In context

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Yes, that's our name. It gets abused a lot, but we're sticking with it.

Take this NYT discussion of the controversy over Barnard College's proposal to award tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj (about which I've written before). It's balanced, it's bland, it contains quotes and opinions from "both sides" of the debate and it comes to no conclusion. But, in the end, it's not quite so balanced after all, as it adopts the language and the narrative of the anti-Israel camp in framing the debate.

As Dr. Abu El-Haj's tenure deadline approached, Paula R. Stern, a 1982 Barnard graduate who lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, began an online petition against the professor for what it called her "demonstrably inferior caliber, her knowing misrepresentation of data and violation of accepted standards of scholarship." As of yesterday, it had more than 2,000 signatures, some of them from Columbia faculty members.

(Note: the petition is here.)

Paula Stern, if I'm not mistaken, lives in Ma'ale Adumim, a beautiful and thriving city of approximately 35,000 people located on a hilltop just east of Jerusalem. It's no more a "settlement" than, say, Albequerque, NM is. Is this a small point? No. Not really. Because when you start with the proposition that the Barnard alumna leading one of the many campaigns against El-Haj's tenure "lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank," you've both loaded the dice and stacked the deck.

And the article ends on a decidedly pro-El-Haj note, with an utterly disingenuous quote from an anthropology professor who, channeling his University of Chicago colleague John Mearsheimer, tosses out the tired canard that El-Haj is being "persecuted because she has the courage to focus an analytical lens on subjects that others wish to shield from scrutiny" (my emphasis). The author also injects this broad and unsubstantiated comment:

Dr. Abu El-Haj's supporters say that she has come under attack partly because she is a Palestinian-American and that her opponents often quote her out of context to distort her arguments.

So. How much "context," exactly, do Abu El-Haj's opponents need to put her arguments in their proper perspective? There's a limit to how much of her book we can quote online or in print without subjecting ourselves to claims of copyright infringement. Nevertheless, here's a full paragraph, copied verbatim, which you can check in all of its glorious context at Amazon.com, where it's (currently) included in the "excerpt" from the book that the publisher has made available.

The Jewish state was founded in a territory under colonial dominion. It was the British who first promised Palestine to the Jews as their national home, a pledge that ultimately precluded the possibility of its indigenous Arab inhabitants (some of whom were Jews) achieving sovereignty during the process of decolonization to come. And it was within the context of Palestine that the contours of the so-called "new Hebrew" nation and citizenry took shape. It was within the realities and encounters of a settler-colonial society that national culture and ideology were formed. European nationalist imaginations and histories and, for that matter, the Zionist movement's commitment to distinguishing the new Hebrew person and culture from Jewish counterparts in the Diaspora was not the only relevant context -- and certainly not the primary context -- in relation to which the new Hebrew national culture was fashioned. In fact, the near complete occlusion of "the question of Palestine" (Said 1992) from most Israeli historical and social scientific scholarship can be argued to be but one outcome of "the shaping of an acceptable range of Zionist discourse that set the terms of the polemic and therefore enabled a range of exclusions" (Boyarin 1996:61).

So there you have it. Context. Let's break it down.

The Jewish state was founded in a territory under colonial dominion.

Under whose "colonial dominion" was this territory when the Jewish state was founded? Well, arguably, the dominion of the United Nations, hardly a colonialist/imperialist nation-state, which had awarded a "mandate" for the territory to Great Britain, under certain well-defined and notably anti-colonial conditions. And before that? For a few hundred years, the same territory was under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire, a demonstrably colonialist/imperialist nation-state, which somehow failed to inspire more than a murmer of protest from the oppressed occupied indigenous Arab inhabitants (nor, I might add, from the many indigenous Jewish inhabitants).

It was the British who first promised Palestine to the Jews as their national home, a pledge that ultimately precluded the possibility of its indigenous Arab inhabitants (some of whom were Jews) achieving sovereignty during the process of decolonization to come.

The "context" we are missing here, of course, is the fact that this statement is so demonstrably false as to be laughable. Let's be clear. At least by one account, widely accepted by a large portion of the Western world, it was God, not the British, who first promised what much later came to be known as "Palestine" to the Jews as their national home. More to the point, it wasn't by any stretch of the imagination the Balfour Declaration that ultimately precluded the possibility of the indigenous (and not-so-indigenous) Arab inhabitants achieving sovereignty after the fall of the mandate, but rather the complete and utter (not to mention violent and murderous) refusal of those inhabitants to accept the sovereignty of a single Jew in their midst.

And it was within the context of Palestine that the contours of the so-called "new Hebrew" nation and citizenry took shape. It was within the realities and encounters of a settler-colonial society that national culture and ideology were formed.

This is called "assuming the conclusion," (a/k/a "begging the question" [edit]) and "Facts on the Ground" is full of it. Whatever the "context of Palestine" may be, and whatever early Zionist literature Abu El-Haj may have excavated to uncover a phrase like "new Hebrew nation," the basic premise that permeates her book is exemplified in this impenetrable and confusing assertion. Israeli culture and nationhood is an anachronistic invention imposed upon a land to which it is foreign, an interloper, an unwelcome intruder. It is flawed, its origins are flawed, and therefore any activity that might have the effect of appearing to legitimize it in any way (rigorous archeological research, for example) must be equally flawed. (As an aside, I must add here that I took a few anthropology courses in college and, as I recall, the prime directive of the discipline is that you never approach the culture you're presuming to study with a superior, condescending or judgmental attitude. I'm just saying.)

European nationalist imaginations and histories and, for that matter, the Zionist movement's commitment to distinguishing the new Hebrew person and culture from Jewish counterparts in the Diaspora was not the only relevant context -- and certainly not the primary context -- in relation to which the new Hebrew national culture was fashioned.

May I be excused? Seriously, I suppose that the purpose of this digression is to put an even finer point on El-Haj's hypothesis that Zionism's roots lie firmly in colonialist/imperialist European culture or the rejection thereof and, of course, have nothing to do with "Palestine" or the culture of the indigenous descendants of the Arab invaders who constituted part of the population there before Jewish resettlement began in earnest. But so what? If nationalism was a European concept, then it was equally alien to those non-Europeans who, long after the birth of Zionism, suddenly discovered a previously non-existent "Palestinian" culture, identity and zest for self-determination that had somehow eluded them until the Jews got uppity. Amazing how that works.

In fact, the near complete occlusion of "the question of Palestine" (Said 1992) from most Israeli historical and social scientific scholarship can be argued to be but one outcome of "the shaping of an acceptable range of Zionist discourse that set the terms of the polemic and therefore enabled a range of exclusions" (Boyarin 1996:61).

In plain English, Israeli scholarship has failed to recognize the superior legitimacy of the "Palestinian" narrative because it doesn't want to and, as a colonialist/imperialist oppressor, it doesn't have to. Giving a nod, of course, to Edward Said, without whom most palestinian arabs, let alone much of the world, wouldn't be privy to that narrative, since he virtually invented it (two can play). And, of course, the ubiquitous reference to Daniel Boyarin, one of El-Haj's very favorite authorities (check it out). Boyarin, an Israeli-born academic, is probably most famous for this penetrating comment, published in Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon's compilation, "Wrestling with Zion:"

Just as Christianity may have died at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor...so I fear that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Deheishe, Beteen (Beth-El) and El-Khalil (Hebron).

So much for taking Nadia Abu El-Haj out of context. For yet more context, please check out this website, which is devoted to the tenure controversy and the facts behind it.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Lynn B. published on September 11, 2007 3:25 PM.

Tuesday, September 11 was the previous entry in this blog.

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