The key organizer of a campaign to deny tenure to a Barnard College professor seen by some as virulently anti-Israel acknowledged this week that her petition against the professor may not have quoted the book completely accurately.
Barnard alumna Paula Stern, who now lives in an Israeli settlement community on the West Bank, acknowledged Tuesday that her petition —signed now by more than 2,500 people — incorrectly quotes from Abu El-Haj’s book in charging she is grossly ignorant of Jerusalem geography.
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.
In addition, despite Abu El-Haj’s frequent citation of Hebrew language sources and an acknowledgment on her book’s first page thanking her Hebrew tutor, Stern’s petition asserts, “Abu El Haj does not speak or read Hebrew … We fail to understand how a scholar can pretend to study the attitudes of a people whose language she does not know.”
The charge may stem from criticism from some scholarly quarters that Abu El-Haj’s book contains mistakes in Hebrew, indicating her skills in the language are inadequate for such complex scholarship. Other experts have defended her Hebrew skills.
“It was written very quickly,” Stern said of her petition, whose signatories include many Barnard and Columbia University alumni. “But there is a clear pattern in her book of attempting to undermine the historical connection of the Jewish people to the land.”
Abu El-Haj, a Palestinian American, has been condemned by many supporters of Israel who say her controversial book, Facts On The Ground, reflects a deep-seated hostility to the very notion of a Jewish state. But her politics, whatever they may be, are — in principle at least — irrelevant to the tenure process. More relevant to that process, many of these critics also charge that the book is intellectually dishonest — a fraudulent attempt to throw into question some of the basic historical assumptions about Jewish presence in the land of Israel through the centuries.
Some scholars have argued that she uses evidence selectively, misunderstands key aspects of how archaeology works and/or misrepresents the conduct and motives of archeologists. Others, no less expert, have praised and defended Abu El-Haj’s book — based on her dissertation —which has won several prestigious awards.
At times it sounds like the experts have read entirely different books. William Dever, a well-known retired professor of Near East archaeology at the University of Arizona, dismissed it as “a piece of shoddy work as historical research. She doesn’t quote a single Israeli archaeologist. She doesn’t show she’s read their work.”
Eric Meyers, a biblical archaeology professor at Duke University and member of her dissertation committee, pointed out that, in fact, Abu El Haj went deep into the archaeological archives to quote directly from dusty reports and field notes of Israeli archaeologists from the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Prof. Rafael Greenberg, senior lecturer in archaeology at Tel Aviv University, called the work an “eye-opener,” adding, “I recommend it.” His colleague, Aren Maeir, an archaeologist based at Bar Ilan, denounced it as “replete with inaccuracies [and] faulty research.”
But the scholars are, by and large, at least arguing over things that are actually in the book, presumably, in context. In her petition, Stern says that Abu El-Haj “asserts that the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a ‘pure political fabrication.’”
After a close reading of the 319-page book, this reporter found that the only place in which that phrase appears is in a section devoted to comparing the understandings Israeli Jewish and Palestinian archaeologists have of their respective origins on the land. Abu El-Haj notes that some Palestinian archaeologists argue Palestinians are heirs to the Cannanites who preceded the Israelites on the land. Israeli archaeologists, she notes, dismiss this as complete nonsense while for them the “modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication.”
Stern denied she had taken out of context Abu El-Haj’s quote about political fabrication.
“She denies the ancient history of the Jewish kingdoms in many ways,” Stern said in an email about Abu El-Haj, “as when she says that Jerusalem in the times of Herod was not Jewish.”
The statement in question, in Abu El-Haj’s own voice, reads, "For most of its history, including the Herodian period, Jerusalem was not a Jewish city, but rather one integrated into larger empires and inhabited, primarily, by ‘other’ communities."
On the other hand, contrary to many claims by both scholars and lay critics, Abu El-Haj elsewhere repeatedly writes about the First and Second Temple periods and Jewish presence during these periods as a matter of fact. Like many archaeologists, she raises many more questions about the historicity of Israelite presence during the late Bronze and early Iron age, when biblical tradition holds that identifiably Israelite tribes came into the land.
“I’ve spoken to many newspapers, no one has done what you’ve done,” said Stern, presumably displeased with questions asking her to square her charges against the book with its text. She says the overall “trend” of the book is to deny a Jewish connection to the land and that “no matter whether it’s accurate or not, my petition is not on trial here. If you don’t like my petition, go to my website and read the experts’ opinions.”
The current status of Abu El-Haj’s tenure process is a well-kept secret. She is widely believed to have gotten tenure approval from Barnard but not yet from Columbia, the parent institution of the women’s college.
The campaign to deny her tenure has received public support from figures such as Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, who stated last month that Abu El-Haj “believes that archeology proves there were never any Hebrews in the Holy Land.”
Last November, The New York Sun, one of the first newspapers to report on the controversy, stated hat Abu El-Haj “suggests Jerusalem was destroyed not by the Romans, but by the Jews themselves due to rising class tensions among them.” Sun managing editor Ira Stoll did not respond to a request for comment on the report by press time.
Campus Watch, a web site devoted to exposing what it views as leftist bias in the academy, and FrontPage, a site with similar aims, have posted numerous articles critical of Abu El-Haj. The Democracy Project, another conservative website, has denounced her as “an academic impostor who passes off a political agenda demonizing the State of Israel and its legitimate historic roots.”
In her book, Abu El-Haj repeatedly uses terms such as “colonial nation-state,” “(colonial) national political project,” and “settler state,” when describing Israel. The book implicitly rejects widespread Jewish self-perception of the Zionist enterprise as one in which Jews have returned to a land to which they have always been inherently connected.
That connection, Abu El-Haj argues, had to be created in multiple ways—from establishing settlements and making that the sine qua non of early Zionism, through renaming and Hebraizing thousands of Arab villages, towns and place names and—not least of all—through developing a national “myth” of indigenous origin—a narrative—in which the findings of archaeology, with its scientific authority to “fix facts,” played a key role.
The book discusses these issues using the loaded jargon of academic post-structuralism, referring frequently to “national origin myth,” “making place,” “self-fashioning” and “privileging” certain concepts, methodologies or paradigms. It strongly rejects a positivist world view in which knowledge is something objectively out there that is simply discovered, through empirical investigation, rather than interpreted.
“The part that’s most revealing is her critical view of the automatic assumptions made by Israelis when they present Jerusalem,” said Greenberg, the Tel Aviv University senior archaeologist. “Anyone looking at it from a non-Jewish, non-Israeli point of view sees things we don’t see; for example, our use of terms like ‘First Temple period,’ ‘Second Temple Period. Once you think about it, you see it’s a very loaded term. There were many people living in the land at the time—many different religions, ethnicities, identities who did not relate to the Temple at all.
“The thing I don’t agree with, emphatically, is that there’s something unusual in the Israeli position,” Greenberg said. “Every archaeologist in the world has an agenda.”