An extensive public and academic debate has taken place over the academic quality of Nadia Abu El-Haj’s book, Facts on the Ground. The argument has been, essentially, between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli American academics and members of the community involved in Middle Eastern affairs. The debate was prompted by the prospect of Barnard College of Columbia granting her tenure in its Department of Anthropology. This issue was resolved when she achieved tenure in the fall of 2007. The book is reviewed here on academic grounds absent the political controversy. The perspective is social scientific consistent with anthropology’s disciplinary location. How does the study stand up against strict social science methodological criteria? Such a cool assessment is a singular contribution that SPME members may offer in times of contentious discourse. It seemed to me that only a minority of the partisans had read the book. I borrowed the volume from a major university library and was the first borrower in the seven years since the library had acquired the book. Following is the result of my effort to read it as an academic monograph.
Abu El-Haj, Nadia. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
A popular reading of Nadia Abu El Haj’s deeply engaging work on the nexus between Israeli archaeology and Zionist ideology could be as a testament to the success of the Zionist project of strengthening the bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. Abu El-Haj describes a formally organized and government sponsored program under the flag of yediat haarets, designed to teach citizens and visitors about Jewish roots in the land. One element involves archaeologists recovering Hebrew artifacts complementing the Biblical and post-biblical literary record. Archeologists sought Hebrew inscriptions as evidence of ancient Hebrew speakers. Another element was a cartographic renaming project. When the state was declared in 1948 the government established a commission to rename villages and natural features recalling biblical names. Further, archaeologists assisted the reconstruction and expansion of the destroyed Jewish Quarter after the Old City of Jerusalem was conquered by Israel in 1967.
Readers suspicious of this narrative of the bond between the Jewish people and this land could lament this success of the Zionist program. Such readers, as Abu El-Haj points out, argue that archaeologists were ignoring, or even destroying, artifacts which attested to other occupiers of the land, especially Muslims. With the exception of two centuries of Crusader settlement, they had ruled continuously from the seventh century until the establishment of the British mandate following the First World War. Public controversy has been fueled by both of these popular readings.
An assessment of the methodology of the study is a context for evaluating the source of both narratives. A methodological analysis might explore the nature of the concepts, the rules of data classification employed in the study. Then relevant observations are sought, which the author contends are valid indicators of the referents of those concepts. The study may propose statements or propositions linking the referents of two or more concepts.
We take the indicators first. The author seems not to have had a preconceived plan defining the indicators but captures them as they present themselves to her. She does tell us where she looked for them. She remained in the field, in Israel, for about two years, had some instruction in Hebrew, consulted archives on Palestine archaeology in London, visited archaeological sites and some museums, interviewed archaeologists and Israeli Jewish and Palestinian officials and scholars, among others, and developed a comprehensive bibliography on archaeology in Palestine, the history of the Yishuv and works on social science theory. Her bibliography includes a good number of Hebrew source works though only a fraction of them are reflected in the text. Arabic works are distinguished by their absence. Most of the indicators are of archaeological practice and Zionist socio-political norms and values.
Chapters 3 and 5 are among the best in the book. Chapter 3, Instituting Archaeology, describes both the development of Israeli archeological practice and the growth of lay interest in the field. She traces the history of the British Mandatory Department of Antiquities and its successor the Israel Department of Antiquities. This chapter relies heavily on the writings of Shmuel Yeivin, an important member of the mandatory and director of the Israel Department of Antiquities. Chapter 5, The Positive Fact of Nationhood, provides an excellent discussion of the general problem of conflicting interpretation of the finds. The chapter also explores the interplay of texts and artifacts in interpretations and reviews the controversy between biblical minimalists, who would rely almost entirely on archaeological finds to construct a history of ancient Israel, and maximalists, who would also make use of biblical text. Some minimalists remain unconvinced of the existence of an ancient Israel and have lent their doubt to undercut Zionist historiography. El-Haj cites Thomas Thompson, a minimalist who placed the phrase “the myth of Israel” in the title of one of his books.
Frames of Reference
Abu El-Haj mentions two frames of reference, which circumscribe the study’s concepts: “anthropology of science that meets anthropology of colonialism and nationalism”. The anthropology of science has typically studied the behavior and organization of scientists in a particular field. One guiding thesis has been that the social structure of workers in the discipline impacts on the problems and ideas, or ways of thinking about the data of that scientific field. In this sense, the anthropology of science is a particularization of the sociology of knowledge. That long established field examines the ways in which social structure, in general, affects the ideas and ideology of members of a society. Abu El-Haj contends that archaeological practice in contemporary Israel helps construct a national narrative of Jewish rootedness in the land. At the same time the narrative influences decisions regarding excavations and the way archaeological finds are knit into the narrative. The two proposals form a recursive set. Almost no information is sought on archaeology as a profession nor do we learn much about audience response, the meaning of this work to various sectors of the Israeli Jewish and Arab community. We learn something of archaeological practice in the field.
The other framing notion, the anthropology of colonialism and nationalism, is indebted to a post-colonial frame of reference. A post-colonial analysis invites the researcher to concentrate on the exercise of power and authority in a society and the way these control the acquisition and distribution of goods. Scholars defining themselves as post-colonialist constitute a social movement within history and political science and influential in other disciplines, as well. Like Marxists, they investigate how, not if, power holders exploit less influential social actors. The answer to the “if” is embedded axiomatically in the frame of reference. The post- colonialist unearths disparaging information on the morality of established authorities. This value overlay on the scientific data sets the stage for social activism.
The ideological overlay of the post-colonial orientation, or any socio-political orientation, is, for this reviewer, a distorting lens. It is not even clear that colonial is the proper term here. A colony is heterocephalic, that is, the controlling power lies outside the society. Ordinarily, we look for a metropole and a periphery. If the legal system is instituted by the metropole we have heteronomy. These requirements may have been met under the British Mandate but do not apply to post-1948 Israel. The less moral value laden concepts would come from the social stratification tradition of class and caste. Some theorists draw on post-colonialist ideas when one population controls another within the same national boundary as in the case of apartheid in South Africa. In Israel Arabs suffer economic, residential and educational discrimination and, except for Bedouin and Druze, are denied the privilege of military service and its social benefits but are not exploited by the majority in the “colonialist” sense. They have access to the courts and the political regime. This study, concerned with Jewish social dynamics, ignores the Israel Arab minority, except briefly and tangentially.
The Ghost of Hegelian Idealism
The Idealistic tradition in the social sciences treats cultural ideas as independent, or causal, variables. Chapter 4 entitled Terrains of Settlement deals with the way the narrative influences the selection and interpretation of artifacts. Actually, the norms of the narrative include the norms of selecting and interpreting. The latter are simply logical deductions from the former.
Archaeological excavations sponsored by the Hebrew University and the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society have uncovered what they claim is evidence of the Jewish community in the Greco-Roman period. The textual material from this period, in contrast to that of the biblical period, is reasonably reliable. Abu El-Haj asserts that the finds are fetishized as unmediated empirical evidence “inhabiting a semiotic domain of a culture of no culture,” a phrasing she borrows from Donna Haraway. The final phrase “a culture of no culture” is mystifying in this intensely cultural Holy Land. The fetishized meaning may be added to a functional meaning, or even another symbolic meaning, of the artifact but, like all social meanings, resides in culture. The idea of “unmediated empirical evidence” is no less mystifying since the implication is that the fetishized meaning completely obscures the functional meaning attributed to an artifact. To treat something as a fetish would be to attribute to it, in addition to its plain meaning, some inherent power. The term fetish became popular in studies of primitive religion during the nineteenth century. Psychoanalytic interpretation used the term to refer to objects improperly endowed with an erotic character. The term became popular in Marxist analyses following Marx’s phrase “the fetishism of commodities” in Das Kapital. Here it means the endowing of material goods, and even labor as a commodity, with meaning beyond the use value. The interpretation of an artifact is no longer identical with the meaning intended by the producer. The fetishized meaning is here the conversion of the ancient Hebrew artifact into a claim of present rights to the land.
Haraway’s feminist theory is in the Idealistic tradition in the sense that symbols become driving variables. Since Abu El-Haj identifies with and interprets in agreement with Haraway’s Idealistic orientation, it is worth dwelling for a moment on the latter. Haraway is Chair of the History of Consciousness Program, properly named in the Idealistic tradition, at the University of Santa Cruz. Her philosophical stance is reflected in her Cyborgs and Women. Female and other minority oppression is expressed in a master narrative informing the more proximate cultural narrative. This cultural narrative, deeply indebted to racism and colonialism, is a tool of dominance. Even the cooperation needed for social survival requires dominance, and in current Western society, it assumes the image of an alpha male. In political economy the narrative creates a theory of evolution based on competition with the division of labor and resource allocation shaped by competitive forces. Haraway seeks an oppositional myth as for a substitute for the current myth. The new myth would be waiting to be a political language challenging the “informatics of domination” in order to act potently.
The idea of pursuing social change with no more than a new narrative as a tool places Haraway in the German romantic camp of social theory. This is the tradition for which Marx is said to have “turned Hegel on his head.” Taking attributes of social structure as independent variables and ideas or symbols or attitudes as dependent variables distinguishes modern sociology of knowledge from the Idealistic reification of culture.
Abu El-Haj, in her concluding chapter, depicts the theme of her book as showing how archaeology intervened in the world, creating new phenomena that shaped the “material-semiotic cultural realities within which claims to and struggles for the present and the future have come to be framed.” She deals less with the social roles of archaeologists than with a complex of norms for excavating and the interpreting artifacts. Cultural belief systems are taken to produce cultural realities. The relation is between symbols and symbols.
She asks how archaeology emerged as a powerful site for the creation of a Jewish colonial-national culture as it was configured in Palestine and subsequently in the Israeli state. It is doubtful that archaeology creates the national culture. Rather a prior political culture uses archaeology as one of its instruments. She must mean the latter but fails to identify the role of the national political culture except insofar as the motto yediat haarets offers a glimpse. Generally anthropology will argue that culture emerges as an adaptation of a society to its problems. Yet, she does not examine problems, which shaped European and Israeli Zionism. The reference to a Jewish colonial national culture hardly touches the political sectarianism of Israeli culture. The narrowness of the focus, its limitation to social action around archaeological excavations, places those major socio-political forces in the background penumbra.
The archaeological belief systems are not the creations of archaeologists. The sequence of variables should be that the problems facing Israeli society (or, perhaps, better, the society in which Zionist ideology emerged in Europe) would be the source of independent variables. They produce the Zionist ideology linking land to people and provide the basic narrative for the work of these archaeologists and, in particular, the meanings of the finds they seek and interpret (dependent variables). The religious, class and ethnic diversity of Israeli Jewry fragments that ideology into a variety of adaptational proposals.
The Missing Comparisons
Abu El-Haj asks about the great popularity of archaeology in Israel. Her answer is based on events in Israel and Israel alone. Popularity is best assessed in a comparative statement. Further, Jewish interest in biblical archaeology was not born with the early settlers in Palestine. The Amarna Letters discovered in 1887 in Egypt caused a stir amongst European and American Jewry from the beginning of the twentieth century. The tablets, written in Akkadian, recorded a Semitic dynasty in Egypt in the second millennium B.C.E. and the reign of Pharaoh Ikhnaton. He promoted a henotheistic, if not a monotheistic, deity call Aton, apparently a cognate of the Hebrew Adonai. This theme entered Jewish Bible commentary and Freud took note of it in his essay Moses and Monotheism. Abu El-Haj did not look beyond the research site to explain the practices of archaeologists. The response of their publics remains in the dim outline of governmental activities.
Another example of her unnecessarily narrow lens is disclosed in her understanding of the 1943 yediat haarets conference. The conference report promoted youth groups that emphasized hiking over the countryside. These groups were accepted with pride in Israeli circles, she says, and were clearly nationalist in intent. But they were not unique to Israeli Jews. There was a prior history of Zionist youth movements associated with most of the Zionist political parties. The Blau-Weiss German Jewish Youth Movement founded in 1912 explored the German homeland. By 1943 there were many German Jews in the yishuv. Local conditions certainly produce such events but do not constitute an exhaustive explanation.
Her difficulty in accounting for the genesis of events, such as the role of archaeology and land-trekking youth, shows a lack of historical perspective. The lack of comparisons also limits the generality of her interpretations of events. The failure to compare the situation in Israel with other archaeological situations denies her recognition of that which might be peculiar to the Israeli scene in contrast to what is general in archaeological fieldwork. Chapter 8, entitled Historical Legacies describes politically and religiously inspired tour guides to a tunnel near the Western Wall, a kind of archaeological museum. Generally, the guides at Israel archaeological sites are monitored by the Department of Antiquities and the Department of Tourism. In this case control of the area had been ceded to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the guides were, in her judgment, ultra-orthodox Jews. Abu El-Haj recounts a tour in which the guide inaccurately explained archaeological discoveries as attesting to a Jewish religio-nationalist presence in ancient Judea. Were access granted to the Al-Aqsa mosque just a few hundred feet away, as a comparison, she might have learned of Muhammad’s ascent from there heavenward on his steed Buruq. Myth-making and popularization are not unique to Israel. One wonders why this small museum collection is taken to project the nationalist culture while the curatorially sophisticated Israel Museum and Museum of Islamic Art, which the researcher must have visited, are not considered.
Abu El-Haj then provides a few examples of conflicting narratives of groups she calls secular scholars, radical settlers and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. All together, these are but a very small fraction of the varied Israeli Jewish population. Scholars may be religious and they may be settlers all at the same time. Where are the narratives of the kibbutz or urban labor movements or of the Jewish Israelis who immigrated to Israel from the Muslim world?
We have a recurrence of this tunnel vision in Chapter 9, Archaeology and its Aftermath. She raises the very important issue of the ownership of the “cultural property” excavated by archaeologists. This is not a new problem and has long been typified by the case of the Elgin Marbles, stone figures and inscriptions from the Parthenon acquired between 1801-1805 by Lord Elgin with permission of the Ottoman rulers. These objects were purchased by the British Parliament in 1816 and subsequently presented to the British Museum where they remain. The issue of the ownership of such objects has been the subject of legal processes over the two centuries since then. One might expect this chapter to be introduced by a review of the legal history of the dispute. She does mention the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict but only to dismiss it on the basis of a statement by Al-Haq in Ramallah, a Palestinian Human Rights Organization. She pits the secular Zionist state against the Ultra-Orthodox community, concerned with repossessed Jewish bones for reburial, and Palestinians who have claims based on residence and on descent from the Muslim and Christian producers of artifacts. Citations for the debate are culled from three Israeli newspapers: Ha’aretz, The Jerusalem Post and Davar. The Palestinian and orthodox positions are presented as reported in these three newspapers. Strangely, no citations are introduced from the Arabic press nor from the Ultra-Orthodox press. A comparison with the cultural property debate in other countries would go far in contextualizing the Israeli situation as would the academic literature on “cultural property.”
The idealistic orientation, though marginal in social research, is a legitimate position with a long tradition, especially in the humanities. The restricted boundaries of observation and lack of comparison may be legitimate in that type of ethnography, which eschews cognitive generalizations. But this work is replete with general moral assessments and general cognitive statements unanchored to a measurement matrix. The treatment of the Jewish versus Palestinian claims based on reading only the Israeli and not the Arabic press is poor research design in any one’s terms. After all, the book’s title includes the terms “Israeli Society,” not “Israeli Jewish society.”
The thoughtful style in which the book is written must impress anyone that Nadia Abu El-Haj is a promising scholar who has been in thrall to awkward conceptual frameworks. Keep in mind that this is a first book and is a revision of a dissertation. Much of the responsibility for the methodological problems of the study lies with her mentors, those who advised her on her research proposal and those who read the chapters as they were submitted. In the acknowledgments preceding the text of the book, Nadia El-Haj expresses her appreciation to an unusually large number of people who helped her with her work in various ways. Some provided bibliographic guidance to the literature and some read and critiqued her writing on the way to its publication. Her doctoral committee at Duke University was chaired by Virginia Dominguez, a highly regarded cultural anthropologist. Dominguez enjoyed a Fulbright Fellowship at the Hebrew University in 1984-5, which led to her book People as Subjects, People as Objects: Selfhood and Peoplehood in Contemporary Israel.
Most of the issues I have raised should have been raised by members of her doctoral committee. She should have developed a defense of her use of the Idealist orientation. Perhaps, a post-colonial orientation was acceptable to some of her readers but my concern that it takes as axiomatic what needs to be demonstrated should have been addressed. The lack of a comparative framework may be explained by the influence of ethnographic method but then she should either have limited her work to description or accepted the burden of interpretive work.
What I have described as her narrow lens harks back to elementary planning. A social science researcher should begin with an image of the social network implicated in the study. Who are the principal role partners? The introduction of a physical object, such as an artifact, into a social relationship may be represented by a triangle with the object at one vertex and the role partners at the other two. The role partners negotiate, from their respective social positions, over the meaning of the object to which both are oriented. Their interpretations need not be consensual.
A trivial point, noticed by others, is her explanation of the term bayit (house) with reference to the First and Second Temples at Jerusalem. She takes this as evidence of secularization. In fact, the use of bayit for what is called Temple in English is rooted in the biblical text and has been general throughout the history of rabbinic Judaism. In another instance a female figurine, possibly a fertility charm, is found. She believes it testifies to the non-Jewishness of the stratum. The fact is that such charms were common among Jews in the late Second Temple and Greek and Roman periods. Greek religious symbols have been found in synagogue mosaics from the time. There is no shame in her not knowing these facts. Several Israeli scholars were among her readers. Any one of them could have brought these errors to her attention. The lesson is that readers do not always read. That may well be the case with some of her faculty “readers.” They have not done her a service.
Would I have supported her for appointment at my university based on this book? Setting aside information on other publications, teaching evaluations and service for the university, and considering only the merits of the book, I would have supported her for appointment as an assistant professor. Despite all of the problems I have mentioned, the quality of her work is still beyond most PhD dissertations both in her efforts to plumb the field in Israel and the intelligence with which she organizes her report. More involved mentors and readers could go far in developing her promise.
Perhaps, I might have some hesitation at the level of tenuring were this book the sole evidence. In the social science department at my university, a single book, which is a revision of a dissertation, would qualify a candidate for an initial non-tenured appointment. At the tenuring level a departmental recommendation based on such a single book would, most likely, be denied by the school personnel committee of an Ivy institution. I believe Barnard maintains the same standard. (By way of disclosure, I have two Columbia doctoral degrees and have taught in both the Barnard and Columbia sociology programs.) Social interests must have entered the picture. It is not that Barnard needed a pro-Palestinian or Post-Colonial voice. Rather, the need to assert academic freedom in face of the outcry of some Jewish community activists against an appointment they perceived as anti-Israel, could have superseded the academic assessment. In this sense the protest was counter-productive in terms of its own goals. Israeli archaeologists seem absent from this controversy.
The work records moral judgments not flattering to Israeli archaeologists and factual judgments about the existence of an ancient Israel. This must be disturbing to people who rest their faith on the Hebrew Bible and, similarly for those who rest their faith on the New Testament or the Quran, which assume the historicity of the Patriarchal narratives. A number of contemporary Israeli archaeologists share the same doubts.
In a well-conceived and beautifully composed eulogy of Edward Said published in The American Ethnologist in 2005, she expresses appreciation for his role as a “public intellectual.” She identifies with his critique of Israel and calls upon other scholars to “take responsibility, publically, for engaging this new U.S. imperial formation and its attendant forms of violence and intimidation, both domestic and foreign.” I have no problem with tenuring a person with a pro-Palestinian political position or one who disagrees with American government policy. Yet, this summons to political action published in an academic journal might suggest that political advocacy, quite appropriate for an academic in the public square, could also penetrate the classroom, which, I believe, must be politically neutral space. Columbia is a special case in which ideology pervades the Near East studies faculty. I have no evidence that she has or would use the classroom for political advocacy.
Samuel Z. Klausner, Professor Emeritus
Department of Sociology
The University of Pennsylvania