Nadia Abu El-Haj is an assistant professor at Barnard College who deserves more scrutiny from everyone interested in the degenerate methods by which great universities are destroyed.
The greatness of modern, western-style universities – the thing that separates them from all the academies that went before them – is that facts and theories asserted in universities must be supported by verifiable evidence. At the old academies, an appeal to Aristotle, Confucius, or the Bible was enough to support an idea. In the modern university, theories are judged by Occam’s razor, explanatory value, and verifiability of the supporting facts.
El-Haj is a young cultural anthropologist of the purely theoretical school. She has written a book entitled Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, which was sent to me by a group of scholars calling themselves the Va’ad ha-Emet (Hebrew for Truth Committee). These scholars, wary of speaking out publicly against the shoddy and slanderous scholarship in El-Haj’s book for fear of retribution on their respective campuses – which they describe as “vituperative” – appealed to me for assistance in publishing a statement from them (more about which to follow).
In her introduction, El-Haj explains that she works by “rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method,” writing, instead, within a scholarly tradition of “post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory and … in response to specific postcolonial political movements.” And the particular theory that El-Haj puts forward is that the “ancient Israelite origins” of the Jews is a “pure political fabrication” – a machination she proceeds to blame on “Israeli archaeologists” who were called upon to “produce … evidence of ancient Israelite and Jewish presence in the land of Israel, thereby supplying the very foundation, embodied in empirical form, of the modern nation’s origin myth.”
Deplorably, in the rarified air of Morningside Heights, some Columbia faculty appear to celebrate this sort of “liberation” of scholarship from any necessity to encounter verifiable facts. For example, Keith Moxey, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor Professor of Art History at Barnard College and one of five members of the committee that will vote on El-Haj’s tenure bid, lauds “The abandonment of an epistemological foundation for … history and the acknowledgment that historical arguments will be evaluated according to how well they coincide with our political convictions and cultural attitudes collapses the traditional distinction between history and theory.” (See Moxey’s The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History.) In other words, evidence, verifiability, probability and explanatory power become irrelevant, for what counts is that an argument “coincide with our political convictions.”
Yet the artifacts that archaeologists have discovered in the ground in the Middle East are plain enough. According to University of Arizona Professor William Dever, the senior American archaeologist digging in the Middle East (cited in The New York Sun), scholars broadly agree that the Israelite state rose in either the 10th or 9th century B.C.E., and the biblical stories are “based on some historical facts.” He calls El-Haj’s scholarship “faulty, misleading and dangerous,” while Aren Maeir, the archaeologist heading the dig at Gath of the Philistines, deems it “ludicrous.”
In the highly politicized, post-modern world of El-Haj, however, facts are not facts; instead, as she asserts in her book, they are “produced” as part of “the ongoing practice of colonial nationhood … through which historical-national claims, territorial transformations, heritage objects and historicities ‘happen.’” To acknowledge the mass of archaeological evidence and scholarship that establishes the existence of the ancient Israelite kingdoms would be to participate in a scholarly “hierarchy of credibility” in which “facticity is conferred.” Establishing such a hierarchy “privileges a particular kind of evidence.”
Indeed it does. The kind of evidence it privileges is of the old-fashioned kind that used to be known as verifiable fact.
El-Haj’s goal is transparent. According to her political convictions, the Jewish State was born in sin. It is guilty, she claims, of “Jewish settler-colonial nation state-building.” If, however, the Jews can trace a continuous heritage back to a series of ancient Hebrew kingdoms, Israel cannot be delegitimized by calling it a colonial settler state.
But El-Haj is not content to engage in the kind of denial of Jewish history now commonly called Temple denial. She also stoops to what Dever characterizes as “demonizing a generation of apolitical Israeli archaeologists,” including what appears to be a deliberate and sordid attempt to destroy the reputation of an esteemed archaeologist in order to forward a political goal. This is the most serious charge brought against her by the Va’ad ha-Emet group, to which I referred earlier, and whose statement I published at National Review Online. According to the group, she
makes a direct, personal attack on David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, whom El-Haj accuses of “bad science,” using “large shovels,” failing to sift dirt “in search of very small remains,” and of using bulldozers “in order to get down to earlier strata which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible.” According to El-Haj, he did so in such a way that “the remains above it were summarily destroyed.” El-Haj supports these assertions with nothing more than stories “recounted … after the fact by both archaeologists and student volunteers,” none of whom she names.
The statement concludes, “We consider El-Haj’s accusations to be slanderous.” In another riposte, Professor Ussishkin defends his scholarly integrity by detailing his field methodology. He describes El-Haj’s failure to consult either the excavation reports or the project directors as “not a proper and serious way of research.
Why would a young academic publish libelous falsehoods about a highly regarded scholar, with no more evidence to support her assertions than conversations with anonymous informants? Why, as the Va’ad ha-Emet also asserts, would she pretend to a mastery of “archaeological practice” without having paid more then a brief visit to an archaeological dig as well as to have studied “Israeli society” without knowledge of the national language? And why would she repeatedly make statements of fact citing “unnamed informants or no sources at all”?
Likely because by slandering archaeologists working in Israel both individually and collectively, and reliance on absurd postmodern newspeak, she hopes to discredit the entire academic field of Israeli archaeology, thereby limiting the freedom of archaeologists to provide evidence that the ancient Israelite kingdoms did in fact exist.
So stands the El-Haj bid for tenure at Barnard College, where the distinguished Ruth Benedict once taught anthropology to young Margaret Mead. The pity is that this process should have gained such momentum in the first place. If Barnard had simply insisted on hiring faculty who – whatever their political opinions – employ evidence to support the ideas they publish, it would not now have to explain why the college is considering granting tenure to a professor who regards the extensively documented history of the Israelite and Judean kingdoms as a mere politically motivated invention.
Barnard’s scholarly community and its outgoing president, Judith Shapiro, should deny tenure to El-Haj, thus setting an example for other campus leaders to similarly demonstrate their commitment to the preservation and transmission of evidence-based scholarship.
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