Middle East studies in the News
Nadia Abu El Haj in Her Own Words
by Paula Stern
Note: Facts on the Ground is dense with jargon and not especially well-written. We are posting a few excerpts to give readers a sense of Abu el Haj's argument without subjecting themselves to many hours of tendentious reading.
Reality check: Archaeologists do not "produce" facts. Archaeologists discover objects which they and others (historians, philologists) then interpret. The numerous objects documenting the reality of the ancient Israelite kingdoms, including a substantial number of Egyptian, Babylonian, Moabite, and Assyrian inscriptions describing the Israelite kings and the battles they fought, were produced by people who lived thousands of years ago, people who had no stake in the current dispute between Nadia Abu El Haj and the existence of a Jewish State.
On page 92 we read of the "Jewish settler colony" "seizing power" in 1948. Most states achieve sovereignty by "seizing it." The Jewish nation received a charter form the United Nation. Eccentric of us, but there you have it.
Following a passage on the archaeology of Hazor:
Reality check: An ancient Israelite social collectivity existed, Israelite kingdoms existed. To suggest that these well-documented kingdoms are a mere myth posing as history is like denying that the sun is at the center of the galaxy and the planets revolve around it. Teaching that particular theory is illegal in Saudi Arabia. But the fact that the Saudi minister of education says that the earth stands still and the planets revolve around it, does not make it so.
And the fact that Nadia Abu El Haj of Barnard College denies that an ancient Israelite collectivity existed does not negate the fact that those kingdoms did exist.
To Abu El Haj, Israel is a settler-colonial state, a category that includes the United States, Australia and Canada, states with no historical claim or right to the land they have settled and colonized. Throughout her work, Abu El Haj refers to Israel as a settler nation, a settler-colonial nation-state, a settler colony and, simply, as a colony. Her thoughts on the settler-colony status of the Jewish State, the role of archaeology, and the possibility – or lack of possibility – of objectivity in are laid out in a long section toward the end of Facts on the Ground that begins with a description of the ground surveys , digs and, particularly, the search for previously undiscovered Dead Sea scrolls that preceded the Israeli withdrawal form the Jordan Valley in compliance with the Oslo Accords.
Reality check: Although the Biblical narrative tells of an Israelite invasion led by Joshua, archaeology presents evidence only for the indigenous development of an Israelite people that appears in both an Egyptian inscription and in the form of distinctive artifacts in the agricultural settlements of the Judean hill country in the thirteenth century CE.
In a longish excerpt, Broshi also reviews the known, that early and mid-twentieth century Jewish archaeologists "concentrated on Jewish subjects," but, still according to Abu El Haj paraphrasing Broshi "As science, however, Israeli archaeology has now mature. It has moved beyond that initial search for Jewish objects, and it has become "assiduous in studying all periods." (249)
(Note: Israeli archaeologists are world leaders in the study of the neolithic and in techniques such as sieving dug soil for micro remains and using them in particular in the study of food and agriculture. There are Israeli archaeologists specializing in every period and culture that has lived in the region, including the Arab and Ottoman periods. The Israel Museum has large sections of Arab and Ottoman period objects on display, in addition, Jerusalem has a very fine Islamic Museum.)
Note: Broshi is correct here, of course. It is common for Palestinian scholars, not only at Al Quds and Bier Zeit Universities, but also at Barnard College and Columbia University to lie about the history of Israel . The documentation of Arab arrival in 635 is extensive, and no one doubts that Aab historical continuity in the land can be traced back 1,300 years. In papers she has published subsequent to this book, Abu El Haj does not assert as others do that the Jebusites, Canaanites and Philistines were "Arabs." What she does is cast doubt on Jewish historical continuity since Israelite or proto-Jewish times. In one paper on Jewish genetic origins she consistently puts the word "diaspora" in quotation marks, to imply that Jews did not actually originate in the Middle East. In other papers she asserts that the modern Palestinians are genetically nearly identical to the ancient "tribes" of the Biblical lands while the Jews are not, and in one recent paper denies that Jewish maternal lines trace back to ancient Israel, a point contradicted by several major studies. In Facts on the Ground she casts doubt on Jewish continuity by insisting on conceptualizing Israel as a settler colony, denying the ancient Jewish connection to the Holy land. Back to Abu El Haj:
Note: I know of no scholar who would deny the probability that some modern Palestinians have genealogical connections to "Palestine's ancient tribes." Of course, so do any number of modern Italians, Greeks and Turks, and, for that matter, some modern Palestinians are undoubtedly descended from Mongols, Turks, Franks, and the British army that occupied the place during WWI. Genes get around.
What is in doubt is an ethnic connection between, say, the Philistines who arrived as colonial settlers from the Greek world, spoke a Greek language and worshipped many gods, and the modern Palestinian Arabs.
More than a whiff of racial essentialism enters Abu El Haj's work when she discusses "genealogical… connections between Palestine's ancient tribes and its contemporary Arab inhabitants," while simultaneously denying that Jews possess genealogical connections with the ancient Israelites.
In the next paragraph, which directly follows the material above, Abu El Haj uses the disputed phrase "pure political fabrication." As some rabidly anti-Israel bloggers have pointed out, quoting the whole sentence reverses the meaning. But watch what happens when you quote the whole passage.
Note: An ancient Israelite collectivity actually existed. No Arab collectivity predating the seventh century existed in Bible lands. No one in the Levant spoke Arabic before the seventh century (there was a language known as ancient North Arabic spoken by nomadic groups in what is now Jordan. This is a language in the Arabic family of languages that is not linguistically ancestral to the Quranic Arabic of the Hejaz.)
In reading the book, one often wonders whether Abu El Haj actually read the books she cites in support of her views. For example, in footnote 8 p. 317 she writes:
She is referring to Ze'ev Herzog's book "Deconstruction the Walls of Jericho." But Herzog does not deny that there was an Israelite state. He spends a lot of time denying that the Patriarchs and the Exodus were archaeologically documented historical events (yawn.) He then demotes David and Solomon to the leadership of small tribal kingdoms, in accord with Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University. This has indeed been the subject of a hot debate within the archaeological community. But serious people are talking about the size of the tenth century kingdom, not whether it existed. Herzog agrees with everyone else that the history as given in Kings I and II form the death of Solomon forward is roughly accurate and confirmed by archaeology. It is difficult to understand how Abu El Haj can cite Herzog in support of her views. But it is also difficult to understand why she should cite not his academic papers, but a popular book that was intended, as she rightly says, to provoke a debate over Israel's historically-based claim to sovereignty. Herzog's politics are pretty far left and the phrasing in this, his popular book, provocatively implies a more extreme minimalism that his scholarly writing. Nevertheless, he is a minimalist (specifically with regard to the tenth century) not a denier.
The next section is a segway into Abu El Haj's view of the question of whether it is possible to establish a hierarchy of facticity between two competing narratives by examining the evidence.
But, back to archaeology. The next two pages are spent exploring the efforts of Israeli archaeologists and antiquities authorities to interest Palestinians in archaeology, both as a way to reduce rampant Palestinian looting, and with the goal of having more working Arab archaeologists in Israel. She quotes more than one Israeli suggesting that Arabs are most likely to be interested in the archaeological record of Arab presence, " ‘ Why not dig a more recent, Muslim past?' he asked" (252)
This approach, educating people about an ethnic heritage to which they can relate, works elsewhere. It is currently being used with some success by the Peruvian government to curb rampant grave-looting. Abu El Haj hears only denigration of the Palestinian people.
The next two pages explore the problem with looting of graves and archaeological sites by Palestinian Arabs, a serious problem to which no solution has been found. And the passage that James Davila of St. Andrews University objects to strongly as indicating an apology for or even the excusing of looting.
Note: James Scott wrote a well-known book called Weapons of the Weak in which he analyses such things as deliberately destruction of crops by farm laborers as weapons of the weak used as a means of political resistance by colonized peoples. Abu El Haj appears to approve of the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites as an act of political resistance.
Abu el Haj reveals her highly political prejudices toward the end of the book.
Abu El Haj, that is, does not subscribe to the idea that objectively verifiable facts exist..
Thus when, early in the book, she describes a school of scholarship that "Reject(s) a positivist commitment to scientific methods…" and is "rooted in… post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory… and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements." She is describing the school of scholarship of which she is part.
The next three pages are devoted to an explication, citing Edward Said, of the manner in which the objectivity of science and the ‘alleged universalism' of its modern disciplines was "‘Eurocentric in the extreme' and rooted in a specific history of imperialism." Her own commitments to science studies and "the disunity of science," and scorn for the idea of "objectivity of knowledge" are made clear. She continues:
There are several odd things in this, the final paragraph of the book. First is the failure to mention that Israelis were killed in the incident she refers to as "looting." Then there is the fact that she does not utter even a pro-forma statement about how destruction of antiquities is wrong. These, however, are matters of morality. And poor moral judgment is no absolute criteria for the denial of tenure. Ignorance is.
In stating that in destroying Joseph's tomb Palestinian looters eradicated one fact on the ground, Abu El Haj appears to accept as fact that Joseph's tomb was an historic, Jewish archaeological site. It is, of course, an ordinary Muslim-era tomb that had been surveyed but not dug by archaeologists, tomb type so ordinary that a dig would have been more like tomb desecration than archaeological exploration. This is a small point, but her unscholarly, highly political goals and ignorance of archaeology, form field methods to dig results, shows on almost every page.
And, really, tenure should not be awarded to the ignorant, let alone to political propagandists in post-modern clothing.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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