Archaeologists Challenge Barnard Professor’s Claims

By Marissa Brostoff

Published October 17, 2007, issue of October 19, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Amid charges of mud-slinging, a group of archaeologists turned to dirt-digging — literally — in their fight against a controversial fellow academic.

On Monday night, Columbia University’s pro-Israel student group played host to the latest installment in a lecture series aimed, at least partially, at rebutting Nadia Abu El-Haj, whose work has been critical of the traditional narratives of Israeli archeology.

Abu El-Haj, an assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard since 2002, first gained notice with her 2001 book “Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society,” in which she argued that Israeli archaeologists use their research to validate a national origin myth. The book was praised in some quarters — it won the top award from the Middle East Studies Association — but was slammed by others as poor scholarship motivated by ideology. Columbia is currently deliberating whether Abu El-Haj should be given tenure, and the university has received petitions from her opponents and supporters.

“If you get real live archaeologists on campus who know the material, they’re naturally going to contradict her,” said Alan Segal, a professor in Barnard’s religion department who delivered the first lecture in the series. The bottom line, Segal said, is that Abu El-Haj “hates Israelis.”

Abu El-Haj could not be reached for comment.

On the academic level, the debate about Abu El-Haj has drawn out a conflict between those scholars who believe archaeology has the potential for objectivity, and others — particularly younger scholars in disciplines such as anthropology — who see archaeological practice as inextricably tied to ideology.

On Monday night, the featured speaker was William Dever, a retired professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Arizona who is a critic of Abu El-Haj. Although he never referred explicitly to Abu El-Haj in his lecture, Dever challenged notions advanced by some academics about archaeology’s inherent biases.

“Archaeology has never been edited,” he said. “When we dig these things up, they are pristine.”

Judith Jacobson, a member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, made the opening remarks at Dever’s lecture. She said that the lecture series, titled “Underground: What Archaeology Tells Us about Ancient Israel,” was conceived partly to remind the community that good Israel archaeology exists in abundance. Asked if she thought the series served a political purpose, Jacobson answered carefully.

“Only to inform the community,” she said. “It’s all we can do.”

Future lecturers in the series include two other archaeologists critical of Abu El-Haj, Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina and Aren Maeir of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.