Saturday, October 06, 2007

Abu el-Haj: archaeology, scholarship - peer reviews

In this post, I review the substantive criticisms of Nadia Abu el-Haj's (2001) facts on the ground: archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society culled from peer reviews.

Over-simplification, over-complification

In the summer of 2003, professor of history and religion Jacob Lassner objected that '[e]ven when granting certain Israeli archeologists their academic integrity, she [Abu el-Haj] tends to describe their findings as bent by the state for its own political purposes' and to conflate archaeologists' and politicians' discourses, when 'Israeli archeology is characterized by lively discussion that values independent scientific inquiry and often undermines conventional wisdom'.

I look at the political use of archaeologists' findings - and, indeed, of their very engagement in work (in the Occupied Territories) - in other posts, particularly that on settler archaeology; if there had been that conflation between archaeologists' and politicians' discourses, though, it may not have been Abu el-Haj's fault.

I know from my own work that many archaeologists categorise research into the ethical and political aspects of archaeological practice as political, rather than archaeological and insist that the researcher talk with politicians instead; in that situation, the archaeologists' unwillingness to reflect upon the politics and ethics of their work (for whatever - frequently justifiable - reason) incidentally cedes ground to politicians' discourses.

Prof. Lassner himself acknowledged that,
Jews who have taken to the West Bank armed with the Hebrew Bible are well aware of the various digs that connect the highlands with ancient Jewish settlements. They have established a modern map of settlement to reclaim the homeland of their forefathers,
but cautioned that, 'even were Israelis guilty of Abu el-Haj's charges, they would still have no monopoly in manipulating the past', because nationalists from both sides use the past to negotiate in the present for their future.

Having criticised Abu el-Haj for over-simplification, Lassner, however, could perhaps be accused of "over-complification", 'draw[ing] distinctions between archeology as a scholarly enterprise and archeology as a national discourse', when they are inextricably intertwined. In her (May) 2003 review, cultural anthropologist Dr. Kimbra L. Smith stated that,
Abu El-Haj provides clear examples of how specific instances of archaeological production[ - ]survey and excavation projects, museum organization, tour presentations[ - ]produce history, justify social practice, and underwrite political decisions and frameworks.
Indeed, Smith wanted Abu el-Haj to go further, to analyse 'the influence European (and later U.S.) imperialist agendas might have had on the production of a history of Israel/Palestine'.

(Also, in 2004, cultural anthropologist Dr. Apen Ruiz praised el-Haj's work for 'showing with enormous detail how archaeology has historically become closely invested with nationalistic meanings', quoting her that, '".... [t]he power and salience archaeology gained in Israeli society was contingent..." (p. 6)', dependent upon circumstances and upon the consequences of generations of individuals', groups' and institutions' choices in those changing circumstances.)

Again, I do discuss (specifically current) political archaeology in detail elsewhere, but to give one past example, as professor of Jewish studies and history Yael Zerubavel (1994: 83) observed,
In the mid 1960s, archaeologists of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, with the support of various government agencies, undertook a major excavation of the site of Masada.... [which was] widely publicized by the media and kept Masada at the center of Israeli collective consciousness for an extended period.
The public discourse regarding the excavation, including statements and writings by [former second chief-of-staff] archaeologist Yigael Yadin, highlighted its importance as evidence of a heroic national past,
which was made concrete through the restoration of the site - the construction of el-Haj's "facts on the ground" - and which was written into Israeli government-issued instruction manuals for tour guides (Zerubavel, 1994: 84).

(It is also instructive to note that Prof. Zerubavel (1994: 85) moved from quoting a former president in one sentence to an anonymised 'informant' in the next, implicitly recognising the interdependence of archaeologists', politicians' and publics' narratives and actions.)

Theory and methodology

Source anonymity

In September 2004, archaeologist Prof. Aren M. Maeir wondered whether 'she does this to "protect" her sources, [or]... whether the real purpose is to protect the verifiability of these statements', but as professor of sociology and anthropology Gregory Starrett (16th August 2007) commented in a Chronicle of Higher Education news blog discussion, anonymising sources 'is standard practice in cultural anthropology, intended to protect the identity of the individuals with whom we speak'.

It seems clear now that Abu el-Haj was right to anonymise her sources in order to protect them, given the campaign that has emerged against Abu el-Haj - including some who use her very protection of her sources from them against her (c.f. Candace de Russy, 4th May 2007b; Paula R. Stern, 19th February 2007a).

Some - acutely ironically withholding their own names - have even gone further, accusing her of having used anonymous sources when she had used academics' published works. For example, academic Anonymous A (7th December 2006b) asserted that, 'Abu el Haj makes no effort to prove her case, except by quoting an anonymous archaeologist'.

Anonymous A clipped that
Israeli archaeologists have routinely "used bulldozers and otherwise dismantled and removed various finds and buildings dating to various Islamic periods" (p. 157) in a deliberate and calculatedly nationalist effort to "quickly work their way down to those strata in which the Jewish (colonial-) national imagination is rooted" [p. 153],
cutting off the two sentences following their first clip that stated that her (2002: 157) 'criticism is based upon a reading of the archaeological records and excavation reports', which she cited and which she (2002: 149-150) had already quoted from directly. This has been one of the problems in the discussion of bulldozer archaeology, but, as I explain in that post, in many ways it ought not to have been.

Speaking Hebrew

Prof. Jacob Lassner (summer 2003) felt that 'Abu el-Haj indicates she studied Hebrew in a desultory fashion, and... appears to have invested lightly in the multitude of Hebrew sources that could have informed her study', although he acknowledged that she had used Hebrew sources and gave no reason for judging her study of Hebrew 'desultory' (which means "unsystematic", "casual" or "superficial").

Martin Solomon and Anonymous A (2nd November 2006a) went further and stated that, 'Israelis speak Hebrew; Abu El Haj does not' (while Anonymous B (22nd December 2006) merely implied it).

Although, as will be shown in the post on the campaign against Abu el-Haj, non-academics have also used this point - and earlier (which may be where he derived it from) - Middle Eastern historian David Meir-Levi (14th August 2007) argued that '[s]he mis-uses Hebrew terminology for place names, confusing "neve" (dwelling, habitation site) with "nahal" (stream, rivulet)'; though I'm not claiming it's an authoritative source, the Wikipedia entry for Beesheba/Be'er Sheva/Bir' as-Sabi did list one of the neighbourhoods as 'Nahal Ashan (... Smoke River), also known as Neve Menachem (... Menachem Oasis)', which would suggest that at least sometimes the names and/or places are paralleled, overlapping or interchangeable in use.

Anthropologist Professor Ted Swedenburg (cited in Silverstein, 17th August 2007a) noted that,
Among the other scurrilous claims is that Nadia doesn't speak hebrew. I was in Palestine for a couple months when she was doing fieldwork and made a trip into Tel Aviv with some other friends. [I] sat at a restaurant with her and an Israeli friend, who when hearing her speak Hebrew, said Nadia was quite good.
Now, I know people have been generous in their descriptions of my Greek and Turkish (or have genuinely believed I knew whichever one we were speaking better than I did because we happened to be talking about things I had the vocabulary and grammar to cope with); but, even if that Israeli friend were being polite, that is not the only testimony to Abu el-Haj's knowledge of Hebrew.

As Middle Eastern political science Professor Lisa Wedeen said of Abu el-Haj's (not merely conversational but) scholarly Hebrew,
"Anybody who reads her work can see that it is replete with Hebrew sources, both written and oral," Lisa Wedeen, chair of the political-science department at the University of Chicago and a scholar of the Middle East, said in an interview. She said that the book contains Ms. Abu El-Haj's own translations from Hebrew, and that they are "fluid and idiomatic" (Gravois, 20th August 2007).
Ethnography of the archaeological community

Smith (May 2003) did state that,
Abu El-Haj speaks not with archaeologists who are excavating, but with archaeologists on tours given in conjunction with international archaeological congresses,
but it seems from an Amazon Reader search for "archaeologist(s)", "curator(s)", "excavator(s)" or "interview(s)" (excluding overlapping or irrelevant uses), that Abu el-Haj has spoken to a fair number of archaeologists and other cultural heritage workers.

Smith went on to complain that:
The reader gets no sense of how local residents influenced, were influenced by, or responded to the legislation resulting from official perspectives. Nor does Abu El-Haj discuss the question of audience....

[T]here is no ethnographic representation of either the Israeli-Jewish or the Palestinian publics whose lives are affected by the subject matter of the book.
It is true that there is little visible discussion with or representation of the members of the affected communities (although, as Abu el-Haj (2002: 317n7) pointed out - before recommending existing literature on it - '[t]hat topic is well beyond the scope of this study'), but there was examination of the civil society organisations that were founded by and that operated in and influenced those communities, as well as of school, museum and public education.

Moreover, Abu el-Haj (2002: 258-259) did discuss public understandings of and responses to archaeology, for example,
Ultra-Orthodox opposition to archaeological excavations, specifically, to the excavation of Jewish cemeteries and graves, [which]... violates the boundaries of a secular-labor Zionist culture,
but she focused upon her object of study, which was the archaeological profession.

Furthermore, I do not know and I am not claiming this, but Abu el-Haj may have found it difficult to access excavating (or, indeed, other) archaeologists and may have found those 'publics whose lives are affected' unwilling to talk; if Abu el-Haj had these difficulties, however, she ought to have stated that clearly and discussed the limitations of her research, which themselves constitute part of the study.

I know I have had a very mixed reception in both southern and northern Cyprus (ranging from silence or redirection, through brusque, brief remarks to enthusiastic, in-depth discussions), even from those whom it is assumed I am sympathetic towards.

Diana Muir and Avigail Appelbaum: conflicts of interest

Historian Diana Muir studied U.S. history at Barnard and is currently researching nations and nationalism; as far as I can tell, her daughter, Avigail Appelbaum, studied Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Barnard, then historic preservation at Columbia.

According to one of the key activists in the campaign against Abu el-Haj, Paula R. Stern (20th August 2007f), Appelbaum 'had personal contact with El Haj, read her book, heard about the tenure process and went to her mother', Muir, who, according to Richard Silverstein (21st August 2007c), 'acknowledged her interest in the Barnard professor originated with the [10th October 2005] Hugh Fitzgerald article' (Fitzgerald being another - pseudonymous - activist) and, again according to Stern, 'posted on an Israeli list', where she herself learned of the issue.

Although they are peers and I am addressing their critique of Abu el-Haj's philosophical approach and scientific method here, as will become clear, they have ideological links with the campaign against Abu el-Haj and write or repeat many of the same untruths that the campaign uses.

While an undergraduate at Barnard, Avigail Appelbaum complained (to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, if not to Barnard College) that,
I can't take classes at my Middle East (studies department at Columbia) unless I'm willing to sit through diatribe after diatribe given by professors who are not willing to hear that Israel is legitimate (Pomerance, 23rd May 2003).
In relation to comparable accusations made in the David Project-produced film Columbia Unbecoming, Scott Sherman (4th April 2005) quoted Columbia University Professor Robert Pollack (who is Jewish himself) thus: '[i]t is a crazy, crazy exaggeration to claim that Jews are under attack at Columbia or that the faculty is anti-Semitic'.

Rachel Pomerance (23rd May 2003) reported that Appelbaum 'founded and chair[ed] the North American Jewish Student Alliance [NAJSA]', of which it would appear that she is still the Campus Representative for Columbia University/Barnard College. (Second link not included in bibliography.)

NAJSA's (2003) goals and objectives include, 'to unite Jewish Students throughout North America, strengthen Jewish identities, support the needs and interests of all Jewish students, and to create and promote programs that foster a positive relationship with Israel.... [t]o encourage Jewish students to work together to promote Israel and other Jewish interests on college campuses'.

In a section on "Israel facts, activist tools, and speaking points for campus", NAJSA has reproduced various materials, including Daniel Weinstein's (14th March 2004) four points: arguments for Israel, which commented on settlements that:
Jews can live in Mexico City, Bangkok, St. Louis, and any city in the world (except in Saudi Arabia) -- but the PA wants to forbid Jews from living in the very cradle of Judaism....

Since the disputed territories were never part of a sovereign nation, and were acquired in a defensive war, international law permits the voluntary settlement of the land.
Without wishing to dwell on this, as I deal with it in a post on colonialism, the PA does not want 'to forbid Jews from living in the very cradle of Judaism'.

The Palestinian Authority and the overwhelming majority of the member states of the United Nations want to end and undo the Occupying Power's settlement of the Occupied Territories, which is not at all permitted under international law: United Nations Security Council (1980) Resolution 465 Article 5 branded settlement 'a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention'.

So, Muir and Appelbaum are invested in the interests and bound up with the activists arrayed against Abu el-Haj. These materials suffice to show that although Diana Muir and Avigail Appelbaum are technically Nadia Abu el-Haj's peers, they cannot actually be trusted as her critics; furthermore, according to Richard Silverstein (21st August 2007c), they 'had been doing "opposition research" to discredit Abu El-Haj for months before the review was published'.

Scientific methods

Muir and Appelbaum (31st May 2006), whose only external reference for any of the claims in their entire review was to the al Quds University website (which they used to characterise politicised and caricature Palestinian historiography), claimed that:
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."
What anthropologist Abu el-Haj (2001: 8-9) actually said was that:
increasing numbers of archaeologists are debating the politics of their own discipline, including its potential uses and the implications for their professional work. Rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method whereby politics is seen to intervene only in instances of bad science, such critics have argued that archaeological knowledge (as but one instance of scientific knowledge) is inherently a social product. Rooted in multiple intellectual traditions (poststructuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory, a sociology of scientific knowledge) and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements (specifically, demands for the repatriation of cultural objects and human remains by indigenous groups in settler nations such as Australia, the U.S. and Canada), this critical tradition is united, at its most basic level, by a commitment to understanding archeology as necessarily political.
As Jesse Walker (18th August 2007), who first exposed the distortion of that passage, observed:
There is an obvious distinction between listing the diverse roots of a scholarly movement and saying that you yourself embrace all (or any) of those roots. As for that "positivist commitment to scientific method" business, it sure reads differently when you specify that it's the view that "politics is seen to intervene only in instances of bad science" that's being rejected.
Muir and Appelbaum were not only unscholarly in alleging that '[t]his post-modern approach empower[ed] Abu El Haj to vaporize the positivist notion that the Jewish people lived in Israel in ancient times' when she made no such claim whatsoever, but incompetent in justifying the very 'understanding of archaeology as necessarily political' that they were trying to criticise by stating that, 'denying that Jews are indigenous in Judea enables the redefinition of Israeli Jews as colonizers; foreign settlers with no legitimate right to the land'. This lazily disingenuous scholarship can be confirmed by reference to what must be one of the most notorious things Nadia Abu el-Haj never said.

Political fabrication

According to Muir and Appelbaum (31st May 2006),
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."
What Abu el-Haj actually said (with her emphases) was that:
While by early the 1990s, virtually all archaeologists argued for the need to disentangle the goals of their professional practice from the quest for Jewish origins and objects that framed an earlier archaeological project, the fact that there is some national-cultural connection between contemporary (Israeli)-Jews and such objects was not itself generally open to sustained discussion. That commitment remained, for the most part, and for most practicing archaeologists, fundamental. (Although archaeologists argued increasingly that the archaeological past should have no bearing upon contemporary political claims.) In other words, the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication.
(With my emphases) Muir and Appelbaum twisted 'belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication' into '[belief in ancient Israelite origins is understood as] pure political fabrication'.

It is an interesting intellectual exercise, then, to contemplate why Diana Muir and Avigail Appelbaum would have launched such an unscrupulous attack upon Nadia Abu el-Haj.

Settler archaeology

Given the Appelbaum-founded North American Jewish Student Alliance's support for Israeli settlement of Occupied Palestinian Territories in violation of the United Nations' (1949) Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, it is worth attending to Abu el-Haj's observations on settlers' political use of archaeology. (In another post, I discuss settler archaeology more in-depth.)

Abu el-Haj (2002: 236) noted that:
a philosophical commitment to facts as being distinct from their invocation as evidence.... enables archaeologists to fail to recognize their own complicity in a settlement project many do not actually support.
Explicitly acknowledging that, '[b]y definition, facts are not political', what Abu el-Haj (2002: 236-237) wanted was for archaeologists and others to:
Consider, for example, that many archaeologists have participated, since the 1967 war, in extensive survey projects in the West Bank in order to resolve the long-standing debate about the character of "Israelite settlement." That project of fact collecting substantiated the West Bank as the biblical heartland, materializing its identity as Judea and Samaria in archaeological facts. And that territorial conception, in turn, is cardinal to settler claims that the region is rightfully an integral part... of the Jewish state.
Nadia Abu el-Haj did not say or suggest that 'archaeological data are not discovered but invented': she suggested that archaeologists ought to consider the ways their uncovered archaeological data are used, here, particularly by those defending Israeli settlement of the Occupied Territories.

It is interesting that having similarly falsely attached to Abu el-Haj 'an undisguised political agenda that regards modern and ancient Israel, and perhaps Jews as a whole, as fictions', former director of Campus Watch Near Eastern archaeologist Alexander H. Joffe (October 2005: 297n1) associated her work with that of biblical studies Professor Keith W. Whitelam's (1996) on the invention of ancient Israel: the silencing of Palestinian history, when he placed Abu el-Haj's work 'in the context of recent deconstructive analyses of Biblical Archaeology, and the Bible itself, with which she shares a remarkable vehemence'.

As Abu el-Haj (2002: 307n22) had noted (naming them and providing suggestions for further reading) in an earlier footnote, '[t]here are a variety of treaties that prohibit the excavations in and removal of cultural properties from occupied lands' and, as Abu el-Haj (2002: 316n26) had pointed out in another footnote, specifically in relation to Whitelam's work,
he does not make mention of the fact that the evidential basis for his own reconsideration of that Iron Age history is drawn from archaeological research conducted during the occupation, which required getting permits from the archaeology branch of the occupying military administration.
It is possible that one of Diana Muir and Avigail Appelbaum's primary concerns is not Abu el-Haj's scholarship, which they singularly failed to impugn, but rather her exposition of the ways archaeology may facilitate, enable or provide ideological cover for settlement of the Occupied Territories.

In the next, paired posts, I'll examine questions of Abu el-Haj's and her informants' archaeological knowledge, through the cases of the Assyrian destruction of Samaria and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.

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