Who Got to Decide on Nadia Abu El-Haj’s Tenure?

We use Abu El-Haj’s work on Israeli archaeology in our classes. We treat it as a fresh perspective on what is by now a “101” principle in teaching sociology and anthropology, namely, the study of the processes whereby communities are imagined. We could reiterate the merits of Abu El-Haj’s work here but prefer not to. Instead, we are concerned with the climate reflected in the controversy over her tenure candidacy and the transformation it might trigger. The climate is one of intimidation. The transformation is one of scholarly identities.

The initial “Deny Nadia Abu El-Haj Tenure” petition, started by Barnard alumna Paula Stern, who lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, triggered a counter “Grant Nadia Abu El-Haj Tenure” petition. It is certainly a mark of our times that both petitions use the site PetitionOnline.com, which says it provides “free online hosting of public petitions for responsible public advocacy.” A further search in fact yields numerous additional Web sites and blogs discussing Abu El-Haj’s academic merits, biography, and political convictions.

Our reluctance to discuss Abu El-Haj’s academic merit, let alone her promotion, in this new climate is probably because we are cut along more conservative, even orthodox, lines. Although we strongly believe that the significance and meaning of scientific works must be discussed publicly, we are equally convinced that formal decisions about the merit of research and the promotion of scientists do not belong in public forums. It is perfectly legitimate to debate the brilliance and originality of scholarship, but science is not a form of participatory democracy to be determined by majority opinion, public debate, or vindications or condemnations on PetitionOnline.com.

Anonymous peer-review procedures must not be transformed into a city-hall type plebiscite. Such “democratization” is akin to censorship such as that exerted by authoritarian regimes that aim to control scientific institutions and individual researchers. Censorship compromises freedom of research and the independence of the scientific institution, both of which we cherish. When creative minds become self-consciously preoccupied with the political— and material—consequences of their product, they can no longer be creative, and their thirst for truth is seriously hindered.

To us, writing from Tel Aviv, it is ironic to see this initiative to suppress a colleague emanating from the ranks of American Jewry—a community for which the academic world has much to thank; it has been, in different times and contexts, a bastion of independent scholarship and intellectual freedom and a defender of the moral and constitutional tenets of free speech.

Context and Content
Let us talk, then, about the relationship of context to content, about issues like who and where. The who has to do with the ethnic identity of the scholar under public scrutiny; the where has to do with the prevailing mood in the United States of America. In Abu El-Haj’s case, the scholar is of Arab descent. Her sin is to probe into a social scientific domain—the history, historiography, and anthropology of Israel—that is normally defined by Jewish Israeli scholars whose tendency has always been to position Palestinians as objects of inquiry. Abu El-Haj’s work thus perpetrates the faux pas of inverting the “proper” way of studying Israel-Palestine.

Her violation of the norms is particularly pertinent when it comes to the scientific gaze of anthropology, a predominantly Western discipline that created and objectified a pristine effigy of the exotic native as seen by westerners, an approach that literary theorist Edward Said called Orientalizing. Abu El-Haj belongs to a new generation of scholars—many of them Palestinians—who, inspired by Said’s legacy, insist on reversing the Orientalizing gaze and turning Israel and Israelis into objects of inquiry. This effort should be praised, not silenced.

In Facts on the Ground, Abu El-Haj takes a critical look at archaeology. The book’s methodological premise is that archaeology, particularly when occupying a “privileged ground” in a given society, brings together issues of past and present, of memory and trajectory, and of imagination and identity. The subject matter of archaeology consists of artifacts and landscapes, and Abu El-Haj’s work is informed by the sociology of science. She identifies the connection between archaeology as an academic discipline and a set of everyday practices, such as organized landscape tours for school children. She speaks of the importance of these forms of “learning to know the land” through bodily contact with the soil and archaeological artifacts, arguing that they create a powerful experience of wholeness that transcends mere academic knowledge.

The book also discusses the relevance of archaeology to contemporary urban design. Telling the story of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, she brings to the fore the way spatial arrangements constructed Jews as having a history and Palestinians as having mere biographies. This construction, in turn, legitimizes urban-planning schemes based on archaeological “knowledge” that favor Jewish perspectives and material interests. All in all, then, the book brilliantly combines a historical analysis with an analysis of minute, everyday life practices.

However, like an American citizen who is arrested for the offense of “driving while black,” Abu El-Haj seems not to be forgiven for her sin of “writing on Israel while Arab.”

Zionism as Object

This is where the “where” also comes into the story. The transformation of Zionism and Zionists into objects of inquiry for Palestinian scholars may be hard to swallow for many Jewish Israelis. Yet it seems to evoke even more hostile responses among American Jews who, as we indicated, were an overwhelming majority among those signing the anti-tenure petition. To put it bluntly, their sensitivity to critical inquiry that questions the practices and sensibilities of Israel and Israelis is much greater than anything we have experienced in the Israeli academic, public, or political arenas. Israeli academia, by and large, is fairly tolerant when it comes to critical thinking in the social sciences and the humanities. In fact, tolerance plays an important role in affirming the Jewish perception of Israel as a robust democracy. Let us be more precise: Israeli academic institutions are tolerant when it comes to critical thinking voiced by Jewish Israelis; they are less so if the writer is a woman and an Arab. Still, we sociologically privileged Israelis can get away with quite a lot.

Not so in the United States, where the prevailing climate, especially among Zionist Americans, tends to label dissenting voices—regardless of the scientific merit they reflect—as anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist and to try to suppress them. We may be wrong here; we do not, after all, base our assertions on any scientific studies. But our sensibilities and our networks of connections suggest an intellectual climate that, at least from afar, looks increasingly oppressive. The fact that initiatives driven by pro-Palestinian sentiments and persuasions now feel compelled to jump to Abu El-Haj’s defense does not help either. As Chekhov noted, a pistol that appears in the first act is bound to fire in the last one. The “deny” and “grant” petitions should never have been introduced in the first place.

Hegemonic ideologies—Zionism is no exception—are keenly aware of the nexus between knowledge and power and are adept at reforming, adjusting, and inventing philosophical premises, scientific tools, and knowledge narratives that go along with their political trajectories. Academic institutions must resist these attempts. Our duty is to historicize, contextualize, and challenge such attempts, speaking their truth to the face of power whether this truth is welcome or detested. When academic leaders act in good faith, true to their intellectual duty and defiantly oblivious to pressure, they go down in history. Barnard College’s decision to grant Abu El-Haj tenure, we are relieved to say, was such an act. We can only hope that the assault on academic freedom that triggered this worrisome affair will not have deeper long-term consequences that might outweigh this victory of common sense and decency.

Dan Rabinowitz and Ronen Shamir teach in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University.