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.