Middle East studies in the News
Who's Coming Up For Tenure: Nadia Abu el-Haj
[The following entry was prepared in cooperation with an academic who prefers to remain anonymous. I have a number of prior entries on Columbia University's Nadia Abu el-Haj, notably, Applauding the destruction of Joseph's Tomb at Columbia?, Across the Bay on Khalidi, Crisis at Columbia: Nadia Abu El-Haj, Columbia's Revisionist Anthropologist, Reviewing the work of the scholar who applauded the destruction of Joseph's Tomb -- Nadia Abu el-Haj, and An Academic Review of 'Facts on the Ground'.
All unfootnoted quotes are taken from el Haj's book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. At the conclusion are appended some money quotes from three academic reviews. This is, I hope, to be one in a series of posts taking an in-depth look at some academics coming up for tenure in the near future.]
At Barnard College they are forming a committee to consider giving tenure to a young Palestinian anthropologist who advocates destroying archaeological sites for political purposes, and who has decided -- without regard to evidence -- that the ancient Israelite kingdoms were mere "myth."
Observers believe that she is very likely to receive tenure.
Abu El Haj rejects the right of the Jewish people to have a state. She vilifies Israel as an illegitimate, "colonial settler" enterprise. She has urged Columbia to "divest from all companies" that sell even defensive military supplies to Israel. In 2002 she condemned Israel in advance for an "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians during the Iraq war -- an event that was never planned and never occurred.
Her bid for tenure will be based on a single book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. In it she denies that the ancient Jewish or Israelite kingdoms existed.
"What was considered to have been ancient Jewish national existence and sovereignty in their homeland" is "a tale best understood as the modern nation's origin myth… transported into the realm of history." The Hasmonean and Davidic dynasties are a mere "belief," an "ideological assertion," a "pure political fabrication."
Although it may seen incredible that a book could commit a more flagrant violation of scholarly standards than to dismiss the vast body of archaeological and documentary evidence for the existence of the ancient Jewish and Israelite kingdoms, Abu El Haj manages to do so when she excuses the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites when it is done by Palestinians for political purposes. In Abu El Haj's view, deliberately destroying ancient buildings is not to be condemned, it is to be "analyzed as a form of resistance to the Israeli state."
The deliberate destruction of archaeological artifacts, "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."
Abu El Haj's scorn for evidence-based scholarship is explicit. In her own words, she writes within a scholarly tradition that "Reject(s) a positivist commitment to scientific methods…" Rather, her work is "rooted in… post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory… and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements."
This, apparently, entitles her to write about Israeli archaeology with no respect for the inconvenient evidence presented by mountains of ostraca, numerous inscribed stele, and all those large, well-documented tells. And to write an anthropology of a society, Israel, which she has visited only briefly and whose language she does not speak.
Abu El Haj is not an anthropologist in the tradition of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, scholars who went into the field, learned the language, and interacted with the people they wrote about. Nadia Abu El Haj does none of this. She has written an anthropology of the role of archaeological knowledge in Israeli society based almost exclusively on sources published in English. She made a single, one-day visit to a single dig, visited a handful of archaeological museums in Jerusalem, took a standard tourist walking tour of the Old City -- and wrote a book about what Israelis think about archaeology.
Israelis speak Hebrew; Abu El Haj does not. She cites almost no Hebrew sources in her footnotes, did no field work among Israelis, and lacks fluency in the language of the culture she has pretended to study.
Below, you will find excerpts from and links to scholarly reviews of this book. Her work has been well received by scholars who share Abu El Haj's commitment to politicized postcolonial scholarship.
According to her friend and colleague, Joseph Massad, Abu el Haj is working on a book about the "Zionist movement('s)…desperate contemporary search for Jewish 'genetic markers' " to support "its continued investment in the racial separateness of the Jews."
Abu El Haj called a talk she gave at the New School for Social Research on Nov. 30, 2005, "Genetics, Jewish Origins and Historical Truths." Given that Abu El Haj asserts in Facts on the Ground that the claim of Jewish "nativeness," based on descent from the ancient Hebrews was "self-fashioned" -- those who "believe" it mistake "myth" for fact -- we must assume that Abu El Haj is setting out not so much to explore "Jewish Origins and Historical Truths," as to twist, distort and generally misrepresent evidence about the genetic origins of the Jews in the same way she twisted, distorted, and misrepresented evidence about Israeli archaeology in Facts on the Ground.
If you share my concern about the implications of hiring a young scholars who writes with so little respect for the use of evidence, I urge you to contact Barnard President Shapiro (212) 854-2021 (jshapiro@Barnard.Edu) and share your opinion of what the scholarly standards for tenure at Barnard should be.
Review excerpts and links:
"At the heart of her critique is an undisguised political agenda that regards modern and ancient Israel, and perhaps Jews as a whole, as fictions.
"Abu El Haj's anthropology is undone by her... ill-informed narrative, intrusive counter-politics, and by her unwillingness to either enter or observe Israeli society...
"The effect is a representation of Israeli archaeology that is simply bizarre... Filling in what is missing from her text becomes fatiguing. In the end there is no reason to take her picture of Israeli archaeology seriously, since her selection bias is so glaring.
"What then are the real goals the book? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the effort is designed to contribute to the deconstruction of the legitimacy of Israel as a modern, and ancient, entity. Her current research on the "use of genetic evidence in historical inquiry, specifically attempts to isolate distinctive genetic markers of Jewishness through which ancient histories of migration are being traced and claims to Jewish descent evaluated. This project will examine the implications of genomics for questions of history and identity, race and territory at the turn of the new millennium"
"Abu El Haj concludes on a truly shocking note, suggesting that with the destruction of the archaeological site called 'Joseph's Tomb,' an attack during which a real person, a no doubt hybridized Israeli Druze named Yusuf Mahdat, was killed, "Palestinian demonstrators eradicated one of Israel's 'facts on the ground'" (p. 281). Are scholars now in the business of advocating the eradication of 'facts' rather than their explanation?
"Abu El Haj has written a flimsy and supercilious book, which does no justice to either her putative subject or the political agenda she wishes to advance. It should be avoided."
Alexander H. Joffe has dug for several seasons at Meggido.
Journal of Near Eastern Studies. Chicago: Oct 2005. Vol. 64, Iss. 4; p. 297
"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.
"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 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...
"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.
Aren Maeir is one of the most distinguished archaeologists now digging in Israel. He is the lead archaeologist at Tel es Safi/Tel Gath (Gath of the Philistines.)
Isis, volume 95 (2004), pages 523-524
"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.
"As it stands, Abu el-Haj's reading of Israeli academic culture and its relationship to the politics of statehood politicizes the work of Israel's scholarly establishment in a way that can be misleading. Even when granting certain Israeli archeologists their academic integrity, she tends to describe their findings as bent by the state for its own political purposes. This is inaccurate. In fact, Israeli archeology is characterized by lively discussion that values independent scientific inquiry and often undermines conventional wisdom, be it the previous wisdom of peers or that of the nation's foundational narratives. Both the print and electronic media give extensive coverage to archeological digs and displays. The broad outline of that lively debate is well known among those many Israelis who follow archeological developments.
"Given her interest in cultural studies, it is not surprising that Abu el-Haj casts an exceedingly wide net, and that leads to problems. Her discussion of archeological practice conflates the statements of tour guides, the claims of museum displays, the design of archeological parks in Jerusalem, and the assertions of Israeli political figures-particularly those politicians with strong links to the settler movement-with the research and writing of a highly demanding scholarly discipline.
"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. For professionals and amateurs alike, the archeology of the land of Israel is not a vehicle to authenticate the nation's existence or its distinctively Jewish character or the passionate attachment of Israelis to the land they claim as their state.
All that is taken for granted by Israel's Jewish citizens and by most of the world as well. Rather it is only those who deny Israel's right to exist or contest the legitimacy of its current borders who deny altogether or compromise Israel's links to the historic past."
Jacob Lassner, professor of history and religion at Northwestern University, has written extensively on the political uses of architecture and city planning in the Islamic Near East.
Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2003Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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