A review of Nadia Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning In Israeli Society
The politicization of archaeology is nothing new. What is new in Facts on the Ground, is the length to which author Nadia Abu El-Haj of the Columbia University Anthology faculty has gone to ignore, distort, revise, imply and assert the inaccuracy of historical fact. Her political motive is to deconstruct the legitimacy of the State of Israel.
Consistent with her goal, she cites the "issue" of place names and where they should be situated (p. 96). She not only claims that there were imperial colonial motives underlying the work of the Naming Committee (Va'adat ha-Shemot), thereby tainting their work, but that the new naming pf places by new inhabitants was, somehow, a unique event, a conscious and illegitimate effort to obliterate Arab claims of a continuous and uninterrupted presence on the land.
What Ms. Abu El-Haj does not acknowledge is that the renaming of places by Israelis echoes the prior replacement of ancient Hebrew names by a new Arab/Muslim population centuries earlier, for example, the Biblical name Shechem had been used for centuries before subsequent Arab inhabitants renamed the place Nablus. Nor does she mention that the names of Arab-inhabited towns retain their Arab form in modern Israel. The place name Nablus, for example, has remained untouched despite the fact that it is on the site of Shechem, the royal capitol of the Israelite northern kingdom.
Throughout her book, the author dismisses Israeli archaeology as part of "territorial self-fashioning" (p.16, borrowing Stephen Greenblatt's phrase from his Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, 1980). She discusses the "origin myth" (p. 3) and various "historical legends," which she says were used by the Zionist colonizers as necessary to create "Positive Facts of Nationhood" (see her Chapter Five).
The tide of Islam between the 7th and 8th Centuries brought nomadic Arab tribes into the land. While denigrating Jewish links to the remote past as mere "myth," Ms. Abu El Haj approves recurring attempts to link this Arab people back to the "sea people" who swept in from Greece and who were of Hellenic descent. These invaders called themselves the Philistines, a name later corrupted into the place name of Palestine. More recently attempts have been made to link the Arabs back to the Canaanites. Ms. Abu El Haj's treatment of the modern political discourse alleging, as she phrases it, "Canaanite or other ancient tribal roots"(p. 250) for Palestinian Arabs is very interesting because it makes explicit that both Abu El Haj's methodology and her fundamental purposes in Facts on the Ground are profoundly unscholarly.
Referring to the objects produced by more than a century of excavations in the Land of Israel, Ms. Abu El Haj complains that the
"national-cultural connection between contemporary (Israeli-)Jews and such objects was not itself generally open to sustained questioning." (p. 250)
The objects under discussion include a plethora of artifacts bearing writing in paleo-Hebrew scripts. These range from inscriptions on monumental building stones found in situ, to the very large number of storage jars embossed with the ownership mark l'melech (to or of the king,) to tiny silver scrolls with Biblical verses written in Hebrew and securely dated to a period before the Babylonian exile, to thousands of securely dated ostraca bearing Hebrew writing. Since Hebrew has been in continuous and exclusive use by a single national-cultural group since antiquity, there is no apparent reason not to assume a national-cultural connection between these objects and contemporary Jews. Just as the earliest appearance of Arabic writing and, especially, of Koranic inscriptions in any dig is taken as a marker of an Arab national-cultural connection.
Since the book closes with a paean to the destruction of a site of traditional Jewish veneration - Joseph's Tomb in Nablus: "In destroying Joseph's Tomb Palestinian demonstrators eradicated one ‘fact on the ground'" - I assume that Ms. Abu El Haj might very well like to eradicate all of the ancient Hebrew ostraca and other artifactual evidence of an ancient paleo-Jewish presence as well. Lacking that power, she demands that the presence of ancient Israelites in the Land of Israel be deconstructed.
Since there is no evidence for Arab/Muslim national-cultural continuity in the Land of Israel dating to before the Arab conquest of the seventh century, this young woman demands that we level the playing field by pretending that evidence of Jewish national-cultural continuity does not exist either. The modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins" becomes a "pure political fabrication," to be understood as an "ideological assertion comparable to Arab claims of Canaanite or other ancient tribal roots." This eliminates the "hierarchy of credibility" (here she follows Cooper and Stoller, 1997, Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World) in which "facticity" is conferred only upon the former.
Unfortunately, Ms. Abu El Haj's approach also eliminates the standards of evidence upon which scholarly work is based.
The author, chooses to use Ben-Yehuda's words (1995:5) to make her point that the practice of archeology was intentionally meant to develop into a nationalist tradition, as if there were something criminal or obscene about the participation of "thousands of Israelis and non-Israelis . . . in the experience of the excavations."
Facts on the Ground reverses standard academic practice. It is highly politicized where it should be disinterested, and, worse, the author begins with a an apparently dogmatic belief, that archaeology is a process "through which ‘facts' are actually made and agreed upon," (p. 9) to support the inherently illegitimate "precise claims and conceptions of Jewish nationhood,"(p.6) and goes about picking and choosing evidence to support her beliefs. Thus, she makes repeated charges that Israelis use bulldozers destructively. When these are juxtaposed with fulsome praise of the archaeological standards of the Waqf, they become absurd, as when Ms. Abu El Haj writes,
"Among Palestinian officials at the Haram al-Sharif and the Awqaf as well as many other archaeologists - Palestinian and European or American (trained) - the use of bulldozers has become the ultimate sign of 'bad science' and of nationalist politics guiding research agendas."
The greatest deliberate destruction of artifacts in Jerusalem was done under the direction of the Waqf, which bulldozed an extensive area on and beneath the Al-Aksa Mosque. Their aim was to create the largest prayer area in the Middle East, without regard for what they were destroying. They simply dumped the excavated material into a dry riverbed. Artifacts dating back to the First Temple were subsequently found by Israeli archaeologists sifting carefully through the .rubble. Again, the contrast with Ms Abu El Haj's blanket assertions that Israeli archaeologists fail to sift for small remains is remarkable.
Ms. Abu El-Haj repeatedly uses the framing of the Israeli "historical narrative" as though it all amounted to a pack of lies. She clearly misses the point that Israel indeed has a "historical narrative" because of its ancient connection to the Land of Israel.
What is clever, nasty, and unscholarly is the insidious way in which the author has created a revisionist distraction, while not addressing either the reality of Israeli archaeological practice, or the actual nature of territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society.
Dr. Sondra M. Rubenstein is Distinguished Professor at Haifa University.