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:
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.
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.
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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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