A brewing battle over tenure for a polarizing Barnard College professor is threatening to thrust Columbia University back into the center of a controversy over its academic treatment of the Middle East.
Nadia Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard, is the author of “Facts on the Ground,” a 2001 book that questions archaeological claims regarding the ancient Jewish presence in Israel and argues that Israeli archaeologists legitimize the Jewish state’s “origin myth.”
An online petition against Abu El-Haj had garnered nearly 1,000 signatures as of Tuesday, the bulk of them from students and graduates of Barnard or Columbia University, its institutional parent.
“This woman has written and made statements that are not based in fact and refused to recognize fact,” said Elaine Bloom, a Barnard graduate and former Democratic member of the Florida House of Representatives who said she would reconsider her support for the college if the tenure decision goes forward. “And I think it’s a very harmful direction from somebody who is in a professorial position.”
Neither Barnard nor Columbia would reveal any details about the status of Abu El-Haj’s tenure application, though Barnard has confirmed that the tenure process is under way. Abu El-Haj and Barnard President Judith Shapiro denied requests for comment.
The wall of silence has fueled speculation that Shapiro, herself a professor of anthropology, has secretly endorsed the tenure application. If correct, final approval would rest with a committee appointed by Columbia Provost Alan Brinkley, sources familiar with the university said. Brinkley’s office also declined requests for comment.
The controversy over El-Haj threatens to raise questions anew about the integrity of Columbia’s scholarship on the Middle East, which first came under fire in 2004 with the release of a documentary film alleging university professors intimidated and embarrassed pro-Israel students who challenged them in class. A committee of inquiry subsequently found only one example of improper behavior, leading critics to call the report a whitewash.
Since then, pro-Israel groups have become ever more vigilant in monitoring university campuses. Meanwhile, Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, has labored to improve the school’s tarnished image, most recently by becoming the lead signatory to a statement published in the New York Times opposing an academic boycott of Israel.
If El-Haj’s tenure is approved, much of that progress could be undone. It could also hurt the university financially.
Bloom, Maxine Schwartz and Helene Berger — all Florida-based Barnard alums — met with Shapiro in March in Miami to communicate their concerns about Abu El-Haj. Schwartz and Berger both told JTA they would cease support for Barnard if the professor is granted tenure.
“The credibility of Barnard is on the line,” said Berger, who has contributed to Barnard for each of the 52 years since she graduated.
“It’s one thing to have different points of view, but to have someone with this perspective — I think as a Barnard graduate, the damage that so-called scholars can inflict on a university that I care about is very strong,” she said. “There’s no pursuit of truth here. It’s just merely a book to support her own political objectives.”
Professors bristle at the notion that tenure decisions may be subject to outside pressure, a concern most recently manifested in Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz’s very public campaign against tenure for Norman Finkelstein at Depaul University. In a message posted on the Barnard Alumnae Affairs Web site, Shapiro echoed that concern.
“Please understand that I greatly appreciate your feedback,” Shapiro said. “I always want to respond to any concerns our alumnae may have. At the same time, I will share with you my concern about communications and letter-writing campaigns orchestrated by people who are not as familiar with Barnard as you are, and who may not be in the best position to judge the matter at hand.”
At issue is Abu El-Haj’s only book, which argues that archaeology in Israel was used to legitimize the “colonial” enterprise that was the founding and territorial expansion of Israel. Among her accusations is that Israeli archaeologists bulldozed Palestinian artifacts to more quickly access Jewish ones.
Scholars are divided on the book’s merits. David Ussishkin, a Tel Aviv professor and one of Israel’s most celebrated archaeologists, has defended the excavation methods Abu El-Haj criticized. William Dever, an emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona and the author of many books on the ancient Near East, told the New York Sun late last year that Abu El-Haj should be denied tenure, calling her work “faulty, misleading and dangerous.”
On the other side, Michael Herzfeld, an anthropology professor at Harvard, characterized Abu El-Haj’s work as “meticulous scholarship and even-handedness” in a blurb published on the book’s back cover. Others have lauded Abu El-Haj’s contribution to understanding how national priorities shape academic work on history and archaeology.