re: Discussion of Nadia Abu el-Haj’s book on Israeli Archaeology

An interesting discussion has developed recently about Nadia Abu el-Haj’s book: “Facts on the ground: archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society” (Chicago, 2001). This is a very polemic and disputed book on the supposed bias that exists in Israeli archaeology. I, among others, have reviewed this book (click here for my review  [if you cannot access it, email me and I’ll gladly send a pdf]). Although it did receive some positive reviews, most of the reviews by scholars familiar with Israeli archaeology, tore it apart.

This has now reached various blogs, including Jim West’s blog and “Solomonia” (this is one of the latest of many posts on this in this blog), and others, in particular due to an article in the NY Sun about a controversy over whether Abu el-Haj should be granted tenure at Barnard.

Makes for some interesting reading and thinking.

And by the way, despite what Abu el-Haj repeatedly states, Israeli archaeologists do not only excavate archaeological remains relating to “their heritage”. In fact, as any one can see from the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath for example, we deal with, excavate, study, publish and relate to finds from various periods, including “Pre-Israelite”, “Post-Israelite” etc.


6 thoughts on “re: Discussion of Nadia Abu el-Haj’s book on Israeli Archaeology

  1. Nadia Abu el Haj and Yael Zerubavel,
    Muzzling Scholars of Arabic Ancestry
    by Joachim Martillo (

    Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition by Yael Zerubavel discusses the construction of memory and the invention of traditions in Mandatory Palestine and in the State of Israel. The book describes some unusual Israeli or Zionist practices associated with Masada and Bar Kochba archeological excavations.

    Rather like Nadia Abu el Haj in Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-fashioning in Israel, Zerubavel describes the use of archeology and other scholarship to construct Zionist national identity.

    Other scholars have investigated the political use of archeology in various contexts. Not only Max Weinreich and Eric Hobsbawm provide similar analysis in their published works, but Constructing “Korean” Origins: A Critical Review of Archaeology, Historiography, and Racial Myth in Korean State-Formation Theories by Hyung Il Pai addresses precisely that same issues with regard to the development of Korean national consciousness.

    Even though Abu el Haj focuses more narrowly on professional archeologists whereas Zerubavel looks at Israeli society as a whole, both authors make similar points in their books, and Zerubavel provides support for some of the claims for which Nadia Abu el Haj has been most criticized.

    Zerubavel received the 1996 Salo Baron Prize of the American Academy for Jewish Research for her work while Nadia Abu el Haj is the target of an international campaign to drive her out of Columbia/Barnard. The difference in the responses evoked by the two authors merits a scholarly study in itself.


  2. arenmaeir

    The critiques of Abu el-Haj’s book (by various people, yours truly) is not about her opinions! I think just about everybody agrees that archaeology was used and misused as part of the national ideology of the Zionist movement – in fact up until today. What the critiques are about is the lack of updated discussions on the PRESENT views of the archaeological community in Israel, her clearly strongly biased, anti-Israeli stance throughout her book, her poor data-collection (choice of interviews, knowledge of Hebrew, etc.), etc..


  3. “The behavior of Israeli archaeologists at Herodium indicates that their behavior has not changed much over the last 40 years.” Joachim in this and other statements you seem to imply that the behavior of one group is that of the whole of archeology in Israel.

    Also, with the case you mention about Yad Vashim I don’t understand how their actions have anything to do with Archeology or even shaping of history or national identity.

    There is certainly a place for debate concerning the “use” of archeology for nationalistic reasons. But I don’t think that they, as you’ve called them, are responsible for such bias in archeology. They tend to use other means to shape identity. The bias I have seen has been more from western influence in Israel. At least, thats been the reason in cases I know of where the bull dozers were brought to an archaeological dig.


  4. “Pay no atention to that Man Behind the Curtain”
    Nadia Abu el Haj and the Truth about the Wizard of Oz
    by Joachim Martillo (

    Jesse Walker supplies an article worth reading at the Reason Magazine website. The title is “The Case of Nadia Abu El-Haj” and the URL is . Walker references an even more thorough article from Richard Silverstein’s blog. It is entitled “Pro-Israel Campaign to deny El-Haj Tenure.” It’s URL is . Both articles missed the negative role that David Project operatives like Alexander Joffe have played in the controversy, which could well be the handiwork of David Project operative Rachel Fish. (See and .)

    Aren Maeir has complained that Nadia Abu el Haj is insensitive to the changes that have taken place in Israeli archeology, and there have always been a few Israeli archeologists whose goal is to elucidate the past as Mark Lehner does in Egyptology, but the reports of the excavation at Herodium and the reaction of the Israeli Jewish public indicate that the goal of Israeli archeology for many Israeli archeologists and for the larger part of the Israeli public remains verification of scriptural text in order to concretize the link of modern Jews and therefore of Zionist colonizers to Greco-Roman Palestine. Such is context in which Nadia Abu el Haj and Yael Zerubavel have written their books (Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-fashioning in Israel and Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition).

    As one would expect from the history of Zionist colonization since the late 19th century, the archeologists did not worry at all whether they had any right to carry out digs in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and the Israeli public interpreted the discovery as yet more proof of the Jewish claims to the land in a sort of Pavlovian non-sequitur because Herod, who ruled a mixed population of Judeans, Galileans, Idumeans, Nabateans, Greeks, Samanians and others, was three quarters Nabatean and one quarter Idumean by ancestry.

    Neither Zerubavel nor Abu el Haj addresses the issue, but Herod’s subjects were almost certainly the ancestors of modern Palestinians and certainly not of any modern Jewish population while Eastern European and Southern Russian archeology as well as Geniza and other texts of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages show that modern ethnic Ashkenazim are descended almost entirely from various Eastern European and Southern Russian populations that adopted some form of Jewish or Judean practices at various times.

    The ethnogenesis of Palestinians and ethnic Ashkenazim are interesting topics, and I recommend The Myth of Nations by Patrick Geary for anyone interested in such questions, but they do not appear in either Zerubavel’s or Abu el Haj’s book. Zerubavel is describing the sociological relationship of modern Israelis to their past while Nadia Abu el Haj is analyzing how Israeli archeology functions internally and in relationship to Israeli society.

    If the vandalization of the Bruno Schulz historical site by Yad Vashem (see ) had occurred earlier, Zerubavel would probably have discussed it in her book because it supports her analysis of the role of shlilat hagalut and shlilat hagolah in Israeli society.

    Abu el Haj does not describe her work in this way but when I read the book in 2003, I was reminded to some extent of Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, for I had the impression she was providing an in-depth under-the-surface look at the Zionist high priesthood. She gives incite into the integration of doctrine, doctrinal debates, practices, and non-canonical history or facts into the consciousness that Israeli archeologists fashion.

    A lot of the membership of the Catholic church was uncomfortable with Boswell’s work just as many Zionists have rejected Abu el Haj’s approach to Israeli archeology, but neither scholar’s results are any less important or any less valid on account of such reactions. Nadia Abu el Haj definitely deserves tenure.


  5. arenmaeir

    I’m sorry, but your comments on the ethnogenesis of the Palestinians and the Ashkenazi Jews is an excellent example of misuse of historical “half-truths” for ideological purposes. The myth of the origin of the Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, Kazars, etc., is totally baseless, and there is no reason to further discuss this on this list. Likewise, to claim that contemporary Palestinians have more claims to being the subjects of Herod (!!!) as opposed to contemporary Jews, is once again glaringly contrary to just about everything modern research knows about history, archaeology, genetics, etc.
    I believe that the opinions regarding this issue are clear – I suggest that this line of commentary be terminated.


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