Defenders of Nadia Abu El Haj's qualifications to receive tenure at Columbia often argue that her book, Facts on the Ground, is based on her PhD thesis, and work that merited a PhD from Duke must be sound. What they don't know is that the thesis is not actually very much like the book.
While most sections of the thesis present material in a fairly balanced fashion, providing some context and a range of sources of evidence, discussions of the same topics in the book pick and choose evidence in a manner that reduces discussions that were scholarly in the thesis to mere propaganda in the book.
The book also includes a great deal of partisan rhetoric that did not appear in the thesis. One of the five chapters of the thesis is devoted to Hebrew place names. Subsection III of that chapter is entitled "The Names Committee and Judaizing the Map of Israel." Abu el Haj has already told us in her introduction that she does not see the Israeli struggle for sovereignty as a legitimate national liberation movement, "Clearly I do not want to place the Jewish nationalist struggle in Palestine within the context of anti-colonial nationalist struggles elsewhere in the ‘Third World.' As I have argued already, it was itself a colonial project alongside a nationalist enterprise." (thesis p. 44) In keeping with this policy, she describes the mandate of the Names Committee this way, "No longer in competition with a more powerful colonial power, the Israeli state now has the prerogative to authorize a committee of its own historical-geographical and archaeological experts to Judaize the map… to reclaim Palestine as Jewish through erasing foreign names and replacing them with what they saw as original and/or indigenous Hebrew ones." The section goes on to discuss the process by which place names were chosen.
The Hebrew place name section in the book has an altogether more stridently political tone. We read that on "seizing power, the project of geographic-linguistic transformation and standardization was officially pursued, erasing remainders of an Arab past…"
There is no mention of the United Nations partition vote or the invasion of the fledgling, United Nations-mandated Jewish State by the armies of five neighboring Arab states, instead we have the Jews "seizing power" and are told in considerable detail that Arab villages were "depopulated and destroyed" so that "With the vast majority of the country's Arab population rendered refugees in neighboring lands, it was now possible to have and to build a Jewish state." None of this is in the thesis.
Many of the most problematic passages in the book are absent from the thesis. Take this now notorious sentence: "For most of its history, including the Herodian period, Jerusalem was not a Jewish city, but rather one integrated into larger empires and inhabited, primarily, by ‘other' communities." (p 175-76) The sentence appears at the end of a lengthy critique of the exhibits in the Tower of David museum.
This is simply wrong. Not a matter of interpretation. It is simply, factually, wrong. In the Herodian period Jerusalem was Jewish city. Romans, Greeks, and "others" lived there, certainly, but the Jews were in the majority by a large margin and Jerusalem was a Jewish city and capital of a Jewish kingdom ruled by a vassal of Rome (King Herod.)
In the thesis, approved in 1995, the sentence reads like this: "Were the site itself – with its many archaeological remains and different building phases – made the focus of ‘exhibiting' Jerusalem's history, visitors would leave with a very different impression of the city's past, and perhaps thereby, of its "identity": that for most of its history Jerusalem was not a Jewish city." (thesis p. 293)
In an article drawn form the thesis and published in 1998, the sentence reads: "Were the museum exhibit and guided tours to foreground the archaeology itself, visitors would leave with a very different impression of Jerusalem's past: that for most of its history Jerusalem has not been a Jewish city, but rather one ruled by other empires and inhabited primarily by ‘other' people." 1
In the thesis and in the refereed article Abu El Haj is accurate in her use of facts. It is only in the book produced by the University of Chicago press that she abandons fact and gives us a pure political fabrication, Jerusalem as a non-Jewish city in the reign of Herod.
At one point in both the thesis and the book Abu El Haj tells the story of an archaeologist who comes upon Nahum Avigad, the archaeologist who headed the post-1967 salvage dig in the Jewish Quarter of the Old perched on a boulder watching a bulldozer.
Here is how the version found in the thesis, p. 208:
"Nevertheless, the ‘meager' and ‘discontinuous' nature of the finds may also in part be a result of the speed with which these excavations were carried out. Even as municipal and state policy decisions enabled the excavations to go forth, so too did they act as constraints upon the work of archaeologists: under extreme time pressure to finish as soon as possible so as to allow the rebuilding and repopulating of the Quarter, municipal and state policies did not always work to the advantage of scholarly investigation. One foreign biblical scholar and archaeologist who has worked in Jerusalem for several decades told me of the problems facts by Avigad's excavations. He once came upon Avigad sitting on a boulder watching a bulldozer. Avigad told him that although the developers were supposed to stop if they came upon anything ‘significant' he did not trust them to do so. As such, he had set up a 24 hour watch: staff members would be there at all times watching over them. To quote Nitza Rosovsky, "[I]n Jerusalem the archaeologists were under constant pressure from builders to complete their work so that housing construction could start. Avigad and his team sug non-stop for fourteen years, during eight, ten and sometimes twelve months a year." The logistical constraints and time pressures on Avigad's excavations are clear in the "Preliminary Reports" and the "Notes and News" published over the years in the Israel Exploration Journal. As he notes throughout the reports, particular sites were chosen for excavation on the basis of the work plans of the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter. In the third Preliminary Report, for example, Avigad writes: "As before, the work areas were determined by the development and construction programme currently being carried out in this ruined Quarter." And, as, testified to by a photograph in a 1992 article in the Biblical Archaeology Review, a lot of dirt was moved very quickly. The picture was taken in 1969. The caption reads: "Dwarfed by the Broad Wall during its excavation in 1969, a man stands just beyond the angle marking the wall's change in direction" – an appropriate description of a picture of a man overwhelmed by both the depth of the pit excavated and the size of the wall revealed, and this is in the first season of excavation."
This is a portrait of a man heading a team entrusted with a physically and intellectual enormous task that had to be done with extreme rapidity. Sites of far less political and historical significance than the Old City of Jerusalem are more usually excavated over the course of many decades, not a few years. It cites a variety of sources and gives some ideas of the constraints under which Avigad worked.
Here is the same paragraph from the book, p. 150:
"How many of the bulldozing decisions were made by archaeologists themselves versus how many were made by the builders is unclear. One thing, however, is indisputable: these more recent periods were not enough of a historical priority for the archaeologists to intervene and demand that they be protected as historical sites, at least long enough to study and record before they were destroyed. After all, having declared the Old City an antiquities site, the law empowered archaeologists to stop municipal bulldozers (or, for that matter, those of private contractors) if they determined that significant archaeological remains were about to be destroyed. And, as the following story indicates, that was a right that these archaeologists exercised when they thought necessary. A foreign archaeologist told of having come upon Nahum Avigad in the Old City one day perched on a boulder watching a bulldozer at work. After complaining that they had very little authority vis-à-vis the developers, Avigad told him that even though construction (and destruction) was supposed to be stopped should a significant archaeological find be exposed, he did not trust the developers to do so on their own. He therefore set up an around-the-clock watch, assigning members of his staff to sit and keep an eye on the construction work."
Instead of a man doing a difficult job under extreme constraints, we have an archaeologist who "ma(kes)" "bulldozing decisions," and does so on the basis of "historical priority," although "empowered" to stop "municipal" and even "private" bulldozers, the preceding paragraph makes clear that he allows bulldozers to "remove" the material from "early Islamic through Ottoman times" halting them when "Iron (Israelite), Hellenistic, or the Herodian periods" were reached. These sweeping accusations of politicization of archaeology do not appear in the thesis. Naham Avigad, sadly, is not alive to defend himself.
I have read a great many dissertations. This one is unoriginal and, I believe, not up to Columbia standards. Others may differ. It is, however, a balanced and respectable piece of scholarship, albeit almost entirely derivative.
The book is a different matter entirely. It is convoluted and verbose, factually untrue in many places and probably slanderous in others. Its worst fault, however, is that all of the balance that was in the dissertation has been excised leaving a mere piece of political propaganda, with footnotes. The insertion of footnotes does not render propaganda into scholarship. More especially so when the footnotes all too often merely cite information garnered from conversations with anonymous student volunteers.
1. Abu El Haj, Nadia, "Translating the Truths: Nationalism, the Practice of Archaeology, and the Remaking of Past and Present in Contemporry Jerusalem, " American Ethnologist, Vol. 25, no. 2, (May 1998) pp. 177.