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.