In non-housing-selection related news, this week’s New Yorker has a piece by Jane Kramer (it’s not online, but you can read an excerpt here — and an interesting critique of the piece here) about Barnard anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj. In truth, it’s something of a misrepresentation to say that the piece is about El-Haj, as it ranges in focus from discussing MEALAC’s history of controversy to examining the tenure process’s relationship to politics. But it is interesting and worth a read, if only because it’s the most we’ve heard out of press-averse Abu El-Haj following the ordeal of her tenure process in the fall.
If you’re looking for a piece that will outline Abu El-Haj’s argument, explain her methods of analysis and interpretation, and provide excerpts of her very dense book “Facts on the Ground”, this isn’t it. (If you are, the Current did so subjectively last fall.) While Kramer meanders in this direction, what she’s mainly interested in is how one academic’s tenure process turned into an online firestorm of misinformation and vilification that often said more about Columbia’s Jewish community and faculty than Abu El-Haj’s work.
There’s a lot of re-hashing work that gets done. Kramer re-tells the story of “Columbia Unbecoming,” of Professor Rashid Khalidi’s run-in with New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein and, of course, mentions Ahmadinejad’s visit. She questions MEALAC’s ability to connect to its students and writes: “none of the students I talked to actually liked their time in the department.”
But much of the piece is devoted to highlighting Abu El-Haj’s most public critics—Paula Stern BC’82 and Barnard professor of Religion and Jewish Studies Alan Segal. Stern has nearly always been misinformed and shrill, and Kramer slams the Spec for publishing her “screed”—but the story of Segal’s involvement in criticizing “Facts on the Ground” is an interesting one. Not only did he hold underground lectures condemning her methods of inquiry and tell the Forward that Abu El-Haj “hates Iraelis,” but he later cordially invited her to speak to his class. “I was so mad. I could have killed him,” Abu El-Haj told Kramer. It doesn’t get more candid than that.
In what basically sums up Kramer’s article, and renders some of the reams of pages she spends on back-story pointless, Abu El-Haj says, “What happened last year—it wasn’t about me. I was a cog in the big wheel of the issue of the Middle East and Israel.”