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Some Professional Observations on the Controversy about Nadia Abu El-Haj’s First Book
PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 21, 2007
I did not want to talk about this controversy at first, especially while it was being decided at Barnard. That stage of the scrutiny is now over and the introductory paragraphs of the recent opposing Internet petitions show that plenty of bad faith is being exercised on both sides. That is what I want to address. The academy is not in danger from the Internet. Neither academic freedom nor freedom of speech are being eroded by outside discussions of this controversial book, though a great deal of the discussion seems to me to be simply uninformed. Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj has been accorded all the privileges given to every other faculty member, including choice of what to teach. The tenure procedures are going on as scheduled and I doubt that the Internet is having a negative effect on them. If anything, some faculty falsely think that academic freedom is under siege at Barnard and hence have increased their sympathy for the candidate. But the Internet is not the only enemy of reason in this battle. Barnard’s Appointments, Tenure, and Promotion committee is elected and faculty elections can be decided by very small groups of people acting as provocateurs. Nor does that completely describe the possible ways in which this decision could have been affected by undisclosed personal biases. Even the confidential letter writers can be chosen and weighted to advocate for a specific outcome, as anyone who has served on tenuring committees knows. The result is that this particular tenure case is just as debatable for incidents and prejudices within our walls as outside it.
I have not made a secret of my opposition to this candidacy and, as a result, I too have had to deal with hurtful and prejudicial statements, mostly from within our community. But my objections have not been well understood by my colleagues. I have been labeled a fascist and an instigator, unfair to junior faculty, and the organizer of the opposition against her. I have also been directly accused by a person in some responsibility at Barnard of making a death threat against professor Nadia Abu El-Haj. Many have told me that I only oppose her because I am Jewish or because I feel I must represent the wishes of the Jewish community. None of these charges have any truth to them at all. But it has shown me that the Internet is not the only place to find inanities. We need to be more circumspect about our own discourse and polemics. So I welcome this chance to clarify my perspective.
Let me address only two of the issues that have been raised in this discussion: the notion that everyone who opposes Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj is a rightist engaging in a witch-hunt and the equally difficult notion that the central issue about professor Nadia Abu El-Haj’s book on Israeli archaeology is her knowledge of modern Hebrew, one important issue from each side of the Internet discussion.
The issue is not only whether professor Abu El-Haj speaks Hebrew well enough to interview, or reads it well enough to understand scholarly arguments, assimilate them, and generalize about the value of Israeli archaeology. Literary skills are plainly much more advanced and important in this case than speaking skills. Perhaps she has read the newspapers in Hebrew, even though there are perfectly good English Web sites for all the newspapers she quotes, or spoken Hebrew to Israeli archaeologists, who regularly speak English to the volunteers in any case. She does make some simple mistakes in Hebrew at several important places in her book, especially in the chapters on Hebrew place names, but also including one that affects her conclusions about Israelis secularizing ancient concepts. Contrary to her opinion, “bayyit” does mean “temple” in ancient Hebrew: “the Hebrew terms secularizing in their effect insofar as the word ‘temple’ is absent” (p. 132). In any case, in her dissertation, on which the book is based, she states that most of her interviews were conducted in English or Arabic.
A parallel issue is her inability to deal with written sources: A book about Israeli archaeology, however abstract or sophisticated its theory may allegedly be, must be about archaeology done by Israelis, and must involve reading many books and articles in Israeli journals of archaeology but, pace Lisa Wedeen, chair of the political science department at the University of Chicago and scholar of the modern Middle East, there are too few Hebrew archaeological articles or books in her bibliography. There are few enough to wonder about the basis for her judgments about Israeli archaeology. I realize that there are other important issues in the book but this deficit must certainly be a crucial one.
In support of her thesis, professor Abu El-Haj presents Israeli archaeology as monolithic. She is either unaware, or simply does not tell her readers how fractious Israeli scholarship is, in general, or how impossible it is to come to any positive opinion or consensus about what Israelis think on any subject, ancient or modern. When she cites an Israeli archaeologist, she rarely cites any opponents but they are never lacking in Israeli journal literature. Also, one of her most trusted sources is an American writer on archaeology—a good writer, I think—but neither an archaeologist nor an Israeli and, hence, of limited use to her argument. She should disclose this, as she repeatedly relies on him in reaching her conclusions but does not alert her readers to the limitations of using him as a source. Perhaps she is unaware that he is an American science writer, a popularizer (an important skill for reaching non professional audiences), and not a practicing archaeologist? But she should be mindful and make the reader aware of his predilection for some scholars and against others, not merely accept his judgments without comment.
But the most important issue is how she handles evidence in general, and this concern manifests itself in several areas. One locus of her failure is the anonymity of her sources. A Barnard anthropologist in the religion department, roughly a decade ago, was turned down for tenure, in large part because of arguments from the anthropology department: She protected the identity of her major informant with a false name, even though she produced the “anonymous” person (who lectured at the college and answered all the questions of the search committee). At the time, the anthropology department was quite intransigent on this point. Now they are equally intransigent on the other side. A revolution in scholarly methodology? Let us not raise the implication of bias, only inconsistency. But I know for a fact that some very effective lobbyists for professor Abu El-Haj, associated with Barnard’s anthropology department, did not even read her book until after the Barnard consideration was over.
A statement supported by one, anonymous, oral report is an unsupported statement, and several of such statements are crucial to professor Abu El-Haj’s conclusions: that Israelis deliberately mislabel Christian sites as Jewish and tear down churches (p. 233, among others); that they use bull-dozers to level sites and wipe out evidence of Palestinian habitation (pp. 148, 153, 157). No respectable journalist would publish on the basis of one anonymous report and, if these were actually supportable, they would not have escaped notice for long in field reports or archaeological discussions, which can be quite vituperative in Israel. Israeli archaeologists have no fear of criticizing each other and are extremely talented writers, being literate in several languages. It’s hard to believe any secret that could be bandied about to a hostile stranger reporter would avoid disclosure somewhere in their very argumentative journals and books.
Her most outrageous charge—that bulldozers are being used in contemporary archaeology (p. 148)—has been proven false by the field reports and the testimony of David Usshishkin, the person in charge of the Jezreel dig during the time in question and a very well known archaeologist with an impeccable reputation. What was used was a power arm, a much smaller and more refined instrument, perfectly acceptable in salvage digs as this sector was. (Incidentally, there was no Arab evidence at all in the sector in question.)
The chair of the anthropology department at Barnard (whose father, apparently, was once a bulldozer-using archaeologist) assured me that the difference between a power arm and a bulldozer is trivial. I do not think the difference trivial today, if it ever was. There is a huge difference between a giant leveling blade and a manipulatable, very small, power digging instrument but it is professor Abu El-Haj who emphasizes the importance of the use of bulldozers (p. 148-9). A great deal of the argument of the book depends on the charge being right as rain. But it is false, even misleading. The field reports bear out the Israeli archaeologist, not her. And if this is so in this extremely important case, should we not suspect that there are other egregious mistakes in her other single-sourced, anonymous, oral reporting—especially as the anonymous charges do not appear in the dissertation, the document which was vetted by a distinguished and responsible committee at Duke?
A larger and more pervasive issue concerns her inability to make judgments in biblical history. Her claims have been characterized by supporters in Spectator as follows: “Professor Abu El-Haj’s disputed book made the argument that the state of Israel, like many other modern states, seeks legitimacy from ancient history at a damaging cost.” This statement severely understates the claims of the book but it is a more accurate description of her dissertation, upon which the book was based. For the book, her further claims are that the production of Israeli archaeological knowledge is uniquely fanciful, more than other national archaeological schools, due to their colonial settler mentality, and that Israeli archaeologists perforce uniquely produce far more themselves than the evidence allows because they are citizens of this colonial settler state. This is announced at the very beginning of the book and is hard to miss: “the colonial dimension of Jewish settlement in Palestine cannot be sidelined if one is to understand the significance and consequences of archaeological practice...” (p. 4). I am only quoting a small portion of her discussion there, which goes on for some pages with further arguments about the added and uniquely colonial nature of Israeli archaeology, among other things.
Most pointedly, professor Abu El-Haj feels that there was no good evidence of Israelite occupation of the area before Israeli archaeologists did their work. She characterizes Israeli archaeologists as disguising myth as history: “the mythical character of the biblical narratives is effaced” (p. 127), as an example or “a tale best understood as the modern nation’s origin myth was transported into the realm of history” (p. 104) as another. She ignores the possibility that the archaeologists may have been trying in good faith to ascertain what was historical, given their data and historical context. As she makes these claims she footnotes specific scholars from a particular school of biblical scholarship—“the biblical minimalists” (e.g., see reference to Thomas Thompson on p. 127). A person unfamiliar with biblical scholarship might miss the import of these references but the implication is clear. Professor Abu El-Haj has necessarily made some radical assumptions about what biblical history actually tells us.
When it comes to what can actually be known about Israelite occupation of the land, professor Abu El-Haj makes almost exclusive use of these biblical minimalists, no more than a handful of scholars really, out of the thousands at work in the world. Many of my colleagues at Barnard seem to believe that the biblical minimalism controversy describes fundamentalists on one side with rational discourse about the Bible on the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Biblical minimalism concerns the nature of the evidence for Israelite presence in Canaan during First Temple times (ca. 950-587 B.C.E.). Being a biblical minimalist is not a crime; but the school is often consciously infused with modern Middle Eastern politics in ways that are hard to ignore.
Nevertheless, biblical scholars regularly read them, accept some small part of what they claim, and reject most other parts. Their questions, if not their answers, are always interesting. Professor Abu El-Haj frequently uses their most extreme conclusions about archaeology uncritically as proof that Israelis tell us more than the archaeological record shows. None of the minimalist scholars she relies upon for this purpose is actually a working archaeologist or an Israeli, though there are Israeli minimalist archaeologists, who mostly disagree with her.
But how could professor Abu El-Haj possibly make a decision about the claims of biblical scholars or archaeologists in the First Temple period? To make an independent, informed judgment, she would need to know not modern Hebrew conversation, but ancient Hebrew literature, and for the First Temple Period, which is her particular target, also Aramaic, Ugaritic (a significant Canaanite language), certainly all the many and significant North West Semitic epigraphy (inscriptions) relevant to this period, comparative Semitic grammar and syntax, comparative literary studies in Akkadian and Egyptian, and biblical stylistics. These credentials are in no way unusual for graduate students in Bible, and many of them also study far more exotic languages—like Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite or Sumerian—as well as develop an understanding of ancient Near Eastern culture and history. There are literally hundreds of inscriptions from the First Temple period, together giving much interesting and debated evidence of an ethnicity called Israel who worship a divinity called YHWH. The most important and longest of these inscriptions were discovered in the 19th and early 20th century, considerably before there was any country called Israel or any significant Israeli archaeology. In fact, one major and effective argument against the biblical minimalists is that they cannot adequately explain away this inscriptional evidence. She herself never engages the basic issues concerning the Merneptah Stela, the Moabite Stela, the Siloam Inscription, the Tel Dan Inscription, the evidence from seals and bullae or any of the important inscriptional finds but they speak strongly against her conclusions about ancient Israel. She has only disputed one ethnic identifier for Israel—collared rim pottery—but ignored several others: theophoric names, evidence of circumcision, the presence or absence of pig bones, stone jars and later, immersion pools, depictions of ritually important plants, depictions of ritual objects or the Temple or biblical scenes like the sacrifice of Isaac. As a result, she believes that Israel was not an historical presence in the land but a myth. Biblical minimalists normally stop disputing this at the beginning of the Second Temple period but she often appears to push it further, even to the time of Jesus.
Professor Abu El-Haj makes major judgments about the Jewish character of Jerusalem in New Testament times, including that Herodian Jerusalem was not a Jewish city, a most extreme opinion (p. 175-176). She also says that Jerusalem was not a Jewish city after the destruction of the Jewish state because Jews were in the minority during much of its recent history. Would she then consider that the old city of Jerusalem is not now an Arab city because Arabs are now a minority there? These are not casual observations but critical ones, logically necessary to her analysis of the errors of Israeli archaeological museums. By rights, to come to these conclusions she should also be familiar with ancient classical historians, Syriac and Greek, Josephus, Philo, and New Testament scholarship, to say nothing about early rabbinic literature and possibly Latin language and literature. Other than the odd quotation from Josephus, there is little evidence of this either. Without engaging these bodies of knowledge she has no grounds for siding with a bare logical possibility about the events which produced “The Burnt House,” for example, against the consensus of international, not just Israeli, scholarship (p. 145).
Without many of these tools, she could not make a judgment about even a footnote or a textual reading in a biblical minimalist article, to say nothing of one of their many conflicting histories of biblical times, Old Testament or New. She merely takes only those statements which most agree with her own tenuous contentions, and that is something that no Bible scholar, no anthropologist, and no archaeologist should ever do.
But she has no choice: pretty much every other one of the virtually countless theories about Israelite settlement in First Temple times would disprove her hypothesis about Israeli archaeology. Not only does she not know these fields, but she does not tell her readers about them, or why they are necessary, or how decisions are actually made in biblical studies. So, it is no wonder that anthropologists, who cannot be expected to know these disciplines either, so easily go along with her. Nor can they be expected to know that her Palestinian claims to the lands of Jebusites (Jerusalem) and other Canaanites, for example, depend solely on the very Bible whose historicity she has just impugned and that all known records of these people list them as separate ethnicities (pp. 258-272).
I am not a member of the right wing in Israel or the United States or in Bible scholarship and I sympathize with the desire to have a diverse faculty. Professor Abu El-Haj appears to be an estimable candidate for tenure: a woman who likes to study her field in an interdisciplinary way and identifies herself as a member of a minority persecuted by various peoples in the world, by no means only by Israelis. But she is also, I think, an American citizen and certainly from a prosperous family, which gives her many advantages over her more unfortunate fellow Palestinians. Her identity and her far less polemical dissertation have benefited her in academic life. It is no wonder she has received so many prizes and honors and it is no wonder that so many Barnard faculty are for her candidacy without ever having read a word of her work or understood her lack of preparation for judging issues in biblical studies. It makes sense. We should be looking for people like her.
But the issue in a tenure scrutiny must be focused on the quality of the work. My opinion comes after having read her dissertation and her book carefully, after having served for six years on Barnard’s ATP committee, and after having been a chair myself, charged with preparing cases in my department, as well as being professionally interested in the fields she needs to make her case. My judgment is “No.” Her theory of the production of knowledge in science based on archaeology in Israel is worth little without clear substantiating data. The book is so tendentious that even were a second book-length manuscript available, which one normally expects in this field for tenure in our university, it would probably not change my judgment. Why should we be stampeded into tenuring her, just because there has been negative discussion of her work on the Internet? Ironically, she would have been more successful if she published her dissertation as it is. I respect her desire to add a whole new dimension to her work since her dissertation but it is clear to me that the whole enterprise was unsuccessful.
My negative evaluation has nothing to do with her ethnic identity, her gender, or even her opinions about modern Israel. Some people will disbelieve me but those people are essentializing me to dismiss the evidence without considering it. All the characteristics of her identity and development are reasons to have her on campus. A whiff of controversy, however, should not be fanned into a conflagration of prejudice guaranteeing her tenure. We all live in the Internet age and have to face the consequences. My reasons for turning her down are professional, not political. They have everything to do with her inability to deal in any scholarly way with her stated data. Her book has already been shown as insufficient and biased research by many published reviews from very competent Bible scholars and archaeologists, some of whom have been vilified and ignored for extraneous reasons. There would be many more such reviews if the book were better known among Bible scholars. How could any of this be good for teaching or for the scholarly reputation of Barnard? Columbia should take notice too. This is no time to compromise with hotheads of either side.
The author is the Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the sentence "...but, pace Lisa Wedeen, chair of the political science department at the University of Chicago and scholar of the modern Middle East, there are too few Hebrew archaeological articles or books in her bibliography..." originally read "...according to Lisa Wedeen..." In fact, in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wedeen praised Abu El-Haj's work as being "replete with Hebrew sources, both written and oral."
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