SPME Member Diana Muir & Avigail Appelbaum: Review of Nadia Abu el-Haj’s Facts on the Ground; Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society

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[Diana Muir, a 1975 graduate of Barnard College. The working title of her current project is “What Good is a Nation; A Clear-Eyed Look at Nations and Nationalism.” Avigail Appelbaum, a 2005 graduate of Barnard College, is a candidate for a degree in the preservation of archaeological sites at the Columbia University School of Architecture.]

Nadia Abu El Haj is a young Palestinian-American academic beautiful enough that in a different era she might have gotten work as a magician’s assistant. You know, the girl who stands on the stage looking so good that you watch her and miss the sleight of hand that lets the magician make a rabbit vanish into thin air. In this enlightened era, we allow young women to become magicians in their own right. Abu El Haj has been appointed Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College where she writes within a scholarly tradition 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.”

This post-modern approach empowers Abu El Haj to vaporize the positivist notion that the Jewish people lived in Israel in ancient times. Making such a well-documented fact disappear requires an intellectual sleight of hand of monumental proportions. To Abu El Haj, pulling off such a magic trick is apparently worth the effort since denying that Jews are indigenous in Judea enables the redefinition of Israeli Jews as colonizers; foreign settlers with no legitimate right to the land. Or perhaps the post-modern rhetoric Abu El Haj employs with such facility is mere window dressing covering a far older tradition, that of deploying the scholarly paraphernalia of footnotes and arcane language to make a political assertion appear as responsible scholarship. By either interpretation, Abu El Haj’s first book, Facts on the Ground; Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, derived from her doctoral thesis, is part of a wider intellectual effort intended to persuade the world that Israel is illegitimate, a European outpost with no indigenous roots in the Middle East, and, therefore, that the Israelis deserve to be driven out of Israel much as the French were driven from Algeria.

The problem, of course, is that those ancient Jews existed. Almost two millenia before an Arab army conquered and occupied the land of Israel, the place was a sovereign, indigenous Jewish or proto-Jewish state. Unlike Algeria, where there was not much doubt that the French were nineteenth-century arrivals in an ethnically Arab land, the Middle East is contested by two peoples, each with a claim to indigeneity. Unless, of course, the claim of one of these peoples can be delegitimized by the politically targeted use of post-modern scholarship.

Abu El Haj’s rejection of positivism frees her to dismiss the origins of the Jewish people in the land of Israel as a mere “belief,” an “ideological assertion,” a “pure (italics in original) political fabrication.” She deserves high marks for chutzpah.


Abu El Haj, operating in the mode of litigators who throw out every possible line of argument to see what works, follows five separate lines of attack. First, she argues in accord with post-modern theory that since the existence of an ancient Israelite kingdom is part of the Zionist narrative, it follows that the identification by archaeologists of an Israelite period – which she denigrates with scare quotes as “the ‘fact’ of an Israelite nation in ancient Palestine during the Iron Age/Bronze Age transition” – can be dismissed as mere nationalist “myth.”

Next, she asserts, without supporting her argument with either evidence or theory, that even if some sort of ancient Israelite kingdom did exist, there is no connection between it and contemporary Jewry. The claim of ancient Jewish “nativeness” was “self-fashioned,” and those who “believe” it are mistaking “myth” for fact.

Third, she demands that other scholars deliberately lie, or at least prevaricate. Archaeologists have uncovered a profusion of artifacts indicating not only that the pre-Roman Israelite kingdoms existed but that they were culturally linked with modern Jewry. This evidence makes the playing field uneven since scholars who argue that the ancient Israelite kingdoms never existed, or that there is cultural continuity between one of the Iron Age peoples of the Levant and the modern Palestinians, do not have the support of artifactual evidence. Therefore, Abu El Haj demands that scholars must henceforth characterize the identification of Israelite artifacts as a “pure political fabrication.” This demand is made in order not to privilege the Jewish/Israeli narrative in a “hierarchy of credibility,” over a Palestinian narrative of “Caananite or other ancient tribal roots” for which evidence does not exist and upon which, therefore, no “ ‘facticity’ is conferred.”

Fourth, on the basis of exceedingly thin and spotty evidence, she charges Israeli archaeologists with ignoring or deliberately destroying evidence of Palestinian continuity in the land.

Last, and perhaps most shockingly, she apologizes for the deliberate destruction of archaeological “facts in the ground” by Palestinians who find the “the material signs of (Jewish) historic presence” politically distasteful.


Abu El Haj understands that the archaeological evidence for the Jewish claim to native status is extremely strong; that is why the facts of the case must be changed. Houdini-like, she waves the wand of post-modern scholarship to make the facts disappear. Facts, after all, do not really exist until they are used to construct narratives. This line of reasoning enables Abu El Haj to indict archaeologists working in Israel for enabling the Zionist narrative of return to an ancient homeland by “rendering given that which in fact had to be made. At the most fundamental level, archaeology produced this place ( Israel) as the Jewish national home and created the fact of an ancient Israelite/Jewish nation and nation-state rooted therein.”

Well, actually, no. Even without archaeology, the existence of the ancient Jewish kingdoms could be demonstrated with a large body of Greek, Roman, and other documentary sources. But the inconvenient, er.., fact remains, that numerous, physical objects connecting the cultures of modern Jews and ancient Israelites exist, in addition to literally thousands of written sources from archaeological sites throughout the near east. Archaeologists do not “create” artifacts. They do, of course, put objects into narrative context. These narratives, however, must be based on actual facts found in the ground: ostraca, inscriptions, pottery of distinct styles, datable bits of charred wood, and the like.


The core of her anti-positivist argument is contained in a chapter on the archaeology of the Iron Age entitled “Positive Facts of Nationhood.” Here Abu El Haj tells a simplistic story of Israeli archaeologists looking for facts to prove the accuracy of the Biblical story of Joshua and the Israelite conquest of Judea and Samaria. According to Abu El Haj, 1950’s era archaeologists were committed Zionists who deceived themselves into seeing the evidence of an Israelite conquest that they had hoped and expected to find. Never mind that the leading archaeologist of the period, William Foxwell Albright, was neither Israeli nor Jewish; Abu El Haj goes after the collared rim-ware jars that he found with the tenacity of a terrier sinking its teeth into a rat. After all, if the identification of the jars is allowed to stand, it constitutes evidence of “what was considered to have been ancient Jewish national existence and sovereignty in their homeland.”

Back in the real world, reliance on the collared rim-ware jars as evidence of the emergence of a new ethnicity was never as total as Abu El Haj makes it sound; military conquest a la Joshua was only one of three major mid-century hypotheses regarding the emergence of early Israel. The second hypothesis was peaceful infiltration as pastoral nomads settled down to mixed farming. The third was a Marxist style social revolution, whereby the new social group associated with the collared jars emerged from the depths of Bronze Age class oppression. None of these theories of the emergence of what is known as Iron Age I, or the Israelite period, is now dominant, but all archaeologists working in the area continue to agree that the advent of a new cultural group is plainly distinguishable in the archaeological record.

Abu El Haj’s anti-positivist conviction that there is no standard by which any narrative can be judged to have more merit than competing narratives enables her to dismiss a complex body of textual, artistic, architectural, artifactual, ceramic, and carbon-dated evidence for the emergence of a new community conventionally called Israelite, as mere “myth.” The huge amount of evidence and scholarship demonstrating that “an ancient Israelite social collectivity emerged,” becomes in her hands “a tale best understood as the modern nation’s origin myth… transported into the realm of history.”


The leading contemporary theory is that the new ethnic group that we call Israelites arose as an innovative self-definition among people long resident in the land. In this interpretation of an extensive archaeological record, the Biblical conquest of the land never occurs. People living in the hills of Judea evolve a new and unique identity as Israelites, probably joined by groups of people who had escaped from slavery in Egypt or lived as pastoral nomads. According to this reading of the archaeological record, the Israelites emerge by about 1200 BCE and struggle for dominance with the rival indigenous ethnic group called Canaanites for about two centuries, after which the Israelite monarchy establishes its capital in Jerusalem. Abu El Haj does not mention this widely favored contemporary theory. Her bibliography is thin in archaeological sources, so it may be that she is unaware of it. Or it may be that she omits this version of events because it is even more supportive of Jewish nativeness in the land than the Biblical story of Joshua. Palestinian historians commonly dismiss the ancient Israelites as illegitimate on the grounds that they were mere conquerors. Indigenous Israelites would be harder to delegitimize.

Some Palestinian versions of history characterize the ancient children of Israel as one of many groups of invaders who came and went while the Palestinians lived constantly in the land; others claim that that while the Palestinians have inhabited the land of Israel since time immemorial, the Jews first arrived from Europe in modern times. The Al Quds University in Jerusalem presents a history of Jerusalem on its official web page. The article, based on “the work of many scholars,” covers 5,000 years, during which “the population… remained constant – and is now still Palestinian.” ( http://www.alquds.edu/gen_info/index.php?page=jerusalem_history ) Amusingly, politicized Palestinian historiography of the Al Quds type accepts the Biblical description of a conquest led by Joshua as literal truth, while dismissing Saul, David, Solomon and the rest of the Biblical kings as mere “literary legends.” Abu El Haj’s version of history, which casts Israel as a “settler-colonial” nation, differs from these crude attempts to rewrite history for political ends chiefly in its facile use of fashionable epistemology.

Zionism, by Abu El Haj’s lights, is a form of colonial “settler nationhood.” She is concerned here “with the power of knowledge to shape the contours of colonial rule…. The work of archaeology in Palestine/Israel is a cardinal institutional location for the ongoing practice of colonial nationhood, producing facts through which historical-national claims, territorial transformations, heritage objects, and historicities ‘happen.’” “Jewish nativeness” in Judea was “self-fashioned,” or invented, in modern times by a “settler-colonial” community “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.”

By deconstructing the idea that archaeology can produce verifiable facts, Abu El Haj denies the Jewish claim to a connection with the ancient inhabitants of the land. After all, once one “comprehend(s) the processes through which ‘facts’ are actually made and agreed upon,” one will realize that “to produce ancient objects as the heritage of the modern Jewish nation requires the assertion, or belief in, a connection between ‘the people who created the artifacts in the first place,’ and those whose heritage they are seen to represent.” Abu El Haj has no “belief” in such a connection.

Having dismissed both the historicity of the ancient Israelites, and the claim of Jewish cultural descent from them, the next problem for Abu El Haj is that the archaeological evidence, like the documentary evidence, favors the narrative of cultural continuity joining the ancient Jewish/Israelite kingdoms with modern Jewry over the Palestinian narrative of continuity with Canaanites, Philistines, or some other of the ancient peoples who dwelt in the area in ancient times. “Within an Israeli heritage discourse, certain objects seem to be quite obviously of ‘direct and demonstrable relevance’ to Israeli-Jewish ‘culture and tradition.’” Well, yes. As Abu El Haj laments, “a simple… chronological agenda would not solve the problem of bias.” Indeed. Those pesky Israelite artifacts begin showing up at about 1,200 BCE. There are, of course, ancient references to nomadic tribes at the semi-arid edges of the land, but to claim cultural continuity between ancient pagan nomads of uncertain ethnicity and the Arabic-speaking, Muslim fellahin of the Ottoman Levant would be tendentious. The archaeological evidence of Muslim/Arab presence appears right where it would be expected – after the Arab conquest of the seventh century when, for example, we find synagogue buildings being fitted with mihrab as they were converted for use as mosques. From that point on it is reasonable to claim a continuity of Arab/Muslim culture in the land. This leaves the Arabs with an indigeneity claim that postdates the Jewish claim by about 1,800 years. Abu El Haj’s solution is to demand that historians and archaeologists level the playing field by treating evidence for ancient Jewish origins exactly as they treat the dearth of evidence for an Arab origin in Canaanite culture. Scholars should describe “the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins” as “pure political fabrication,” an “ideological assertion comparable to Arab claims of Canaanite or other ancient tribal roots.”

The outrageous nature of this demand is breathtaking. Not only does Abu El Haj take upon herself the privilege of dismissing large bodies of evidence, she demands that other scholars ignore or deliberately distort evidence to conform to her political bias.


Unlike Abu El Haj’s completely unsupported – and unsupportable – assertion that the Israelites are a “pure political fabrication,” her indictment of Israeli archaeology has some basis in reality. She asserts that “Jewish national commitments” help determine where archaeologists will dig and what will be displayed to the public. Certainly they do. Of course, this is about as surprising as discovering that Japan is Japanese. Digs cost money and national pride undoubtedly contributes to the prioritizing of certain sites over others the world over. The deliberate destruction of evidence, a choice to leave certain strata unrecorded, or falsifying evidence uncovered by a dig would be illegitimate. For governments, museums, and universities to prioritize research that the public is especially interested in is simply the way funding works.

Where Abu El Haj does have a point is in the post-1967 digs in the Old City. There is little doubt that among Israeli and foreign archaeologists of that generation post-Roman material was widely viewed as uninteresting, and was often dug through quickly and examined less meticulously than older strata. What Abu El Haj does not say, perhaps because she so seldom put anything into context, is that archaeologists digging in every part of the Mediterranean world behaved in precisely this way until extremely recently. Splendid palaces and grand public buildings excepted, there was little interest until extremely recently in the Venetian, Ottoman, Frankish, and Byzantine remains that litter the Aegean, only in the ancient Greeks and Minoans. At Mexican and Peruvian digs they shrugged off colonial-era material to get to the Olmec, Maya, Aztecs and Incas. These attitudes were enhanced by sponsors – including universities – who yawned when presented with Ottoman or Byzantine artifacts.

Where we might validly criticize the men and women who dug in the 1960’s, 70’s and earlier would be if they failed to record finds and layers that they or their sponsors deemed uninteresting. Here, again, Abu El Haj comes up short, making accusations that she fails to substantiate. At one point she makes the slanderous statement that Israeli archaeologists dig with “large shovels,” unlike more careful European excavators, giving as evidence only conversations with unnamed “European trained archaeologists.”

The national euphoria that followed Israel’s escape from destruction in 1967 was certainly enhanced by a string of discoveries within the modern Jewish Quarter proving that – contrary to the scholarly consensus of the time – Second Temple period Jerusalem was a large, wealthy, fortified city spreading over the western as well as the eastern hill. This was a salvage dig, with immense time pressure caused by an intensely felt return ordinary Jewish family life to neighborhoods within the walls from which Jews had been driven in 1948. Nevertheless, Israeli excavators measured, labeled, and recorded the Abbasid and Mameluk material despite the fact that, because the city was neither wealthy nor powerful in the Muslim centuries, these finds were not then of much interest to either sponsors or the general public.


Abu El Haj is absurd when she asserts that the Israelite and Jewish kingdoms are mere “myth,” and her coverage of Israel’s privileging of archaeology that relates to national history is unscholarly and polemical, but she truly ventures into anti-scholarship when she writes as an apologist for the destruction of archaeological artifacts and sites.

“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.”

The “looting” Abu El Haj refers to as “resistance” involves the targeted destruction of physical evidence of Jewish life in the land. Within territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, deliberate destruction of archaeological sites of Jewish significance has occurred. The Jewish symbols once inscribed on the columns of the Great Mosque at Gaza City were deliberately effaced. (These columns were carved for a late Roman era synagogue and reused in the construction of a crusader church dedicated to St. John Baptist which was later converted to a mosque) Under the Palestinian Authority, the Jewish symbols were chiseled off, a time-consuming job that would have required substantial scaffolding and that must therefore have been carried out with official approval. The Tomb of Joseph in Nablus – ancient Shechem – a shrine dating at least to the Byzantine era, was obliterated in a major riot. The destruction entailed the demolition of a substantial, stone building. There are numerous further examples of deliberate erasing of archaeological evidence, the most notorious being the recent destruction on the Temple Mount, where the Waqf has used bulldozers and bucket loaders to open deep holes as wide as 200 by 75 feet, removing material presumed to have lain untouched for centuries within large, internal staircases, corridors, and chambers.

Ardent Israeli nationalists are engaged in meticulously sifting this mass of rubble under careful archaeological supervision, discovering bones, coins, pottery, columns, and statuettes dating to every period from the 10 th century BCE forward. The out-of-context artifacts, of course, yield far less information than a proper dig would have done. The political purpose of the destruction is made clear in the Al Quds University web page, which erases the fact of a Jewish Temple ever having existed on the site. “T he present Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa compound… cannot possibly be in the same place as the first or second temple… Further, what is called the… Wailing Wall is assumed to be what remains of Herod’s Temple. But …(it) is a most likely candidate for being the wall of a fortress built for Roman legions. Even if we assume that Herod built a ‘second temple,’ the building was reportedly destroyed in the 1st century AD… One wonders then, under such circumstances, how the traces of any temple in Jerusalem could possibly have been preserved.” ( www.alquds.edu/gen_info/ index.php?page=jerusalem_history)

This is a good example of the possibility of separating the political motivations of scholars from the caliber of scholarship. The artifacts now being sifted from the material dug up by the Waqf are real, and can be used, carefully, as evidence. Assertions that no “traces of any temple in Jerusalem could possibly have been preserved,” by contrast, can be dismissed as a-factual in light of the solid mass of the Herodian walls. The post-modern insight that the political perspective of a scholar can distort scholarship has taught us all to read more critically. But surely it need not invalidate the possibility of engaging in evidence-based inquiry. After all, as an intelligent but non-academic friend said when I described the postulates of post-modernism: If it’s true that no line of argumentation can be established as superior to any other, what’s the point of having a university?

Indeed, the conclusion of Facts on the Ground is itself a kind of backhanded homage to the significance of evidence and fact. The fact is that the physical, archaeological evidence of an ancient Jewish presence in the land constitutes a compelling claim to Jewish indigeneity, evidence that threatens the idea that only Palestinian Arabs have a legitimate claim to the land. In an apparent acknowledgement of this fact, Abu El Haj uses the concluding paragraph of her book to write approvingly of the deliberate destructions of politically inconvenient archaeological sites.

“In producing the material signs of national history that became visible and were witnessed across the national 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. 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 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.’”

***Post-modernism of Abu El Haj’s highly politicized variety will eventually collapse under the weight of its own absurdities. The damage that such scholars inflict on universities by abandoning the disinterested pursuit of truth as a goal in favor of a style of scholarship that invents and destroys facts to serve political objectives may be far more difficult to repair.

SPME Member Diana Muir & Avigail Appelbaum: Review of Nadia Abu el-Haj’s Facts on the Ground; Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society

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