Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society / Edition 1

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Archaeology in Israel is truly a national obsession, a practice through which national identity—and national rights—have long been asserted. But how and why did archaeology emerge as such a pervasive force there? How can the practices of archaeology help answer those questions? In this stirring book, Nadia Abu El-Haj addresses these questions and specifies for the first time the relationship between national ideology, colonial settlement, and the production of historical knowledge. She analyzes particular instances of history, artifacts, and landscapes in the making to show how archaeology helped not only to legitimize cultural and political visions but, far more powerfully, to reshape them. Moreover, she places Israeli archaeology in the context of the broader discipline to determine what unites the field across its disparate local traditions and locations.

Boldly uncovering an Israel in which science and politics are mutually constituted, this book shows the ongoing role that archaeology plays in defining the past, present, and future of Palestine and Israel.

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Editorial Reviews

"Al-Haj's analysis of the political nature of archaeological practice is an incisive, penetrating, and persuasive discussion of how the past has been instrumental in the shaping of modern Israeli identity."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226001951
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 363
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Nadia Abu El-Haj is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

Facts on the Ground
Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society
By Nadia Abu El-Haj
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2001 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-00195-1

Chapter One
Excavating Archaeology

A "national hobby"-that is how archaeology has often been described in Israeli society. During the early decades of statehood, this historical science transcended its purview as an academic discipline. Archaeological sites and the ancient stories they told galvanized public sentiment. Science and the popular imagination were deeply enmeshed. In the words of one Knesset member describing and defending the Masada myth1 against a critical historical reading, "Masada is far more than an archaeological or historic site. It is an expression of the independence and heroism of the Jewish people." He could not imagine "his national identity without Masada ... [his father having] raised him on the heroic tale" (Qol ha-'Ir, 7 February 1992: 37).

An understanding of archaeology as a privileged ground of national identity and national rights shaped the discipline and characterized its relationship to the work of nation-state building during the first decades of statehood. As Yigael Yadin, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the country's most famous archaeologist, once explained, for young Israelis, a "belief in history" had come to be "a substitute for religious faith" (quoted in Silberman 1993). Various excavations-the most famous of which were carried out in the 1960s at Masada and the Bar Kochba caves-were supported financially, logistically, and symbolically by the state and the IDF. They were sustained by the work of volunteers and the Zionist youth movements, and they received wide coverage in the national press. Such excavations emerged as idioms through which contemporary political commitments and visions were articulated and disputed (see Ben-Yehuda 1995; Zerubavel 1995). More broadly, archaeology became a widespread national-cultural practice among the Jewish public. Jewish public schools, youth movements, and the IDF (during its basic training for draftees) marched students and soldiers around the country in an effort to teach a knowledge of the homeland (yedi'at ha-Aretz). This was a project in which the past and present, antiquities and contemporary settlements, and culture and nature were all brought into view.

This book is, in part, a study of that phenomenon. It analyzes the significance of archaeology to the Israeli state and society and the role it played in the formation and enactment of its colonial-national historical imagination and in the substantiation of its territorial claims. I focus on selected archaeological projects that shaped the spatial foundations and ideological contours of settler nationhood, from the 1880s through the 1950s, and that facilitated its territorial extension, appropriation, and gradual reconfiguration following the 1967 war. Those same research projects were, simultaneously, of primary importance to the work of discipline building, to crystallizing archaeology's paradigms of argumentation and practice, and to demarcating and sustaining its central research agendas. In contrast to the few studies on the topic to date, I do not approach the significance of archaeology solely with reference to the question of nation-building. Instead, I insist that the history of colonization be brought center stage. In addition, rather than focusing on the discursive invocations of archaeological sites and artifacts in ongoing political and cultural disputes, I scrutinize the discipline itself. I analyze the projects and struggles out of which archaeology in Palestine/Israel was produced as a distinctive discipline, explicating the microdynamics of scientific work and the paradigms of practice and argumentation out of which geographies, landscapes, artifacts, histories, and historicities have all been made. But far from focusing on the professional work of archaeology and archaeologists alone, I approach archaeology as an institution, realized and practiced at the nexus of multiple social and political fields. I ask how it was that archaeology emerged as such a powerful and pervasive phenomenon and force, one within whose domain the very foundations of a colonial-national-cultural imagination were given shape and often acrimonious and even violently contested political and territorial struggles came to be waged.

This study is best understood as an anthropology of science that meets an anthropology of colonialism and nationalism. I borrow specific methodological and theoretical insights from a philosophical and social scientific literature that analyzes the natural sciences in order to examine the work of archaeology, a historical field science. In turn, I approach this field science as a lens through which to trace the dynamics of colonization, nation-state building and territorial expansion, and the transformations and contestations entailed in ongoing struggles to define and claim the present and future in Palestine and Israel.

To date, scholars have analyzed the significance of archaeology in Israeli society solely in relation to the question of nationhood. In a land in which the vast majority of Jewish inhabitants were immigrants, that is, members of distinct Jewish communities now gathered in Palestine/ Israel, archaeology has been argued to have been integral to a long and ongoing struggle to produce a cohesive national imagination. After all, the discipline of archaeology was an extension of the historical profession, a course of study first established in European universities in the early nineteenth century alongside the rise of European nationalisms and nation-states (see Hobsbawm 1990; Anderson 1991; Calhoun 1997; Trigger 1989; Duara 1995; see also Suny 2001). The convergence of the nation-form with historical scholarship fashioned the perspective through which the past would be viewed. Continuous national or ethnic histories were traced along a modern temporal grid of linear time (see Anderson 1991; Duara 1995; Kossellek 1985). Within the field of archaeology, national history took the form of a culture-historical approach to the past. Its research agendas were structured around the quest for national origins believed to be contained within the remains of specific ethnic or racial groups visible in the archaeological record (Dietler and Herbich 1998: 232; see also Trigger 1989). The first generation of Israeli Archaeologists-mainly immigrants from central and eastern Europe, many of whom had been trained in European universities-replicated, wholesale, that culture-historical approach to the ancient past. They produced evidence of ancient Israelite and Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, thereby supplying the very foundation, embodied in empirical form, of the modern nation's origin myth.

Archaeological practice generated a historical knowledge and epistemology that became almost second nature in representations of and arguments about nation, homeland, sovereignty, national rights, history, and heritage for decades to come. As a nationalist tradition, Israeli archaeology did far more than dig in search of evidence of an ancient Israelite and Jewish past embedded in the land. It was driven by an epistemology that assumed nations, itself embedded in a specific conception of what history is, including the significant events of which it is made (accounts of the rise and fall of states and empires, of wars, and of the ruling classes) and the relevant historical actors by which it is made. The archaeological record was understood to contain remnants of nations and ethnic groups, distinctly demarcated (archaeological) cultures that could be identified and plotted across the landscape.

In order to understand the dynamics and significance of archaeological work, it cannot be analyzed solely within this nation-building framework, however. That would be to accept uncritically one of the most significant effects of archaeological practice, an outcome of the complex dynamics of a colonial encounter in which archaeology came to play a powerful role. In other words, the colonial dimension of Jewish settlement in Palestine cannot be sidelined if one is to understand the significance and consequences of archaeological practice or, far more fundamentally, if one is to comprehend the dynamics of Israeli nationstate building and the contours of the Jewish national imagination as it crystallized therein. Rather than analytically arguing for Zionism's colonial or national dimensions or, as is also common in scholarship on Israeli society, effacing the colonial question altogether, I insist on the articulation of the colonial and national projects.

Zionism was borne in Europe in the late nineteenth century and was fashioned within the terms and logics of European nationalisms. As Gershon Shafir has written, "Zionism was a variety of Eastern European nationalism ... an ethnic movement in search of a state" ([1989] 1996: xiv). The Jewish state, however, was not established in Europe itself, but rather on the colonial periphery. Agitating ultimately for the "return" of Jews to Palestine (a place long resonant in Jewish religious practice and life), for the purpose of establishing a sovereign state, Zionism in effect furnished a political solution for Europe's "Jewish question." In Jonathan Boyarin's words, founding the Jewish state involved "a simultaneously willed and forced gathering of a patently reconstituted people" (Boyarin 1990: 4).

The Jewish state was founded in a territory under colonial dominion. It was the British who first promised Palestine to the Jews as their national home, a pledge that ultimately precluded the possibility of its indigenous Arab inhabitants (some of whom were Jews) achieving sovereignty during the process of decolonization to come. And it was within the context of Palestine that the contours of the so-called "new Hebrew" nation and citizenry took shape. It was within the realities and encounters of a settler-colonial society that national culture and ideology were formed. European nationalist imaginations and histories and, for that matter, the Zionist movement's commitment to distinguishing the new Hebrew person and culture from Jewish counterparts in the Diaspora was not the only relevant context-and certainly not the primary context-in relation to which the new Hebrew national culture was fashioned. In fact, the near complete occlusion of "the question of Palestine" (Said 1992) from most Israeli historical and social scientific scholarship can be argued to be but one outcome of "the shaping of an acceptable range of Zionist discourse that set the terms of the polemic and therefore enabled a range of exclusions" (Boyarin 1996: 61).

Nation and empire were always and everywhere co-constituted, as recent writings in colonial studies have insisted (see Cooper and Stoler 1989; Comaroff and Comaroff 1991). The history of Palestine/Israel was no different. As in settler colonies elsewhere, the colonizer and the colonized inhabited "the same place," with the difference between "metropole" and "colony" and between "modern" and "primitive" refracted across space and polity alike (see Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; on Israel, see Shohat 1989; Alcalay 1993). In contrast to other settler colonies, however, there never was an actual metropole for Jewish settlers in Palestine (although the World Zionist organization can be seen as its nonterritorial analogue); the projects of settlement and of nation-building developed at one and the same time on a single colonial terrain. To adapt Jim Ferguson and Akhil Gupta's phrase, "familiar lines of 'here' and 'there,' center and periphery, colony and metropole" were "blurred" from the very start (1992: 10). In other words, there were unusual spatial and temporal dimensions to this settler colony that were, in turn, tied to distinct ideological ones. Settlement was framed and legitimatized in relation to a belief in Jewish national return, an ideology of national right that became ever more powerful and salient for its members and supporters following the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Palestine and Israel-the colony and the metropole-were, and are, the same place, with the former quite rapidly and repeatedly transformed into a cultural and historical space to which the Jewish settlers would lay national claim and over which they would assert sovereign ownership. If colonialism, as Nicholas Dirks has argued, "transformed domination into a variety of effects that masked both conquest and rule" (1992: 7), the most important of those effects in Palestine was to efface Zionism's colonial dimension, at least from the perspective of those building and supporting the Jewish state. It was to erase the question of "Palestine" from the history of the Israeli state and society, which had become, quite simply, the nation-state of and for the Jewish people. Its own cultural and political struggles would henceforth be analyzed and understood, by and large, through a national(ist) lens.

In examining that nation-building/colonization project through the perspective of archaeological practice, this book follows in the footsteps of a recent tradition in colonial studies, which has exhibited a growing concern with the power of knowledge to shape the contours of colonial rule. Here I bring that colonial studies literature into conversation with another field of scholarship with which it does not generally or directly engage. I follow the lead of recent trends in science studies and shift the focus from an emphasis upon knowledge or upon particular discursive concepts to one on the knowledge-making practices of one specific discipline. If there were multiple forms of colonialism, as that literature has so aptly demonstrated, so too must colonial knowledge be understood to have taken multiple and diverse forms. There was no necessary relationship, for example, between archaeology and the colonial project, nor, for that matter, between archaeology and the nation. The power and salience archaeology gained in Israeli society was contingent upon a specific set of conjunctures and elective affinities out of which it developed as a principal site of knowledge and power in this particular settler-colonial field. It is worth asking which disciplines emerged as particularly powerful and pervasive in which colonial contexts, and it is worth seeking to specify how and why.

In the chapters that follow, I trace the work through which one emergent discipline produced its own institutional position and power and, concomitantly, specified and substantiated new realities of colonial nationhood and territoriality, materializing ideology in archaeological facts. And I analyze that ongoing work as it articulates with and is enabled by manifold institutions, projects, and social actors. I follow Rogers Brubaker's argument that "the nation" is a "category of practice" brought into being at specific historical and institutional junctures (1996: 7). The work of archaeology in Palestine/Israel is a cardinal institutional location of the ongoing practice of colonial nationhood, producing facts through which historical-national claims, territorial transformations, heritage objects, and historicities "happen" (19). It has continuously instantiated, specified, and repeatedly extended what Stuart Hall has called the "horizon of the taken for granted" (1988: 4), not just precise claims and conceptions of Jewish nationhood, homeland, and history, but, more broadly, distinct epistemological and national-cultural assumptions and commitments composed in and through the very workings of archaeology as a historical field science.

In analyzing the dynamic relationship between constructing Israel as a (colonial-)national state and society and producing archaeology as a discipline and a unified research project, my argument builds on a recent turn in science studies that insists on the mutually constitutive relationship of science and society. Beginning in the 1970s, a sociology of science developed that concerned itself primarily with questions of epistemology and the cultures of science, marking a move away from an earlier concentration on science's institutional locations and possibilities. Seeking to illustrate the contingency of knowledge at any moment in time by demonstrating the processes through which scientific facts are made and agreed upon, what emerged was a series of studies that approached sciences (or, specific laboratories or communities of scientists) as cultures, as groups with historically specific systems of meaning and procedures of practice. By the 1980s, scholars began to inquire, more broadly, about how it is that scientific work entails or even requires restructuring social realities and cultural values. Drawing upon that scholarship on the natural sciences in order to analyze the field of (Israeli) archaeology, I demonstrate how its methodological and theoretical insights can be borrowed to shed light upon the workings of one human science and the social reality that it helps to (re)shape. In so doing, this book takes a specific science studies literature beyond its primary concerns with questions of epistemology, research agendas, and discipline building. My main interest is with the relationship between scientific practice and larger social and political worlds. I analyze particular research projects, specifying their scientific practices, institutional possibilities, and the objects of knowledge they made, and I trace the dynamics through which such work, by generating novel territorial, historical, and national-cultural possibilities and facts, became constitutive not solely of the discipline itself, but, more fundamentally, of broader social and political processes as well. Hence, questions of method loom large in this book. Rather than relying on the traffic in images, ideologies, or discourses between science and culture (see Keller 1992; Bloor [1976] 1991; Haraway 1989; Martin 1994), I seek to explicate the processes through which science and society were and are actually reconfigured. I do so by focusing on the interlocking institutions and communities of practice out of which artifacts, maps, names, landscapes, architectures, exhibitions, historical visions, and political realities, as well as arguments, have all been constructed. Through an examination of one particular object of study, in other words, I wish to comment on a much broader subject of inquiry, that is, the ever-dynamic relationship between (social) scientific practice, cultural imaginations, and social and political action.


Excerpted from Facts on the Ground by Nadia Abu El-Haj Copyright © 2001 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Author's Note
1 Excavating Archaeology 1
2 Scientific Beginnings 22
3 Instituting Archaeology 45
4 Terrains of Settler Nationhood 73
5 Positive Facts of Nationhood 99
6 Excavating Jerusalem 130
7 Extending Sovereignty 163
8 Historical Legacies 201
9 Archaeology and Its Aftermath 239
10 Conclusion 277
Notes 283
Bibliography 321
Index 345
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 7, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    excellent scholarly work

    Thanks to a previous (negative -- but totally uninformative) review of this book I decided to read it for myself and became convinced that my students should read it, too. I found it to be based upon compelling, detailed archaeological data and interpretation that dares to be provocative -- not something that is typically found in archaeological writing. It is also a very accessible book, and one that will get my students to think about issues far beyond the history of Palestine. If other readers would give it a chance rather than falling back upon their personal and political biases, I am certain that they would learn a great deal -- not necessarily to their liking. But that's what LEARNING is about.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2007

    An exceptional resource!

    Nadia Abu El-Haj's book 'Facts on the Ground' is a fantastic resource for postmodern/postprocessual students of Palestinian/Israeli archaeology, which follows in the general style of Neil Asher Silberman and others.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2007


    This work is a piece of propaganda wrapped up as scholarship. It is about as far from academic honesty as you can get.

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