Middle East studies in the News
Erasing History and Ourselves: Nadia Abu El-Haj, Israel, and the Western Tradition
by Jonathan Burack
The Hebrew Bible is a fairy tale. Ancient Israel is a fiction. All the shards of pottery, the houses, the stone walls, terraces, grain storage silos and tombs in the hill country, forget about them. None of them speak, and none can be clearly linked to the Jewish people. Moreover, the Jews of modern-day Israel have no genetic or other real connection to the land they have illegitimately occupied in the modern age.
Or so Nadia Abu El-Haj would have you suspect. In her 2001 book, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," published by the University of Chicago, the Barnard assistant professor of anthropology accused Israeli archaeology of making it all up simply to justify the existence of the Jewish state.
Five years later, this book is back in the news. That's because El-Haj is up for tenure, and a number of Barnard alumnae are not pleased. Their fury is not hard to understand. After all, what is at stake is not merely the legitimacy of Israel as a nation. El-Haj calls into question the integrity of an entire field of scholarship. Also, her approach in effect works to dissolve a foundation stone in the edifice of Western history. By effacing ancient Israel, the soaring ideals of Judaic monotheism, of a just and merciful God, of a people called to live by and be defined by the highest ideals are left as mere fine-sounding phrases hanging in air.
Let's be clear. The problem is not simply that El-Haj questions the literal truth of the Hebrew Bible. Israeli archaeologists themselves have for a long time been qualifying and rejecting many parts of the story it tells on the basis of the evidence they gather. Their debates have been intense, even bitter, for decades now. Lately, they pit "minimalists" (hardly anything in the Bible is true) against "maximalists" (much of it is true) with most adopting shades in between. To enter into these debates is to learn quickly that very little solid archaeological evidence supports the story of Abraham, the enslavement of Hebrews in Egypt, the Exodus, or the conquest of Canaan. More evidence for the unified monarchy (David and Solomon) exists, but even it is challenged by many in the field.
Yet none of these debates raises any doubts that for centuries the Jewish people made the land of Israel their home, built on it, farmed on it, fought for it and were exiled from it by the Romans in the second century C.E. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Even El-Haj never refutes it directly. Yet her basic premise is still that Israeli archaeology has enabled Israelis to "fabricate" an ancient national history they do not deserve as a way to justify their "colonial-settler" nation's expropriation of the Palestinians.
Given the evidence, how is El-Haj able to erase ancient Israel? Through her mastery of the postmodern, an academic confidence game that renders questions of truth or falsehood moot. Here in her final comments, El-Haj shows us how the game is played:
Archaeology emerged as a central scientific discipline because of the manner in which colonial settlement was configured in a language of, and a belief in, Jewish national return. In producing the material signs of national history that became visible and were witnessed across the contemporary landscape, archaeology repeatedly remade the colony into an ever-expanding national terrain. It substantiated the nation in history and produced Eretz Israel as the national home.
Ordinary mortals may wonder how archaeology can "produce" material signs or "remake" colonies. Postmodernism's all-pervasive production metaphors redefine the search for knowledge as an act of imposition and an exercise of power. Using this jargon, El-Haj dismisses what she terms "positivist" archaeology with its naïve faith that its job is to discover and interpret evidence rather than manufacture facts and construct narratives. For her, material signs and their narratives are all that exist. You simply cannot pin her down as to what the actual evidence proves or does not prove.
El-Haj is not a practicing archaeologist. She hardly knows the Hebrew in which many Israeli archaeological debates are conducted. She has taken part in very few actual digs. Yet she confidently condemns Israeli archaeology as a tool of the Zionists. With only gossip to go on, she accuses one archaeologist of bulldozing non-Jewish strata to get to the levels that might offer details about ancient Israel. Bizarrely, she then concludes her book by reversing herself on such desecration, asking us to "understand" sympathetically the Palestinian mob that destroyed Joseph's Tomb on October 8, 2000. I guess it all depends on whose narrative is being bulldozed.
El Haj devotes a huge amount of space to the theme of circularity. That is, she says Israeli archaeologists use Biblical references to locate and label material objects and then use these objects to verify Biblical references. Without the Bible, she suggests, the ethnicity of the material objects alone would be far from clear. Actually, Israeli archaeologists have long been aware of this problem. They deal with it in the only way possible, through a detailed analysis of small differences in the material objects and by searching meticulously for Hebrew writings on shards (there are many) and monuments and for other written sources from elsewhere in the region. The problem of circularity is a red herring. It exists wherever archaeologists seek to buttress the mute testimony of pots and stones with the written sources that make history possible.
El-Haj wants to short-circuit circularity by leaving the Bible out entirely. She would limit the serious study of ancient Israel to those pots and stones alone, with the Bible relegated strictly to the realm of myth or story telling. The Bible can be challenged as a historical document, obviously, yet it is still central to an understanding of ancient Israel's history and Judaism's huge importance for the West and the world. El Haj downplays this written heritage of ideas as a key link between ancient and modern Israel. Material artifacts alone will then leave ancient Israeli ethnic identity utterly indistinct and obscure. Lately, El-Haj has embarked on genetic ancestry testing among Israel's Jews in order to explore "race, diaspora and kinship." Will she seek to prove that Israelis today have no genetic link to the ancient Israelites? Will she use this to buttress her case that modern-day Israelis are not entitled to their Jewish homeland?
This leads me to end on a personal note. My forebears came to America in the 1890s from Latvia and Poland. Yet though the Declaration of Independence was written by upper crust WASPS, it is still every bit as much a part of my proud identity and heritage as anyone else's. So also are the lands of Israel and the Hebrew Bible. For hoping to erase the Jewish historical presence in Israel, for embracing a genetic concept of Jewish identity, and for further turning Palestinian and Jew against one another, Nadia Abu El-Haj's book is a pure polemic. If Barnard grants her tenure, it will be rewarding a polemic, not scholarship.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Jonathan Burack is a former secondary school history teacher who has created hundreds of curriculum materials, and is a member of a group of social studies mavericks called "The Contrarians". He contributed a chapter to that group's Fordham Institute report "Where did Social Studies Go Wrong?"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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