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Facts on the Ground - Nadia Abu El-Haj

Archaeological Practice and Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society

Published 2001  Chicago University Press

REVIEW – 10 June 2009 -  Palestine News -Summer 2009

Abe Hayeem

This fascinating book is like an archaeological exploration itself, impeccably researched with quiet forensic rigour that has divided critics. While winning academic awards, it was nevertheless condemned by pro-Israel detractors, the notorious Campus Watch, in 2007, who tried (unsuccessfully) to have the writer’s academic tenure at Columbia terminated.

Edward Said, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University until his death in September 2003, wrote of being "indebted" to the book and work of Abu El Haj, in Freud and the Non-European (2003):

"What she provides first of all is a history of systematic colonial archaeological exploration in Palestine, dating back to British work in the mid-nineteenth century. She then continues the story in the period before Israel is established, connecting the actual practice of archaeology with a nascent national ideology - an ideology with plans for the repossession of the land through renaming and resettling, much of it given archeological justification as a schematic extraction of Jewish identity despite the existence of Arab names and traces of other civilizations. This effort, she argues convincingly, epistemologically prepares the way for a fully fledged post-1948 sense of Israeli-Jewish identity based on assembling discrete archaeological particulars -scattered remnants of masonry, tablets, bones, tombs..."

Nadia Abu El- Haj analyses the practice of archaeology as a field science and it’s political use and manipulation by archaeologists, in particular Christian archaeologists in Palestine upto 1948, and thereafter in Israel, and in Occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank after 1967. It is an investigation into the methodology used by Israeli archaeologists, and the nature of territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society and identity politics of what she interprets as the ‘colonial –national’ ideology of Zionism. Archaeology has been central to the formation of Israeli identity since the establishment of the state. It has been used to ‘prove’ Jewish continuity and ownership of Palestine since biblical times, “despite the existence of Arab names and traces of other civilizations”, and to justify extending Israel’s sovereignty and occupation, as the pretext for an Israeli return to their sacred land. The existing terra firma of Palestine contained ‘the historic biblical landscapes, battlegrounds, Israelite settlements and sites of worship’  that could be revealed by “digging the soil with our own hands”, as described by Ben Gurion.

The author describes the use of bulldozers in a dig at Jezreel, to get through the strata containing 5,000 years of past histories and all the intervening debris until the deeper levels of the Bronze Age/Canaanite and Iron Age/Israelite are reached – the ones Israeli archaeologists are interested in – which cover the period of the Bible. Immediately after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, bulldozers were also used to demolish the 400-year-old Mughrabi Quarter which contained important Islamic buildings, to clear the space in front of the Western Wall. While generally, the upper layers of Muslim and Ottoman periods were marginalised in digs and museums exhibiting the finds, in excavations around the city wall, an Umayyad Palace complex was retained, as part of monumental history, at the expense of smaller remains.

Anyone visiting the Old City should read Nadia’s book beforehand, to gain a detailed insight into the annexation of the whole of East Jerusalem in June 1967. The entire Old City was declared a site of Antiquity, and all the archives and collections of the Rockefeller Museum (including the Dead Sea Scrolls), and other institutions particularly of Jewish and Israelite relevance, were declared to be the state’s ‘national and cultural’ property, contravening UNESCO’s Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954). This ‘ownership’ is still emphasised today by Israel’s ‘new’ PM Netanyahu who has declared: “United Jerusalem is Israel's capital. Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours”

The whole area around the old Jewish Quarter was subject to a comprehensive archaeological excavation, before it was expanded to 5 times its original size, with the old Roman Cardo excavated, and reconstruction “fashioned over ruins incorporated into the new structures, so as to appropriate previous historical narratives into the expansion of the Jewish nation State. Past histories – Crusader, Ottoman, Arab are subsumed and de-nationalised or stripped of their significance”. The museums – Burnt House and the Western Heritage Tunnel – the opening up of it by Netanyahu in 1996 under prompting by the Religious Affairs Ministry causing riots – reconstruct only the Herodian history relevant to the original Jewish aspect of the Temple, establishing a ‘priority of right’.

Most controversially, excavations have been allowed to be taken under control by the ultra religious authorities and organisations like Ateret Hacohanim in the Western Heritage Tunnel, and the radical settler movements like Elad in Silwan creating the integration of the sacred, colonial, and national aspects where the tunnels become places of prayer, the Bible becomes history, and the cultural politics of a supposedly modern secular nation are reconfigured. This is now being questioned by professional archaeologists themselves, worried at the dangerous concoction of its use as part of the colonial expansion in the Old City and the ‘Holy Basin”.where religious Elad settlers have taken over all the open spaces, using armed guards backed by the Israeli soldiers, and is tunnelling under houses without concern for the Silwan residents, to try and find evidence, so far lacking, of the biblical City of David, which some Israeli archaeologists doubt actually existed.

The whole irony, in the spirit of El_Haj’s exposition, was commented on by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, “Archaeology provided not only a pretext for an Israeli return to occupy Palestinian land, but also the ‘footprint’ of historical authenticity that could be developed into built form by Israeli architects. Biblical archaeology was used to validate the claim that vernacular architecture was in fact “Jewish’ at source and allowed ‘Israeliness’ to define itself as a local ‘native culture’ appropriated and altered by the latecomer Palestinians.”

Dr.Nadia Abu El-Haj is assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University, NY.