With the decision on whether or not to tenure the controversial historian Joseph Massad still pending at Columbia, Barnard College has begun the process of deciding whether to tenure yet another controversial young Middle Eastern scholar.
Nadia Abu El-Haj, a social anthropologist and an assistant professor at Barnard, has written a study of the effect that archaeology has had on the ideological fashioning of the modern State of Israel, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society".
Reviews by scholars intimately familiar with the state of archaeology in Israel (including the present writer) have pointed out that the book is replete with inaccuracies, faulty research (both methods and tools of research), and displays a very strong ideological bias which strongly taints the book, the research, and needless to say, the conclusions. Her work displays her lack of the necessary tools of research (such as a working knowledge of Hebrew) to enable a close study of Israeli society, and her opinions are unsupported by the evidence. The book's only strength is that it conceptualizes Israeli archaeology within the dogmas of post-colonial theory.
At Barnard as at Columbia, certain departments appear to be so deeply in thrall to the late Edward Said, that scholarship is valued not for rigorous methodology or mastery of a body of evidence, but according to the rigor with which it conforms to the orthodoxies of post-colonialism.
Of course, Abu El-Haj has every right to publish shoddy work. I am reminded of a legendary story told about a meeting of the prestigious American Oriental Society years ago at which a young scholar gave an embarrassingly poor paper. After he had finished, there was an uncomfortable silence in the crowd, until W.F. Albright, the noted scholar of the Near East, got up and said, "We have just heard a fine example of the grand old American tradition of the freedom of speech."
My current claim against Ms. Abu El-Haj is on another ground. As part of her attack on the practice of archaeology in Israel (and, in her opinion, its constant and ongoing misuse for ideological purposes), one of her primary modi operandi is slander. In her book she attacks, harangues, vilifies and slanders respected archaeologists in the field. In particular, she abhorrently attacks professor David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, one of the most respected archaeologists in the Near East, excavator of Lachish, Jezreel and currently, Megiddo. Abu El-Haj accuses David Ussishkin of "bad science," of using bulldozers "in order to get down to earlier strata which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible" and in such a way that "the remains above it were summarily destroyed." He did so, she asserts, despite the fact that anonymous British archaeologists "strenuously objected." Abu El-Haj cites the same anonymous archaeologists to assert that Ussishkin used "large shovels, pickaxes and large buckets in order to move through the earth," "moved through dirt rather quickly" and ignored "smaller remains" in an effort to reach "architectural structures" "that can illuminate the history (the chronology of identity)" of the Jewish national connection to the land.
This is analogous to accusing a surgeon of deciding whether to use a scalpel or a hacksaw according to the patient's ethnic "identity." The slanderous, and one must add, baseless accusations against Ussishkin (which he has publicly denied, see: http://solomonia.com/blog/arch...) is, in effect, an attempt to prevent him from doing his work.
Abu El-Haj's goal is to de-legitimize Israeli archaeology because of what she sees as its relationship "to the Israeli state and society and the role it played in the formation and enactment of its colonial-national historical imagination and in the substantiation of its territorial claims." Abu El-Haj asserts that "what was considered to have been ancient Jewish national existence and sovereignty in their homeland" is a mere Zionist "myth." By accusing David Ussishkin and other esteemed archaeologists of bulldozing through upper strata because of the "nationalist politics guiding [their] research agendas," she endeavors to call into question the validity of the work of highly respected scholars who have devoted careers to uncovering the history of this land. They have done so not merely with regard to the times of the ancient Israelite kingdoms, but of every period from the Paleolithic to the Ottoman Empire, and they have done so with great devotion, using brushes, sieves, non-invasive ground-penetrating radar and other state-of-the art methodology.
Abu El-Haj is frank about her desire to reframe the "Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins ... as pure political fabrication." In her book, she seeks to de-legitimize all archaeologists now digging in Israel—and the facts they uncover in the ground—by lodging slanderous charges based on the testimony of anonymous witnesses.
Freedom of speech, and of research, does in fact have to be defended! Particularly against those who use a form of "newspeak" to de-legitimize respected practitioners of science and in effect, curtail their ability, and right, to conduct and publish their research.
The author is an Israeli archaeologist from Bar-Ilan University.