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Controversy Erupts at N.Y. College Over Tenure for Palestinian Professor

Another controversy involving Mideast politics has erupted on the Columbia University campus, and this time it is over whether to grant tenure to an anthropology professor of Palestinian descent.

Critics of Barnard College professor Nadia Abu El-Haj are trying to block Columbia from granting her tenure, while supporters worry that the controversy over her scholarship represents an attempt to stifle academic freedom.

Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology, has been teaching at Barnard, Columbia’s women’s 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 Israel’s territorial claims and contributed to the idea of Israel as the ancient home of the Jewish people. She argues that Israel has used archaeology to justify its existence in the region, sometimes at the expense of the Palestinians.

The book has garnered both praise and criticism, with opponents challenging her conclusions and her research. The dispute has also spilled onto the Internet.

A Barnard alumnus Paula Stern, who lives in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, is starting an online petition against granting Abu El-Haj tenure or a permanent position on the faculty. The petition says her “claim to scholarly recognition is based on a single, profoundly flawed book” that fails to meet the university’s standards of scholarship.

Her supporters have an online petition too which claims that the attacks against Abu El-Haj “are part of an orchestrated witch-hunt … against politically unpopular ideas” and expresses the suspicion that “something like simple ethnic prejudice is at issue here.”

The outside protests against Abu El-Haj’s tenure are “just preposterous,” says 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 says tenure decisions should be based on the opinions of other experts in the field, and that opposition to 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 says.

Barnard religion professor Alan Segal says he is against granting tenure to Abu El-Haj based on her work, which he has read.

He called the public petitions for and against her tenure “silly,” but adds 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 says, adding that the Barnard faculty, by and large, supports Abu El-Haj.

Barnard officials said Abu El-Haj was not available for interviews. Columbia officials were not available for comment.

This is not the first time that Mideast 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, Joseph Massad, who is of Palestinian descent, for inappropriately getting angry at a student in his classroom.

– Associated Press

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