Thursday, September 27, 2007

REVIEW OF NADIA ABU EL-HAJ, FACTS ON THE GROUND: Archaeological Practice and Terriorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001)

I've been following the media coverage of this book for some time, and have even been selectively quoted on it. A couple of people have encouraged me to comment on it, so now that I've read it I may as well post some thoughts. Much that has occurred to me as I read it has already been said elsewhere, but I will try not to be too repetitive. For background, see here and follow the links back.

Abu El-Haj outlines her basic assumptions in a number of places in the book, starting with the first chapter. She offers a post-structuralist and post-colonial critique of archaeology, in which facts are determined contextually by class and other interests. Reality is largely conditioned by what we do in and to it and not by what we think. Archaeology has a peculiar authority since it tends to be taken as providing given facts. In Israel, archaeology emerged as a principal site for the reenactment of Jewish presence with the objective of colonizing Palestine to turn it into Eretz Yisrael (pp. 9, 11, 13,18, 21). Israeli archaeologists do not recognize their own complicity in this "settlement project," whether or not they support it (p. 236). In response to these issues she advocates a "post-Zionist archaeology." And she concludes, with Edward Said, that objective knowledge and its supposed universalism is "Eurocentric in the extreme" and these disciplines (the case in question being Israeli archaeology) gelled within particular colonial contexts (p. 278).

I am paraphrasing here, but I believe accurately. On the one hand, the point is well taken that archaeology, especially when we attempt to correlate it with ancient texts, requires a good deal of interpretation and cannot be regarded as a body of raw, objective facts. But on the other hand, I would say that her philosophical framework crosses the line into anti-realism, a position for which I have little sympathy.

Much of the book deals with matters outside my expertise and on which I have no comment. These include, for example, the Ordinance Survey of Western Palestine and the excavation work of Sir Flinders Petrie in Palestine (chapter 2); the first Yedia'at Ha'aretz conference in 1943 (chapter 3); the early projects of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society and the Governmental Names Committee to recover or assign Hebrew names to geographical locations in Palestine (chapter 4); and various museums in Jerusalem (chapter 8). I leave these matters to others who have expertise on them. I will focus my comments on matters about which I do know something, along with some more general observations on method and presentation.

Chapter 5, "Positive Facts of Nationhood," looks at the archaeological work of Yigael Yadin (who advocated a "violent conquest" model for ancient Israelite origins) and Yohanan Aharoni (who held to a "peaceful infiltration" model), and offers a facile psychologizing of both men (Yadin was a military leader and Aharoni was much involved in the Kibbutz movement). Abu El-Haj then argues that their work traced the record by means of archaeology and the Bible, but was heavily influenced by their nationalism. Despite their infamous falling out, they agreed much more than they disagreed and ultimately the argument was over historical details, with the agreed terms of the argument involving texts, dates, and pots. In particular, the data from Hazor Area A (excavated by Yadin) was furnished by the texts with a potential narrative that could not have been gotten from the excavated remains themselves. She says that the earliest of these texts "were composed in the Hellenistic period" (p. 123), an extreme late dating that would be rejected by almost all specialists. No hint of the extremity of this view is given in her discussion. She seems to have doubts about the validity of speaking of 'Israelite" pottery, although she does not (and as far as I know does not have the training to) argue for another interpretation.

I think it is fair to say that the interpretation of remains found at places like Hazor in light of the biblical texts produced an apparently empirical historical narrative of Israelite origins that had a certain Israeli nationalist propaganda value. It is also fair to say that this historical narrative now at best requires extensive rethinking and at worst was simply wrong. This is a legitimate cautionary tale about the use of archaeology for political purposes.

That said, two points are worth adding. The first is that much of the critique of these earlier archaeological reconstructions has come from Israeli archaeologists. This is no nationalist orthodoxy twisting the outcome of the archaeology of the region. The second point is that the fundamental scientific integrity of Israeli archaeologists in following standard methods and subjecting their work to rigorous peer scrutiny forms the starkest contrast to the ahistorical propaganda disseminated by the Palestinian leadership at all levels and by their supporters in the Arab world and beyond. The obvious example is the routine denial that a Jewish Temple ever stood on the Temple Mount (to pick just a few examples, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here -- and note my responses here and here). The Israeli archaeologists are at least trying, even though they sometimes get it wrong and even though their biases may sometimes color their conclusions.

Chapter 6, "Excavating Jerusalem," contains the now infamous accusation that David Ussishkin's excavation at Jezreel used bulldozers. (For his response, see here). Without going into that again for the moment, I note as an aside her statement in the same context on the same page (148):
Among Palestinian officials at the Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount - JRD] 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. Critics situate this practice squarely within (a specific understanding of) the politics of a nationalist tradition of archaeological research.
Current events on the Temple Mount involving excavation by bulldozer cast some serious doubt on the commitment of the Palestinian officials and the Awqaf to this principle, although, to be fair, the IAA doesn't come out looking all that well either.

As has already been noted by Alan Segal, Abu El-Haj makes the odd claim on p. 132 that the Hebrew word bayit, "house," is a secularizing term that avoids the term "temple." This is a striking error, since anyone with a basic grasp of either Biblical or Modern Hebrew would be well aware that in contexts relating to the Temple, bayit is the word one would normally use.

Abu El-Haj has been criticized quite a lot for floating the idea a couple of times (pp. 144-46, plus pp. 212-13 in chapter 8) that ash layers excavated in Jerusalem which clearly date around 70 CE need not be from the Roman destruction of the city, but could come from other causes including conflicts among Jewish groups as noted by Josephus. I think this is actually interesting out-of-the-box thinking of the type that can be quite useful for helping us to question our assumptions and ask new questions of our data. But here she is just using the suggestion for its propaganda value (or, as she could perhaps legitimately argue, its counter-propaganda value), rather than developing it as a serious attempt to explain the excavation evidence. Her additional speculation that the fire could have been accidental is theoretically possible, but strains credulity. Her point is valid that we should not interpret the archaeological remains in light of the texts and then simplistically claim those remains as verification of the texts. But, that granted, we must also not fall into a hyper-skepticism that keeps us from analyzing all our evidence and formulating hypotheses based on the balance of probability.

In chapter 8, "Historical Legacies," she shows that tour guides can be good or bad, not just in terms of perspective and nuance, but even in terms of getting basic facts right. But this hardly applies only to Israeli tour guides. Museum displays and films sometimes also have problems (see, e.g., this display in the Oriental Institute), and the claim in the Burnt House Museum film that the ash layer can be dated to a particular day is indeed ridiculous, as Abu El-Haj indicates. Josephus gives this date for the destruction of the Upper City of Jerusalem and it appears that, once the connection between that ash layer and that destruction was made, someone inferred the date based on his comment. If the transcription of the film's sound track is accurate, the script-writer clearly misunderstood the process of inference.

Two other specific passages in the book struck me as also requiring comment. Chapter 9, "Archaeology and Its Aftermath," looks at Israeli archaeology in relation to both Palestinians and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. While discussing the problem of looting in an anti-colonial politicial context Abu El-Haj writes (p. 255):
Although never argued by [Palestinian archaeologist Nazmi] Ju'beh, 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. In James Scott's words, looting is perhaps "a weapon of the weak."
I can't think of any other way to read this than as a -- granted, tentatively, but still unambiguously phrased -- political justification of the looting of archaeological sites. I think this is one of the most disturbing passages in the book and I am surprised not to have encountered any other comments on it so far.

The other passage is on the last pages (280-81) of chapter 10, "Conclusions."
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 Yisrael 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 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."
It is possible that Abu El-Haj is simply offering a explanation of the mentality behind the actions of the marauders here and perhaps we should assume this more charitable interpretation. But I was struck by the fact that there is no condemnation of the desecration of this site and it is equally possible to read the passage as a justification of the actions of the mob (especially given her quoted statement from p. 255 above). I wish she had helped us out a little more to read what she says in the more charitable light.

Now some general observations. Whatever the specific facts, the way Abu El-Haj presents her arguments sometimes fall into patterns that raise concerns.

She has been widely criticized for her use of anonymous sources, and she does cite these an awful lot. In many cases she is telling an anecdote or relating that someone expressed an opinion and it makes little difference who said it (e.g., pp. 199, 211, 212, 236, 251, 252). But other cases involve testimony about important matters and serious accusations and it does seem inappropriate that these should be anonymous. Examples are the eyewitness testimony to details of the Israeli demolition of the Maghariba Quarter (p. 165); the accusation by an archaeologist that a "right-wing colleague" "was constantly labeling Christian sites Jewish" (p. 233); an archaeologist reporting on encounters with haredim at certain archaeological digs (p. 258); archaeologists giving contrasting views of the situation regarding the haredim and archaeology (pp. 260-62, 263); the anonymous accusation concerning the use of the bulldozer at Jezreel (p. 306 n. 12); and the accusation that at an unnamed excavation bones were excavated from a Muslim cemetery and not recorded and that anonymous volunteers reported that this had also happened in the previous season (p. 318 n. 17). Note also the claim of the author that clearly non-Jewish human remains were hidden on an excavation on which she participated, but she does not not say which excavation (p. 268).

There is also some argument by insinuation. Conclusions by others are presented in such a way that we seem to be expected to assume they are wrong, but the reasons for rejecting them are never spelled out, nor are corrections and better readings of the evidence offered. These include the skeptical references to "Israelite" pottery and architecture on p. 118; to Herodian architecture on pp. 134-35; to "Israelite" Jerusalem in the late Iron Age on pp. 138-39; and references to the comments of Amnon Ben Tor and others about the logic of Jewish interest in ancient Israel and the perceived Arab lack of interest in their past on pp. 252-53. This is really a matter of tone, but the tone in these passages is unhelpful.

To conclude, Facts on the Ground makes some interesting observations about how nationalism and politics have fed into and fed off of Israeli archaeology. But these observations are offered in the context of an extreme perception of Israel as a colonial state, and I suspect that, whatever readers think of this viewpoint, the book's tendenz is so transparent that no one's mind will be changed one way or another by reading it. When it talks about things I know about, it consistently slants the presentation of the evidence according to this tendenz so that the conclusions are predictable and not very interesting. This book makes no contribution to the archaeology of ancient Palestine or what it can tell us about the history of ancient Israel. Others can decide whether the book makes a contribution in some other area.

UPDATE (15 October): More here and here.