Middle East studies in the News
Barnard Alumae Opposing Tenure for Anthropologist [on Nadia El-Haj]
by Gabrielle Birkner
A group of Barnard College alumnae is attempting to stop their alma mater from giving tenure to an assistant professor who minimizes Jews' historical connection to Israel.
In her 2001 book, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," published by the University of Chicago, the professor of anthropology, Nadia Abu El-Haj says Israeli archaeology manipulates evidence to justify a modern Jewish state in the region.
Relying heavily on the input of anonymous archaeologists, tour guides, and tour participants, the book portrays Israeli archaeologists as ideologues who, driven by a desire to "efface Zionism's colonial dimension," have fabricated Jews' territorial claims to Israel.
Contacted by phone and e-mail, Ms. Abu El-Haj would not comment on the book, or her position at Barnard.
While "Facts on the Ground" has been warmly received by some biblical "minimalists," or "biblical revisionists" — academics who contend the Bible was written centuries later than is widely accepted and, that the text has little or no historical relevance — it has been widely dismissed by archaeologists as a political treatise, full of erroneous statements and unsubstantiated claims.
In "Facts on the Ground," Ms. Abu el-Haj suggests Jerusalem was destroyed not by the Romans, but by the Jews themselves due to rising class tensions among them. Yet, the 1st-century historian and scribe Josephus described in great detail the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Additionally, carvings in the Arch of Titus in Rome depict the Roman General Titus showing off menorahs and other objects looted from the Second Temple.
In another passage, Ms. Abu El-Haj relates how a tourist questions a Jerusalem tour guide's explanation that the Judean King Hezekiah saved the city from an Assyrian conquest in 701 B.C.E. The tourist refutes the statement, claiming that Hezekiah's actions actually led to the destruction of the nearby Israelite kingdom. "Although the tourist's objection would appear to undermine the guide's interpretation … this is a ludicrous claim, since the Israelite kingdom had been conquered twenty-one years earlier!" an archaeology professor at Israeli's Bar-Ilan University, Aren Maeir, wrote two years ago in a University of Chicago journal, Isis.
The Assyrian conquest of Samaria in 722 B.C.E. is confirmed in Assyrian annals, which provide copious descriptions of the kingdom's fall, according to a retired professor of Near East archaeology at the University of Arizona, William Dever.
Mr. Dever, who has authored more than 20 books on Middle East History, said Ms. Abu El-Haj seems intent on writing Jews out of ancient Middle East history, and demonizing a generation of apolitical Israeli archaeologists in the process. Barnard should deny Ms. Abu El-Haj tenure, he said, "not because she's Palestinian or pro-Palestinian or a leftist, but because her scholarship is faulty, misleading and dangerous."
A 1982 Barnard alumna, Paula Stern, said she is "horrified by the possibility that Barnard College would consider appointing" Ms. Abu El-Haj to its permanent faculty.
Particularly troubling, Ms. Stern said, is Ms. Abu El-Haj's conclusion that the Palestinians who in 2000 desecrated Joseph's Tomb — a Jewish holy site in the West Bank city of Nablus — need 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 a recent e-mail message to fellow Barnard graduates, Ms. Stern, who lives in Israel, wrote, "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.'" Ms. Stern urged fellow Barnard graduates to contact the college's president "if you share my concern about the implications of hiring a young scholar who writes with so little respect for the use of evidence."
The president of Barnard College, Judith Shapiro, herself a cultural anthropologist, has received about 20 emails from individuals who oppose tenure for Ms. Abu El-Haj, a Barnard spokeswoman, Elizabeth Gildersleeve, said. "Her studies are on a controversial subject, and that can stir the pot," Ms. Gildersleeve said.
Many of the academics who reviewed "Facts on the Ground" rejected the author's methodology and her conclusions. "Abu El-Haj has written a flimsy and supercilious book that does no justice to either her putative subject or the political agenda she wishes to advance. It should be avoided," a biblical archaeologist, a former adjunct professor at Purchase College, Alexander Joffe, wrote in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. Mr. Joffe now works for an Israel advocacy organization, the David Project.
Bar-Ilan University's Mr. Maeir, in a telephone interview, said archaeologists in Israel — like archaeologists elsewhere — have used their work for nationalistic purposes in the past. He said the field has evolved in recent decades, and its Israeli practitioners are not "out there working on this nationalist, jingoistic agenda of proving the Zionist point of view, and negating the Arab point of view," as Ms. Abu El-Haj would have readers believe.
Ms. Abu El-Haj portrays Western scholarship as colonialist and imperialist. "The work of archaeology in Palestine/Israel is a cardinal institutional location of the ongoing practice of colonial nationhood producing facts through which historical-national claims, territorial transformations, heritage objects and historicities ‘happen,'" she wrote.
More mainstream archaeologists, according to Mr. Dever, trace the origins of the Israelite state to the 10th or 9th century B.C.E., contend that Bible was written in 8th or 7th century B.C.E., and that the biblical stories are "based on some historical facts. "Their minds are made up," Mr. Dever said of the minimalists, whom he calls "nihilists."
"They never pay any attention to archaeological evidence, except to discredit it," Mr. Dever said.
One of the most prominent minimalist academics, Keith Whitelam, a professor of religious studies at England's University of Sheffield, in an e-mail interview with The New York Sun, hailed "Facts on the Ground" as a "first-rate book." "It is important to study how national identity is constructed and the assumptions which are then built into academic work on history and archaeology," he wrote. " ‘Facts on the Ground' is a very fine contribution to that debate and our understanding of the processes." Mr. Whitelam is the author of "The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History."
A history and religion professor at Northwestern University, Jacob Lassner, in a 2003 review of "Facts on the Ground" published in Middle East Quarterly, wrote that minimalist archaeological claims have become a popular vehicle for those with decidedly anti-Zionist motives, writing "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 past."
Even so, Mr. Lassner told The New York Sun said efforts by Barnard alumnae to block Ms. Abu El-Haj from receiving tenure would likely prove ineffectual. "Universities don't react to pressure of alumni on matters of tenure," he said. "It's not going to do very much good for alumnae to start complaining, especially if they're not scholars."Note: 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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