Note: Facts on the Ground is dense with jargon and not especially well-written. We are posting a few excerpts to give readers a sense of Abu el Haj's argument without subjecting themselves to many hours of tendentious reading.
"This book… analyzes the significance of archaeology 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." (p.2)
"I do not approach the significance of archaeology solely with reference to the question of nation-building. Instead, I insist that the history of colonization be brought center stage. ( 2)
"At the most fundamental level, archaeology produced this place as the Jewish national home and created the fact of an ancient Israelite/Jewish nation and nation-state rooted therein."
Reality check: Archaeologists do not "produce" facts. Archaeologists discover objects which they and others (historians, philologists) then interpret. The numerous objects documenting the reality of the ancient Israelite kingdoms, including a substantial number of Egyptian, Babylonian, Moabite, and Assyrian inscriptions describing the Israelite kings and the battles they fought, were produced by people who lived thousands of years ago, people who had no stake in the current dispute between Nadia Abu El Haj and the existence of a Jewish State.
On page 92 we read of the "Jewish settler colony" "seizing power" in 1948. Most states achieve sovereignty by "seizing it." The Jewish nation received a charter form the United Nation. Eccentric of us, but there you have it.
Following a passage on the archaeology of Hazor:
"It was precisely through this dispute over details that a tale best understood as the modern nation's origin myth was transported into the realm of history – that an ancient Israelite social collectivity emerged as historical fact."
Reality check: An ancient Israelite social collectivity existed, Israelite kingdoms existed. To suggest that these well-documented kingdoms are a mere myth posing as history is like denying that the sun is at the center of the galaxy and the planets revolve around it. Teaching that particular theory is illegal in Saudi Arabia. But the fact that the Saudi minister of education says that the earth stands still and the planets revolve around it, does not make it so.
And the fact that Nadia Abu El Haj of Barnard College denies that an ancient Israelite collectivity existed does not negate the fact that those kingdoms did exist.
To Abu El Haj, Israel is a settler-colonial state, a category that includes the United States, Australia and Canada, states with no historical claim or right to the land they have settled and colonized. Throughout her work, Abu El Haj refers to Israel as a settler nation, a settler-colonial nation-state, a settler colony and, simply, as a colony. Her thoughts on the settler-colony status of the Jewish State, the role of archaeology, and the possibility – or lack of possibility – of objectivity in are laid out in a long section toward the end of Facts on the Ground that begins with a description of the ground surveys , digs and, particularly, the search for previously undiscovered Dead Sea scrolls that preceded the Israeli withdrawal form the Jordan Valley in compliance with the Oslo Accords.
"The very distinctive form of Israeli settler-nationhood returns to haunt the cultural property debate. The ongoing work of archaeology, after all, was constitutive of the territorial self-fashioning of Jewish nativeness out of which a settler-colonial community emerged as a national, an original, and a native one, which would thereby have legitimate claim not just to the land as a whole, but, more specifically to particular ancient artifacts that embody the Jewish nation's history and heritage." (242)
"What is at stake in the dispute over Jewish objects form the occupied territories is not so much who created specific objects but what kind of a relationship those ancient inhabitants have with the lands present population groups. The very incompatibility of understanding Zionism as a colonial versus a national project stands at the argument's very core." (244)
"Competing conceptions of rightful ownership were operating here. One perspective articulated an anticolonial politics that regarded the Israeli state as an occupying power with no legitimate national claims as heir to either the territory itself or to any of its material-cultural objects (even if as a compromise a two-state solution must now be accepted.) This anticolonial challenge, moreover, entailed rereading the history of the hald (or country) as a whole, a historical reinterpretation that is fundamentally incommensurable with Zionist historical claims. As argued by one Palestinian archaeologist, while "Jewish culture" existed in Palestine during "specific periods… it would not be right to emphasize the history of one people among the many peoples who invaded Palestine and settled there." (246-7)
Reality check: Although the Biblical narrative tells of an Israelite invasion led by Joshua, archaeology presents evidence only for the indigenous development of an Israelite people that appears in both an Egyptian inscription and in the form of distinctive artifacts in the agricultural settlements of the Judean hill country in the thirteenth century CE.
"The second conception of rightful ownership expressed a commitment to an ethnonational identity believed to inhere in the objects themselves. That heritage conception has long been an essential component of a national grammar that reconfigured practices of colonial settlement and seizure within a language of national return." (246)
"By the late 1980s and 1990s… the settler character of Israeli nationhood… was coming to the fore" (246)
"Assumptions about history and nationhood persisted, ones evident in the ethnonational conception of heritage ownership that characterized the Israeli discourse. Arguments concerning the rightful ownership of Jewish heritage are situated squarely within… a specifically modern historicity… These objects are not simply of market value but, moreover, of historical value. (248)
Particular objects emerge as emblems of heritage, a fundamental category for societies – for nations – "intent on finding legitimacy through history." Of course, to produce ancient objects as the heritage of the modern Jewish nation requires the assertion, or belief in, a connection (perhaps even a genealogical relationship) between "the people … who created (the) artifacts" in the first place and those whose identity they are seen to represent." (248)
"What is understood, by many Israeli archaeologists, to distinguish Palestinian (or Arab) historical claims fir Israeli ones? In an article entitled "Religion, Ideology< and Politics and their Impact on Palestinian Archaeology," Magen Broshi, an archaeologist and former curator of the Shrine of the book Pavilion at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, gives an account of Israeli and Arab archaeological traditions." (248)
"According to Broshi, "The Israeli phenomenon, a nation of immigrants returning to an old-new land, for historical reasons, is without parallel."(248)
In a longish excerpt, Broshi also reviews the known, that early and mid-twentieth century Jewish archaeologists "concentrated on Jewish subjects," but, still according to Abu El Haj paraphrasing Broshi "As science, however, Israeli archaeology has now mature. It has moved beyond that initial search for Jewish objects, and it has become "assiduous in studying all periods." (249)
(Note: Israeli archaeologists are world leaders in the study of the neolithic and in techniques such as sieving dug soil for micro remains and using them in particular in the study of food and agriculture. There are Israeli archaeologists specializing in every period and culture that has lived in the region, including the Arab and Ottoman periods. The Israel Museum has large sections of Arab and Ottoman period objects on display, in addition, Jerusalem has a very fine Islamic Museum.)
"Contrast that with Broshi's description of "Arab Ideologies and Archaeology."
"We should note that there is an archaeological-historical argument that looms very high in Arab archaeology and is marshaled frequently in political polemics: the assertion that almost all the people of the ancient Near East were Arabs… Because it is important to Arabs to prove their early origins here, it is often stated in modern Arab literature that the Hebrew tribes conquered the land form the Arabs who preceded them. To buttress their assertion they identify almost all the ethnic groups who appear in the history of the land as Arab… From such genealogies it would naturally follow that the Arabs were settled in the land much before the Jews, as well as after the "Arab reconquest" in 636 C.E. Such arguments lack any scientific basis, and even in the political sphere hold no respectability."(249)
Note: Broshi is correct here, of course. It is common for Palestinian scholars, not only at Al Quds and Bier Zeit Universities, but also at Barnard College and Columbia University to lie about the history of Israel . The documentation of Arab arrival in 635 is extensive, and no one doubts that Aab historical continuity in the land can be traced back 1,300 years. In papers she has published subsequent to this book, Abu El Haj does not assert as others do that the Jebusites, Canaanites and Philistines were "Arabs." What she does is cast doubt on Jewish historical continuity since Israelite or proto-Jewish times. In one paper on Jewish genetic origins she consistently puts the word "diaspora" in quotation marks, to imply that Jews did not actually originate in the Middle East. In other papers she asserts that the modern Palestinians are genetically nearly identical to the ancient "tribes" of the Biblical lands while the Jews are not, and in one recent paper denies that Jewish maternal lines trace back to ancient Israel, a point contradicted by several major studies. In Facts on the Ground she casts doubt on Jewish continuity by insisting on conceptualizing Israel as a settler colony, denying the ancient Jewish connection to the Holy land. Back to Abu El Haj:
"There is a striking difference in Broshi's analysis of a Jewish search for roots that characterized the early decades of Israeli archaeology and of a more recent Arab quest for early origins in the archaeological record… he portrayed the Arab quest for early origins as being rooted in pure political polemic. In the former instance the question of roots and return was understood as real and true, even if as science the practice of archaeology had to move beyond that search for Jewish origins and had to focus on other periods as well. In the latter instance it was pure fabrication. .. In developing his argument Broshi never challenged the underlying nationalist assumptions upon which the earlier tradition of Israeli archaeological practice was based: that in searching for an Israelite and Jewish past, archaeologists were uncovering ancient origins upon which modern nationhood would be built anew. The implications for Arab archaeology were fundamentally different, however. … Arab archaeologists would have to disavow a paradigm that presupposes any genealogical or ethnic connection between Palestine's ancient tribes and its contemporary Arab inhabitants. (249-250)
Note: I know of no scholar who would deny the probability that some modern Palestinians have genealogical connections to "Palestine's ancient tribes." Of course, so do any number of modern Italians, Greeks and Turks, and, for that matter, some modern Palestinians are undoubtedly descended from Mongols, Turks, Franks, and the British army that occupied the place during WWI. Genes get around.
What is in doubt is an ethnic connection between, say, the Philistines who arrived as colonial settlers from the Greek world, spoke a Greek language and worshipped many gods, and the modern Palestinian Arabs.
More than a whiff of racial essentialism enters Abu El Haj's work when she discusses "genealogical… connections between Palestine's ancient tribes and its contemporary Arab inhabitants," while simultaneously denying that Jews possess genealogical connections with the ancient Israelites.
In the next paragraph, which directly follows the material above, Abu El Haj uses the disputed phrase "pure political fabrication." As some rabidly anti-Israel bloggers have pointed out, quoting the whole sentence reverses the meaning. But watch what happens when you quote the whole passage.
"While by the early 1990s, virtually all archaeologists argued for the need to disintangle the goals of their professional practice form the quest for Jewish origins and objects that framed an earlier archaeological project, the fact that there is some genuine national-cultural connection between contemporary (Israeli-)Jews and such objects was not open to sustained questioning. That commitment remained, for the most part, and for most practicing archaeologists, fundamental. In other words, the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as a pure political fabrication. It is not an ideological assertion comparable to Arab claims of Canaanite or other ancient tribal roots. Although both origin tales, Arab and Jewish, are structurally similar as historical claims, (Israeli archaeologist) Broshi's argument betrays a "hierarchy of credibility" in which "facticity" is conferred only upon the latter." (250)
Note: An ancient Israelite collectivity actually existed. No Arab collectivity predating the seventh century existed in Bible lands. No one in the Levant spoke Arabic before the seventh century (there was a language known as ancient North Arabic spoken by nomadic groups in what is now Jordan. This is a language in the Arabic family of languages that is not linguistically ancestral to the Quranic Arabic of the Hejaz.)
In reading the book, one often wonders whether Abu El Haj actually read the books she cites in support of her views. For example, in footnote 8 p. 317 she writes:
"For a recent and quite fundamental challenge levied against claims of an ancient Israelite state and biblical historicity more broadly by an Israeli archaeologist, see Herzog, 1999. His argument precipitated considerable debate… regarding the political implications of such historical revisionism."
She is referring to Ze'ev Herzog's book "Deconstruction the Walls of Jericho." But Herzog does not deny that there was an Israelite state. He spends a lot of time denying that the Patriarchs and the Exodus were archaeologically documented historical events (yawn.) He then demotes David and Solomon to the leadership of small tribal kingdoms, in accord with Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University. This has indeed been the subject of a hot debate within the archaeological community. But serious people are talking about the size of the tenth century kingdom, not whether it existed. Herzog agrees with everyone else that the history as given in Kings I and II form the death of Solomon forward is roughly accurate and confirmed by archaeology. It is difficult to understand how Abu El Haj can cite Herzog in support of her views. But it is also difficult to understand why she should cite not his academic papers, but a popular book that was intended, as she rightly says, to provoke a debate over Israel's historically-based claim to sovereignty. Herzog's politics are pretty far left and the phrasing in this, his popular book, provocatively implies a more extreme minimalism that his scholarly writing. Nevertheless, he is a minimalist (specifically with regard to the tenth century) not a denier.
The next section is a segway into Abu El Haj's view of the question of whether it is possible to establish a hierarchy of facticity between two competing narratives by examining the evidence.
But, back to archaeology. The next two pages are spent exploring the efforts of Israeli archaeologists and antiquities authorities to interest Palestinians in archaeology, both as a way to reduce rampant Palestinian looting, and with the goal of having more working Arab archaeologists in Israel. She quotes more than one Israeli suggesting that Arabs are most likely to be interested in the archaeological record of Arab presence, " ‘ Why not dig a more recent, Muslim past?' he asked" (252)
This approach, educating people about an ethnic heritage to which they can relate, works elsewhere. It is currently being used with some success by the Peruvian government to curb rampant grave-looting. Abu El Haj hears only denigration of the Palestinian people.
"A non-interest in one's archaeological past signifies…. the absence of a commitment to, and perhaps even the existence of, "the nation," be it a Palestinian or a Jewish one." (253)
The next two pages explore the problem with looting of graves and archaeological sites by Palestinian Arabs, a serious problem to which no solution has been found. And the passage that James Davila of St. Andrews University objects to strongly as indicating an apology for or even the excusing of looting.
"Looting could well be analyzed as a form of resistance to the Israeli state and an archaeological project, understood by many Palestinians, to stand at the very heart of Zionist historical claims to the land. In James Scott's words, looting is perhaps "a weapon of the weak." (255)
Note: James Scott wrote a well-known book called Weapons of the Weak in which he analyses such things as deliberately destruction of crops by farm laborers as weapons of the weak used as a means of political resistance by colonized peoples. Abu El Haj appears to approve of the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites as an act of political resistance.
Abu el Haj reveals her highly political prejudices toward the end of the book.
"This has been a study of how archaeology intervened in the world, creating new phenomena that shaped the … objects and the political, territorial, and national-cultural realities within which claims to and struggles for the present and the future have come to be framed.
"To focus on what it is that archaeology did and does is, in effect, to insist that we pay attention to the matrix of specific and variegated local practices through which such scientific work effected particular transformations in the world. It is, in other words, to insist on the disunity of the science." (277)
"Underneath the diversity in conceptualizations, unity implies a commitment that there is "one standard of reason, and one method or style of investigation," however the latter is ultimately defined. That singular standard of reason, often subsumed under the term "enlightenment rationality," has become the object of study and criticism… notably in post-colonial studies. " (279)
Abu El Haj, that is, does not subscribe to the idea that objectively verifiable facts exist..
Thus when, early in the book, she describes a school of scholarship that "Reject(s) a positivist commitment to scientific methods…" and is "rooted in… post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory… and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements." She is describing the school of scholarship of which she is part.
The next three pages are devoted to an explication, citing Edward Said, of the manner in which the objectivity of science and the ‘alleged universalism' of its modern disciplines was "‘Eurocentric in the extreme' and rooted in a specific history of imperialism." Her own commitments to science studies and "the disunity of science," and scorn for the idea of "objectivity of knowledge" are made clear. She continues:
"In the context of Israel and Palestine, archaeology emerged as a central scientific discipline because of the manner in which colonial settlement was configured in a language of, and a belief in, Jewish national return. In producing the material signs of national history that became visible and were witnessed across the contemporary landscape, archaeology repeatedly remade the colony into an ever-expanding national terrain. It substantiated the nation in history and produced Eretz Yisrael as the national home. It is within the context of that distinctive history of archaeological practice and settler nationhood that one can understand why it was that "thousands of Palestinians stormed the site" of Joseph's tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus, looting it and setting it alight in the fall of 2000 (Haaretz English Edition, 8 Oct. 2000). Joseph's tomb was not destroyed simply because of its status as a Jewish religious shrine. The symbolic resonance of it's destruction reaches far deeper than that. It needs to be understood in relation to a colonial-national history in which modern political rights have been substantiated in and expanded through the material signs of historic presence. In destroying the tomb, Palestinian demonstrators eradicated one "fact on the ground." Archaeology remains salient in this world of ongoing contestation. It is a sign of colonial presence and national rights, of secularism and science, as various groups in Palestine and Israel engage in struggles to (re)configure the Israeli state and polity and to determine its territorial limits."
There are several odd things in this, the final paragraph of the book. First is the failure to mention that Israelis were killed in the incident she refers to as "looting." Then there is the fact that she does not utter even a pro-forma statement about how destruction of antiquities is wrong. These, however, are matters of morality. And poor moral judgment is no absolute criteria for the denial of tenure. Ignorance is.
In stating that in destroying Joseph's tomb Palestinian looters eradicated one fact on the ground, Abu El Haj appears to accept as fact that Joseph's tomb was an historic, Jewish archaeological site. It is, of course, an ordinary Muslim-era tomb that had been surveyed but not dug by archaeologists, tomb type so ordinary that a dig would have been more like tomb desecration than archaeological exploration. This is a small point, but her unscholarly, highly political goals and ignorance of archaeology, form field methods to dig results, shows on almost every page.
And, really, tenure should not be awarded to the ignorant, let alone to political propagandists in post-modern clothing.