Tuesday, September 25, 2007

More on the OTHER Columbia U Controversy

The Ahmadinejad visit needs no comment from here. But below is an excerpt from "Some Professional Observations on the Controversy about Nadia Abu El-Haj’s First Book" By Alan F. Segal . Should an intellectual incompetent get tenure? -- in other words

Let me address only two of the issues that have been raised in this discussion: the notion that everyone who opposes Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj is a rightist engaging in a witch-hunt and the equally difficult notion that the central issue about professor Nadia Abu El-Haj’s book on Israeli archaeology is her knowledge of modern Hebrew, one important issue from each side of the Internet discussion.

The issue is not only whether professor Abu El-Haj speaks Hebrew well enough to interview, or reads it well enough to understand scholarly arguments, assimilate them, and generalize about the value of Israeli archaeology. Literary skills are plainly much more advanced and important in this case than speaking skills. Perhaps she has read the newspapers in Hebrew, even though there are perfectly good English Web sites for all the newspapers she quotes, or spoken Hebrew to Israeli archaeologists, who regularly speak English to the volunteers in any case. She does make some simple mistakes in Hebrew at several important places in her book, especially in the chapters on Hebrew place names, but also including one that affects her conclusions about Israelis secularizing ancient concepts. Contrary to her opinion, “bayyit” does mean “temple” in ancient Hebrew: “the Hebrew terms secularizing in their effect insofar as the word ‘temple’ is absent” (p. 132). In any case, in her dissertation, on which the book is based, she states that most of her interviews were conducted in English or Arabic.

A parallel issue is her inability to deal with written sources: A book about Israeli archaeology, however abstract or sophisticated its theory may allegedly be, must be about archaeology done by Israelis, and must involve reading many books and articles in Israeli journals of archaeology but, according to Lisa Wedeen,chair of the political science department at the University of Chicago and scholar of the modern Middle East, there are too few Hebrew archaeological articles or books in her bibliography. There are few enough to wonder about the basis for her judgments about Israeli archaeology. I realize that there are other important issues in the book but this deficit must certainly be a crucial one.

In support of her thesis, professor Abu El-Haj presents Israeli archaeology as monolithic. She is either unaware, or simply does not tell her readers how fractious Israeli scholarship is, in general, or how impossible it is to come to any positive opinion or consensus about what Israelis think on any subject, ancient or modern. When she cites an Israeli archaeologist, she rarely cites any opponents but they are never lacking in Israeli journal literature. Also, one of her most trusted sources is an American writer on archaeology—a good writer, I think—but neither an archaeologist nor an Israeli and, hence, of limited use to her argument. She should disclose this, as she repeatedly relies on him in reaching her conclusions but does not alert her readers to the limitations of using him as a source. Perhaps she is unaware that he is an American science writer, a popularizer (an important skill for reaching non professional audiences), and not a practicing archaeologist? But she should be mindful and make the reader aware of his predilection for some scholars and against others, not merely accept his judgments without comment.

But the most important issue is how she handles evidence in general, and this concern manifests itself in several areas. One locus of her failure is the anonymity of her sources. A Barnard anthropologist in the religion department, roughly a decade ago, was turned down for tenure, in large part because of arguments from the anthropology department: She protected the identity of her major informant with a false name, even though she produced the “anonymous” person (who lectured at the college and answered all the questions of the search committee). At the time, the anthropology department was quite intransigent on this point. Now they are equally intransigent on the other side. A revolution in scholarly methodology? Let us not raise the implication of bias, only inconsistency. But I know for a fact that some very effective lobbyists for professor Abu El-Haj, associated with Barnard’s anthropology department, did not even read her book until after the Barnard consideration was over.

A statement supported by one, anonymous, oral report is an unsupported statement, and several of such statements are crucial to professor Abu El-Haj’s conclusions: that Israelis deliberately mislabel Christian sites as Jewish and tear down churches (p. 233, among others); that they use bull-dozers to level sites and wipe out evidence of Palestinian habitation (pp. 148, 153, 157). No respectable journalist would publish on the basis of one anonymous report and, if these were actually supportable, they would not have escaped notice for long in field reports or archaeological discussions, which can be quite vituperative in Israel. Israeli archaeologists have no fear of criticizing each other and are extremely talented writers, being literate in several languages. It’s hard to believe any secret that could be bandied about to a hostile stranger reporter would avoid disclosure somewhere in their very argumentative journals and books.

Her most outrageous charge—that bulldozers are being used in contemporary archaeology (p. 148)—has been proven false by the field reports and the testimony of David Usshishkin, the person in charge of the Jezreel dig during the time in question and a very well known archaeologist with an impeccable reputation. What was used was a power arm, a much smaller and more refined instrument, perfectly acceptable in salvage digs as this sector was. (Incidentally, there was no Arab evidence at all in the sector in question.)

The chair of the anthropology department at Barnard (whose father, apparently, was once a bulldozer-using archaeologist) assured me that the difference between a power arm and a bulldozer is trivial. I do not think the difference trivial today, if it ever was. There is a huge difference between a giant leveling blade and a manipulatable, very small, power digging instrument but it is professor Abu El-Haj who emphasizes the importance of the use of bulldozers (p. 148-9). A great deal of the argument of the book depends on the charge being right as rain. But it is false, even misleading. The field reports bear out the Israeli archaeologist, not her. And if this is so in this extremely important case, should we not suspect that there are other egregious mistakes in her other single-sourced, anonymous, oral reporting—especially as the anonymous charges do not appear in the dissertation, the document which was vetted by a distinguished and responsible committee at Duke?

A larger and more pervasive issue concerns her inability to make judgments in biblical history. Her claims have been characterized by supporters in Spectator as follows: “Professor Abu El-Haj’s disputed book made the argument that the state of Israel, like many other modern states, seeks legitimacy from ancient history at a damaging cost.” This statement severely understates the claims of the book but it is a more accurate description of her dissertation, upon which the book was based. For the book, her further claims are that the production of Israeli archaeological knowledge is uniquely fanciful, more than other national archaeological schools, due to their colonial settler mentality, and that Israeli archaeologists perforce uniquely produce far more themselves than the evidence allows because they are citizens of this colonial settler state. This is announced at the very beginning of the book and is hard to miss: “the colonial dimension of Jewish settlement in Palestine cannot be sidelined if one is to understand the significance and consequences of archaeological practice...” (p. 4). I am only quoting a small portion of her discussion there, which goes on for some pages with further arguments about the added and uniquely colonial nature of Israeli archaeology, among other things.

Most pointedly, professor Abu El-Haj feels that there was no good evidence of Israelite occupation of the area before Israeli archaeologists did their work. She characterizes Israeli archaeologists as disguising myth as history: “the mythical character of the biblical narratives is effaced” (p. 127), as an example or “a tale best understood as the modern nation’s origin myth was transported into the realm of history” (p. 104) as another. She ignores the possibility that the archaeologists may have been trying in good faith to ascertain what was historical, given their data and historical context. As she makes these claims she footnotes specific scholars from a particular school of biblical scholarship—“the biblical minimalists” (e.g., see reference to Thomas Thompson on p. 127). A person unfamiliar with biblical scholarship might miss the import of these references but the implication is clear. Professor Abu El-Haj has necessarily made some radical assumptions about what biblical history actually tells us.

When it comes to what can actually be known about Israelite occupation of the land, professor Abu El-Haj makes almost exclusive use of these biblical minimalists, no more than a handful of scholars really, out of the thousands at work in the world. Many of my colleagues at Barnard seem to believe that the biblical minimalism controversy describes fundamentalists on one side with rational discourse about the Bible on the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Biblical minimalism concerns the nature of the evidence for Israelite presence in Canaan during First Temple times (ca. 950-587 B.C.E.). Being a biblical minimalist is not a crime; but the school is often consciously infused with modern Middle Eastern politics in ways that are hard to ignore.

Nevertheless, biblical scholars regularly read them, accept some small part of what they claim, and reject most other parts. Their questions, if not their answers, are always interesting. Professor Abu El-Haj frequently uses their most extreme conclusions about archaeology uncritically as proof that Israelis tell us more than the archaeological record shows. None of the minimalist scholars she relies upon for this purpose is actually a working archaeologist or an Israeli, though there are Israeli minimalist archaeologists, who mostly disagree with her.

But how could professor Abu El-Haj possibly make a decision about the claims of biblical scholars or archaeologists in the First Temple period? To make an independent, informed judgment, she would need to know not modern Hebrew conversation, but ancient Hebrew literature, and for the First Temple Period, which is her particular target, also Aramaic, Ugaritic (a significant Canaanite language), certainly all the many and significant North West Semitic epigraphy (inscriptions) relevant to this period, comparative Semitic grammar and syntax, comparative literary studies in Akkadian and Egyptian, and biblical stylistics. These credentials are in no way unusual for graduate students in Bible, and many of them also study far more exotic languages—like Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite or Sumerian—as well as develop an understanding of ancient Near Eastern culture and history. There are literally hundreds of inscriptions from the First Temple period, together giving much interesting and debated evidence of an ethnicity called Israel who worship a divinity called YHWH. The most important and longest of these inscriptions were discovered in the 19th and early 20th century, considerably before there was any country called Israel or any significant Israeli archaeology.

In fact, one major and effective argument against the biblical minimalists is that they cannot adequately explain away this inscriptional evidence. She herself never engages the basic issues concerning the Merneptah Stela, the Moabite Stela, the Siloam Inscription, the Tel Dan Inscription, the evidence from seals and bullae or any of the important inscriptional finds but they speak strongly against her conclusions about ancient Israel. She has only disputed one ethnic identifier for Israel—collared rim pottery—but ignored several others: theophoric names, evidence of circumcision, the presence or absence of pig bones, stone jars and later, immersion pools, depictions of ritually important plants, depictions of ritual objects or the Temple or biblical scenes like the sacrifice of Isaac. As a result, she believes that Israel was not an historical presence in the land but a myth. Biblical minimalists normally stop disputing this at the beginning of the Second Temple period but she often appears to push it further, even to the time of Jesus.

Professor Abu El-Haj makes major judgments about the Jewish character of Jerusalem in New Testament times, including that Herodian Jerusalem was not a Jewish city, a most extreme opinion (p. 175-176). She also says that Jerusalem was not a Jewish city after the destruction of the Jewish state because Jews were in the minority during much of its recent history. Would she then consider that the old city of Jerusalem is not now an Arab city because Arabs are now a minority there? These are not casual observations but critical ones, logically necessary to her analysis of the errors of Israeli archaeological museums. By rights, to come to these conclusions she should also be familiar with ancient classical historians, Syriac and Greek, Josephus, Philo, and New Testament scholarship, to say nothing about early rabbinic literature and possibly Latin language and literature. Other than the odd quotation from Josephus, there is little evidence of this either. Without engaging these bodies of knowledge she has no grounds for siding with a bare logical possibility about the events which produced “The Burnt House,” for example, against the consensus of international, not just Israeli, scholarship (p. 145).

Without many of these tools, she could not make a judgment about even a footnote or a textual reading in a biblical minimalist article, to say nothing of one of their many conflicting histories of biblical times, Old Testament or New. She merely takes only those statements which most agree with her own tenuous contentions, and that is something that no Bible scholar, no anthropologist, and no archaeologist should ever do.


NYC schools hiding violence

The truth is too frightening to admit

The city's public high schools are underreporting violent and disruptive incidents, an audit released yesterday claims. City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. said nearly 21 percent of school incidents - including 14 percent of those considered "serious" - were not properly reported during the 2004-05 school year. "The flawed reporting makes it difficult for parents, the public and government officials to honestly assess whether a school is safe," said Thompson.

In the 10 high schools whose data were reviewed, school administrators failed to enter 414 of 1,996 incidents into an online reporting system, the audit found. Additionally, 174 of the 1,247 "serious" incidents, which are relayed to the state in order to determine which schools should be labeled "persistently dangerous," were not reported. These included reports of a rape in November 2004 at Boys and Girls HS in Brooklyn, a stabbing in January 2005 at Clinton HS in The Bronx, and the assault of a security officer in September 2004 in August Martin HS in Queens.

Thompson said much of the failure resulted from administrators working under vague directives for classifying incidents, and he called on the Department of Education to exercise more oversight, provide additional training, and take action against schools that don't follow the reporting mandates. "The guidelines need to be cleaned up and more supervision by the DOE is appropriate," agreed principals-union president Ernest Logan. "The principals at these schools are certainly not intentionally underreporting incidents."

DOE officials called the audit "imprecise" and "misleading" because the schools weren't selected at random and because the audit defined "serious" incidents differently than the NYPD or the state do. "The comptroller's methodology wouldn't make it to first base with a researcher worth their salt," said DOE spokeswoman Dina Paul Parks. But United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten countered that the audit "confirms a practice educators and the UFT have complained about for years: the failure to report all school incidents."


Tax credits versus vouchers

With the height of summer past us, school is just around the corner. And unfortunately, too many kids across the country will return to schools that just aren't doing the job; whether it's imparting reading, writing, arithmetic, or morality, the current educational models do not suffice.

Parents ought to have more liberty to make decisions about their children's educations, but even the best efforts of the school-choice movement have achieved only spotty success over the years. Before the next cycle begins, school-choice supporters should consider the fundamentals with an eye toward the most promising avenues for giving parents the freedom to choose their child's school.

So, which of the two options for real school-choice reform are more popular: vouchers or education tax credits? Surveys generally demonstrate that tax credits command five to ten percent more support than do vouchers. A large academic poll recently conducted for the magazine Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University illustrated the remarkable wide support for tax credits. Even current and former public school employees support education tax credits by a margin of nearly two to one; 50 percent said they supported tax credits, while only 28-percent opposed them. Public school employees oppose vouchers by a thin two-point margin.

Vouchers are essentially checks that the state sends parents to use at schools of their choosing. Tax credits reduce the amount a taxpayer owes the government for each dollar he spends on his child's education or scholarships for children who need them. If a business owed the state $4,000 in taxes and donated $2,000 for scholarships, for instance, it would pay just $2,000 in taxes – and it would get to choose the organization that received its donation. Similar benefits can also be applied to individuals for donations, and for their own child's education expenses. Three states have personal use tax credits, and five states have donation credits. The biggest programs in Pennsylvania and Florida save millions of dollars and help thousands of children afford good independent schools.

Both vouchers and tax credits fund school choice, but there are big differences between them. Only tax credits let taxpayers control their own money — they get to spend it directly on a child's education or donate it to a scholarship fund. In a voucher program, taxpayers send their money to the government and it decides how to spend the funds.

The Education Next/Harvard survey showed, in fact, that tax credits were more popular with the general public, with 53-percent supporting them, compared to the 45-percent supporting vouchers. Moreover, there is much more opposition to vouchers, with 34-percent opposing them and only 25-percent opposing credits. That gives tax credits a 28-point margin of support over opposition compared to an 11-point margin for vouchers.

Some say tax credits are more popular because teachers' unions have spent so much time and money attacking vouchers, but this poll didn't even use the word "voucher." Instead, it referred only to "government funds" in the question. It's clear that tax credits are much more popular and less objectionable to the general public, and even to public-school employees, than vouchers. And the word "voucher" has little to do with that.

One possible reason for the popularity of tax credits is that tax benefits are a common and popular policy vehicle, and most Americans have had good experiences with them. For instance, the HOPE Scholarship tax credit, which gives taxpayers credits on a portion of college expenses, child tax credits, and home mortgage deductions are widely recognized, popular tax breaks among middle-class voters; these kinds of policies often get over 70 or 80-percent support.

Some critics have lamented the proliferation of special interest tax credits and deductions, but these are proliferating for a reason. Tax credits are a popular and relatively easy way to provide benefits for particular kinds of activities. Credits for education expenses have the same advantages, and unlike most other tax benefits, are amply justified improvements on a tax-funded government education monopoly.

Education tax credits command the popular support necessary to significantly expand school choice. We need to refocus our energies on what works and help politicians to see that the public wants school choice through tax credits.


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