Nadia Abu El-Haj, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College, is listed among the members of the MEALAC (Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures) faculty at Columbia University. A graduate student at Duke University, she turned her doctoral thesis into a book: “Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society.” One admiring reviewer (from the University of Chicago) said the book offers “an anthropology of colonialism and nationalism, which follows Foucault and [Edward] Said” in which “she points to the convergence of archeology’s project with that of colonialism.” Others have not been so kind.
For this book is not really about archeology at all. Rather, it is a relentless attack on how and why Israelis, Jews really, have done archaeology in the land they have the audacity to call Israel. For in El-Haj's view, the past, like the present, is merely a cruel and daring fiction foisted on the world at the expense of Palestinians, a social construction, as the orotund phrase has it. As El-Haj sees it, Jewish archaeologists, ignoring or destroying whatever got in their way, have been relentless in their pursuit of the Jewish past to claim the land and its history for modern Israel, and to dispossess Palestinians and their “claim” to the past.
But El-Haj, it seems, is not really an archeologist. There is not the slightest evidence that she has ever seen the work of Israeli archeologists, ever visited a dig, ever studied the history of the development of Israeli archeology, ever inquired as to how Israeli archeologists choose the sites they do choose for digs. She appears not to have any record of the kinds of artifacts the Israeli archeologists, often working with Western, non-Israeli and non-Jewish colleagues, have discovered, catalogued, and meticulously studied.
Shabby or pseudo or nonexistent scholarship disguises a naked political assault. In El-Haj's estimation, Israel is guilty. Its crime: daring to dig, under the soil of Israel, on land where Jews lived from perhaps 1000 BCE until this very day. And built temples, and wrote on pottery and left scrolls on parchment, and fashioned menorahs, and cups for drinking, and dishes for eating – in short, a rich variety of artifacts for uses sacred and profane. But El-Haj and her ideological kin believe that to demonstrate a connection between Jews past and Jews present is unacceptable, an abuse of archaeology, serving the cause of a “construct,” a Western imperial falsehood. That is, a Jewish state.
Entirely left out of El-Haj’s account is the fact that Israeli archaeologists have studied artifacts from every period, and not only those of the Jewish past. They have, often with foreign colleagues, discovered Roman coins and mosaic floors and temples, have uncovered Byzantine artifacts, and those of the Islamic conquest, both of the Arab period and of the period of Ottoman rule. Many of the Islamic artifacts have, in fact, been meticulously and scrupulously catalogued, studied, and preserved – all serious students know about the Islamic Museum in Jerusalem and its exceptional collection. Does Nadia El-Haj? El-Haj seems to think that the study of the Jewish past by Israeli archeologists, observing the highest professional standards, known for the meticulousness, is an outrageous political act, an act of “Jewish settler-colonial nation state-building.”
El-Haj’s political fulminations may attempt to hide behind the rhetoric of “scholarship.” Is there a single example of attempts by Israeli archeologists to either hide the past, or destroy the past, or to create a false past? If so, she has failed to mention it in her book – which relies entirely on quite recent, English-language publications, as critical reviewers have noted. And since she is a Palestinian nationalist, how does her charge sheet compare with the treatment toward ancient sites by the Palestinian Arabs and by the Arabs more generally?
As is well known, in Islam there has been an almost total indifference to the non-Islamic or pre-Islamic world. Many of the artifacts of that world have been destroyed over 1350 years of Muslim conquest and subjugation of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists. In India, the Muslim conquerors destroyed as much of the Buddhist and Hindu heritage as they could, sometimes in order to quarry the stone, sometimes to destroy statuary. The Indian historian K.S. Lal has provided a meticulous list of tens of thousands of identified Hindu temples destroyed by the Muslim invaders, for example. The recent destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was not an aberration; those Buddhas were virtually the last remnants of the Greco-Buddhist civilization that Afghanistan had once possessed.
The systematic assault by the Palestinian Arabs on all sorts of significant sites, some of them regarded as holy, was on display again in 2002, when the complete destruction of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (that destruction can be seen on-line) took place. This was no aberration. But El-Haj justified it as the uncharacteristic but understandable reaction of desperate people, brought to the end of their collective tether by the diabolical behavior of the Israelis.
In Egypt, members of the Muslim Brotherhood even muttered about destroying the Pyramids, but cooler heads prevailed. It was not out of Egyptian nationalism, save among the Copts and a small sliver of the Egyptian elite, nor out of any respect for the pre-Islamic past, but rather the fact that too many Egyptians depend for their livelihood on tourist dollars, that managed to prevent attacks. Similarly, the tourist attraction of Petra seems safe, precisely because it is a money-maker, not out of some deep conviction that these Roman-era ruins are otherwise of note.
In Iraq, the old Sunni elites, trained by Gertrude Bell and others, did acquire a certain taste for preserving the pre-Islamic artifacts, and that seems to be the one exception – and an exception only among a very small sliver of Iraqi society – to the general indifference to any artifacts except those representing the time of Islam, not that of the pre-Islamic Jahiliyya.
Indeed, many Muslims oppose even Muslim sites which would distract from worship of Allah. When the Wahhabi under Abdul Aziz ibn Saud conquered Mecca, they razed to the ground virtually every old building then standing. An old Ottoman fort was one of the few buildings spared. In 2002, overnight, that Ottoman fort was also destroyed.
Like her distant mentor, the presiding genius domus over so much of Middle East matters today, Edward Said, El-Haj seems incapable of understanding that other societies, the representatives of other civilizations, are capable of studying the past as something other than a political project, and in Israel, as something other than working hand-in-glove with “Jewish settler-colonial nation state-building.”
This profile is adapted from an article titled "Crisis at Columbia: Nadia Abu El-Haj," written by Hugh Fitzgerald and published October 10, 2005. Fitzgerald wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, which is designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities. It is part of a series of analysis addressing Columbia University’s Middle East Studies faculty. We invite you to read Fitzgerald's introductory essay, and the entries in alphabetical order.