Israel: Archeology and the Propaganda War of Lies

In one of those ironies of questionable scholarship, just as a battle over a Barnard scholar’s book about Israeli archeology had inflamed her application for tenure, heavy equipment was tearing away at the ancient crown of Jerusalem’s 36-acre Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. Nadia Abu El-Haj’s book, Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, questions the historical existence of a Jewish link to Israel, and her provocative claims have caused a fractious debate about her qualifications for tenure as a Barnard professor of anthropology.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem this week, Hebrew University’s Dr. Eilat Mazar, along with representatives from the Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities, was in the Israeli High Court of Justice attempting to halt the work on the Temple Mount being conducted by the Muslim Waqf, the religious trust charged with oversight of the location. The excavation, a trench 500 meters long and 1.5 meters deep, is, according to the complainants, "causing irreversible damage to antiquities and archaeological artifacts of the greatest importance . . , is being carried out illegally, [and] entails damage to ground layers, some of which may have been in place since the first Temple stood there 3,000 years ago.”

The outrage of this recent, but not isolated, act by the Waqf is made all the more troubling by the fact that the archeological contempt shown by the trust reflects their professed belief that a Jewish historical connection to the site is only apocryphal, that, in the same way that El-Haj denies a Jewish component to the archeology of Israel, the Waqf’s oversight of the Temple Mount has contributed to an effort to erase or obscure Judaism and replace it with a Muslim historical narrative which predates a Jewish one.

A second, but concurrent, assault on that Jewish history is “post-colonial” scholarship like that of El-Haj, “the hallucinated claim,” as author Stephen Schwartz puts it, “that Jewish identity is a modern, nationalist, and Zionist-imperialist ‘construct’ rather than a product of thousands of years of recorded history and religious tradition.” Her book has been widely denounced precisely because it seems not to be authentic scholarship on archeology of the Holy Land at all, but a revisionist history based on political ideology — the notion that any historical relationship between Jews and Jerusalem, indeed to Israel itself, is merely a historical invention, a professional fraud hoisted upon the world of scholarship by Israel archeologists who sifted through digs and artificially ‘built’ a historical link between the Jews and Israel, thus of course, denying the Palestinians their own historic connection. El-Haj thus disingenuously, and apparently without worrying about fact or history, dismisses or ignores the work carried out by generations of actual archeologists (which she is not), and stunningly posits that “the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins” is a “pure political fabrication,” an “ideological assertion comparable to Arab claims of Canaanite or other ancient tribal roots.”

That may be El-Haj’s way of wanting to assess the history of Israel, but it unfortunately flies in the face of all scholarship on the antiquities of Israel and Palestine, and would require that historians and archeologists overlook demonstrable facts and embrace her politically-shaped theory. In fact, Diana Muir and Avigail Appelbaum, two Barnard graduates who wrote a review of her book, feel that the “outrageous nature of this demand is breathtaking. Not only does Abu El- Haj take upon herself the privilege of dismissing large bodies of evidence, she demands that other scholars ignore or deliberately distort evidence to conform to her political bias.”

Of course, “distorting evidence to conform to political bias” is ubiquitous amid Palestinian propagandists, who, along with their apologists in the West, have assiduously attempted to rewrite a historical narrative with the Palestinians as an indigenous people and Israelis as European colonial usurpers with no real connection to the land that became Israel. So to overcome that inconvenient set of facts, El-Haj contends, Israeli-conducted archeology took it upon itself to sift through a past rich with Muslim relics — but ignored them — and looked for, identified, and recorded only those findings which confirmed a historical Jewish connection to the land. “The work of archaeology in Palestine/Israel is a cardinal institutional location for the ongoing practice of colonial nationhood,” El-Haj writes with the politicized syntax of her ideological mentor, Columbia’s Edward Said, “producing facts through which historical-national claims, territorial transformations, heritage objects, and historicities [sic] ‘happen.’”

The problem with coming up with a book of archeology which defies logic and history, as El-Haj has done here, of course, is that one has to thereby marginalize the work of all archeologists whose work had formed the basis of the historical record she is determined to negate. In fact, one of El-Haj’s fellow professors at Barnard, Alan F. Segal, recently took her to task in an op-ed in the Columbia Spectator for what he perceived to be one of her severest scholarly offenses: “that Israelis deliberately mislabel Christian sites as Jewish and tear down churches . . [and] that they use bull-dozers to level sites and wipe out evidence of Palestinian habitation.” Professor Segal finds the assertion that bulldozers have been used in “contemporary archeology” to be El-Haj’s “most outrageous charge,” not only because Israeli archeologists are fastidious in methodology and practice, but also, given what is happening currently atop the Temple Mount itself — one of the world’s richest archeological and historical sites — it is something that the Waqf, not the Israelis, should have to answer for.

In yet another example of “turnspeak,” the Arab world has repeatedly accused Israel of the misdeeds, lies about history, and destruction of a nationhood that they themselves are committing. It is part of a relentless and continuing effort to delegitimize Israel and finally eliminate it through a false historical narrative that is retold in Palestinian schoolbooks, in sermons, in the Arab press, in Middle Eastern study centers at American universities, and in the politicized scholarship and dialogue generated by Israel-haters, anti-Semites, and Palestinian apologists around the world.

At the heart of this . . . is a monstrous lie,” says Professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno, Bruce Thornton, “the airbrushing of Jews from the history of Jerusalem, an Orwellian rewriting of history started by the Arabs and abetted by some politicized Western scholars.” That is the core problem with Facts on the Ground: that it is not a scholarly attempt to shed light on the rich archeological history of the Levant at all. Instead, it is ideology parading as scholarship; it is the work of a dilettante who is not an archeologist, based her study on a walking tour, never visited a dig, reads no Hebrew, and used anonymous sources and anecdotal evidence as the foundation of her research to craft what Haaretz columnist Nadav Shragai called a “tissue of lies” about Israeli archeologists, who, perhaps lacking the political motivations that so clearly subsume El-Haj’s own work, actually uncovered the authentic “facts on the ground” that shape the uninterrupted 3000-year Jewish presence in the land that became Israel.