, and that the matter of whether she will be given tenure at an elite university will surely be the decision of fellow academics who will judge her professional qualities. I doubt that she would even be at Barnard if her academic skills were not solid. So it's hard not to dismiss this petition as yet another smear campaign against an academic who is critical of Israel, or in this case its foundational myths. After Norman Finkelstein's case, is barring academics critical of Israel going to become routine? Let's hope not.

On a related note, a Harvard study shows growing fears inside academia that academic freedom is decreasing:

Gross, who has done surveys of public opinion on attitudes about academic freedom, said that one cause for the difficulties faced by academics today is the “disjuncture” between public and academic attitudes about academic freedom. He noted that a survey of the public for the American Association of University Professors last year found that solid majorities support tenure, but that many also believe that in some cases, colleges should be able to fire professors for political views such as belonging to the Communist Party or defending the rights of Islamic militants. Clearly, he said, the public doesn’t understand academic freedom the way professors do.

Other speakers saw other reasons for concern about the state of academic freedom, which the sociology association recently created a committee to study. Lisa Anderson, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, said that she likes to think of herself as an optimistic person, but finds herself worried that attacks on academic freedom are getting worse and are likely to continue along those lines. Anderson just finished 10 years as dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and the last few years of her tenure found her among the Middle Eastern studies scholars who were regularly criticized by some pro-Israel groups for alleged anti-Israel or anti-American bias. The attacks have “deeply damaged the research community,” Anderson said.

Anderson said that young scholars of Middle Eastern literature or history (she stressed that she wasn’t talking about those who study policy or the current political climate) are finding themselves “grilled” about their political views in job interviews, and in some cases losing job offers as a result of their answers.
As we've seen in some of the recent controversies over tenure -- or indeed the Brooklyn Arabic-language school affairs, or the establishment of Campus Watch -- pro-Israel campaigners are at the center of this attack on academic freedom.

On a related note, here's the NYT's coverage of the Walt-Mearsheimer book on the "lobby":

“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” is not even in bookstores, but already anxieties have surfaced about the backlash it is stirring, with several institutions backing away from holding events with the authors.
It also appears Abraham Foxman of the ADL has already published a book to counter the Walt & Mearsheimer book -- even though it's not out yet.