Middle East studies in the News
Facts in the Air [on Nadia Abu El-Haj]
by Bari Weiss
Earlier this month, a young anthropology professor named Nadia Abu El-Haj received tenure at Barnard College, a division of Columbia University in New York. Unlike most academic promotions, which largely go unnoticed, her successful tenure bid was met with raucous jeers and cheers. Here was a victory for a "purveyor of hate," according to Paula Stern, the Barnard alumna who organized a campaign to deny El-Haj tenure. For her supporters, this marked a clear victory against the "New McCarthyism" - the alleged campaign now being waged against scholars who criticize Israel, particularly those of Arab descent.
It's all too easy to toss the news of El-Haj's tenure into the stew that is the ongoing battle over the state of Middle Eastern studies at universities today. But this is not just another round between the Zionists and the anti-Zionists. This is about the nature of truth, and the possibility of, well, facts themselves.
Sound hyperbolic? Consider El-Haj's 2001 work, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society" (University of Chicago Press), based on her doctoral thesis at Duke, and the only book upon which she was granted tenure. Its title is a tongue-in-cheek allusion to Moshe Dayan's post-1967 suggestion that Israel take de facto control of areas in the West Bank by purposefully building settlements there.
In it, El-Haj argues that for decades Israeli archaeologists have literally created facts on the ground. To argue that people, rather than evidence, create archaeological fact, El-Haj is forced to abandon the methodology of science altogether. And this is precisely what she does. She explains her work as "rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method." Instead, she works on the level of theory, within the frameworks of "post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory." These frameworks are united by a "commitment to understanding archaeology as necessarily political."
El-Haj is hardly the first to employ this approach. Perhaps its most powerful trailblazer was Edward Said, who argued in his landmark 1978 book "Orientalism," that when dealing with Asia, the West was necessarily politicized. Said alleged that even the most well-intentioned scholars, if they were Western, were Orientalists, actively constructing a mythical "Orient" out of their own political motivations as the exotic, feminized, other. For Said, there is no such thing as objectivity in scholarship, and those who claim to strive for it may well be the ones with the most to hide.
Said's approach quickly spiraled into nasty finger-pointing, in which he and his disciples accused seasoned scholars in the field of implicit political bias at best, and at worst, of harboring a kind of pervasive racism. With tremendous success, his book asserted that there is no such thing as truth or fact. Instead, there is only identity.
Now, consider imposing this rough framework on the field of archaeology in the land of Israel. Here we are not talking of novels or paintings with Middle Eastern themes. More than perhaps any other, this is a field based on physical objects dug out of the ground: potsherds, bits of wood, and, if you're lucky, foundations and walls of ancient buildings. And yet, to El-Haj, such hard physical evidence is in fact just as easily constructed as the theoretical Western conception of the East. She writes of Israeli archaeology: "At the most fundamental level, archaeology produced... and created the fact of an ancient Israelite/Jewish nation and nation-state rooted therein." Rather than taking existing evidence to create historical theories, El-Haj holds that the field of archaeology creates evidence itself. In her narrative, highly regarded Israeli archaeologists turn into nationalist robots, wielding bulldozers in a desperate effort to "create" evidence of a historic Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, where no such presence existed.
El-Haj spells out the contemporary implications of creating such facts on the ground. "The work of archaeology in Palestine/Israel is a cardinal institutional location for the ongoing practice of colonial nationhood, producing facts through which historical-national claims, territorial transformations, heritage objects, and historicities 'happen.'" Thus, the field of archaeology simply becomes one more theater for the project of "Jewish settler- colonial nation state-building."
By casting the whole of Israeli archaeology in this way, El-Haj grants herself permission to interpret Palestinian destruction of ancient artifacts as a legitimate form of "resistance." By "destroying the tomb [Joseph's Tomb in 2001], Palestinian demonstrators eradicated one 'fact on the ground.'" This is El-Haj's logic come full circle. Ancient artifacts are just as synthetic as pre-fab houses in the West Bank, thereby rendering the destruction of both equally justified, even heroic.
Let's be clear: Is it in the interest of today's Zionists to find evidence of an ancient Israelite kingdom in the Land of Israel? Of course. But recognizing such interest does not preclude the possibility of the application of fair, professional standards, and the ability of archaeologists, regardless of their ethnic group, to uphold them in good faith.
El-Haj's work does not remind readers of the need to be skeptical of the influence nationalism can have on the interpretation of archaeological facts. Instead, she has written a book condemning the notion of facts themselves. It is for this reason that those who care about the future of the veracity of facts - and not just the future of Israel - should take serious notice of her promotion.
Bari Weiss is a Dorot fellow living in Jerusalem.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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