Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Digging Up the Past

Archeology in Israel, besides being a national pastime, has been a continuing source of contentions. Since the creation of the state in 1948, the government, universities and even private institutions have sponsored numerous digs with the primary purpose of uncovering the physical evidence of earlier Jewish life in the land, especially in the Biblical and Mishnaic periods (10th century BCE to 3rd century CE). Some digs have neglected, even damaged earlier and later strata evidencing non-Jewish habitants. Since the Land of Israel is highly contested resl estate, archeology poses the question whose history is being dug up and the secondary one of who owns the findings.

The digs might be obstacles to peace at several levels. The historical narratives that have been woven around or extended by the artifacts tends to strengthen some Israelis commitment to the entire land of Israel, making any territorial division a very painful idea. That is particularly true of the excavations in and around Jerusalem and the controversies over the ancient city's size in Davidic times. A more pragmatic matter is the control of digs, since 1967, at numerous sites in what would likely be the territory of a Palestinian state and the status of artifacts removed from those sites to Israel government and museum collections. A recently publicized initiative started five years ago by Israeli, Palestinian and American archaeologists provides a basis for answering these questions. The group has secured records of over 6,000 excavations and the tens of thousands of artifacts found there. It has proposed that the artifacts be repatriated to the future Palestinian state, with museums and laboratories be built to house them. It proposes with regard to Jerusalem, a zone up to the city's 10th century CE boundaries, where excavation sites would be accessible to anyone and research would be fully transparent.

Although there will be many problems for this plan, including that of funding, should Israel and the Palestinians reach a two-state solution, initial responsea from communities of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists has been polite to favorable. The wonder is that a plan was reached at all. As could be expected where identity and cultural rights are the issues, early meetings of the group were described as tense and sometimes needed professional mediators.

A less productive struggle related to archeology in Israel concerned Nadia El-Haj's battle for tenure at Columbia University. El-Haj, the daughter of a Palestinian American, is a professor of anthropology whose dissertation turned into an award winning book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society(U. of Chicago, 2002). The book analyzes how the findings at sites are woven into historical narratives that validate the Jews' right to various parts of the Land of Israel. When El-Haj came up for tenure in 2006 at Columbia's Barnard College, an American Jewish West Bank settler and graduate of Barnard organized a petition drive against her. The petition claimed El-Haj's work was an academically worthless, anti-Israel screed. The petition gained considerable support from Jewish Columbia students, graduates and faculty, many of whom were totally unfamiliar with El-Haj's material and methods. It also attracted the attention of outside agitators who fancy themselves the arbiters of informed discussion of Israel in university campuses, viz., David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes and Charles Jacob, the head of the David Project. Many of El-Haj's colleagues, within and without Columbia, rallied to her support and she was awarded tenure in November, 2007. This battle continued a series of controversies and interventions by fired up Jewish groups regarding Palestinian scholars and advocates at Columbia, dating back to the late Edward Said's publication of Orientalism. By the way, El-Haj's title Facts on the Ground is a tremendously rich, mordant multiple entendre, based on the popular Israeli Hebrew expression Kve'at 'Uvdoth. Its choice attests to El-Haj's' knowledge of Hebrew, understanding of scientific practice, insight into the politics of culture and wariness of Israel.

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Blogger Judith Weingarten said...

While it's almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion about Facts on the Ground , most archaeologists have called El-Haj out on many a ludicrous error and very unscientific biases. Just one example:Archaeologists have "created the fact of an ancient Israelite/Jewish nation," where none actually existed, all those city walls and bullae with impressions written in paleo-Hebrew are "pure political fabrication."

It ain't necessarily so.

This is not to deny for a moment that nationalism and archaeology are inextricably mixed, but that doesn't justify such poor scholarship. A kind of Palestinian "Black Athena", I'd say - lots of passion, many wild allegations, and very many vocal partisans.


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10:09 AM  
Blogger Atik Yomin said...

I have not read Facts on the Ground. If El-Haj did write the examples you mention, she is of course wrong. Even if she used "nation" in a very technical sense. But I was not commenting on her scholarship. And I am not capable of doing so, particularly since I agree largely with Latour about the staging of facts.

I assume "most archaeologists" refers to either Biblical archaeologists or Israeli ones. Has someone been keeping score? My own limited experiences with Israeli archeology and archaeologists made me wary of particular findings and their use, though not of the overall narrative, especially narratives about Mishnaic times, where there are considerable textual corollaries. These include visiting the casement wall room at Masada that Yadin, ever the showman, was inspired to declare a mikvah. Looked nothing like the sort to me. I also participated in a survey of Crusader fortresses and outpost sites that helped validate Benevenisti's lines of sight argument for their locations. Later found this had some input in the siting of legal settlements in the West Bank.


11:07 AM  

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