With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Was Nadia Abu El Haj Treated Fairly?

Last week it was announced that Nadia Abu El Haj, a professor in the anthropology departments of Barnard College, New York, and its parent institution, Columbia University, had been awarded tenure. Such news from the world of academe would rarely make much of a public splash, but this had been no ordinary tenure process.

In 2001 Abu El Haj had her first and, so far, only book published by Chicago University Press. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society is an anthropology of archaeological practice. At its heart is an analysis of the process through which the science of archaeology as conceived and practiced in Israel has contributed to legitimizing through the construction of nationhood an illegitimate, non-national, colonial entity: the State of Israel.

Between 2003 and 2007 this book became the focus of an Internet-based controversy. Supporters of Israel condemned her arguments and her scholarship; a petition was raised demanding that she be denied tenure; Facts on the Ground was chewed over on countless blogs and websites and Abu El Haj’s words interpreted in countless contradictory ways.

Professor Abu El Haj can have little reason to feel that her first book has been ignored; but it cannot have been pleasant to have ones work called 'crank scholarship’ and 'a corruption of honest fact,' and to be described oneself as 'fraudulent,' a 'charlatan anthropologist,' and even 'a classic racist.' Nadia Abu El Haj also has the unenviable distinction of having her own personal name taken and registered as the Internet domain for a site dedicated to attacking her and damaging her reputation and her career; she is perhaps the first person who is not a politician or a convicted criminal to have been subjected to this disreputable treatment.

There are good reasons to feel uneasy about the form taken by the campaign against Nadia Abu El Haj. My own view is that to be a scholar is to have in  some degree a public role, and that one should be prepared for the public discussion of one’s work, for disagreement and argument, but that such discourse must remain civil if it is to be useful, and that many of Nadia Abu El Haj’s critics went beyond what was acceptable in their criticism and the language in which it was couched. That does not mean, however, that the criticisms themselves were entirely baseless. I would certainly argue that Facts on the Ground is a tendentious and flawed piece of work.

This does not mean it is therefore unscholarly. Taken on its own terms, Facts on the Ground is a work of scholarship. It is an anthropological study, and it is unfair to criticize it as if it was a work of archaeology or history. The use of anonymous sources, something which has brought Abu El Haj much criticism, is accepted practice in anthropology (although various protocols govern its use [Awad, 933], and it is to be hoped that Abu El Haj followed these, particularly given the controversial nature of her material).

Political commitment is also often clearer in anthropology than in, for example, history. Since the 1960s anthropology has been working off its guilt at having been, in its early history, implicated in colonialism and western domination. As a result it has shown a tendency to espouse radical political and social positions and to ally itself with 'disciplines, such as cultural studies, and theoretical approaches, such as post-colonialism, that did not carry anthropology’s original sin of cooperation with colonialism’(Ribeiro, 371). Facts on the Ground carries all the hallmarks of this brand of anthropology: it is avowedly post-colonial, after the style of Edward Said, and is committed to a radically skeptical post-modernism. Understood on those terms – and personally I have little sympathy with either of these approaches – it is not a shoddy piece of scholarship per se, although there are some unsatisfactory aspects to the ways her arguments are put together (James Davila, in his excellent scholarly review of the book, highlights her use of 'argument by insinuation’, for example).

In some of her published work Abu El Haj shows her ability to make careful and judicious use of primary source material and to engage in balanced and thoughtful argument (e.g. Abu El Haj 1998 and 2002); elsewhere a shallow polemicism shows through (e.g. Abu El Haj 2003 and 2005). The Duke University PhD thesis from which the book was derived is, according to the accounts of those who have read it, in the former category; Facts on the Ground itself is firmly in the latter. What gives the book its polemical quality above all is Abu El Haj’s particular emphasis on the colonial character of Israel – an emphasis that has implications for the attitude the book takes to the legitimacy of both the Israeli state and the Jewish people.

The purpose of her book, she writes, is to analyse 'the significance of archaeology to the Israeli state and society and the role it played in the formation and enactment of its colonial-national-historical imagination and in the substantiation of its territorial claims’ (Abu El Haj 2001, 2; henceforth references to Facts on the Ground will simply consist of the page numbers in brackets). The colonial and the national must be considered together, she writes, if Israel, and the role archaeology has played in Israel, is to be properly understood:

Rather than analytically arguing for Zionism’s colonial or national dimensions or, as is also common in scholarship on Israeli society, effacing the colonial question altogether, I insist on the articulation of the colonial and national projects.(4)

And, as we have seen, she does indeed literally articulate them: 'colonial-national-historical imagination.'

Interpreting Israel as a colonial, an inherently colonizing, entity, is not unproblematic, because it does not fit the colonizing model. Colonial America was subject to Britain; to what is Israel subject? There is no clear centre-periphery relationship, for Israel rules itself. It is its own centre and periphery, its own colony and metropole. Abu El Haj recognizes this problem:

In contrast to other settler colonies, however, there never was an actual metropole for Jewish settlers in Palestine … the projects of settlement and of nation-building developed at one and the same time on a single colonial terrain … Palestine and Israel – the colony and the metropole – were, and are, the same place …(5)

This acceptance that the supposed colony is also the colonizers’ metropole would seem to undercut the whole notion that Israel is a colony at all. One of the identifying characteristics of a settler colony is that the colonizers can go back where they originally came from – a notion that becomes less tenable as the settler generations pass, but that remains potent, particularly to opponents of the 'settler’ presence (Northern Ireland provides a notable example). But if there is no home nation to which they can return, how can they be considered colonizers at all in any realistic sense? Abu El Haj’s answer to this is that the whole notion of a Jewish nation is flawed. Israel is a Jewish state, but the Jews are not a nation; they are a religion. She makes this point explicitly:

Zionism was born in Europe in the late nineteenth century and was fashioned within the terms and logics of European nationalism … The Jewish state, however, was not established in Europe itself, but rather on the colonial periphery. Agitating ultimately for the 'return’ of the Jews to Palestine (a place long resonant in Jewish religious practice and life), for the purpose of establishing a sovereign state, Zionism in effect furnished a political solution for Europe’s 'Jewish question' … The Jewish state was founded in a territory under colonial dominion. It was the British who first promised Palestine to the Jews as their national home, a pledge that ultimately precluded the possibility of its indigenous Arab inhabitants (some of whom were Jews) achieving sovereignty during the process of decolonisation to come.(4)

I take three essential points from the foregoing. First, the idea of Jewish nationhood is a creation of the Zionist movement, which patterned its claim for a sovereign Jewish state on the prevailing European notions of nationalism. Second, the significance of Palestine as the Jewish homeland amounts to no more than the place being 'resonant' in Jewish culture. Third, any Jews who lived in Palestine before the establishment of Israel were in fact Arabs. There is thus is a religion of Judaism, but there is no Jewish people and there can be no Jewish nation:

In the context of Palestine and Israel, religion as a marker of persistent colonial difference is only accentuated. Israel’s 'national majority,’ after all, was and is a religious group remade (emancipated in the context of Europe) by transforming religious difference into national form.(235)

Once this aspect of the Abu El Haj thesis becomes clear, her interpretation of the role of Jewish archaeology also emerges with greater clarity. The critics who have argued that Facts on the Ground rejects the existence of ancient Jewish states in the land that is now Israel are, in a sense, missing the point. It would not matter whether those states had existed or not: their significance in the development of Jewish nationhood would in any case be nil, because there is no such thing. Hence assertions such as:

As a nationalist tradition, Israeli archaeology did far more than dig in search of evidence of an ancient Israelite and Jewish past embedded in the land. It was driven by an epistemology that assumed nations, itself embedded in a specific conception of what history is, including the significant events of which it is made …(3)

In insisting that the colonial is considered as part of the national, Abu El Haj is not merely saying that there is a colonial dimension to Israel; she is arguing that the colonial is all there is, for any claim that there is a genuine Jewish nationhood that is expressed through Zionism and through the state of Israel is false.

Those critics who saw in Facts on the Ground a work intrinsically hostile to Israel were, in my judgement, correct. That does not justify all the accusations that were made against its author, nor all the tactics that were used by those seeking to damage her, even to silence her; but it can be argued that the high-profile controversy over Nadia Abu El Haj has brought the partisan and politicized state of academic middle east studies in the United States to the attention of the wider community.

Nadia Abu El Haj has been granted tenure, which – regardless of her individual merits – is a good outcome for anyone who believes that professorship by plebiscite is a bad idea and that academic independence is a vital principle whether you agree with all the results or not. But such decisions tend to confirm the impression that Middle East Studies in the U.S. can simply be equated to anti-Israel studies, and this can only lead to a loss of credibility for the field and for academia as a whole.


Nadia Abu El Haj, 'Translating truths: nationalism, archaeological practice and the remaking of past and present in contemporary Jerusalem’, American Ethnologist, vol. 25, no. 2 (May 1998), pp. 166-188.

Nadia Abu El Haj, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001).

Nadia Abu El Haj, 'Producing (arti)facts: archaeology and power during the British Mandate of Palestine, Israel Studies, vol. 7, no. 2 (summer 2002), pp. 33-61.
Nadia Abu El Haj, 'Reflections on archaeology and Israeli settler-nationhood’, Radical History Review, no. 86 (spring 2003), pp. 149-163.

Nadia Abu El Haj, 'Edward Said and the political present’, American Ethnologist, vol. 32, no. 4 (November 2005), pp. 538-555.

Isabel Awad, 'Journalists and their sources’, Journalism Studies, vol. 7, no. 6 (Dec 2006), pp. 922-39.

James R. Davila, review of Facts on the Ground at PaleoJudaica.

Gustavo Lins Ribeiro, 'World anthropologies: cosmopolitics for a new global scenario in anthropology,’ Critique of Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 4 (2006), pp. 313-386.