Nadia Abu El-Haj: Columbia U. anthropologist accused of anti-Israeli bias and making up facts

Historians in the News

Nadia Abu El-Haj is an assistant professor at Barnard College who deserves more scrutiny from everyone interested in the degenerate methods by which great universities are destroyed.

The greatness of modern, western-style universities – the thing that separates them from all the academies that went before them – is that facts and theories asserted in universities must be supported by verifiable evidence. At the old academies, an appeal to Aristotle, Confucius, or the Bible was enough to support an idea. In the modern university, theories are judged by Occam’s razor, explanatory value, and verifiability of the supporting facts.

El-Haj is a young cultural anthropologist of the purely theoretical school. She has written a book entitled Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, which was sent to me by a group of scholars calling themselves the Va’ad ha-Emet (Hebrew for Truth Committee). These scholars, wary of speaking out publicly against the shoddy and slanderous scholarship in El-Haj’s book for fear of retribution on their respective campuses – which they describe as “vituperative” – appealed to me for assistance in publishing a statement from them (more about which to follow).

In her introduction, El-Haj explains that she works by “rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method,” writing, instead, within a scholarly tradition of “post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory and … in response to specific postcolonial political movements.” And the particular theory that El-Haj puts forward is that the “ancient Israelite origins” of the Jews is a “pure political fabrication” – a machination she proceeds to blame on “Israeli archaeologists” who were called upon to “produce … evidence of ancient Israelite and Jewish presence in the land of Israel, thereby supplying the very foundation, embodied in empirical form, of the modern nation’s origin myth.”

Deplorably, in the rarified air of Morningside Heights, some Columbia faculty appear to celebrate this sort of “liberation” of scholarship from any necessity to encounter verifiable facts. For example, Keith Moxey, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor Professor of Art History at Barnard College and one of five members of the committee that will vote on El-Haj’s tenure bid, lauds “The abandonment of an epistemological foundation for … history and the acknowledgment that historical arguments will be evaluated according to how well they coincide with our political convictions and cultural attitudes collapses the traditional distinction between history and theory.” (See Moxey’s The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History.) In other words, evidence, verifiability, probability and explanatory power become irrelevant, for what counts is that an argument “coincide with our political convictions.” ...

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