The New Yorker ex­am­ines a bat­tle over the ten­ure of an Amer­i­canPales­tinian 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 (read Gross­man’s mov­ing piece in the mag­a­zine that ac­com­pa­nies to­day’s JC).

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.

Alex Brum­mer is City Ed­i­tor of the Daily Mail

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