Middle East studies in the News
More Bad Genetic Scholarship from Nadia Abu El Haj
Two hundred and forty-eight pages into the convoluted prose of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, the reader comes across this statement:
"to produce ancient objects as the heritage of the modern Jewish nation requires the assertion, or belief in, a connection (perhaps even a genealogical relationship) between the people who created the artifacts in the first place and those whose identity they are seen to represent."
As it stands, this statement is something of a truism. Nations think this way. When archaeologists discovered the round table of King Edward III on the grounds of Windsor Castle there was a good deal of excitement. Anglophones everywhere were intrigued because King Edward's real life round table probably served as the model for the table in Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and it appears in all subsequent retellings of the legend, a story that was already old when Malory told it. There was a special thrill in England because most English people do indeed believe in a connection (perhaps even a genealogical relationship) between the subjects of Edward III and their own English identity. And they are not wrong. The English nation is very old, and its cultural continuity since the day when Edward III sat with his knights at his round table is not in doubt. Englishness, of course, is composed of many elements, but Windsor Castle, Edward III, King Arthur and the fact that despite considerable immigration over the centuries, many English people today do indeed have a genealogical relationship with King Edward's subjects, are important elements of Englishness.
The same, of course, can be said of Jews. There was considerable excitement recently when archaeologist Eilat Mazar, digging in the part of Jerusalem where the ancient capital was located, uncovered a governmental building of monumental scale dating from the period when David is thought to have reigned in Jerusalem. Moreover, most Jewish people do indeed believe in, a connection (perhaps even a genealogical relationship) between the people who created that ancient building and their own Jewish identity. And they are not wrong. The Jewish nation is very old, and its cultural continuity since the time when the House of David is known to have reigned in Jerusalem is not in doubt. Jewishness, of course, is composed of many elements, but Jerusalem, King David, and the fact that despite considerable conversion over the centuries, many Jewish people today do indeed have a genealogical relationship with the subjects of those ancient kings, are important elements of Jewishness.
The difficulty is that El Haj does not stop here. On the next page she makes her complaint. Israeli archaeologist Magen Broshi and archaeologists in general, portray "the Arab quest for early origins in the archaeological record as being pure political polemic." To satisfy non-Arab archaeologists, "Arab archaeologists would have to disavow a paradigm that presupposes any genealogical and ethnic connection between Palestine's ancient tribes and its contemporary Arab inhabitants."
At first glance, Abu El Haj's claim is for parity: if the Jews claim that they trace their ethnic origin in the land of Israel back 3,300 years or so, Arabs have a right to make a parallel claim.
Arab ethnic continuity does indeed go far back in history, in Arabia. Pastoral tribes speaking a language in the Arabic family ranged north of the present-day Saudi border in antiquity, into modern Iraq , Syria , and Jordan . Whether they can be characterized as ancestral to ethnic Arabs is problematic. They did not speak a language ancestral to the Arabic of the Quran, but, rather, one or another dialect of a long-extinct language known as Old or Ancient North Arabic, a language that disappeared after the spread of Islam.
In Israel, Arab ethnic presence can be dated with precision to the Arab conquest of 638 CE.
In denying any claim to "ethnic connection between Palestine's ancient tribes and its contemporary Arab inhabitants," archaeologists like Broshi are arguing from evidence. In demanding recognition for Arab ethnic continuity in Palestine dating to before 638 CE, El-Haj is engaged in pure political fabrication.
But she is also doing something else. In addition to ethnic continuity, which Arabs unquestionably can claim in Israel from 638 CE forward, El-Haj appears to be demanding recognition of a claim to historical continuity based on a "genealogical… connection between Palestine's ancient tribes and its contemporary Arab inhabitants." This is wrong from both historical and genetic perspectives. Here's why.
There were a variety of peoples in the land of Israel in ancient times: Israelites, Philistines, Canaanites, Phoenicians and others. These ethnic identities all disappeared in ancient times, with the sole exception of the people that called itself Israel. Genealogical descendants of the other ancient peoples of the Biblical lands all assimilated into other ethnic groups. No one living today can demonstrate ethnic continuity going back to the Philistines, Canaanites or Jebusites.
Yet El Haj believes that the descendants of " Palestine's ancient tribes" are still an identifiable group, the contemporary Palestinians.
"If today's Jews are descendants of ancient Hebrew and Jewish communities who lived in and then fled ancient Palestine, the CMH and other Y-chromosomes types shared by Jewish men must be closely related to other ‘Middle Eastern' genetic polymorphisms. Contemporary Jewish populations, in other words, must be (phylo) genetically related to contemporary Arab populations. Given the biblical stories of Israelite and Jewish origins, they must, more specifically, be related to Arabs of Palestine in particular, and of the Levant in general."
Here, in her first published paper on genetics, El Haj reveals a remarkably primordialist and wholly unsubstantiated assumption that today's Palestinian Arabs are the genealogical descendants of the populations that lived in the area in ancient times.
It is, of course, true that if today's Jews are descendants of ancient Hebrew and Jewish communities who lived in and then fled ancient Israel, they must be related to the other ancient peoples of the region. The difficulty is that we do not possess the genome of the ancient peoples of the region. Except in a few places where ancient genetic material is available (such as the bog people of northern Europe) genetic history is done by comparing living populations and making historical assumptions about who is likely to have lived where. To assume, with El Haj, that today's Palestinian Arabs are so genetically identical with the ancient "Palestine's ancient tribes" that Jewish genetic markers "must" match the markers found in the Palestinian Arab population if Jews are to prove Levantine ancestry, is to impute an improbable degree of both genetic purity and historical stability to the Palestinian Arab population.
The biblical lands are in fact known to have had one of the most tumultuous populations histories in the world, with repeated instances of ethnic cleansing an population replacement. Many members of "Palestine's ancient tribes" were deported by Sargon, and more were deported by Nebuchadnezzar. The Hasmonean monarchs are known to have constrained the Idumean and Ituraean populations to convert to Judaism, resulting in a first century BCE population that was almost entirely Jewish or Samaritan. Most of those Jews were deported in the massive Roman ethnic-cleansings of 70 and 135 CE.
Some Jewish communities remained in place after 135CE, and it is among them and the Samaritans that we would have to seek candidates for descendants of "Palestine's ancient tribes" who might have left descendants whose own descendants eventually became the Palestinian Arabs of today. It is not merely possible but even likely that some descendants of the Canaanites who were Jews by the Hasmonean period and became early Christians did survive the Persian conquest, the Arab conquest, and the Crusades, convert at some point to Islam and leave descendants who are still living there today. They would have also have had to resist temptation to flee to more stable lands at times of conquest, drought, or during periods like the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when historian Rashid Khalidi tells us that the fertile coastal plain, Jezreel Valley and eastern Galilee became depopulated because the failures of Ottoman authorities allowed "the depredations of nomads" to drive the fedayeen from the land.  Considering the history of the region, it is unlikely that the descendents of "" Palestine 's ancient tribes" account for more than a small fraction of the Palestinian Arab population.
Notice also that El Haj does not take into account the descendants of any of the peoples who conquered and occupied Israel over the millenia. The British, the Egyptians under Muhammad Ali, Ottoman Turks, European Crusaders, Arabs, Romans, Hellenistic Greeks, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians all conquered and occupied Israel at various moments in history. Long-term occupiers, such as the Arabs, are particularly likely to have left disproportionately large numbers of descendents in a process known to demographers as "elite replacement." Moreover, given what we know of the behavior of soldiers, even the briefest occupation leaves some DNA behind. These genealogical connections interest El Haj not.
In addition to ignoring the repeated ancient ethnic cleansings and the genetic descendants of conquerors, El Haj ignores the many well-documented in-migrations to the land, beginning with the settlers sent by Sargon, King of Assyria, who boasted of the people he sent to settle the lands conquered from the northern kingdom of Israel: "I made them of one mouth (language) and settled them therein. Assyrians, fully competent to teach them how to fear god and the king, I dispatched as scribes and overseers." Immigrants arrived with every new conquest and with every economic boom, Muslim immigrants are known to have arrived to take advantage of opportunities at several points during the Arab period. And as the Ottoman empire contracted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Muslim refugees from Circassia and Bulgaria settled in Israel . Nadia Abu El Haj is not interested in these genealogical connections.
Nor is she interested in the fact that many of the genealogical descendants of "Palestine's ancient tribes" who left the biblical lands over the millenia will have left genetic descendants elsewhere. At the time of the Arab conquest, to select only one instance, large numbers of Greek- speaking Byzantine Christians are know to have fled to Sicily, the Aegean islands and Anatolia. There progeny today may be Turkish, Greek, Italian, or something else. Does this give them a right of return to El Haj's Palestinian homeland? Their rights do not interest El Haj.
El Haj is interested in the "historical and geographic origins of contemporary Jews,"  because of her desire to prove that they are not, in fact, "descendants of ancient Hebrew and Jewish communities who lived in and then fled ancient" Israel but, rather, a colonial settler community with no ancient connection to the land. In her 2004 paper, "'A Tool to Recover Past Histories'—Genealogy and Identity after the Genome," she signals her desire to deny the well document history of Jews as descendants of ancient Hebrew and Jewish communities who lived in and then fled ancient Israel by consistently placing the word "diaspora" in quotation marks, as in this sentence: "It is those enduring marks that this field of genetic anthropology seeks to find, ones that might indicate common (Hebrew) origins, ones that might tell us something about the religious and kinship practices of Jewish communities as they migrated and lived in the "diaspora." 
Her desire to prove that the Jews are not, in fact, a diaspora, not descendants of an ancient Levantine population, is so strong that she is willing to quote selectively from genetic studies that appear to support her desired conclusion, and ignore studies that appear to negate her preferred narrative.
Other studies that El Haj has not read or does not quote include ones that provide evidence of Palestinian Arab ancestry more consistent with their known history of arrival in the seventh century conquest than with El Haj's preferred narrative of Palestinian Arabs as the primordial people of the land. A 2001 study found Palestinian Arabs to more closely resemble neighboring Bedouin than they do Jews, while Jews are more similar to Armenians and Kurds, two other groups with ethnic continuity that pre-dates the Arab conquest, than they are to Palestinian Arabs. A 2003 study found that Palestinians are like other Arabs in their high proportion of sub-Saharan African ancestry, genetic markers that are rare among the non-Arabs of the Near East, such as Jews, Azeris, Georgians, Armenians, Kurds and Turks. 
More significant than either of these studies is the fact that we are unlikely ever to be certain of the genetic identifiers of "Palestine's ancient tribes," we merely work backwards from the DNA of contemporary people of the region. But the living people of the region have not yet been thoroughly studied. Those groups most likely to have deep historical roots and relatively little opportunity to add new members after the Arab conquest, such as the remaining Aramaic–speaking Christians, the Samaritans, the Greek-speaking Christians, the Maronite Christians, Mandeans and so forth, have not been studied at all.
And even more significant than that is the fact that one of the few things that we know with certainty about genetic purity is that there is none. People mix and have children. Even if one of those DNA testing companies whose ads may well appear in a box on the sidebar of this essay could tell you with certainty every one of your ancestors in the 400th generation came from Abyssinia (no test can actually do this,) it would not make you the Queen of Sheba. It would not even make you Ethiopian. Ancestry and genetic markers correlate with ethnicity, they do not determine ethnicity.
And this is as it should be. Ethnicity is a matter of culture and identity, not genetic ancestry. Most people, of course, share both their genes and their ethnicity with their grandparents, but few of us would care to live in a world where our ethnic identity was absolutely determined by who our grandparents were. In such a world no immigrant or grandchild of immigrants could belong fully to the nation of her birth. El Haj, is the child of Palestinian immigrants to the United States who lives with her Lebanese-British husband in London during summers and semester break. They have a child. Should British authorities test that child for genetic evidence of its descent from "Palestine's ancient tribes," and, if the test is positive, send the child back to its homeland of Philistia?
This suggestion is not only absurd, it is morally repugnant. That being so, why is Nadia Abu El Haj delivering papers on genetics with titles like "The Descent of Men: Genetics, Jewish Origins, and Historical Truths"? And why is she cooking the genetic data to a false impression that Arabs have a deep genealogical connection to the land of Israel , and Jews don't?
The overt racial primordialism and overtones of racial essentialism in her work ought to frighten everyone who stands against racism.
 Nadia Abu El-Haj, "'A Tool to Recover Past Histories'—Genealogy and Identity after the Genome," Occasional Paper of the School of Social Science 19, December 2004, Princeton . P. 6
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