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Archeology and the Propaganda War Against Israel

In one of those ironies of questionable scholarship, just as a battle over a Barnard scholar’s book about Israeli archeology had inflamed her application for tenure, heavy equipment was tearing away at the ancient crown of Jerusalem’s 36-acre Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. Nadia Abu El-Haj's book, Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, originally a doctoral thesis, questions the historical existence of a Jewish link to Israel, and her provocative claims have caused her to become the center of a fractious debate about her qualifications for tenure as a Barnard professor of anthropology.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem Hebrew University’s Dr. Eilat Mazar, along with representatives from the Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities, was in the Israeli High Court of Justice attempting to halt the work on the Temple Mount being conducted by the Muslim Waqf, the religious trust charged with oversight of the location. The excavation, a trench 500 meters long and 1.5 meters deep, is, according to the complainants, "causing irreversible damage to antiquities and archaeological artifacts of the greatest importance . . , is being carried out illegally, [and] entails damage to ground layers, some of which may have been in place since the first Temple stood there 3,000 years ago.”

The effrontery of this recent, but not isolated, act by the Waqf is made all the more troubling by the fact that the archeological contempt shown by the trust reflects their attitude that a Jewish historical connection to the site is only apocryphal, that, in the same way that El-Haj denies a Jewish component to the archeology of Israel, the Waqf’s oversight of the Temple Mount has contributed to an effort, in pursuit of the Palestinian’s nationalistic cause, to erase or obscure Judaism and replace it with a Muslim historical narrative which predates a Jewish one. Hebrew University’s Yitzhak Reiter, who conducted a study for the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, observes that this has been a deliberate strategy, that "In the last generation, the Islamic and Arab history of Jerusalem has gradually been rewritten. At the heart of this new version is the Arabs' historic right to Jerusalem and Palestine. The main argument is that the Arabs ruled Jerusalem thousands of years before the children of Israel. In addition to building the Arab-Muslim case, the Muslim thinkers are formulating a denial and negation of the Jewish-Zionist narrative. Included in that effort is the de-Judaizing of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and Jerusalem as a whole.”

A second, but concurrent, assault on that Jewish history is “post-colonial” scholarship like that of El-Haj, “the hallucinated claim,” as author Stephen Schwartz puts it, “that Jewish identity is a modern, nationalist, and Zionist-imperialist ‘construct’ rather than a product of thousands of years of recorded history and religious tradition.” Her book has been widely denounced precisely because it seems not to be authentic scholarship on archeology of the Holy Land at all, but a revisionist history based on political ideology—the notion that any historical relationship between Jews and Jerusalem, indeed to Israel itself, is merely a construct, a fiction, a professional fraud hoisted upon the world of scholarship by Israel archeologists who sifted through digs and artificially ‘built’ a historical link between the Jews and Israel, thus of course, denying the Palestinians their own historic connection. Israel, a “colonial settler state,” had to contort history through selectively revealed archeological finds and, she says, “the colonial dimension of Jewish settlement in Palestine cannot be sidelined if one is to understand the significance and consequences of archaeological practice. . . .” She thus disingenuously, and apparently without worrying about science, fact, or history, dismisses or ignores generations of professional archeology carried out by actual archeologists (which she is not), and posits that “the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins” is a “pure political fabrication,” an “ideological assertion comparable to Arab claims of Canaanite or other ancient tribal roots.”

That may be El-Haj’s way of wanting to appraise the history of Israel, but it unfortunately flies in the face of all scholarship on the antiquities of Israel and Palestine, and would require that previous scholars and archeologists overlook facts and embrace her politically-shaped theory. In fact, Diana Muir and Avigail Appelbaum, two Barnard graduates who wrote a review of her book, feel that the “outrageous nature of this demand is breathtaking. Not only does Abu El- Haj take upon herself the privilege of dismissing large bodies of evidence, she demands that other scholars ignore or deliberately distort evidence to conform to her political bias.”

Of course, “distorting evidence to conform to political bias” is ubiquitous amid Palestinian propagandists, who, along with their apologists in the West, have assiduously attempted to rewrite a historical narrative with themselves as an indigenous people and Israelis as European colonial usurpers with no real connection to the land of what became Israel. So to overcome that inconvenient set of facts, El-Haj contends, Israeli-directed archeology took it upon itself to sift through a past rich with Muslim relics, but ignored them, and looked for, identified, and recorded only those findings which confirmed a historical Jewish connection to the land. “The work of archaeology in Palestine/Israel is a cardinal institutional location for the ongoing practice of colonial nationhood,” El-Haj writes with the politicized syntax of her ideological mentor, Columbia’s Edward Said, “producing facts through which historical-national claims, territorial transformations, heritage objects, and historicities [sic] ‘happen.’”

The problem with coming up with a book of archeology which defies logic and history, as El-Haj has done here, of course, is that one would have to condemn or marginalize the work of all archeologists in the field whose work had formed the basis of the historical record she is determined to negate. One of the reasons that critics oppose her being granted tenure at Barnard is precisely because she has defamed noted professionals in the field, based on anonymous sources and anecdotal evidence for which she offers the thinnest bits of evidence. In fact, one of El-Haj’s fellow professors at Barnard, Alan F. Segal, Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies, recently took her to task in an op-ed in the Columbia Spectator for what he perceived to be one of her severest scholarly offenses: “that Israelis deliberately mislabel Christian sites as Jewish and tear down churches . . [and] that they use bull-dozers to level sites and wipe out evidence of Palestinian habitation.” Professor Segal finds the assertion that bulldozers have been used in “contemporary archeology” to be El-Haj’s “most outrageous charge,” not only because Israeli archeologists are fastidious in methodology and practice, but also, given what is happening currently atop the Temple Mount itself—one of the world’s richest archeological and historical sites—it is something that the Waqf, not the Israelis, should have to answer for.

Many will remember, for instance, the howls of outrage that arose from the Arab world in February 2007 when Israeli authorities initiated a project to rebuild a ramp to the Mugrabi Gate, an entrance to the Temple Mount plaza and the Al Aqsa Mosque platform that had been damaged in an earlier storm. Riots and protests began immediately, with accusations against Israel coming from throughout the Arab world for its “scheme” and treachery in digging under and threatening to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque itself. The committee of Muslim scholars in Jordan's Islamic Action Front, for one, "urge[d] . . . proclaiming jihad to liberate Al Aqsa and save it from destruction and sabotage from Jewish usurpers," a spurious claim since construction was taking place well outside the Mount platform, some 100 meters from the mosque, and clearly posed no possible threat.

So while riots ensued when Israelis initiated a carefully supervised reconstruction project near the Temple Mount, the Muslim guardians of the Judaism’s holiest site have felt no compunction in brutally gouging the historic surfaces when it suits their own purposes, either currently as they create a deep trench, or as they did in 1999 when they opened a gaping hole—in what is known as Solomon’s Stables—18,000 square feet in area and 36 feet deep, for new mosques. Most seriously, 13,000 tons of rubble from that criminal dig, containing rich archeological remnants from the First and Second Temple periods, was scattered clandestinely in the Kidron valley dump without any professional archeological oversight and before experts could evaluate any unearthed items of significance.

The Arab world’s own complicity in playing fast and loose with history, and obscuring the actual “facts on the ground” in their attempt to create a historical narrative conforming to their political agenda, makes El-Haj’s accusations against Israeli archeologist all the more disingenuous. “The claim that Israel practices ‘bulldozer archaeology,’” notes Ralph Harrington, “is an explosive one and draws on images of ideologically-driven Israeli destructiveness that are deeply rooted in contemporary Palestinian perceptions,” but it is explosive because it is part of a pattern of lies. In yet another example of “turnspeak,” the Arab world has accused Israel of the misdeeds, lies about history, and destruction of a nationhood that they themselves are committing. It is part of a relentless and continuing effort to delegitimize Israel and finally eliminate it through a false historical narrative that is repeated in Palestinian schoolbooks, in sermons, in the Arab press, in Middle Eastern study centers at universities, and in the politicized scholarship and dialogue generated by Israel-haters, anti-Semites, and Palestinian apologists around the world.

"At the heart of this . . . is a monstrous lie," says professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno, Bruce Thornton, “the airbrushing of Jews from the history of Jerusalem, an Orwellian rewriting of history started by the Arabs and abetted by some politicized Western scholars.” That is the core problem with Facts on the Ground—that it is not a scholarly attempt to shed light on the rich archeological history of the Levant at all. Instead, it is ideology parading as scholarship; it is the work of a dilettante who is not an archeologist, never visited a dig, reads no Hebrew, and used anonymous sources and anecdotal evidence as the foundation of her research to craft what Haaretz columnist Nadav Shragai called a “tissue of lies” about Israeli archeologists, who, perhaps lacking the political motivations that so clearly subsume El-Haj’s own work, in fact uncovered the true facts on the ground that shape the uninterrupted 3000-year Jewish presence in the land that became Israel.

Related Links

  • Nadia Abu El-Haj: Whatever her opinions her methods are not shoddy, as alleged, says scholar

  • Richard Silverstein: Barnard Alumni Cabal Opposes Tenure

  • Richard Silverstein: Lies and distortions of the campaign against Abu El-Haj