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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Nadia Abu el-Haj

I've mentioned Nadia Abu el-Haj's book and the controversy surrounding it and her upcoming tenure a few times now and there have been some serious allegations levelled at her. I've read bits of it and found nothing so far that is outrageous. I am now going to read the whole lot to find out if what has been said about it is true. But el-Haj has come up on Jim West's Biblical Studies discussion group today and I looked up one of the major issues - her handling of Joseph's Tomb - as it is conveniently enough on the last page of the book. Solomonia discusses it here (note the comments). There may be more in el-Haj's book that I don't know about but I don't see that el-Haj has said what some of her critics claim in this passage. Here is the quotation I also put on Biblical Studies:

‘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 during the renewed intifada that rocked Palestine and Israel in the fall of 2000. Joseph’s Tomb was not destroyed simply because of its status as a Jewish religious shrine. The symbolic resonance of its 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 Israel and polity and to determine its territorial limits.’ (Facts on the Ground, p. 281)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if they reflected on the symbolic signifiance of Joseph's Tomb from all of these angles before they fired their bullets, threw their stones, and lobbed their firebombs, and then stormed in like a bunch of mindless & wild NHL fanatics.


December 20, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you need to start a couple of sentences up. With this:

"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 Israel as the national home"

As you will see when you read the entire book, Abu El Haj denies that the ancient Israelite kingdom existed. By her lights, no ethnicity can be securely assigned to anything that archaeologists hve found. Archaeologists inspired by nationalist enthusiasm have attributed proto-Jewish ethnicity to ancient artifacts, thereby "producing the material signs of national history."

(never mind that these artifacts include thousands of ostraca with Hebrew writing, and even a securely-dated pre-Babylonian exile Bible verse)

In her argument, the Jewish nation is not returning to its ancient home. Jews (and she is at work on a genetics book 'proving' this) are genetically European, not descendents of the ancient Hebrews. They falsely "believe" that they are returning home because archaeologists have "produced" "signs of national history."

In this context, the approving tone with which she writes of the deliberate destruction of the building called Joseph's tomb reads as approval of the destruction.

December 20, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is another problem with the book, the deliberate slandering of specified scholars. Abu El Haj charges David Ussishkin of deliberately bulldozing layers containing Islamic artifacts at Jezreel out of nationalist motivations. She sites anonymous sources as her sole authority for making this charge. Certainly, there is no indication in her book that she knows enough about field methods to make such a charge. And she admits that she never actually saw the bulldozer; she appears to have only been at the dig for a very brief - not overnight - visit.

I'm not sure what to compare this to. Perhaps it is like alleging that an anonymous soruce told her that a text guy deliberately tore off a few lines from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls because the text was inimical to his political position.

Ussishkin has every right to be outraged. (this is the sort of libel that used to be settled with pistols at dawn) I suspect that a slanderous charge against a professional scholar's work of this sort is sufficient grounds for a libel suit.

Ussishkin has responded here:


December 20, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...


That link is incomplete. I searched and found Ussishkin's response here. Very interesting.


December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. sorry.

Did you also find the refutation by archaeologist Aren Maeir - the guy who found Gath of the Philistines?


December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This essay on the controversy is also worth reading:

Nadia Abu el Haj, Bulldozing the Facts at the University of Chicago and Barnard College


December 21, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Hold on there! On the allegatons of archaeological destructions, I'll have to wait and see, though I must admit that is an area probably beyond my knowledge. I've heard a few other allegations (e.g. that Romans were not repsonsible for destroying Rome) that I am more able to judge. But for the time being I just wanted to see if she condoned the actions at Joseph's Tomb.

On one level of course there is the issue of morality of the Jospeh Tomb issue. But that is another case, important though it is. More specifically, my question was whether el-Haj had been represented fairly. Leave aside the other issues for now until I can comment on them, I just don't see that there is a condoning or approving of the actions at Joseph's Tomb in the quoted text, even if we start a few sentences above. Yes, there may be a 'detatched' sounding analysis of the symbolic nature of violence and unrest but this is fairly common in the humanities and people do this in my area of Christian origins all the time. I just don't see how her opinion on the morality of what happened at Joseph's tomb comes through in the cited text. Is there anything that actually implies she approves of it? Or is she trying to understand the violence, even if her previous arguments grounding this were faulty? The representation of el-Haj on Joseph's Tomb - that's what I'm trying to get at here.

December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is, as you surmise, the context that makes her comments on Joseph's tomb read like an endorsement.

Throughout the book, archaeological evidence of Muslim presence in the land is taken as - evidence. Evidence of Israelite, Jewish or proto-Jewish presence is described as a "fabrication" - her word.

And when we come to charges of the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites, we enter what seems to those who follow archaeology to be a kind of through-the-looking-glass world. Effacement of "Jewish" archaeological remains is widespread (chisling off the Hebrew on the Silwan tombs) and often official (effacing the carved menorahs from the pillar capitals in the Great mosque at Gaza required tall scaffolding.)

But the greatest crime is surely the deliberate destruction of a huge amount of material on the Temple Mount. This was carried out by the waqf. And it was not only massive and deliberate, it was malicious. The waqf actually mixed loads of debris with domestic filth to make salvage sifting repulsive and difficult.

Here is Abu El Haj on bulldozers and the waqf:

“The most controversial practice in Israeli archaeology has been the use of bulldozers on archaeological sites. 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."

Yes, I know that the book was written before the most egregious abuses by the waqf on the Temple Mount took place. The remark is, nevertheless, typical of the attitude toward evidence in this book.

Responsible archaeologists are accused without evidence of deliberately destroying Islamic-era strata with bulldozers.

The waqf - which has been anything but an even-handed steward of one of the most important archaeological sites on the planet - is held up as a model of best practices.

December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

And still...

what she writes is "one can unserstand why..." that Joseph's tomb (a sizeable cut-stone structure) was deliberately destroyed. "It needs to be understood in relation to a colonial-national history in which modern political rights have been substantiated in and expanded througth the material signs of historical presence."

There are two problems with Abu El Haj's assertion.

The first is that the deliberate destruction of historic monuments for political purposes does not need to be understood, it needs to be condemned. A scholar who is clear about the immorality of burnign books, is morally entitled to discuss why fascists and others have burned them. Without such condemnation, Abu El haj's unederstanding reads as moral approbation.

the second thing that is wrong is the asseriton that archaeology has been complicit in a colonial project because of the manner "in which modern political rights have been substantiated in and expanded through the material signs of historical presence."

The argument is that archaeologists should not dig because she, Abu El Haj, does not find some of the things that they find to be politically congenial.

I appeal to Athena, Minerva and my tehtn grade biology teacher. Scholars should not seek knowledge because we may find the data oplitically uncongenial. Can a Columbia professor actually be saying such a thing?

Well, yes. She can. And not only is she is asking us not to seek new knowledge because she does not like what we have recently found, she is actually asking us to lie about what we find.

(More below)

December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abu El Haj charges the archaeological community with unfairly "privileging" the Israeli "narrative" of descent form the israelites over the Palestinian narrative of descent from the Philistines.

“Within an Israeli heritage discourse, certain objects seem to be quite obviously of ‘direct and demonstrable relevance’ to Israeli-Jewish ‘culture and tradition.’”

She says that “a simple… chronological agenda would not solve the problem of bias.”

This is truel a “a simple… chronological agenda" shows Israelites on the ground as early as the thirteenth century Merneptah stele. Arab Muslims show up two millenia later.

Because of the "problem of bias" in the "chronological agenda" Abu El Haj demands that “the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins” should be described by archaeologists as a “pure political fabrication,” an “ideological assertion comparable to Arab claims of Canaanite or other ancient tribal roots.”

From such scholarship, Athena defend me!

December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no problem with an honest argument.

If Abu El Haj or anyone else wants to write a book that says, look, OK, the Jews were here in the old days. But they lost to the Romans, they lost! and they got driven out. Sad but, hey, stuff happens.

The thing is, we Arabs came here centuries ago. And we Palestinian Arabs feel that we are a nation, too. We've been here for generations, and it's just not fair that, after, like almost 2000 years since they had sovereignty, large numbers of Jews suddenly up and come back and say - yo, we want to take up where we left off in the year 70.

We Palestinians say: Sorry, but the clock of history doesn't run backwards.

I would disagree with such an argument (I think the Jews have as much right to statehood as any other nation) but I would respect the person making such an argument.

What I will not tolerate is history denial, not holocaust denial, not Armenian genocide denial, not 9/11 denial, and not Abu El Haj's assertion that the existence of the ancient Israelite kingdoms is a "myth" "a pure political fabrication."

December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the issue of Nadia Abu El Haj's last pages. I think the benign reading is a result of lack of context. If you only read the last page, you might get the idea that she is just making a theoretical point. But you have to read the whole book to understand that she indicts the Israelis of destroying Palestinian nationality just for using the Hebrew names of ancient places names and such things. In the case of the Tomb of Joseph, he also neglects to tell you the relevant facts of the incident. First, it was a place of significance archaeologically because the structure was Byzantine, not Jewish. Second, several Israelis were killed in the incident. Third, there was a clear agreement between the PA and the Israeli government that the IDF would retreat and leave the safety of the place in the hands of the PA. It was overcome by a mob and burned after it was left in the hands of the PA. So she is justifying their lack of supervision of the site, as well as the preceding murder and mayhem. These are not things which academics should be advocating, in my opinion, and certainly someone who blames the Israelis for using their own language to describe places should be less tolerant of acts of violence, vandalism, and murder.

December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sent a colleague who has read the book to your blog entry. Here is her response:

Doesn't that just burn your toast? He reads it out of context, without the rest of the book, and he thinks it's just an innocent statement. Without the accusations she makes elsewhere, it looks rather bizarre but not obnoxious. You have to read the book to see what's at stake.

December 21, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Frankly, I think that comment from your anonymous comment is unfair and I don't know or care what burning your toast means apart from its literal meaning. Look, these allegations about el-Haj were being made on Joseph's Tomb so, unambiguously qualified by the fact I haven't read the book, I quoted them on a web-based discussion group to see what people made of the situation. I put it on the blog, unambiguously qualified by the fact that I haven't read the book, to see what people thought given that it had been discussed on blogs. I didn't want to do this before I read the book but as the discussion was raging and as no one was quoting the relevant pages I thought it was worth making the reference available. And I still do given that people were referring to it. Even if what you all say about the rest of the book is 100% accurate, I'm still not convinced what she says condones the Joseph's Tomb incident. It is striking that no one can bring any clear evidence for her approving the Joseph's Tomb actions but I'll have to wait to see if this is the case. Irrepsective of her thoughts on Israeli archaelogy, the state of Israel, Judaism, Jews, Palestinians, PA, IDF, or whatever, I still cannot see how any of the given contexts show she *approves* or *justifies* anything one way or another concerning Joseph's Tomb. Again, I stress, stress, and stress again, this could all change once I read the whole book. I suspect this could only be resolved by asking el-Haj herself.

By the way, I never called it an innocent statement (I even added scare quotes) - besides, I barely believe in the possiblity of such a thing - and so your anonymous colleague has misread me. Yes, I have to read the rest of the book but I know that, as you rightly pointed out.

December 21, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lots of "allegations" are being made about Abu El Haj, not only about the Joseph's tomb incident. It is being said on one blog or another that she thinks Jerusalem burned in the year 70 because someone accidentally left a kitchen fire untended, that she accused David Ussishkin of destroying Muslim-era strata at Jezreel out of nationalist zeal, that she has written an anthropology of a Hebrew-speaking country without a working knowledge of Hebrew, that instead of quoting archaeologists she quotes tour guides, and more.

And then there there is the one you picked up on, that she apologizes for the deliberate destruction of an ancient, nominally Jewish, structure.

People who have read the entire book appear, uniformly, to interpret the final paragraph as condoning the destruction of ancient buildings for political (anti-Israel)purposes.

People who have read only the final paragrph tend to take it as a somewhat jargon-filled reflection on the symbolism of ancient artifacts and Palestinian political rage.

Why is that?

I suspect that it is because the entire book is written to suppport the proposition that Israel has no right to exist. It is an illegitimate "colonial settler" intrusion on Arab land.

These Israeli colonist-settlers, are misled by a myth. The myth states that they are the descendants of an ancient Israelite kingdom. but it is only a myth. no Israelite kingdom ever existed. It is "a pure political fabrication." Who fabricated it? Zionist archaeologists who impute Jewish ethnicity to ancient artifacts. "“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..."

After 281 pages of that kind of rhetoric, her concluding paragraph does indeed read like an apology for deliberate destruction of uncongenial "facts on the ground."

Especially to people (archaeologists) who have been repeatedly accused in those pages of deliberately destroying or ignoring all artifacts except those that fit into the Jewish national narrative. Because the reality is that Israeli archaeologists dig and preserve and record the artifacts of every layer. And Abu El Haj's motives for making such baseless accusations against the professional reputations of respected scholars do not appear honorable.

December 22, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward Said on Nadia Abu El Haj

Here is Edward Said's summary of the book:

Edward Said, speaking at Ewart Hall, The American University in Cairo, on March 17, 2003, “Even so apparently innocent a discipline such as archeology, which is one, of course, of the prides of Egypt, was used in Israel and was made complicit in the making-over of the land and its markers, as if there had never been any Arabs or any other civilizations there except Israel and the Israelites. This is very well described by a young Palestinian anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj in her recent book called Facts on The Ground: Acheological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (2002). Her argument is that in the process of providing Israel with an ancient objectivized history visible in archeological evidence, the traces of other more just as historical histories were ignored or simply moved away by trucks and bulldozers.”

* This article is based on the transcription of a lecture Edward Said delivered at Ewart Hall, The American University in Cairo, on March 17, 2003. He was not able--because of his illness--to send Alif the final version he promised.

Edward Said
Memory, inequality, and power: Palestine and the universality of human rights *.

Journal of Comparative Poetics

Publication Date: 01-JAN-04

Author: Said, Edward W.

COPYRIGHT 2004 American University in Cairo


December 22, 2006


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