Review: Nadia Abu El-Haj’s Facts on the Ground

facts-on-the-ground Nadia Abu El-Haj’s Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society is a provocative attempt to challenge the very historical roots of Israeli nationhood.  Not unlike Yael Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots, the author explores the role of national myth and sacred spaces in modern Israeli identity.  Yet while Zerubavel’s work seeks to problematize accepted political interpretations of ancient Israelite history and their implications for modern Israeli identity, the clear intention of El-Haj’s book is to delegitimize this history altogether.  Ultimately her political agenda far overshadows the potential analytical strength of her work and prevents her from providing a fair or balanced account of the role of archaeology in the construction of national identity in the Israeli-Palestinian context.

To her credit, the author succeeds in raising several key issues regarding the role of archaeology in the construction of modern Israeli identity.  Namely she challenges the circular logic behind the interpretation of archaeological finds from periods contemporaneous with biblical narratives.  She charges that in seeking the evidence to substantiate these ancient historiographies, Israeli archaeologists have sacrificed scientific neutrality in favor of a nationalist agenda.  For instance, instead of identifying pottery shards of a particular period with generic Canaanite origins, she contends that Israeli archaeologists artificially assign distinct “ethnic Israelite” characteristics to these finds.  In examining artifacts identified with key historical events such as the “Burnt House” in Jerusalem assumed to have been destroyed during the sacking of the city by Rome, she questions how such specific narratives can be accurately traced to these sites.  Could not the house have been destroyed by radical Jewish zealots who were known to attack the houses of members of the aristocracy around the same time period?  Abu El-Haj’s skepticism throughout leads her to treat both the biblical narratives and their association with archaeological finds skeptically and derisively.

What the author either forgets or intentionally ignores here is that although the use of these sites as foci for the physical reconstruction of biblical narratives is a result of circular reasoning, there is little else in the way of documented history of the area to form a viable alternative account. While these reconstructions of history may service the interests of the Israeli state, very little archaeology is conducted in a vacuum, either political or narrative.  That one may have difficulty proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that a pottery shard came from a Israelite rather than a Canaanite household or that a building was burned by plundering Romans, religious Zealots, or an unfortunate kitchen accident does not mean that the narratives themselves are illegitimate or entirely baseless.

As to the official Israeli treatment of history between the fall of Judea and the rise of the modern state of Israel, the author lambasts the scientific establishment and the state for failing to carefully catalogue and preserve remains from periods of Christian and Muslim rule.  For her, these moves are simply efforts by the state to delegitimize and erase from physical memory the reality of other groups’ historical habitation and domination of the land.  While there is certainly a great degree of truth to this claim, it is more than a little suspect that her criticism does not extend to the Palestinians as well.  Nowhere are these activities more apparent than in the “construction” work that has been done by the Waqf, the Islamic Religious Trust, on the Temple Mount which many suspect is aimed at erasing what little archaeological evidence remains of Judaism’s most holy ancient site.

While many of her observations regarding the use (and abuse) of archaeology in the service of Israeli nationalism are factually compelling, in the end her political agenda overshadows the potential meaningfulness of her work.  In seeking to characterize “Zionist archaeology” as an illegitimate colonial-national project to expropriate “indigenous” Palestinian territory, she wantonly disregards the significance of over 3500 years of Jewish history in the land.

In her closing paragraph, these outstanding contradictions only become more apparent.  Regarding the looting and destruction of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus by Palestinian rioters in October of 2000, she insists that this move was not directed at the shrine because it was a Jewish religious site, but because it was a symbolic rejection of Israel’s colonial-national policy.  By erasing one more Jewish “fact on the ground”, Abu El-Haj argues, they sought to prevent the extension of Israeli sovereignty to that site.  That the site itself is over 2000 years old and provides clear evidence of prior Jewish habitation of the city is for her of little consequence.  The author thus makes all too clear that her true frustration is not with the use of archaeology to demonstrate the ancient historical tie between the land of Israel and the Jewish people but that such ties exist in the first place.  That a scholar who rejects efforts by Israelis to lay particularistic religious and historical claims to ancient sites has no hesitation condoning their destruction when they fail to conform to Palestinian nationalist narratives only makes the motivations and conclusions of this book only all the more suspect.

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