Friday, October 14, 2005

Previous entries have examined the case of Barnard professor Nadia Abu el-Haj, author of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society -- an apparently politicized look at the practice of Israeli archaeology.

Previous entries on the subject have included:

Applauding the destruction of Joseph's Tomb at Columbia?
Murdering History in the Dark
Crisis at Columbia: Nadia Abu El-Haj

El-Haj will be the subject of an upcoming JAT-Action item which I have been given a preview of along with permission to post. I think the background portion of the item is excellent and will certainly be of interest to readers, so I have published it below, leaving out only the action portions of the email.

It certainly sounds as though some scholars have become so politicized that they've let their standards way down in order to include a political view they fancy. Radical chic for the academy. If you can't burn down Joseph's Tomb and murder "settlers" yourselves, employing someone who's friends do it may be the next best thing.

SUBJECT: Nadia Abu El Haj was appointed Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College (of Columbia University) two years ago on the strength of her sole book: a anti-Israel screed in which she uses inferior scholarship to 1) deny that Jews lived in Israel in ancient times, and 2) endorse the Arab destruction of archaeological sites that prove that Jews did live on the land in ancient times.

BACKGROUND: It is far from unusual to appoint a young scholar like Nadia Aub El Haj to an assistant professorship on the basis of a single book. She will be expected to produce another book before she comes up for tenure. What is unusual is the nature and caliber of the book that Abu El Haj has written.

Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, a book version of Abu El Haj's PhD thesis, is a study of how "archaeology as a privileged ground of national identity" shaped a society - written by an anthropologist who is not fluent in the language of that society.

"In particular, discussing Israeli archeology as a cultural phenomenon requires an in-depth understanding of Israeli society and, above all, a working knowledge of scholarly Hebrew. Abu el-Haj indicates she studied Hebrew in a desultory fashion, and although her bibliography and footnotes do contain references to Hebrew publications, she appears to have invested lightly in the multitude of Hebrew sources that could have informed her study and made it compelling." [Source]

This is so shocking, so contrary to every principle of scholarship and of anthropological fieldwork that it bears repeating. Nadia Abu El Haj has received a doctorate from Duke University and an appointment at Barnard College based on a study of the attitudes of a society whose language she does not speak fluently. The once-great Barnard College Anthropology Department, made famous by Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, has fallen sadly.

Judging by the internal evidence in Facts on the Ground, the situation is even worse. Anthropologists, after all, do field work. They live and work among the people they study. Abu El Haj's work consists in large part of a severe attack on the methods and attitudes of Israeli archaeologists, whom she accuses of everything from inventing history, to ignoring non-Jewish layers of archaeological digs, to the inappropriate use of "large shovels."* Yet the only evidence presented in the book that she has actually observed or interacted with working archaeologists is mention of a single visit to a dig in the Jezreel valley, apparently on a brief tour stop as part of some kind of academic conference. Ruth Benedict must be rolling over in her grave.

In addition to pretending to analyze "Archaeological Practice," Abu El Haj's book is a study of "Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society." Yet if she spent time studying that society on the ground, it is nowhere evident. The only fieldwork evidenced in the text consists of visits to museums and a couple of public walking tours of the kind that every casual tourist to Jerusalem takes. She visited the tunnel along the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City on such tours, and lengthy sections are devoted to analyzing the remarks of the tourist guides she happened to draw. It is as if Margaret Mead had gone to Samoa on a package tour and turned in a thesis based on the remarks of two random tour guides.

Israelis are among the most verbose people on earth. It is a wonder that the newsstands of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv don't collapse under the weight of the daily papers , magazines, and journals of thought and politics - not to mention the novels, memoirs, ephemera, and movies a scholar of the subject might resort to. Abu El Haj had not accessed this wealth of material. She doesn't know enough Hebrew. This lack of depth shows baldly in the text.

Nor is Facts on the Ground in any way an original analysis. The basic premise of the work - that Israeli archaeology is an ideologically-motivated effort to invent a history for an illegitimate colony of European settlers - was done several years ago by Keith Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel.

In addition to all of these inadequacies, Facts on the Ground makes two claims so outrageous that advocating either ought to disqualify a scholar for appointment to the faculty of a respectable college.

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."

This, of course, flies in the face of a truly monumental amount of evidence. If you have been to the ancient forum Rome, then you have seen the sculpted images of Roman soldiers carrying the great menorah from the Temple at Jerusalem in triumphal procession, an image that was carved to honor Titus for vanquishing the ancient Jewish kingdom, and you know how absurd it is to claim that no ancient Jewish kingdom existed.

But, according to Abu El Haj, "to produce ancient objects as the heritage of the modern Jewish nation requires the assertion, or belief in, a connection between 'the people who created the artifacts in the first place,' and those whose heritage they are seen to represent." Abu El Haj has no "belief" in such a connection. She dismisses the entire ancient record of ancient Israel as a mere "myth." and we have the shocking spectacle of a professor at Barnard College denying the existence of ancient Jewry : the ancient Israelite Kings, kings whose names archaeologists regularly find written in Hebrew on ancient artifacts, the Macabees, the Hasmonean dynasty, the Temple that Herod rebuilt and that Jesus knew, Bar Kochba, the thriving Galileean communities that produced the Mishna and the Jerusalem Talmud - all are denied by Abu El Haj, on the irrational grounds that she chooses not to "believe" in their existence.

And it gets worse. After wiping out the ancient Israelite kingdoms with a stroke of her pen, this young professor actually endorses the eradication of "facts," archaeological sites whose existence she regards as politically inconvenient. Politically motivated Arabs have, in recent years, destroyed numerous Jewish archaeological sites and artifacts, a practice that Abu El Haj applauds.

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.'"

The distinguished archaeologist, Dr. Aren M. Maeir, reviewing Abu El Haj's book in Isis writes: "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 (Israel's) very existence."..."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." [Complete text of review here.]

Nadia Abu El Haj's implacable opposition to the existence of the Jewish State is implicit in almost every page of her book. It is also clear in her extra-scholarly activities.

Abu El Haj signed the petition calling on Columbia to divest from Israel. If Abu El Haj has ever signed a political petition criticizing any nation except, Israel, no record of it appears on a google search.

Several months before the start of the war in Iraq, Abu El Haj signed a letter accusing Israel of intending to exploit a war against Saddam Hussein to engage in "ethnic cleansing" against Palestinians. No one, at that time or since, has produced any evidence that Israel had considered such action, nor, of course, has such a thing taken place.

* This and all other quotes from Abu El Haj are taken from the text of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. They can be verified by going to the printed text.

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Columbia's Revisionist Anthropologist.

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» Revisionist Scholar Seeks Tenure At Barnard at the blog Knockin' On The Golden Door

From Solomonia is the shocking account of a revisionist professor of anthropology, Nadia Abu el-Haj. Go, read it, and then contact Judith SHAPIRO, president of Barnard College, and ask her if she bumped her head before hiring Ms. Abu el-Haj... Read More


the really sad thing about this is that if any culture has politicized archeology in a negative sense, it's arab muslim culture. as far as i know there is not one site of archeological digging in an arab country that dates to the 7th century (don't want to find out what really happened in the early years of islam), and the way that the waqf has dug at the temple mount is nothing short of savage (with israeli archeologists sifting through their garbage to find items from 10th century BCE).

this is the archeological parallel to all those indignant comments from muslims about how judaism and christianity are so anti-muslim without a sideways glance at how virulently hostile to "infidels" muslims are. pure demopathy.

and of course, like the case of Joel Beinen at Stanford (see comments here: and here, the question comes up again and again, what has happened to academic standards that advocacy can parade as scholarship *and get away with it?* and what are the consequences for us as we try to understand what we are dealing with.

Write to the President of Barnard College asking why the college has hired a young woman who approves of the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites to further her political agenda.

President Judith Shapiro

Barnard College
Office of the President, 109 Milbank Hall
3009 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

Judith SHAPIRO???!!!

and just what's that supposed to mean?

I think he's merely reacting to the fact that the person who is apparently responsible for El Haj's employment is a Jew, or at least has a Jewish name. Not a surprising reaction. It might be worth noting this part I did not quote from the action item:

"NOTE: While President Shapiro is a supporter of Israel, she is also an anthropologist, and Abu El Haj's work is applauded in anthropology departments, where hatred of Israel is endemic. Shapiro, who moved from teaching into university administration at Bryn Mawr over twenty years ago, may not be fully aware of how aggressively politicized anthropology has become. Many anthropologists join Abu El Haj in her view that the existence of a Jewish State is illegitimate."

"I think he's merely reacting to the fact that the person who is apparently responsible for El Haj's employment is a Jew, or at least has a Jewish name. Not a surprising reaction."

Solomon, As a Jew myself, that is exactly what I was referring to. I find it absolutely unbelievable that el-Haj could be employed at a major institution of higher learning whose president is either Jewish, or at the very least, is married to a Jew.

I suspect, however, that she is probably Jewish. In my neck of the woods (Northern California), it is not uncommon to encounter American Jews with a complete disconnect from, if not an outright (and unfounded) dislike for Israel. Perhaps Judith Shapiro counts among them.

Be that as it may, to paraphrase the old Levy's commercial, "You don't have to be Jewish to like Israel, and you certainly don't need to be Jewish to smell revisionist bullshit when it is directly under your nose.

Richard Landes: If you visited my website, you probably would have easily ascertained that Solomon's deduction was the case.

Judith Shapiro is certainly Jewish.

Her problem is with the faculty. Abu El Haj has critics both because of the illegitimacy of her scholarship and because of her anti-Israel politics. University factuly believe that no one outside of the faculty has a right to judge the calibre of a scholar's politics, and that no all scholars are and should be immune from criticism of their politics. No matter how extreme.

University Presidents cannot afford to antagonize their faculty. If they do, it's like Larry Summers - off with his head.

"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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