I know that I said my last post on Nadia Abu El Haj would be precisely that, my last post on the matter, at least for a while. However, as the following is of considerable interest for anyone who has been following the Abu El Haj controversy (and consists not of my views but of an exchange of views by others), I think I can be allowed to stretch a point.
Larry Cohler-Esses, editor-at-large of The Jewish Week, is a journalist who has reported the Nadia Abu El Haj controversy in some detail. Following the publication of an article in which he was critical of the campaign against Abu El Haj, he was contacted by a Columbia University faculty member who took issue with his position. A very interesting and enlightening exchange of views took place, so interesting that Larry has - with the permission of his correspondent, on condition of anonymity - asked for it to be published in full here. What follows consists entirely of the text of the exchange between Larry and his anonymous correspondent ('XXX'), as Larry has forwarded it to me. As the whole thing makes for a long post, I have put the transcript itself under the cut.
On 10/25/07 1:40 PM, XXX wrote:
Paula Stern quotes El Haj's book,
A young professor at Barnard has written a book denying that the ancient Jewish or Israelite kingdoms existed. "What was considered to have been ancient Jewish national existence and sovereignty in their homeland is a tale best understood as the modern nation's origin myth, transported into the realm of history." The Hasmonean and Davidic dynasties are a mere "belief, an ideological assertion, a pure political fabrication."
You said that you didn't find in her book any denial of the existence of the Jewish kingdoms. Did you miss the above, or did Ms. Stern fabricate this? or am I not understanding some additional nuance?
—— Forwarded Message
From: Larry Cohler-Esses
Date: Mon, 29 Oct 2007 13:34:19 -0400
Conversation: Abu El Haj
Subject: Re: Abu El Haj
Dear Prof. XXX—
Thank you for your note. Can you please cite a page number for the material Paula Stern offers as a quotation from this book? I did not find this passage as she reports it anywhere while reading the book.
More importantly, Amazon.com, as you may know, offers a service whereby one may search for words, phrases and quotes in the complete text of many of the books it offers for sale. "Facts on the Ground" is one of the books for which it offers this service. Using Amazon's service, I find no hits for the quote passage Paula Stern offers from this book as cited in your email. I have also conducted a search for the phrases ""modern nation's origin myth" and "realm of history." There are a total of two pages that contain one, the other or both of these phrases. Neither relates to the existence or non-existence of "the ancient Jewish or Israelite kingdoms." Indeed, Abu El-Haj in many places refers to the First Temple period when these kingdoms existed as a matter of fact.
In the book, the phrases in question ("modern nation's origin myth"; "realm of history"), relate instead, to a much earlier period that preceded the establishment of either the kingdom of Judea or Israel or, for that matter, the United Monarchy of Kings David and Solomon that the Bible reports on (though it is my understanding from speaking with biblical archaeologists that the true extent of the United Kingdom of David and Solomon also remains a matter of debate based on the historical and archaeological record outside the Bible.).
The earlier period to which these two passages refer is that of the Israelite tribes. According to the Bible, these tribes came into the Land of Israel either by conquest (Book of Joshua) or via a wave of mostly peaceful settlement (Book of Judges). Whether via conquest or settlement, the basic historicity of ethnically identifiable "Israelite" tribes coming into the land of Israel during this period has been and remains a matter of sharp dispute among archaeologists. It is correct that this biblical episode is one of the nation's (as in Jewish people's) origin myths. Abu El-Haj is far from alone in raising skeptical questions about its historicity, as indeed, her book does. But this is not, in any event, what Paula Stern is even speaking about in her charge.
Editor-At-Large, The Jewish Week of New York
Dear Prof. XXX—
Per my earlier email, please read my story, if you have not done so. Here is the link:
On 10/29/07 2:55 PM, "XXX" wrote:
Hi Larry - I did indeed read your article- we subscribe to the Jewish Week. I cannot supply a page no. since I got that "quote" from the Stern posting. But what about the last part of her quote? I assume that you also cannot find any reference to the supposed quote that the Hasmonean and Davidic dynasties are "pure political fabrication"? I was surprised that you didn't work in a quote or two from Prof. Alan Segal's comments published in Spectator. I thought they were very carefully crafted and relevant.
Your piece includes the following: "Israeli archaeologists, she [Abu El Haj] notes, dismiss this as complete nonsense while for them the ‘modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication.'"
I assume that the quotes refer to the actual text. This gives me the impression that the book was promoting the idea that the notion of ancient Israelite origins is touted as fact by Israeli archeologists, but that others can properly see it as ‘pure political fabrication.' True, this is clearly not the same as the Stern quote and you seem to have caught Stern in some sloppy attribution. Still, I find any claim that the history of the kingdoms is fabricated so absurd that I take exception to any suggestion that this is a serious scholarly position. Can we have any doubt that the author's agenda is to undermine the legitimacy of Israel? If she is not explicity writing those controversial assertions, then what are the "scoops" of her research? Given the Davidic dynasty and the Holy Temples, how important is the question of Joshua's conquest as part of the ‘national myth'?
Interestingly, any Palestinian claim to a historical link to this region must also be built on the same Biblical sources that refer to all of the ancient peoples. But, modern Jewry identifies with the Biblical narrative and therefore with the Land of Israel. The Dead Sea scrolls, written in ancient Hebrew, confirm the authenticity of many of our current texts- and these do relate to periods of Jewish civilizations in Israel. So, in my non-expert and minimally informed opinion, Abu El Haj's book reflects a politically inspired agenda masquerading as serious scholarship. In my opinion, too many classrooms at Columbia are given over to polical agendas at the expense of real learning, and the author of this book could easily be suspected of being part of this problem.
I admit that I am no expert on these matters and I have not read Abu El Haj's book. I offer these comments as a private communication- off the record- for whatever they are worth. Thank you for including me in this dialogue. I hope you have gained something from your patience with me.
Dear Prof. XXX—
[But what about the last part of her quote? I assume that you also cannot find any reference to the supposed quote that the Hasmonean and Davidic dynasties are "pure political fabrication"?]
That is correct.
["Your piece includes the following: Israeli archaeologists, she [Abu El Haj] notes, dismiss this as complete nonsense while for them the ‘modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication.'"]
[I assume that the quotes refer to the actual text. This gives me the impression that the book was promoting the idea that the notion of ancient Israelite origins is touted as fact by Israeli archeologists, but that others can properly see it as ‘pure political fabrication.']
The words I have put in quotes do, indeed, refer to the actual text of the book.
As for the idea Abu El-Haj was promoting in this passage: As a lay reader, this is unclear to me. In context, I see at least two, maybe three, possibilities. As I noted in my story, the phrase in question appears in a section devoted to comparing the understandings Israeli Jewish and Palestinian archaeologists have of their respective origins on the land. Abu El-Haj notes that some Palestinian archaeologists argue Palestinians are heirs to the Cannanites who preceded the Israelites on the land. Israeli archaeologists, she notes, dismiss this as complete nonsense while for them the "modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication."
Abu El-Haj seems a bit later to fault the Israeli Jewish archaeologists—specifically, Magen Broshi, the archaeologist whose writing on this subject she quotes from—for treating these two origin narratives unequally. Abu El-Haj writes:
"Although both origin tales, Arab and Jewish, are structurally similar as historical claims, Broshi's argument betrays a ‘hierarch[y] of credibility' in which ‘facticity' is conferred only upon the latter. (Cooper and Stoler, 1997:21)." [Brackets and parentheses in the original.].
From this and other remarks in this section, I infer that Abu El-Haj is criticizing the Israeli archaeologists for continuing to hold onto to a belief that the Jewish origin narrative re the Israelite tribes has some historical reality of some kind behind it while denying out of hand this possibility re the Palestinian origin narrative put forth by some Palestinian archaeologists (of whom she cites one). But is she criticizing the Israelis for holding on to their belief—or for refusing to seriously explore the Palestinian one? Or both—i.e, faulting the Israeli Jewish archeologists for not giving equitable consideration to both?
It's hard for me to tell—one of many sections where this is the case for me. This brings me to a matter separate from the charges Paula Stern lays out in her petition. Here and elsewhere, that petition "fails to meet the standards of scholarship that are expected of Columbia and Barnard undergraduates" (as her petition says of Abu El-Haj) when it comes to accuracy of content and attribution. But as a journalist whose raison d'etre is clear writing accessible for a general audience, I found a lot of this book to be poorly written, in some sections almost unreadable. It is over-laden with this peculiar academese, post-structuralism, that seems to me to be filled with loaded terms, a kind of in-group lexicon for folks sharing some assumed political worldview. Sometimes, Abu El-Haj seems to me willfully obscure. I therefore do not dismiss your suspicion that Abu El-Haj's book "reflects a politically inspired agenda masquerading as serious scholarship." If so, she requires unmasking by individuals who argue accurately from what she actually writes. A person's reputation is implicated in Paula Stern's petition. And 2,500 individuals, many of them alumni and contributors, have signed on to its charges, constituting the largest body of public pressure on the university's tenure process.
If academics are to be denied tenure for writing obscure academic jargon (hear, hear!), this would require a broad and sweeping purge, in which Abu El-Haj—and maybe most post-structuralists—should be included. Instead, post-structuralists may be, for all I know, on her tenure review committee or over-represented among her outside readers. This is an important broader issue, not just about Abu El-Haj. But Stern gives no indication she is concerned with this. Is it possible Stern launched her petition against Abu El-Haj ‘out of a politically inspired agenda masquerading a concern for serious scholarship?' (to paraphrase you).
[Still, I find any claim that the history of the kingdoms is fabricated so absurd that I take exception to any suggestion that this is a serious scholarly position. Can we have any doubt that the author's agenda is to undermine the legitimacy of Israel? If she is not explicity writing those controversial assertions, then what are the "scoops" of her research? Given the Davidic dynasty and the Holy Temples, how important is the question of Joshua's conquest as part of the ‘national myth'?]
Sentence #1: Abu El-Haj, as stated, does not take this position in her book.
Sentence #2: Having read the book, I came away disturbed personally with this suspicion about her agenda. But I was far from holding it without any doubt. In any event, I saw this concern as a separate matter from the academic integrity of the book, which I take to be the focus of the tenure process.
Sentence #3: I am not sure about this because I do not know what is new vs. what is established conventional wisdom in the topic(s) and fields she is addressing. Her focus in some places is the political implications and consequences of Israeli archaeology over time, with an emphasis on 1948-1970, or so. More often, it seems to be about the political implications and consequences of the **epistemology** of Israeli archaeology—and by implication archaeology elsewhere. In an ideal world, what her "scoops" are in these areas is something her academic peers could dispassionately and reliably evaluate in the tenure process. But I did not just fall off a turnip truck.
Sentence #4: This is hard to answer with an objective generalization for everyone. For whatever it's worth, as a person who is reasonably well educated Jewishly (and married to a rabbi), I find that the idea of the ancient Israelite tribes who came out of Egypt under the leadership of Moshe, received the Torah on Mount Sinai and came into the Land of Israel to redeem the land as per God's earlier promise to their ancestors is a pretty important part of the ‘national myth.' But I am not the pope.
I hope this helps. Thank you for making me think through some of these issues.
—— Forwarded Message
Date: Tue, 30 Oct 2007 15:56:34 -0500
To: Larry Cohler-Esses
Subject: Re: Abu El Haj
Hi Larry - Thanks for taking the time to continue this dialogue. I found it helpful. I don't want to necessarily get the last word, but I have a few comments still…
I agree that Ms. Stern got in over her head and is vulnerable to serious criticism in the manner in which she misquoted the book (based on your info and analysis). For sure Stern has a political agenda, but she wouldn't have gone after Abu El Haj if she hadn't perceived the book as very challenging to Israel's legitimacy. You give the impression that the book fosters an impression of de-legitimizing Israel, but is disguising it with so much jargon that one could never prove she made the challenges.
As for tenure: If the centerpiece of one's scholarship presents arguments in such obscure manner that even knowledgeable readers can't figure out what the heck it's claims are…. well, I wouldn't back such a candidate. You may be correct that her committee was stacked with sympathizers. I'm sure Alan Segal wasn't on it.
Finally, as a religious Jew myself- of course the Biblical narrative of Moses, the Torah and the conquest of Canaan (Eretz Yisrael) is important to me personally. Belief in this is even shared by religious Christians and Moslems. However, I am aware that many ‘modernists' don't believe in the Torah, including many Jews by birth. I don't even know whether any archeological finds support the Abraham through Joshua "history." My point was that if the history of the Jewish kingdoms is not contested, then it seems to me unimportant if there is no archeological evidence to "prove" that Israelites entered Israel with the Torah tradition and vanquished the Canaanites. King David and King Solomon ruled over a large Jewish population from Jerusalem, installed the Jewish religious icon and eventually established the Temple for worship. David's psalms are a large part of our liturgy and are consistent with the Torah legacy. Modern Israel represents the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty that was lost in the Babylonian exile, renewed by Ezra and Nehemia and then lost again in Roman times. Sure there were other Canaanites, and the Palestinians are welcome to identify with them if they want. But, how does that entitle them to get rid of King David's heirs? Most Zionists will accept Palestinian sovereignty over Ramallah, Jenin, Jericho, etc. Let the Palestinians accept Jewish sovereignty over Israel.
From: Larry Cohler-Esses
Date: Monday, 5 Nov 2007
Subject: Re: Abu El-Haj
Well, as you no doubt know, Columbia announced last week it has granted tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj. So, further exchange on this is now truly and deeply academic, in the most mundane sense. Nevertheless, I did want to correct a misimpression I may have left from my previous comments:
You wrote last week in your last post:
[As for tenure: If the centerpiece of one's scholarship presents arguments in such obscure manner that even knowledgeable readers can't figure out what the heck it's claims are…. well, I wouldn't back such a candidate. You may be correct that her committee was stacked with sympathizers. I'm sure Alan Segal wasn't on it.] [Underline added.]
As you accurately note, I did find that important sections of Abu El-Haj's book are filled with impenetrable post-structuralist mumbo-jumbo. But I didn't find it uniformly so. Other sections—also important–are not. Some are quite lucid. In fact, for me they were, as Tel Aviv University archaeologist Rafael Greenberg opined about her book, "eye-openers"—if accurate. I am not in a position to judge if they are accurate without further research.
To take just one example: I am embarrassed to admit that due to my historical ignorance, I am unable to judge the accuracy or balance of a section in which Abu El-Haj details Israel's destruction of an entire quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem—the Maghariba Quarter—right after the Six Day War in order to create the area that is now the very large open plaza leading up to the Kotel.
Abu El-Haj here details a process that was ordered immediately, with no pretense of legal process, one that created 650-1,000 refugees and destroyed several historically important Islamic religious sites. A footnote states that in the following two years (1967-1969) other such sites were demolished. Among the religious and historical sites Israel destroyed, according to Abu El-Haj:
*the Jami al-Buraq; commemorating the site at which the Prophet Mohammed's steed (named Buraq) was believed to have been tethered on the night he took the Prophet on his night flight over Jerusalem, as described in the Koran;
*al Madrasa al-Afdaliyya, a famous school built by Malik al-Afdal, an early 12th century vizier to the Fatimids and leader of the resistance to the Crusaders;
*Maqamal-Shaykh, the tomb of the first director of al-Madrasa al-Afdaliyya;
*the Zawiyyat Abu Madyan, a Sufi hospice and convent
*a segment of al-Zawiyya al-Fakhriyya
"There are no longer any physical remainders of the neighborhood itself, either of its vernacular architecture or of its religious institutions," Abu El-Haj writes. Her footnotes here cite published sources. Her main text cites interviews with (unnamed) Old City residents.
I remember hearing about the demolition of this quarter in a vague and general way at some point long ago in my self-education about the Old City. I clearly have a need to learn more. I also now feel an obligation to do so in light of current developments. As you know, Israelis today are angrily protesting that the Islamic Waqf, which controls the Temple Mount, is destroying ancient Jewish historical artifacts buried beneath that site, dating from the eras of the First and Second Temple. I know how deeply the thought of this wounds me. I can therefore imagine the pain of the shoe being on the other foot—if that is, indeed, the way it was.
This is just one section where I thought Abu El-Haj acquitted herself clearly and pointedly—though, as mentioned, I must do more work to judge her accuracy and balance. There are others—one, on the epistemology and presentation of findings related to two sites from the period of the Roman Destruction of Jerusalem. This section is the apparent source of the canard that she blames the Jews rather than the Romans for the destruction of the city.
In fact, she clearly affirms the historical reality:
Page 145: "Clearly we know from historical accounts (from Josephus's book the Jewish Wars, for one) that the Roman legion burned the city down, destroying the Upper City on the Eighth of Ellul, in the year 70 CE."
What Abu El-Haj does discuss, at some length, is how Israeli archaeological, preservation and tourist authorities have utilized two archaeological sites in Jerusalem's Old City as examples of the Roman destruction in order to dramatize the event for tourists in concrete and graphic ways. She asserts they have done so despite the impossibility of archaeological confirmation that these sites were, in fact, part of that destruction. Abu El-Haj does not deny they might have been. But she argues that there are other plausible hypotheses regarding these specific sites, and that the archaeologists, curators and tour guides involved in their development ignored these possibilities due to an unexamined bias (note: not a devious intent to deceive and manipulate). The unexamined bias: a desire to concretize a particular narrative that affirmed their national story.
One of these sites, known as Burnt House, was documented to be the home of the Kathros family, a prominent priestly family mentioned in the Talmud. The site was found in the upper class section of the ancient city. Abu El-Haj notes that Josephus, besides recording the Romans' destruction of Jerusalem, records also that the Zealots burned down the homes of upper class Jerusalemites in the years preceding the Roman destruction. Yet, she observes, Israeli presenters cite the layer of ash found in the home from this general period as unequivocal evidence of the Roman destruction of the city on precisely the Eighth of Ellul, 70 C.E. Abu El-Haj questions this epistemology: Ash, she says, citing dating experts, cannot date destruction with precision as to decade, much less to specific date.
Further, Abu El-Haj excavates from archeological archives a preliminary report on the site by Nahman Avigad, the archaeologist who conducted the relevant dig after 1967. In it, Avigad alludes to how the Kathros family was known to have "abused their status in granting their kind positions in the Temple, expoting [sic, exploiting] the people." [Brackets in the original.] In his notes on another nearby site, from the same period, known as Site E, Avigad specifically mentions the possibility that the building was "destroyed by the Zealots, who are known to have caused severe damage to Jerusalem in the period prior to its destruction by the Romans."
Yet, in developing and presenting these reconstructed sites, says Abu El Haj, this possibility, with its narrative of intra-communal strife, simply drops away, as do other possibilities. Instead, a film at Burnt House for tourists lauds the home as "an example of the glory that was destroyed"—unequivocally by the Romans. The archaeologist Avigad's intracommunal exploiters have become sources for national pride.
The on-site film also takes some questionable liberties to dramatize the favored narrative, Abu El-Haj says. To dramatic background music, its narrator states: "Among the rooms of Burnt House, an even more amazing bit of archaeological evidence: the skeletal arm of a young woman, preserved exactly as it clutched the stairs of the burning house 2, 000 years ago. Just within reach of her arm, this spear was found."
Citing Avigad's excavation writings, Abu El-Haj notes, "The spear was actually found within the remains of a separate room."
As a mere reporter, I lack the expertise to evaluate such arguments—though my story, as noted, does report the strongly conflicting evaluations of this book by individuals who are experts. I have read at least one critique of this argument that seems to me hard to dismiss. I hope to speak soon with a couple of the archaeologists who have respectively supported and disparaged her book to get their take on this. This is not for my story. That's finished; just for my personal intellectual curiousity.
The point is this book is highly mixed. When it was not exasperating me with its relentless, anti-Zionist political slant and its impenetrable jargon, it really did force me to think—which is an important point, isn't it?
All the best,
Date: Mon, Nov 12, 2007Tue, 30 Oct 2007 15:56:34 -0500
To: Larry Cohler-Esses
Subject: Re: Abu El Haj
Your plan to seek comments from Israeli archeologists is the correct approach. Is there any doubt that the "show" at the "burnt house" reflects input from Israeli archeologists? You and I should not be debating the accuracy of conclusions derived from Israeli archeology. Actually, your showcasing Abu El Haj's accusations here without having the rebutal is unbalanced. Abu El Haj's dissertation and book may contain some real scholarship. Even so, I remain with the impression that she was willing to misrepresent real science in order to push a political agenda. For me this is unforgivable, especially since the agenda is aimed at delegitimizing Israel. My impression is derived in part from the following posted comments, since I never read the book in question.
Prof. Alan Segal, a Professor of Religion at Barnard, did read Abu El Haj's book very carefully. Here are a few excerpts [marked by **] of what Segal published based on his critical reading:
**A statement supported by one, anonymous, oral report is an unsupported statement, and several of such statements are crucial to professor Abu El-Haj's conclusions: that Israelis deliberately mislabel Christian sites as Jewish and tear down churches (p. 233, among others); that they use bull-dozers to level sites and wipe out evidence of Palestinian habitation (pp. 148, 153, 157)… **
**For the book, her further claims are that the production of Israeli archaeological knowledge is uniquely fanciful, more than other national archaeological schools, due to their colonial settler mentality, and that Israeli archaeologists perforce uniquely produce far more themselves than the evidence allows because they are citizens of this colonial settler state. This is announced at the very beginning of the book and is hard to miss: "the colonial dimension of Jewish settlement in Palestine cannot be sidelined if one is to understand the significance and consequences of archaeological practice…" (p. 4)…. She characterizes Israeli archaeologists as disguising myth as history: "the mythical character of the biblical narratives is effaced" (p. 127), as an example or "a tale best understood as the modern nation's origin myth was transported into the realm of history" (p. 104)**
Many of Segal's other comments are also relevant.
Paula Stern wrote in the recent Jewish Week that you accused her of McCarthy-like tactics. She may have misquoted Abu El Haj, but, given Segal's review, I think that Stern's protest of Abu El Haj's candidacy for tenure was reasonably motivated by concern that yet another Columbia professor will be given carte blanche to undermine Israel's legitimacy among the captive audiences in her classrooms. For Stern and even for me, these are questions of Israel's survival in a very hostile world. For you they should also be more than intellectual curiosity.
At the level of ideology, I am in no doubt, based on this book, about Abu El-Haj's complete hostility to Zionism. It is not easy to find a Palestinian sympathetic to this ideology. But as regards Israel's survival, this book tells us nothing about Abu El-Haj's attitude towards a political solution to the historic conflict based on territorial compromise; about her opposition to or support for Hamas; about her willingness to cede a "right of return" for refugees to their homes in pre-1967 Israel as part of a grand bargain in which Israel would uproot its West Bank settlements; or any of a host of other things that are of more immediate importance to Israel's survival as a democratic Jewish state than her hostility to Zionism.
I agree those who care about Israel (I'm one) have reason to view her as an ideological adversary and go after her work on that basis, with fairness and accuracy. Deeply anti-Israel writers and activists may—often do–deserve vehement political responses. They do not, perforce, deserve inaccurate public smear campaigns to derail their academic careers. Their career prospects—like yours or mine—should depend on the quality and honesty of their academic work. When that quality and honesty–and therefore, their careers–are challenged, respect for accuracy and facts are paramount.
In this respect, Alan Segal's comments are more careful and worthy. They are still, I believe, distorting and selective in some respects (a longer discussion). But they are not, in any event, the comments that 2,500 signed onto, including many alumni who, on the basis of what they read and signed, threatened to withhold contributions from the university.
Finally, even as an ideological adversary, Abu El-Haj may have something to offer us as a scholar. Sometimes, the two come together. Or, as Ben Franklin (apocryphally?) put it:
"Our critics are our friends, they show us our faults."