Meet Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, a notorious Barnard College professor now up for tenure who:
§ claims the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a “pure political fabrication,”
§ denies the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE and instead blames its destruction on the Jews,
§ does not speak or read Hebrew yet had the temerity to publish a book on Israeli archaeology that demanded such expertise,
§ is so ignorant of her topic that she quotes one archaeologist on how a dig might have damaged the ancient palaces of Solomon–oblivious to the fact that those palaces, if they existed, were far from the site in question.
None of these charges are true. You could look it up. I did, in El-Haj’s book Facts on the Ground, about which these charges are made. The statements for which a network of right-wing critics assail her book are not there.
I asked Paula Stern, the Barnard alum who has organized an online petition demanding that El-Haj be denied tenure, how she squared her petition’s charges with El-Haj’s book. “The petition takes pieces of criticisms from experts. It may not be quoted 100 percent accurate,” she admitted. Still, more than 2,500 people, including many Barnard and Columbia alumni, have signed on to its claims. Tellingly, Stern, who now lives in the West Bank, voiced astonishment at being asked to justify her charges in terms of what El-Haj’s book actually says. “I’ve spoken to many newspapers,” she said. “No one has done what you’ve done.”
I looked that up, too. In the key media venues, at least, Stern was right; and not just with regard to her target. In case after case, a network of right-wing activists has started an online furor based on a mélange of distorted or provably false charges against someone involved in Middle East studies. They supported these charges with quotes yanked out of context or entirely made up and wielded a broad brush of guilt by association. Right-wing media megaphoned the charges, stoking the furor. And mainstream media ultimately noticed and responded, often focusing their stories on the furor rather than the facts.
Under pressure from these assaults, some academic institutions buckle and a professor’s career is derailed; in other cases it is permanently stained. More insidious, even when tenure puts an academic beyond the reach of his or her assailants, more vulnerable junior faculty and grad students take note. “There certainly is a sense among faculty and grad students that they’re being watched, monitored,” said Zachary Lockman, president of the Middle East Studies Association. “People are always looking over their shoulder, feeling that whatever they say–in accurate or, more likely, distorted form–can end up on a website. It definitely has a chilling effect.”