How one settler upset American academia

By Alex Brummer, April 17, 2008

The New Yorker examines a battle over the tenure of an American-Palestinian professor

One of the great pleasures of work and travel in the United States is the quality of the reporting in the magazine press. Publications like the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly offer writers the chance to delve into issues more deeply and at greater length than is generally the case in British periodicals. This rich American vein of reporting is evident in the latest edition of the New Yorker in an article on how Israel-Palestine has infected appointments at Columbia University in New York, and in an Atlantic piece on the relationship between writer David Grossman and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

These two articles have a common thread. Both show how the militant Zionism of some of the West Bank settlers impacts on Middle East dialogue.

In recent times we have come to think that it is Palestinian supporters who have had a malevolent impact on the debate on university campuses with the rise of the boycott movement.

But Jane Kramer, in an article headed The Petition in the New Yorker, shows this is not always so. Kramer examines in meticulous detail how Nadia Abu El-Haj, an American scholar of some distinction with a Palestinian father, was targeted by Jewish activists when she came up for tenure — a permanent academic position — at Columbia. Abu El-Haj’s academic reputation partly rested on her examination of Israel’s archeological projects through the prism of Zionism with its emphasis on place, nationhood and identity. In compiling her study, she worked alongside an Orthodox Jewish anthropologist, Jonathan Boyarin, Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at the University of North Carolina. He said: “Zionism is the dominant Israeli national narrative, and it’s the job of academics to historicise any narrative.”

This was not how Paula Stern, a resident of Ma’aleh Adumim, a settlement three miles east of Jerusalem, saw Abu El-Haj’s work. She launched a petition against her tenure at Columbia on the grounds that the academic’s work was “dangerous” and “wrong”. She did not believe that a “Palestinian” like Abu El-Haj could be expected to write objectively about Israel.

Leading Jewish groups joined the fray in defence of Israel. This produced a series of articles in academic journals seeking to dispute Abu El-Haj’s work. Despite the pressure on the Columbia faculty, after a year-long campaign, Abu El-Haj eventually won her tenure.

The West Bank settlers also come in for a hard time in the Atlantic Monthly article Unforgiven, which explores why the author David Grossman will no longer speak with Ehud Olmert. Writer Jeffrey Goldberg, echoing the thinking of Grossman, argues that the 1967 war led “to a squalid and seemingly endless occupation and to the birth of a mystical, and revanchist strain of Zionism, made manifest in the West Bank”.

Olmert, the article notes, was among the first Israeli leaders of the right to recognise that the demographics of “Greater Israel” would eventually strangle the Jewish state as the Arab population rose. Grossman’s quarrel with Olmert is over the death in Lebanon of his son Uri, a commander of the IDF Armoured Corps.

David Grossman thinks that the PM has not done enough to remove outposts and leave the West Bank. Olmert says that is why he is Prime Minister and Grossman is a writer. “I don’t like to argue with David since he lost his son,” Olmert tells the Atlantic.

Among America’s liberal Jewish intellectuals, as represented by writers in East Coast periodicals, the radicalism of West Bank settlers is seen as a barrier to sensible discussion on the Middle East.

Last updated: 10:17am, June 4 2008