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

[Daniel Martin Varisco is Chair, Anthropology Department at Hofstra University.]

As an individual in Academe who has already achieved the career-defining rite of pedagogical passage known as “tenure,” the issue of a fellow scholar potentially being denied tenure in a highly politicized media campaign becomes an issue of concern. I am not so puffed up to think that tenure status is ipso facto a mark of praiseworthy expertise. There are far too many examples out there of professors who are not any better for having been collegially granted a life sentence or who drop out of publishing and professional sight once they are “in.” Some use the bestowed honor to promote their own partisan views at the expense of teaching others by example to enhance critical thinking. But one thing that I do find sacred about the status is that it is necessarily judged in the local academic context. If one’s peers and administrative lords agree that a certain professor deserves tenure, then so be it. It is not as though a pope is being elected to shepherd the whole flock. Outside interference is indeed interference, especially when the deliberated judgments of a range of responsible individuals at a major college are being challenged.

One current case at Barnard College has hit the media, a rarity except when an outside group has a strong partisan bias. This is the case of Nadia Abu El-Haj, who teaches anthropology. The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education have both reported the case. Professor Abu El-Haj’s application for tenure has been approved through the level of the college president. But as part of Columbia University, it still must be authorized up the chain of command. Having failed to derail El-Haj’s tenure within the system, there is now a petition to pressure Columbia to overrule the decision made within Barnard. As counterpoint there is an opposing petition online that defends the Barnard professor.

The attempts to force Professor Abu El-Haj out of Barnard did not begin overnight. She was targeted on blogs almost from the start of publication of her controversial book, including postings on Front Page and Campus Watch, which has mounted a campaign against Columbia scholars it brands as anti-Semitic in a most unbecoming way. It would seem that since Edward Said, the Palestinian intellectual who was a major target of the pro-Israel lobby, has passed away, the sights have been set on any academic Palestinian (Abu El-Haj or Joseph Massoud, for example) who speaks her or his mind about the conflict. Given that I have never heard of any organized media campaign to deny tenure to a professor who was fully supportive of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, this current attempt continues the “blaming the victim” approach that online lobby groups like Campus Watch and Jihad Watch paradigmatically pursue.

It is important to separate the issue of Professor Abu El-Haj’s tenure from the reception of her first book on Israeli archaeology as an ideological discourse. First of all, tenure is rarely based on one book, especially if it is a revised Ph.D. thesis. The criteria certainly include scholarship, but also the full range of scholarly activities (articles, professional papers, book reviews), service to the college and profession, teaching evaluations and awards that the candidate achieves during the tenure candidancy. In this case, it should be noted, Professor Abu El-Haj was hired by Barnard after her first book was already in print. It is also a book that has received a prestigious award from the Middle East Studies Association. Regardless of the controversial aspects of her thesis and the disagreement over her methodology (primarily from those outside her own discipline of anthropology), the decision to grant tenure to this candidate should be judged the way it would for any other scholar: internally and based on the total criteria her department and college require.

Having said that, there is the issue of Facts on the Ground, the book that has created so much antagonism. There are a number of reviews of her book available, but most are partisan and written by individuals who have a strong view either for or against. By this, I note that the positive reviews tend to come from individuals in anthropology or cultural studies or post-colonial studies who know very little about the history of archaeological research in Israel and negative reviews tend to come from Israeli archaeologists, who as a discursive group are criticized in her book. Favorable reviews are noted on Professor El-Haj’s website. Examples of those who are extremely critical are Aren Maeir in the journal ISIS, Jacob Lassner at Northwestern, Alexander H. Joffe of Purchase College for the Journal of Near Eastern Studies and Diana Muir & Avigail Appelbaum posted on History News Network. The problem is that most readers of Facts on the Ground know very little about the facts under the ground that “Biblical Archaeology” has brought to light in the past century and a half. Not surprisingly, there are distortions in the heated exchanges.

I have more than a passing interest in the thesis of Abu El-Haj, since I majored in “Biblical Archeology” as an undergraduate and wrote my M.A. at the University of Pennsylvania on the apologetic use of archaeology in fundamentalist and mainstream Christianity. Having just finished a critical study of Edward Said’s Orientalism (which Abu El-Haj follows in spirit), I am familiar with her theoretical approach as well as the history of archaeological research in the area. But any differences I (or anyone else) have over aspects of her interpretation have no bearing on her tenure case. She makes a cogent and documented argument, articulates her own theoretical and methodological principles and engages a topic that deserves an airing. Yes, she is Palestinian and yes she has a political perspective about the history of Israel and the ideology of Zionism. But criticism of her argument and her scholarship should not be based on her political or religious views (especially how these tend to be characterized by opponents). I suspect that there will be other scholars who address the issue. To the extent Abu El-Haj’s book has opened the debate, all the better.

I have read the book. Personally, I find the overall thesis weak and incomplete. Certainly archaeology became an ideological tool to promote Israeli nationalism and Zionism and some Israeli archaeologists made no secret of their interest in getting through the more recent (largely Islamic) layers to get down to the biblical and Roman materials. What I find lacking in the book is a comparative analysis of the vast amount of archaeological work done from a Christian theological perspective, especially fundamentalists and evangelicals who have worked on many sites both in Israel and Jordan. The earlier emphasis on excavating Bible history, which extended beyond the Palestine Exploration Fund, played against doctrinal debate over the rising acceptance of critical source analysis of the Bible. Colonel Conder’s remarks (p. 31) could have been contextualized in contrast to critics like William Robertson Smith, with whom he engaged in a spirited exchange of articles in a widely read English periodical. Or, take a British archaeologist like John Garstang. Abu el-Haj discusses him only in relation to his work on the site of Hazor. Yet, earlier Garstand dug at Jericho and made the infamous claim that the walls had fallen just as described in the book of Joshua. Apologetic Christian sites still hold on to that claim today, even though subsequent research by Kathleen Kenyon and more recent work by an Italian team demonstrates that Garstang was overstating his case. The notion that the only thing really worthwhile in the archaeological record was biblical (either OT or NT) preceded nationalist appropriation of the myth of ancient Israel in the glory days of David and Solomon. For biblical literalists (and Israeli archaeologists tend not to be) the historicity of ancient Israel cannot be a myth for it challenges their view of holy writ as inspired. There is an extensive literature on this and Abu El-Haj virtually ignores it. I suspect that the faulty and subjective methods attributed to certain Israeli archaeologists have been equally the case for those archaeologists coming from Christian seminaries. Ironically, Israeli archaeologists have been more critical of the historicity of biblical texts (which mythologize a kingdom of ancient Israel founded on an Abrahamic covenant) than their Christian counterparts.

A theoretical criticism I have with the overall approach to the subject is the overarching claim, now prominent in my own discipline, that anything labeled “science” and conducted during the colonial (and it would seem unreformed post-colonial) era is tainted knowledge. The archaeology described in Facts on the Ground is presented as a colonial discourse that was well adapted to a modern-day settler colony (as many see Israel). I do believe that this happened, but it also served a broader theological discourse in conservative Christianity that continues to the present day. Abu El-Haj recognizes the inherent danger in applying a label like “discourse.” I agree with her concluding call for a conceptual shift:

“In order to do so, it might be useful to shift the conceptual and methodologicval focus away from ‘discourse’, which has characterized much (post)colonial scholarship of late, and instead incorporate sustained analysis of other kinds of practices in which (social)scientists also engaged. First it might make more sense to approach ‘colonial discours(s)’ not in terms of the categories of knowledge that colonial officers and scholars made (what they ‘foundout’ [Hacking 1996:73]), but rather in terms of what they actually did. In other words, a detailed account of the actual practices of communities of (social) scientists, the institutions in which specific sciences were located and imbricated, and the ways in which that work articulated with other social fields and authors provides a different starting point for studies of the power of knowledge, one that allows us to consider more fully both the dynamics of scientific work and the actual networks through which that work helped to reshape social and political worlds.” (Abu El-Haj 2001:279-280).

The goal, which I think Abu El-Haj well articulates here, is to find out what actually goes on. All interpretations are not created equal. The issue is not whether science in the abstract or archaeology as a sum total of some field of knowledge is good or bad. There are scientists who practice sound methods and those who do not. We are all biased in one way or another, but the best scientists work through these biases and engage in civil debate. Facts on the Ground analyzes rhetoric and attempts to ground it through the author’s personal observations and interviews. There is nothing whatsoever shoddy about this. Whether or not you agree or disagree with her is what scholarly engagement and academic freedom are all about. I look forward to seeing my anthropological colleague Nadia Abu El-Haj at future anthropology meetings and as a tenured representative of Barnard, a nearby respected institution.

A final note. It seems that the final paragraph of her book has evoked the most visceral anger from critics. This is a reference to the attack on “Joseph’s Tomb” in Nablus in 2000 during the renewed intifada. Her point here is explaining “why it was that ‘thousands of Palestinians stormed the site’” (she quotes Ha’aretz for the story). In this passage she does not praise the act, nor say that it was justified. The point is that this tomb was more than just a tomb. Joseph is a revered figure for Christians and Muslims as well; indeed an entire chapter of the Quran tells the story of Joseph. So clearly it was not simply an attack on a Jewish icon. For Abu El-Haj this act was symbolic of the overall struggle that links the use of archaeological knowledge with current political acts (including the settlements). To insinuate that this is a stealth sidestep of anti-Semitism, as some of her critics have done, is unfair.

There are, of course, no facts on the ground. There are plenty under the ground waiting to be dug up, argued over in books, trussed up for tourists and put on display in museums. Once excavated, facts disappear and only interpretations can be seen. Some interpretations will have a greater fit with an assumed reality and it is this criterion alone that should be used to debate what any particular scholar argues. Bulldozing a tenure candidate because of her ethnicity or personal political views is as bad for the Academy as such a machine is for dirt archaeology.

Read entire article at Daniel Martin Varisco