Haj-et Job: A Review of Two Reviews

Campus Watch uses Frontpage to launch another volley in its war against Columbia University, with a book review of Nadia El-Haj’s Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (2002). Over to Hugh Fitzgerald:

…this book is not really about archeology at all. Rather it is a relentless attack on how and why Israelis, Jews really, have done archaeology in the land they have the audacity to call Israel.

So could we have some sort of quote or extensive analysis to show that El-Haj’s complaints about Israeli archaeology are really attacks on Jews in general? Erm…nope. But moving on:

…There is not the slightest evidence that she has ever seen the work of Israeli archeologists, ever visited a dig, ever studied the history of the development of Israeli archeology, ever inquired as to how Israeli archeologists choose the sites they do choose for digs.

So maybe Fitzgerald can lay out exactly what El-Haj has to say, and then use his own knowledge of the above to put us straight. Erm…nope again.

…But to demonstrate a connection between Jews past and Jews present is unacceptable, an abuse of archaeology, serving the cause of a “construct,” a Western imperial falsehood. That is, a Jewish state.

If El-Haj really does deny the reality of ancient Jewish remains in Israel/Palestine, that would indeed be wacko – but again Fitzgerald offers up no substantiating quote. And if the modern State of Israel is not a “construct”, then what is it? Would “divinely-ordained organic unity of ethnicity and soil” be more to Fitzgerald’s liking?

…El-Haj seems to think that the study of the Jewish past by Israeli archeologists, observing the highest professional standards, known for the meticulousness, is an outrageous political act, an act of “Jewish settler-colonial nation state-building” (that phrase itself deserves analysis, for the hysterical confusion of its English).

“Seems to think” being code for “how I’ll reinterpret what she says to induce maximum apoplexy among wingnuts.”

…El-Haj’s political fulminations may attempt to hide behind the rhetoric of “scholarship.”

Whereas Fitzgerald’s fulminations don’t hide behind anything.

…Is there a single example of attempts by Israeli archeologists to either hide the past, or destroy the past, or to create a false past? If so, she has failed to mention it in her book.

So the fact she doesn’t make stuff up only shows how shabby she is! How low can you go? Well, Fitzgerald is about to answer that one:

As is well known, in Islam there has been an almost total indifference to the non-Islamic or pre-Islamic world. Many of the artifacts of that world have been destroyed over 1350 years of Muslim conquest and subjugation of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists…In Egypt, members of the Muslim Brotherhood even muttered about destroying the Pyramids, but cooler heads prevailed.

In other words, the only appropriate way to study Israeli archaeology is to compare its achievements against the less enlightened acts of medieval and fundamentalist Islam. And how can she ignore the fact that in the 1950s some people wanted to blow up the Pyramids after more than a thousand years of Islamic rule, just because it never actually happened?

But while Frontpage is so idiotic it can be dismissed (except as a threat to American academic life), a more serious (albeit flawed) review is provided by Aren M. Maeir of Bar Ilan University. This review has been reposted here, at Solomonia. Choice passages:

Alas, a detailed reading reveals that this book is a highly ideologically driven political manifesto, with a glaring lack of attention both to details and to the broader context.

…To start with, the topic of the book is not new. In the last decade or so, there have been quite a few attempts to study the role of archaeology in Israeli society. Much of what Nadia Abu el-Haj writes is a repetition of these themes. She is aware of some of these previous studies, but she has missed quite a few as well.

That’s more interesting, although a chance to discuss how these studies relate to al-Haj’s is passed over.

Although archaeology in Israel has been misused for nationalist purposes during the twentieth century, this is now a thing of the past. In contemporary Israel, mainstream archaeology-and most of the rest of society-attaches little or no importance to the political and historical underpinnings of archaeological interpretation. If one looks at archaeological thought and interpretation in contemporary Israel, only marginal elements act in accordance or identify with the nonscientific agendas that she attempts to delineate.

OK, to an extent – and Maeir at least acknowledges an area of which Fitzgerald appears to be ignorant. It’s certainly true that an archaeological establishment which puts nationalism rather than science at its centre would not have allowed the development of “minimalist” archaeologists such as Israel Finklestein, who seriously undermine large parts of the Biblical narrative. The fact that the Israel Antiquities Authority has denied digging permits to the likes of Vendyl Jones, even though he has received backing from the Israeli religious right, is also encouraging.

But serious concerns clearly remain. For example, Maeir might want to have a word with his Bar-Ilan colleague Gabriel Barkay, who was recently reported in the Jerusalem Post as having found a First Temple period seal impression. The report noted that

The seal, which predates the destruction of the First Jewish temple in 586 BCE, was presented Tuesday night to the press at an archaeological conference at the City of David sponsored by the right-wing Elad organization.

Here’s a bit more on Elad, from The Guardian in 2004:

…Elad, the City of David Foundation, which is excavating King David’s palace and some of the homes of the thousands of Israelites who once lived around it.

“The goal of our organisation is to increase the presence of Jews in the neighbourhood as much as possible,” said Elad’s director, Doron Spielman. “We’ve been dreaming of coming back to biblical Jerusalem for 3,000 years. This is the fulfilment of our dreams. We cannot trust that if this is an Arab neighbourhood, Jews will be safe to walk around here.”

Elad says it has bought up 42 homes so far in legal transactions which have been upheld by the courts when they are disputed. The Palestinians say that Elad is responsible for ethnic cleansing by stealth through the seizure and occupation of property or duping the vulnerable into signing papers they do not understand.

These events developed into the Silwan homes demolition controversy, which I blogged on in June. Is that sort of sponsorship really appropriate for scientists? Is a conference organised by such a group really the right place to announce significant archaeological finds? Or is Maeir’s colleague one of those “marginal elements”?

There’s also the question of how archaeologists relate to the military occupation in the West Bank. Just recently, Kevin Chamberlain (UCL lecturer in Cultural Property Law) made observations about archaeological sites in the Occupied Territories (emphasis added):

When a site is uncovered the Israelis institute a ‘salvage excavation,’ i.e. the rapid removal and recording of artefacts before the site is covered up. In most cases this results in the destruction of the site, although occasionally the site is covered up but not destroyed for future investigation, e.g. in the case of an important mosaic floor. Nevertheless the effect of these ‘salvage excavations’ is that the all-important context of the site is destroyed and the knowledge that it yields is lost forever. Such excavations fall under the authority of the archaeological staff officer, who is an officer of the Civil Administration (i.e. the Israeli military).

Should archaeologists really lend their professional reputations to this sort of thing? [UPDATE: Paleojudaica offers a critique of Chamberlain’s article here.]

But let’s return to Maeir’s review. Maeir also takes issue with El-Haj’s understanding of archaeological methods (such as carbon dating), and he derides some of her (admittedly peculiar) interpretations of certain archaeological evidence. However, Maeir then launches into a rather more problematic rant:

Not only is her lack of attention to the ongoing misuse of archaeological interpretation elsewhere in the Middle East quite surprising; the lack of reference to similar patterns in various Western and non-Western countries is inexplicable.

Well, inexplicable if you haven’t read the title. This is the old line of “criticism of Israel is only allowed if preceded with long enumerations of the sins of Arabs”, which we’ve already seen from Fitzgerald. Further:

Perhaps the most astonishing part of the book is a discussion on the last page of the text (p. 281). Abu el-Haj describes and condones the attack, and subsequent ransacking, by a Palestinian mob on what is known as “Jacob’s Tomb” in Nablus in 2001. Several people were killed as a result of this attack; the gleeful tone in which she describes this act of vandalism exemplifies how her political agenda completely overcame her duties as a social scientist.

Even Fitzgerald seems to have missed this alleged “glee”. He writes only that:

…Even El-Haj had to mention the matter in her book (knowing that if she omitted it altogether, reviewers might notice), but she justified it as the uncharacteristic, but understandable reaction of desperate people, brought to the end of their collective tether by the diabolical behavior of the Israelis.

If El-Haj has really skewed her scholarship for the benefit of a political ideology, then her work deserves to be pulled apart. But the above reviews, with biases and agendas of their own, fail to convince. In Fitzgerald’s case, I assume that he and his fellow Campus Watch clowns are now so drunk on the power of intimidation that they don’t even feel the need to write something even half-reasonably thought through.

Meanwhile, a more balanced review is available here from Jacob Lassner.

(Tipped from Biblical Theology. Some links via Paleojudacia, Bible and Interpretation)

UPDATE: Commentator Diana notes more detailed complaints against El-Haj from Solomonia, and directs readers to here. Further thoughts from me can be found after her comment.