Middle East studies in the News
Does Nadia Abu El Haj Know Hebrew?
by Paula Stern
Does Nadia Abu El Haj know Hebrew?
For those of you who don't know...I live in Israel. I speak Hebrew every day, in all settings. One would assume that someone who is studying the culture and archeology of a land would want to have an in-depth understanding of the language of the people, the language in which the bulk of the experts would be writing. The most experienced experts in Israeli archeology are...Israelis. They write in Hebrew. They converse in Hebrew. They study and work in Hebrew. So...as someone who would want to give the impression that she is an expert in her field...or why else would she have chosen to do her dissertation in this field (why, indeed?)...it is valid to ask if Nadia Abu El Haj is even capable of understanding the language in which the bulk of the literature is written. So, does Nadia Abu El Haj know Hebrew?
She says she studied Hebrew in her Acknowledgements section, but reviewers of her work have doubted that she knows enough Hebrew to function in the language. Any Israeli reading the book will quickly see that the numerous mistakes she makes are a clear indication...this woman is as uncertain and unskilled in her Hebrew skills as she is in her research, her documentation, her ability to draw logical and intelligent conclusions based on real facts on the ground.
"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." -- http://www.meforum.org/article/560
Abu El Haj claims that in her book she "analyzes the significance of archaeology to the Israeli state and society and the role it played in the formation and enactment of its colonial-national historical imagination.…"
The usual scholarly approach to looking at the role of something like archaeology in any society is to systematically examine such sources as school books, newspapers, and popular literature. Anthropologists also ascertain attitudes and beliefs by conducting interviews with members of the society being studied. Abu El Hj neither conducted interviews with Israelis nor explored the sources – school books, newspapers, novels, political speeches, and so forth – that would have revealed the range of Israeli opinion on archaeology. There is every possibility that she failed to take this important step for a very simple reason...she couldn't read them; she couldn't understand them. They are, after all, in the language of the Jewish state she so despises: Hebrew.
Instead, she took the ordinary tours that tourists take. The book includes several extended passages in which she seems to put forth the words of a particular tour guide as representative of Israeli opinion as a whole.
This is a methodological problem with the book. Instead of studying Israeli society, she quotes the opinion of a couple of tour guides in the Jewish Quarter. And she quotes them directly and entirely in English. It is reasonable to assume that she (people who have heard her speak report that she sounds like a native, American English speaker) took the tours in English.
Here is an academic critique of her methodology in studying Israeli society.
"But any discussion of how high culture connects to low culture must include a review of the locations where this really happens in an active sense, not least of all school curricula, pamphlets, and newspapers. On these Abu El-Haj is largely silent, choosing instead to retread the familiar ground of Zionist nature walks. Her omission may be contrasted with the work of Amatzia Baram on Ba'athist Iraq or Asher Kaufman on ‘Phoenicianism' in Maronite Lebanon, not to mention Nachman Ben-Yehuda's on Masada in Israeli culture. (10) Her determination to focus on high culture products such as museums and ‘space' is again in the tradition of Said. Not coincidentally, these are precisely the subjects explored most cogently by leftist Israeli academics, whom she cites approvingly and repeatedly. They, like the revisionist Israeli ‘New Historians' are at least familiar with their subjects.
"Whatever might have been said or created by archaeology is received differently by pluralist society. People heard, and hear, what they want to hear; as Yaacov Shavit notes, in a critically important English-language paper not cited by Abu El-Haj, Israeli archaeology was many different things to different people. (11) Historical memory, a concept she invokes without mentioning Pierre Nora or Maurice Halbwachs, is produced throughout every society and not merely among intellectuals. As if to compensate for her elevated focus, she tries to grasp the ‘meaning' of the ‘facts' she has gathered by a kind of crypto-ethnography, overheard snippets of tourist chatter, conversations with unnamed informant archaeologists, and commentary from ever reliable tour guides. Does this chart public opinion or public policy in any meaningful way? It is a flimsy and unconvincing method for entering into the gestalt of Israeli society. If nothing else it is undone by her pretending to straddle the impossible boundary between observer-independent and observer-dependent relations. Her understanding of Israeli politics is simplistic and falls back on convenient dichotomies; religious versus non religious, Mizrahi versus Ashkenazi, and of course, religious-nationalist ‘settlers' versus everyone. (12) Ultimately, Abu El-Haj's anthropology is undone by her epistemology and ill-informed narrative, intrusive counter-politics, and by her unwillingness to either enter or observe Israeli society with a modicum of sympathy or generosity."
Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, Alexander H Joffe. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. Chicago: Oct 2005. Vol. 64, Iss. 4; p. 297.
Add to this the fact that Israel is a free country. You can take a tour of Jerusalem's Jewish sites with local or foreign guides who speak Arabic, English, Hebrew, and a hundred other languages. Migdal David on a typical day is a fair stand-in for the Tower of Babel, with guides simultaneously speaking Japanese, Italian and more languages than I can identify. More to the point, available tours are as ideologically diverse as they are linguistically diverse. This is not China or Jordan, where a government ministry regulates what the guides can say. You can take a Christian, Muslim, Jewish or anti-religion tour, you can take a poltically right-wing or a politically left-wing tour. You can take regularly organized tours of Jerusalem sponsored by groups that advocate the elimination of the State of Israel.
But back to the language question. Does she or doesn't she?
"A Brief Evaluation of Methodology and Use of Evidence in Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society by Nadia Abu El-Haj
"Command of the Hebrew Language
"El-Haj has undertaken to write an anthropology of Israeli attitudes towards archaeology and their role in "self-fashioning in Israeli society," yet there is no indication in the text that she either explored these topics in conversation with Israelis in a systematic way (she cites only conversations with tour guides) or by reading materials published in the national language. Indeed, there are indications in the text that she was not capable of doing so due to her apparent unfamiliarity with Hebrew. Even when following a source (p. 95), El-Haj repeatedly mistakes neve (settlement) for nahal (stream), misnaming, for example, Nahal Patish as Neve Patish (writing, roughly, the town of Patish in place of Patish Creek, a stream valley named for its hammer [patish]-shaped rock formation.)
"On the next page (p. 96), she accuses Zionist pioneers of naming Tell Hai, Tell Yosef, and Tell ha-Shomer in a manner intended to mislead, that is, by implying that these new villages were built on tells, that is, on sites "of the remains of ancient settlements." El-Haj not only condemns such misappropriation of the word tell but asserts that the government Committee on Place Names (Va'adt ha-Shemot) "insisted" that "such improper terminological uses could not be continued."
"Throughout this remarkable passage, Abu El-Haj appears to be entirely unaware that tell (tel) is a common Hebrew word meaning both "hill" and "artificial hill created by the remains of an ancient settlement." A direct translation of Tel Aviv, for example, is Hill of Spring, a hopeful name for a city that makes no pretense to antiquity. El-Haj's assertion that the names of these towns were condemned by the Va'ad ha-Shemot is sheer untruth.
"A lack of familiarity with the language of a nation disqualifies a scholar from attempting certain projects. Lack of Hebrew disqualifies a scholar from undertaking a technical discussion of Hebrew and Arabic place-naming."
Readers of Facts on the Ground with a working knowledge of Hebrew understandably come away with the impression that Nadia Abu El Haj lacks a working knowledge of Hebrew. If she does have command of Hebrew sufficient to interview Israelis and read Israeli newspapers and books, she ought to have done so before pretending to publish a study that "analyzes the significance of archaeology to the Israeli state and society."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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