Motzira-Making on the Right

Motzira-Making on the Right

The politics of tenure at Barnard and beyond.


If you spent your pre-Passover Saturday morning, as I did, in synagogue reading Leviticus 14:1, you may have heard that Midrashic preachers used to enjoy creating puns on the word metzora, which means leper, and motzira, which means gossip or slander. Talmudic sage Rabbi Yosi ben Zimra has God addressing the tongue itself: “What else could I have done to rein you in, O tongue of deceit?” He asks.

One need not look far in our culture to grasp the relevance. In a recent New Yorker article, Jane Kramer recounts an audacious attempt by a coterie of right-wing Jews to interfere with the tenure process at Columbia’s Barnard College. The case concerned anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, the daughter of a Long Island Episcopalian mother and a secular Palestinian Muslim father, whose 2001 book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (University of Chicago), examined the role of archaeology in alleged biblical validation of the Jewish claim to Israel/Palestine. The tenure question proved a purely academic one in every sense of the word. Her book was recognized by the Middle East Studies Association of North America as one of the winners of its 2002 Albert Hourani Book Award. In addition, El-Haj had been approved by three separate tenure committees before reaching the final one.

That’s when a group led by an American-born West Bank settler named Paula Stern, who owned a small technical writing business, emulating campaigns by the likes of David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes and their organizations Campus Watch and FrontPage magazine, started making motzira. She created an Internet petition calling on Columbia to reject El-Haj, insisting that her scholarship was substandard and corrupted by an alleged hatred of Israel. Denying El-Haj tenure became a cause célèbre among this community of right-wing Jews, neoconservative adventurers and pseudoscholars, much as preventing Yale from hiring the much-admired Middle East historian (and blogger) Juan Cole had galvanized a similar group in 2006. The targets this time were Columbia alumni, in particular, large donors.

The campaign was a house of sand from the start. In October 2007 Larry Cohler-Esses, editor at large of the Jewish Week, with Richard Silverstein of the Tikun Olam weblog, debunked Stern’s charges, and she admitted that the information contained in her petition might not be “100 percent accurate.” Her admission was consistent with the observation of Jonathan Boyarin, whom Kramer describes as an Orthodox Jewish academic and El-Haj’s friend, that the underlying motivation of the motzira-makers was a desire to express their Jewishness through an uncompromising defense of the Jewish state. Boyarin said he could not identify a single “reasoned, progressive scholar who’s on the same side as those guys” in their attempt to undermine El-Haj’s scholarship and deny her tenure.

To be honest, I know nothing about the quality of El-Haj’s anthropological arguments or of her feelings about Israel. Regarding the former, how fortunate I was not appointed to her tenure committee. And regarding the latter, well, so what? Have we really reached the point where a person’s politics, alleged or no, are somehow relevant to determining the worthiness of his or her scholarship? And if so, why stop at scholarship? Shouldn’t auto mechanics or oral surgeons be asked to fill out political questionnaires before we hire them as well?

And what are we to make of scholars like Pipes, Columbia epidemiologist Judith Jacobson, Barnard religion professor Alan Segal, former SUNY Purchase archaeology lecturer Alexander Joffe and others associated with the misnamed Scholars for Peace in the Middle East who have joined such efforts to intervene in the time-honored tradition of politically disinterested tenure?

The antics of Horowitz–direct political descendant of Joe McCarthy–are no secret to the readers of this column. Pipes, whom Wikipedia identifies as the son of famed right-wing historian of the Russian Revolution Richard Pipes, is not nearly so well-known, but he enjoys significant scholarly credentials. He has taught at numerous respected universities and is treated in the media as an impartial expert on Middle Eastern matters. This is true despite the fact that his work on the Arab world was accurately characterized in one 1983 Washington Post book review as displaying “a disturbing hostility to contemporary Muslims,” of being “frequently contemptuous of them” and of being “marred by exaggerations, inconsistencies, and evidence of hostility to the subject.” (Like Horowitz’s various tentacles, his organization Campus Watch offers its kosher seal of approval for ideologically kosher academics while attacking all others.) In his discussion of the El-Haj case, Pipes gives away the game by publicly renouncing the entire concept of academic freedom. University-based scholars, he explains, “are financed by the public and are thus accountable in some way to the public. They say, No, only we can judge and evaluate each other’s work. Well, that’s not how things work in this country.”

Actually, it is how things work, at least at Barnard, where El-Haj was eventually tenured. The larger question of why any respected scholar anywhere would wish to associate him- or herself with such shameful sentiments, however, remains. And why do journalists continue to treat such academics as legitimate practitioners of scholarly debate? True, it is not always easy for a journalist to judge bona fides, but the case of Pipes is an open-and-shut one. Journalists’ unwillingness to investigate such questions results in the perpetuation of no end of purposeful disinformation. Al Gore has noted, for instance, that despite the fact that virtually no disagreement can be found among peer-reviewed scientific journal articles regarding the reality of global warming, more than half of mainstream press articles until recently continued to dispute it.

Rabbi ben Zimra would know just what to say.

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