Sunday, December 2, 2007

"Debasing" Facts in the air

Despite the fact that Nadia Abu El-Haj has been granted tenure at Columbia University, the attacks still come in, even from the 'liberal' Ha'aretz. Bari Weiss has once again disputed El-Haj's ability to qualify for tenure because "the only book upon which she was granted tenure" was her groundbreaking study Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, which was a winner in the 2002 Albert Hourani Book Award, "which recognizes outstanding publishing in Middle East studies".

Weiss accuses El-Haj of totally discrediting science as a non-partisan study but subjected to the biases of the people who make it.

"To argue that people, rather than evidence, create archaeological fact, El-Haj is forced to abandon the methodology of science altogether."

And not content with El-Haj, Weiss brazenly applies her criticism to the late Edward Said.

"El-Haj is hardly the first to employ this approach. Perhaps its most powerful trailblazer was Edward Said, who argued in his landmark 1978 book "Orientalism," that when dealing with Asia, the West was necessarily politicized. Said alleged that even the most well-intentioned scholars, if they were Western, were Orientalists, actively constructing a mythical "Orient" out of their own political motivations as the exotic, feminized, other. For Said, there is no such thing as objectivity in scholarship, and those who claim to strive for it may well be the ones with the most to hide."

Is it not accepted that there are biases all around? People can profess to be absolutely non-partisan but we are a product of our society, whether negatively or positively. Israel is so polemic that nationalism permeates to the very last bum. How else can it be explained that such nationalist fervour is a pinnacle of the settlement structure and violence we forsee today and yesterday? Or how archeologists are in such a hurry to prove that ancient Israel does exist that it is justified to plow more Palestinian homes and heritage sites in order for evidence to be shown? Certainly El-Haj's book has been vilified and praised (but what book on the Holy Land ever is free of politicisation nowadays?) and it is up to the reader to conclude for themselves whether the book is sound or not. Weiss cannot accuse the usual anti-Semitic line since El-Haj has been free of any form of it.

Weiss does let it slip:

"Let's be clear: Is it in the interest of today's Zionists to find evidence of an ancient Israelite kingdom in the Land of Israel? Of course. But recognizing such interest does not preclude the possibility of the application of fair, professional standards, and the ability of archaeologists, regardless of their ethnic group, to uphold them in good faith."

But during the tenure controversy, El-Haj had plenty of support, "particularly in her field, who say her book is solid, even brilliant, and part of an innovative trend of looking at how disciplines function." Yes there are opponents, such as Alan F. Segal, a professor of religion and Jewish studies at Barnard, who was quoted as saying "her work is not good enough".

“She completely misunderstands what the biblical tradition is saying... She is not even close. She is so bizarrely off.”

And we all know how much claim biblical tradition has. Michael Dietler, an anthropology professor at University of Chicago said,

"She is a scholar of the highest quality and integrity who is being persecuted because she has the courage to focus an analytical lens on subjects that others wish to shield from scrutiny."

Basically El-Haj has done the unthinkable and that is to challenge Israel's sole claim to the land of Palestine. By attempting to showcase that their facts are more contrived that evidence would suggest, then it's best to derail her studies, however praised it really can be. Weiss concludes:

"El-Haj's work does not remind readers of the need to be skeptical of the influence nationalism can have on the interpretation of archaeological facts. Instead, she has written a book condemning the notion of facts themselves. It is for this reason that those who care about the future of the veracity of facts - and not just the future of Israel - should take serious notice of her promotion."

Or more to the notice that her promotion is a step backward for the academic police of Campus Watchers.

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