Thursday, June 30, 2005

An emailer forwards the following review of a highly political book on Israeli archaeology by a (what else?) Columbia University (Barnard College) professor. Most interesting, no shocking, is that apparently the book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, includes a chapter in which the destruction of Joseph's Tomb -- carried out by a rioting Palestinian Arab mob after the site was turned over to PA control -- which resulted not only in damage to the site, but loss of life as well (see here, here and here for more information) is lauded.

Shocking, coming as it does from an archaeologist employed by a major American University, but not so shocking when one realizes that the author, Nadia Abu el-Haj, is only part scientist and the other part polemicist, as so many modern university dwellers seem to be, not only endorsing the destruction of archaeological sites in her work, but also using her position as a political platform (she's name #1 on this Columbia divestment petition, as well as a signatory to the absurd letter released just before the Iraq War blaming Israel in advance for taking the opportunity to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians -- something it had neither the intention nor plans to do -- the letter was more of an indicator of the nature of the fevered minds responsible for it). If the following review is accurate, and any indication of the quality of the scholarship that lands one a job at a major American university, I think politics are only part of the problem.

Currently, this review, by Aren M. Maeir, is only available to an academic audience, but my emailer believes it should be available to a wider audience, and I agree, so here it is:

This book is a deceptively well-written, well researched monograph that superficially bears all the signs of a state-of-the-art contemporary social science study. Facts on the Ground is ostensibly meant to study the practice and the role of archaeology in modern Israeli society; the author, using a distinctly postmodernist, postcolonialist perspective, attempts to demonstrate how archaeology was and still is fundamentally used and misused as a nationalist tool, with the aim of furthering Zionist colonial/expansionist ideologies and policies. At a cursory glance-or through the eyes of a reader who is not intimately familiar with many of the archaeological, anthropological, and contemporary political issues that are broached-the study appears to be of impressive breadth and insight, incorporating a wide array of field data and library research and exhibiting a seemingly impressive control of the right buzzwords and jargon, with quotations from all the "right" academic luminaries.

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. In part, this perspective can be explained as the product of a postmodern/postcolonial deconstructionist approach to the social sciences. In this review, I will try to focus on several points that I believe point to three cardinal weaknesses of the book: the anti-Zionist/anti-Israeli agendas that taint its very foundations; a glaring misunderstanding and lack of intimate knowledge of details; and the exasperating "tunnel vision" that assumes that Zionism and the State of Israel exist in a vacuum...

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.

Abu el-Haj's attempt to present a damning picture of Israeli archaeology backfires. 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.

Likewise, like many before her, Abu el-Haj shows that Israeli archaeologists were relative latecomers in the implementation of modern theory and methodology. Although this has changed in the last two decades (despite what she writes), the paramount reason behind this slow development is not a hidden colonial agenda but, rather, that Israeli archaeology was, to a large extent, an offspring of European classical archaeology.

Throughout the volume, in her discussions of the political undertones of various archaeological projects in Israel and the generalizations that she draws from this, her failure to note relevant and parallel phenomena in other societies is somewhat disconcerting. 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. This tunnel vision is most striking in the discussion of the use of bulldozers in Israeli excavations. In a book published in 2001, Abu el-Haj's failure even to mention the wanton destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif by the Muslims in Jerusalem is quite strange.

Throughout the book she repeatedly quotes anonymous archaeologists to support her contentions. Although it might be claimed that she does this to "protect" her sources, one wonders whether the real purpose is to protect the verifiability of these statements. To quote a tour guide's explanation as to how an excavation is run and subsequently interpreted is somewhat ludicrous from a scientific perspective (p. 214). At most, this indicates the low level of archaeological knowledge that this, and perhaps other, guides had acquired. At other points she gives ample space to quotations of the views of the most extremist groups in Israeli society (e.g., pp. 216-228, 266) without giving the rational or scientific opinions on the same topics sufficient representation.

Although Abu el-Haj scathingly attacks the state of method and theory in Israeli archaeology, her own understanding of archaeological method is inadequate. For example, her discussion of carbon 14 radiometric dating is simplistic, and her lack of comprehension of the most basic archaeological (and scientific) interpretative tool is glaring: it is not enough to have a hypothesis; one has to have supporting evidence to prove it-or at least the high probability of proof-before it can be accepted. In her discussion of the "Jewish Quarter" in Jerusalem, Abu el-Haj argues against the "standard" explanation (Roman destruction at Jerusalem in 70 C.E.); she prefers a ludicrous explanation, relating the archaeological evidence of wide-scale destruction in Jerusalem to internal disputes, that flies in the face of available evidence.

Abu el-Haj repeatedly reverts to a tactic more appropriate for television depictions of jury trials than in scholarly discourse. She has a tendency to bring up a topic that appears to support her thesis but to refrain from discussing it in detail (the "question withdrawn" syndrome). On pages 313-314, she quotes a discussion between a guide and a tourist in which the guide claimed that Jerusalem had been saved from Assyrian conquest in 701 B.C.E. through the judicious actions of the Judean king Hezekiah and the participant dissented, claiming that Hezekiah's actions resulted in the destruction of the neighboring Israelite kingdom. Although the tourist's objection would appear to undermine the guide's interpretation (Abu el-Haj ends the note by stating that the guide felt uneasy), this is a ludicrous claim, since the Israelite kingdom had been conquered twenty-one years earlier! Abu el-Haj seeks to undermine the "normative" narrative but in fact demonstrates the limited knowledge of her informants, as well as her own lack of relevant knowledge-or her willingness to "skim over" the "damning details."

Abu el-Haj's anti-Israeli ideology pervades the book. An outstanding example is her reference to "the indigenous Arab inhabitants (some of whom were Jews)" (p. 4). Such terminology simply denies the right of Jewish national selfdetermination. Coming from a "postcolonialist," this is surprising, but revealing. One cannot escape the conclusion that Abu el-Haj's problem is not the misuse of archaeology in the State of Israel but, rather, its very existence.

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.

This book is the result of faulty and ideologically motivated research. One can but wonder how the 1995 dissertation on which it is based was authorized at Duke University and how a respected publisher like the University of Chicago Press could have published such unsubstantiated work.

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Applauding the destruction of Joseph's Tomb at Columbia?.

TrackBack URL for this entry:

» Israel to ask PA to repair Joseph's Tomb at the blog Solomonia

Yeah, good luck with that. It's someone else's money anyway. Israel will ask the Palestinian Authority to repair Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, it was announced Sunday. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that he had instructed Defense Minister Ehud Barak to... Read More

» Diggin' the digging at the blog Soccer Dad

Ethan Bronner reports Museum Offers Gray Gaza a View of Its Dazzling Past It may sound like the indulgence of a well-fed man fleeing the misery around him. But when Jawdat N. Khoudary opens the first museum of archaeology in Gaza this summer it will b... Read More


Now the Columbia faculty is cheering on the destruction of historic Jewish religious sites?

What's next, public burnings of the Talmud on College walk?

Really a horrifying situation. This disturbs me even more, perhaps, than the cartoon contest in Tehran - that, we can't control. But this is home - America.

What's next?

"Syme: It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. You wouldn't have seen the [Newspeak] Dictionary 10th edition, would you Smith? It's that thick. [illustrates thickness with fingers] The 11th Edition will be that [narrows fingers] thick. Winston Smith: So, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect? Syme: The secret is to move from translation, to direct thought, to automatic response. No need for self-discipline. Language coming from here [the larynx], not from here [the brain]" -1984 (film)


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