Not Grounded in Fact
The peoples of the Middle East have long waged battles to co-opt history. Since ancient times, communal polities, ranging from small tribal configurations to vast empires, and from closely knit ethnic groups to more inclusive modern nations, have turned to the past to legitimize the present. Abu el-Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard College of Columbia University, explores in this interesting study how archeology has shaped the social and political imagination of Israel and served the aims of the state. The blurb on the back cover of the book by Talal Asad, another anthropologist, succinctly captures Abu el-Haj's project: "She presents the first critical account of Israeli archeological practice while tracing the dynamic relationships among science, colonization, nation-state building, and territorial expansion."
Practice or Malpractice?
For Abu el-Haj, archeology as practiced in Israel reflects an overwhelming need to legitimize the national ethos. She holds that the scholarly discipline of Israeli archeology defers, intentionally or otherwise, to the needs of contemporary nation-building. This is a weighty charge. Does Abu el-Haj substantiate it?
To begin with, discussion of "Israeli archeological practice" is rather sketchy, and understandably so. There is much ground to cover here. However one defines "archeological practice," writing about it calls for an understanding of archeological method, an ability to interrogate technical reports, and the perusal of numerous publications in which archeological data is used to reconstruct actual states of the past. In sum, writing about archeological practice calls for considerable familiarity with the techniques of field archeology and the burgeoning historiography of the ancient Near East.
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.
As it stands, Abu el-Haj's reading of Israeli academic culture and its relationship to the politics of statehood politicizes the work of Israel's scholarly establishment in a way that can be misleading. Even when granting certain Israeli archeologists their academic integrity, she tends to describe their findings as bent by the state for its own political purposes. This is inaccurate. In fact, Israeli archeology is characterized by lively discussion that values independent scientific inquiry and often undermines conventional wisdom, be it the previous wisdom of peers or that of the nation's foundational narratives. Both the print and electronic media give extensive coverage to archeological digs and displays. The broad outline of that lively debate is well known among those many Israelis who follow archeological developments.
Given her interest in cultural studies, it is not surprising that Abu el-Haj casts an exceedingly wide net, and that leads to problems. Her discussion of archeological practice conflates the statements of tour guides, the claims of museum displays, the design of archeological parks in Jerusalem, and the assertions of Israeli political figures—particularly those politicians with strong links to the settler movement—with the research and writing of a highly demanding scholarly discipline. To be sure, scholarly debate is sometimes vulgarized for Israeli public consumption, but that is part and parcel of the way scholarship is made accessible in all cultures.
One has always to appreciate the distinction between the academic study of material remains and the manner in which the evidence of archeology is put to use for more narrowly defined political or even commercial interests. Abu el-Haj does not make this distinction sufficiently clear. Quite the opposite. This is a book about the politicization of the academy. Her very title is revealing. One would expect a book on archeology to be titled Facts in the Ground, but her title is Facts on the Ground, a reference to Moshe Dayan's description of newly created Jewish settlements on Arab territory captured during the 1967 war. As this suggests, her focus is less the "archeological practice" she stakes out in the subtitle and more the political uses of archeology, that is "territorial fashioning."
The author is seemingly aware that one can draw distinctions between archeology as a scholarly enterprise and archeology as a national discourse, but she seems unwilling or unable to find the proper balance in analyzing the two. Instead, she prefers the all-embracing "archeological practice," a term well suited to her attempt to boil all aspects of Israeli political culture in one discursive stew.
I find her least persuasive when her analysis turns to cultural and postcolonial studies. The references to that broadly ranging and very fashionable literature might help establish her credentials among social scientists and literary scholars who stress the discursive power of scholarship. But these references to theory tend to interrupt the flow of her exposition while adding little to an understanding of the interplay between the formation of Israel's modern nation-state and its real or imagined past.
In the end, Abu el-Haj misrepresents the Israeli passion for archeology. Its purpose is not to legitimize the national ethos. To the contrary: archeology appeals to Israelis because it offers a visual dimension to a past otherwise firmly anchored in oral and literary traditions. For professionals and amateurs alike, the archeology of the land of Israel is not a vehicle to authenticate the nation's existence or its distinctively Jewish character or the passionate attachment of Israelis to the land they claim as their state. All that is taken for granted by Israel's Jewish citizens and by most of the world as well. Rather it is only those who deny Israel's right to exist or contest the legitimacy of its current borders who deny altogether or compromise Israel's links to the historic past.
Archeology has played an indirect role in the politics of the Arab-Israel dispute. The strength (and also weakness) of Facts on the Ground lies in its presentation of archeological activity following the war of 1967, during which Israel conquered the West Bank of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. That conquest allowed Israeli archeologists to explore the highlands that were the political and demographic center of biblical Israel and its post-biblical successors. Denied access by the Jordanian authorities during the nineteen years that the West Bank was ruled from Amman, Israeli archeologists began extensive field studies throughout the areas subsequently named by Israelis "Judea and Samaria," after the Hebrew toponyms of biblical times. Similarly, the reunification of Jerusalem led to large-scale archeological activity around and within the holy city, including areas controlled previously by the Jordanians. As a result of this activity, scholars working on the holy city have been able to recover specific sites of an ancient past extending from Greco-Roman to Islamic times.
The unification of Jerusalem also brought about enormous changes in the city landscape. Areas adjacent to the Old City on the western side, which had become a slum before the war, were leveled and rebuilt according to a master plan. Within the Old City itself, the Jewish quarter has been rebuilt and resettled by Jews; its ancient synagogues, reduced to ruins following the Arab conquest of the quarter in 1948, have returned; archeological gardens are found throughout the city; the ancient Roman Cardo, the main commercial thoroughfare of the city in Greco-Roman times, has been restored and lined with modern shops; and the ancient Jewish cemetery, which had been desecrated by the Jordanian army, was restored. In addition, what is likely to have been the first Islamic government complex in Jerusalem has been excavated and opened for public viewing.
As Abu el-Haj reminds us, a good deal of this activity gave rise to controversy, and not only between Jews and Arabs. Authorities considered it natural to restore the Jewish quarter and its synagogues and once again make it the place of a living Jewish community. One may argue that the design of the quarter reflects relatively good taste; in any case, it is certainly not offensive.
Elsewhere, the wholesale changes were more problematic. The Arab houses behind the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, the holiest shrine of the Jewish people, were leveled to make way for an enormous plaza over which fly many flags of the Jewish state. The wall itself, traditionally a place of private prayer, was transformed into a massive open-air synagogue that has given rise to various disputes among Jews. An ancient tunnel extending from the outer wall of the city to the plaza was opened in 1996 to facilitate traffic but drew Arab rioters who assumed that the plan was to undermine the foundations of the Temple Mount's Muslim holy sites. Ultra-Orthodox Jews complained that archeological digs around the city might compromise ancient Jewish burial sites; secular Jews complained about a lack of integrated planning and excessive kitsch. It is difficult, however, to find in all this a submergence of archeology to the interests of the state.
A more nuanced case for the melding of archeology and state policy can be made, however, for excavations on the West Bank, where upwards of 200,000 Jews have set down roots in predominantly Arab lands. Jews who have taken to the West Bank armed with the Hebrew Bible are well aware of the various digs that connect the highlands with ancient Jewish settlements. They have established a modern map of settlement to reclaim the homeland of their forefathers.
Israelis have replaced Arab place names bearing the remotest relationship to biblical toponyms with similar sounding or entirely different Hebrew names, both within Israel proper after the fighting of 1947-9 and after 1967 in the West Bank. In a sense, where Jews have come to rule, they have reversed the Arabization of historic Palestine that began with its conquest by the Muslim armies nearly 1,400 years ago. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that Arabs are determined to preserve the memories of Arab Palestine and to use the past as an agenda to reclaim their land. Abu el-Haj's book is part of this enterprise.
More broadly, even were Israelis guilty of Abu el-Haj's charges, they would still have no monopoly in manipulating the past. The Palestinians, whose Arab ancestors crossed the Arabian frontier and conquered the Holy Land in the seventh century C.E., celebrate as their progenitors the varied peoples of ancient Canaan, the inhabitants of "historic" Palestine more than a thousand years removed from the initial Arab-Muslim incursions. A study of the Arab uses of the ancient past would be a welcome and even essential companion to Abu el-Haj's book.
©1994-2014 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes