NEW YORK (AP) — A debate over an anthropologist’s book on ancient Hebrew history isn’t just academic — it has spilled over into an online dispute between critics trying to keep her from getting tenure and supporters who say the effort stifles scholarly freedom.
Nadia Abu El-Haj has been teaching at Columbia University’s Barnard College since 2002. Her book, “Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society,” looks at the importance of archaeology in forming Israel‘s national identity.
The 2001 book discusses how archaeological discoveries have been used to defend the country’s territorial claims and contributed to the idea of Israel as the ancient home of the Jewish people.
The professor, who is of Palestinian descent, argues that Israel has used archaeology to justify its existence in the region, sometimes at the expense of other nationalities, such as the Palestinians.
The book has garnered both praise and criticism, with opponents challenging her conclusions and her research. It was a co-winner of the Middle East Studies Association’s Albert Hourani Annual Book Award.
Criticism has spilled out of academia and onto the Internet, with a Barnard alumnus starting an online petition against the professor’s tenure. Her supporters have an online petition, too.
The outside protest is “just preposterous,” said Laurie Brand, director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California and the chairwoman of the committee on academic freedom for the Middle Eastern Studies Association.
She said tenure decisions should be based on the opinions of other experts in the field, and that opposition to Miss Abu El-Haj was coming from critics trying to silence her.
“You don’t shut somebody down because of, as a result of honest inquiry, they’ve come up with conclusions you don’t like,” she said.
Barnard religion professor Alan Segal said he is against granting tenure to Miss Abu El-Haj based on her work, which he said he has read. He called the public petitions for and against her tenure “silly” but added that they were unlikely to have any effect on the tenure decision.
“I don’t believe it’s affected the process in any way,” he said, adding that the Barnard faculty, by and large, supports Miss Abu El-Haj.
Barnard officials declined to comment, and Columbia officials were not available.
This isn’t the first time that Middle East politics have roiled the Columbia campus. A few years ago, the school had to deal with accusations from Jewish students that they were being intimidated by professors of Middle Eastern studies.
A university report found no evidence to support the accusation, but it did criticize one professor of modern Arab politics and history for inappropriately getting angry with a student in his classroom.