Are Columbia’s Palestinians… Palestinian?

You will remember the case of Nadia Abu El-Haj, the anthropologist who last year received tenure at Barnard after a furious controversy over her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Jane Kramer has written a panegyric to her for The New Yorker, simply brushing off serious-minded criticisms of Abu El-Haj’s book.

Kramer (no relation to me) also has given the back story to her piece in a radio interview (from minute 21:00), where she makes a telltale confession: “I felt a deep commitment to write this piece, part of it having to do with being Jewish myself, and I thought to myself, Jewish people also have to stand up for her integrity.” Ah, another Jew working through an identity complex on a Palestinian canvas. “Guilt-saddled New Yorker, Jewish, seeks stylish, well-bred Palestinian-American academic to love, admire, share Darwish and opera. Make me feel chosen again.”

The odd thing is that Kramer goes to great lengths to deny that Nadia Abu El-Haj is a Palestinian at all. “Is Nadia Abu El-Haj a Palestinian?” asks the interviewer. Answer: “No, she’s actually an Episcopalian from the United States, born in Long Island. Her father was Palestinian.” Kramer again: “She [Abu El-Haj] came to this project [of Israeli archaeology] as an American with no particular axe to grind.” (Amazing quote, that.) Kramer even scolds Paula Stern, Barnard alumna and author of the petition against tenure for Abu El-Haj, because Stern “didn’t know Abu El-Haj wasn’t Palestinian.”

Well, by these criteria, (New York-born) Rashid Khalidi and (Champaign, Illinois-born) Lila Abu-Lughod and (Washington-born) Ali Abunimah aren’t Palestinians either. They were born here, not there, and they’re U.S. citizens. (As for being an Episcopalian, so was Edward Said.) Jane Kramer is so clueless that she seems not to have figured out that “Palestinian” can be an identity. To judge from Nadia Abu El-Haj’s choices—from keeping her father’s Arabic name to working exclusively on undermining Israel’s claims—it’s obvious that her Palestinian identity is profoundly meaningful (and useful) to her.

And in fact, Abu El-Haj doesn’t have to chose between being American and Palestinian, any more than Jane Kramer has to choose between being American and Jewish. Kramer’s insistence that Abu El-Haj can’t be Palestinian because she’s American or Episcopalian or from Long Island distorts the context of the controversy. That context was identity politics—not just of Jewish-Americans, but of Palestinian-Americans. Abu El-Haj is deep into her own identity politics, pursued tirelessly through her academic work. She’s engaged full-time in the intellectual fortification of the Palestinian nationalist narrative. If you conceal that, you’ve botched the whole thing.

There’s also a telling contradiction here. In her article, Jane Kramer calls Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi a “Palestinian-American.” It would be interesting to know what, in her mind, makes Khalidi a Palestinian-American, while Abu El-Haj is an American, period. Khalidi, like Abu El-Haj, was born in New York; like her, he had a Palestinian Muslim father and a mother who was neither. As a child, Khalidi sometimes attended Sunday school at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, where his parents had been married. Khalidi also grew up in the United States, whereas Abu El-Haj spent much of her childhood abroad. So why does Jane Kramer make Khalidi into a hyphenated American, and not Abu El-Haj?

After all, Jewish people have to stand up for Khalidi’s integrity, too.

Appendix: Here are a few sources, some of them supportive of Abu El-Haj, that identify her as a “Palestinian-American”:

  • Chronicle of Higher Education: “Ms. Abu El-Haj is a Palestinian-American assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard College…”
  • Columbia Spectator: “Abu El-Haj, a Fulbright Scholar and Palestinian-American…”
  • Ahram Weekly: “…another hate campaign is being waged to deny tenure to Palestinian-American anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj.”
  • International Socialist Review: “…the Palestinian-American anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj is fighting a well-orchestrated campaign by Zionist groups…”

Furthermore: TigerHawk gets my point. And click here to see how Abu El-Haj will be spending April 28. Of course, she’s there as an American, with no particular axe to grind.