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.

10 Responses

  1. Sorry this is not about this blog entry but I could not find your email address.

    I was googling and found this comment by you on homeschooling

    “I’d like to hear more about liberal homeschool parents – there must be some out there arguing that their kids “don’t need no thought control”.

    Posted by: Richard Bartholomew at 12:12 AM, March 24, 2004″ at http://www.therevealer.org/archives/daily_000272.php

    Just wanted to let you know we are liberal (progressive) homeschoolers and I invite you to our site http://www.progressive-homeschool.blogspot.com

    On our daughter’s last day of school I picked her up at the end of the day and play Pink Floyd’s song that says “dont need no education” etc :-).

    Feel free to drop us an email. We have some commonalities: we ADORE Japanese things (will be starting a beginning course in Japanese in the near future) and I am studying zen buddhism.


  2. Solomonia is up with the quotes you wanted from the Abu El Haj book. http://www.solomonia.com/blog/archives/006768.shtml

    Here are one or two: First, Abu El Haj asserts that “the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins” is “pure (sic) political fabrication,” a mere “ideological assertion.”

    Got that? This young Palestinian scholar has written a book asserting that Jews had no connection with the land of Judea in ancient times. According to Professor Abu El Haj “the ‘fact’ of an Israelite nation in ancient Palestine during the Iron Age/Bronze Age transition” is a mere “myth.” The claim of ancient Jewish “nativeness” was “self-fashioned,” in modern times by a “settler-colonial” community with no legitimate historical ties to the land of Israel. Those who “believe” that an ancient Israelite kingdom existed are mistaking “myth” for fact. “What was considered to have been ancient Jewish national existence and sovereignty in their homeland…” becomes, according to this scholar, “a tale best understood as the modern nation’s origin myth… transported into the realm of history.” Abu El Haj defends the Arab destruction of Jewish archaeological artifacts and the destruction Joseph’s tomb, at Nablus, which had been venerated by Jews and Christians since before the Arab conquest and occupation of the seventh century:

    “Looting (Abu El Haj’s euphemism for the complete obliteration of ancient buildings and archaeological artifacts) could well be analyzed as a form of resistance to the Israeli state and an archaeological project, understood by many Palestinians, to stand at the very heart of Zionist historical claims to the land.”

    She is specifically approving of the obliteration of Joseph’s tomb, at Nablus, a building of uncertain age but dated at least to the Byzantine period, before the Arab conquest and occupation of the land:

    “Joseph’s Tomb was not destroyed simply because of its status as a Jewish religious shrine. The symbolic resonance of its destruction reaches far deeper than that. It needs to be understood in relation to a colonial-national history in which modern political rights have been substantiated in and expanded through the material signs of historic presence. In destroying the tomb, Palestinian demonstrators eradicated one ‘fact on the ground.'”

    solomon has more on the site.

  3. Thanks for the extra info, but I’m still not convinced.

    a) I’d like to see a bit more context for her discussion of the Israelites. It seems to me that she’s merely following the “minimalist” school of archaeology concerning the First Temple period. Now, that’s a bit of a limited perspective – minimalism is just one way to look at the evidence, and the fact that it is school of interpretation developed by Israelis like Israel Finkelstein rather undermines a large part of her thesis. But that doesn’t make her book dishonest nor – as implied – anti-Semitic.

    b) What’s wrong with her explanation for the destruction of the tomb? I think what happened in 2003 was appalling, but given that the tomb was unmolested for centuries, there has to be an explanation for the act that goes beyond just the Jewishness of the site. Further, in the case of “David’s Palace”, where an archaeologist appears to be closely aligned with a group that wants to Judaize a Palestinian area, it does appear that archaeology is being politicised as a “fact on the ground”.

    But I agree that Solomonia has one criticism which is quite serious: if it’s true that El-Haj doesn’t have much Hebrew, that would be a huge – perhaps fatal – weakness.

  4. I would just like to point out a couple things.

    Commenter Diana uses the term Iron Age/Bronze Age rift. There is no writing from that age (4000-3,330 years BCE) to suggest the Jewish people were there. None at all. It was reaching, I agree, to simply call it a myth, but to assert that it is a myth is no crime when there is no evidence to the contrary.

    Second, the Jordan River valley is home to some of the some most ancient cultures known to humankind. Jericho perhaps dates to 9,000 years ago, while I participated in a dig of a site 7,000 years old. Certainly not all, or, I imagine, the lion’s share of archaeological work in Israel is done with the intent of carving a Jewish history into the region’s past.

    Does Diana’s use of quotes strike anyone else as a breathless exhortation, and only as strangely Chomskyian?

  5. I found the MEForum review to be fair in large part, but then it borders on the absurd with the statement “In the end, Abu el-Haj misrepresents the Israeli passion for archeology. Its purpose is not to legitimize the national ethos. To the contrary: archeology appeals to Israelis because it offers a visual dimension to a past otherwise firmly anchored in oral and literary traditions.”

    Not at all? He is being dishonest. Entirely? el-Haj is being dishonest. There are legitimate archaeologists, and there are those who find any evidence which undermines Tanakh or Monotheism to be heretical.

    I suspect the latter are generally in power, but I also know that their power is not absolute.

  6. Please take a look at this new riview of the Abu El Haj book:


  7. to JS Narins

    I used quotes only in the traditional way, to specify passages taken directly from the book under discussion.

    “the ‘fact’ of an Israelite nation in ancient Palestine during the Iron Age/Bronze Age transition” is a direct quote from Abu El Haj.

  8. Bartholomew,
    re: destroying Joseph’s tomb. Of course thre is more here than the Jewishness of the site. The “Jewishness” of the tomb only became an issue wne an effort was made to reestablish Jewish sovereignty. This is about politics. Politics in archaeology? Politics in the Levant, I am shocked, shocked!

    Seriously, what is shocking is a professor condoning and apologizing for the destruction of a site of archaeological interest. (I trust it is understood that I hold no brief for this literally being Joseph’s tomb. My understanding is that it was old, possibly Byzantine, but now we will never know.)

    I am more troubled by your remark regarding the city of David dig being conducted this summer by Eilat Mazar. Surely we have both the obligation and the ability to separate the research from the funder. (I, for one, would not dismiss findings coming out of the pulmonology dept. at Duke Med. School merely because it was funded by a tobacco fortune.) This is particularly crucial in archaeology where both government funding and private funding are so routinely a matter of national pride. Few governments would fund archaeology if not for national pride. In Japan, you know, the Imperial Household Agency legally blocks any digging at sites thought likely to produce evidence of Korean origins. And what would you do about Smithsonian archeologist Noel Broadbent who is “helping the Sami people assert their unique identity” with a digging program called “Search for a Past.” His efforts are intended to concretize by a purported thirteenth-century “Sami homeland … called Sampi or Samiland, which once occupied most of Norway, Sweden, and Finland,” and which some Sami activists would like to reclaim. I find Broadbent’s finds interesting, despite his overtly political goals. And, certainly, the Greek government funded digs in Vergina were conducted by responsible archaeologists working first-class standards of scholarship, and as to the finds – WOW! But there is no doubt that President Karamanlis funded Professor Andronicos’ excavation budget for the espress purpose of establishing that ancient Macedonia was Greek, and thereby reifying a contemporary claim to sovereignty. A claim contested by most of the population of the Republic of Macedonia.

    The a-facticity of the Macedonian claim, which parallels the a-facticity of Abu El Haj’s book, does not invalidate the weight of the Greek inscriptions that Andronicos discovered. Any more than the political nature of his funding invalidates his work. Nor should yor distaste for the overtly Zionist funders backing Eilat Mazar blind you to the bullae, potsherds, and foundation walls that she dug up last summer. Somebody built a monumental building in the City of David in the tenth century. I, for one, am curious to learn more about it, and grateful that somebody is funding the dig. We do and we can use archaeological evidence dug by scholars with political commitments and funding, and we can do as long as these archaeologists are professional about documenting every cubic inch of soil they lift with thir nifty little Marshalltown trowells in an open and transparent manner that allows other scholars to examine and reanalyze the evidence.

    Dismissing Eilat Mazar’s finds on the grounds that she is funded by someone who hopes for evidence that the Kingdom of David existed is mere prejudice.

  9. I, for one, would not dismiss findings coming out of the pulmonology dept. at Duke Med. School merely because it was funded by a tobacco fortune.

    No, but I would be a bit suspicious if the findings happened to show that smoking had no connection with heart disease. I’m not “dismissing” Mazar, but I’m going to be cautious in accepting her interpretations.

    In Japan, you know, the Imperial Household Agency legally blocks any digging at sites thought likely to produce evidence of Korean origins.

    I do know, as I used to live in Osaka and saw the tomb of Emperor Nintoku in Saki City. It’d be great dig around in there!

  10. […] turn up, and indeed that they even have a motive for destroying them. One the other hand, there are questionable links between some Israeli archaeologists and nationalist groups, and archeology was invoked to justify […]

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