Nadia Abu El-Haj: Reservations about her approach to history

Historians in the News

Re: REVIEW OF NADIA ABU EL-HAJ, FACTS ON THE GROUND: Archaeological Practice and Terriorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

... whatever the specific facts, the way Abu El-Haj presents her arguments sometimes fall into patterns that raise concerns.

She has been widely criticized for her use of anonymous sources, and she does cite these an awful lot. In many cases she is telling an anecdote or relating that someone expressed an opinion and it makes little difference who said it (e.g., pp. 199, 211, 212, 236, 251, 252). But other cases involve testimony about important matters and serious accusations and it does seem inappropriate that these should be anonymous. Examples are the eyewitness testimony to details of the Israeli demolition of the Maghariba Quarter (p. 165); the accusation by an archaeologist that a "right-wing colleague" "was constantly labeling Christian sites Jewish" (p. 233); an archaeologist reporting on encounters with haredim at certain archaeological digs (p. 258); archaeologists giving contrasting views of the situation regarding the haredim and archaeology (pp. 260-62, 263); the anonymous accusation concerning the use of the bulldozer at Jezreel (p. 306 n. 12); and the accusation that at an unnamed excavation bones were excavated from a Muslim cemetery and not recorded and that anonymous volunteers reported that this had also happened in the previous season (p. 318 n. 17). Note also the claim of the author that clearly non-Jewish human remains were hidden on an excavation on which she participated, but she does not not say which excavation (p. 268).

There is also some argument by insinuation. Conclusions by others are presented in such a way that we seem to be expected to assume they are wrong, but the reasons for rejecting them are never spelled out, nor are corrections and better readings of the evidence offered. These include the skeptical references to "Israelite" pottery and architecture on p. 118; to Herodian architecture on pp. 134-35; to "Israelite" Jerusalem in the late Iron Age on pp. 138-39; and references to the comments of Amnon Ben Tor and others about the logic of Jewish interest in ancient Israel and the perceived Arab lack of interest in their past on pp. 252-53. This is really a matter of tone, but the tone in these passages is unhelpful.

To conclude, Facts on the Ground makes some interesting observations about how nationalism and politics have fed into and fed off of Israeli archaeology. But these observations are offered in the context of an extreme perception of Israel as a colonial state, and I suspect that, whatever readers think of this viewpoint, the book's tendenz is so transparent that no one's mind will be changed one way or another by reading it. When it talks about things I know about, it consistently slants the presentation of the evidence according to this tendenz so that the conclusions are predictable and not very interesting. This book makes no contribution to the archaeology of ancient Palestine or what it can tell us about the history of ancient Israel. Others can decide whether the book makes a contribution in some other area.

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