Archeology and the Propaganda War Against Israel


Mr. Cravatts, Ph.D., director of Boston University’s Program in Book and Magazine Publishing at the Center for Professional Education, writes frequently on terrorism, higher education, politics, culture, law, marketing, and housing, and is currently writing a book about the world-wide assault on Israel taking place on college campuses.

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, originally a doctoral thesis, questions the historical existence of a Jewish link to Israel, and her provocative claims have caused her to become the center of a fractious debate about her qualifications for tenure as a Barnard professor of anthropology.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem 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 effrontery 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 attitude 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, in pursuit of the Palestinian’s nationalistic cause, to erase or obscure Judaism and replace it with a Muslim historical narrative which predates a Jewish one. Hebrew University’s Yitzhak Reiter, who conducted a study for the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, observes that this has been a deliberate strategy, that "In the last generation, the Islamic and Arab history of Jerusalem has gradually been rewritten. At the heart of this new version is the Arabs' historic right to Jerusalem and Palestine. The main argument is that the Arabs ruled Jerusalem thousands of years before the children of Israel. In addition to building the Arab-Muslim case, the Muslim thinkers are formulating a denial and negation of the Jewish-Zionist narrative. Included in that effort is the de-Judaizing of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and Jerusalem as a whole.”

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 construct, a fiction, 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. Israel, a “colonial settler state,” had to contort history through selectively revealed archeological finds and, she says, “the colonial dimension of Jewish settlement in Palestine cannot be sidelined if one is to understand the significance and consequences of archaeological practice. . . .” She thus disingenuously, and apparently without worrying about science, fact, or history, dismisses or ignores generations of professional archeology carried out by actual archeologists (which she is not), and 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 appraise 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 previous scholars and archeologists overlook 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 themselves as an indigenous people and Israelis as European colonial usurpers with no real connection to the land of what became Israel. So to overcome that inconvenient set of facts, El-Haj contends, Israeli-directed 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 would have to condemn or marginalize the work of all archeologists in the field whose work had formed the basis of the historical record she is determined to negate. One of the reasons that critics oppose her being granted tenure at Barnard is precisely because she has defamed noted professionals in the field, based on anonymous sources and anecdotal evidence for which she offers the thinnest bits of evidence. In fact, one of El-Haj’s fellow professors at Barnard, Alan F. Segal, Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies, 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.

Many will remember, for instance, the howls of outrage that arose from the Arab world in February 2007 when Israeli authorities initiated a project to rebuild a ramp to the Mugrabi Gate, an entrance to the Temple Mount plaza and the Al Aqsa Mosque platform that had been damaged in an earlier storm. Riots and protests began immediately, with accusations against Israel coming from throughout the Arab world for its “scheme” and treachery in digging under and threatening to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque itself. The committee of Muslim scholars in Jordan's Islamic Action Front, for one, "urge[d] . . . proclaiming jihad to liberate Al Aqsa and save it from destruction and sabotage from Jewish usurpers," a spurious claim since construction was taking place well outside the Mount platform, some 100 meters from the mosque, and clearly posed no possible threat.

So while riots ensued when Israelis initiated a carefully supervised reconstruction project near the Temple Mount, the Muslim guardians of the Judaism’s holiest site have felt no compunction in brutally gouging the historic surfaces when it suits their own purposes, either currently as they create a deep trench, or as they did in 1999 when they opened a gaping hole—in what is known as Solomon’s Stables—18,000 square feet in area and 36 feet deep, for new mosques. Most seriously, 13,000 tons of rubble from that criminal dig, containing rich archeological remnants from the First and Second Temple periods, was scattered clandestinely in the Kidron valley dump without any professional archeological oversight and before experts could evaluate any unearthed items of significance.

The Arab world’s own complicity in playing fast and loose with history, and obscuring the actual “facts on the ground” in their attempt to create a historical narrative conforming to their political agenda, makes El-Haj’s accusations against Israeli archeologist all the more disingenuous. “The claim that Israel practices ‘bulldozer archaeology,’” notes Ralph Harrington, “is an explosive one and draws on images of ideologically-driven Israeli destructiveness that are deeply rooted in contemporary Palestinian perceptions,” but it is explosive because it is part of a pattern of lies. In yet another example of “turnspeak,” the Arab world has 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 repeated in Palestinian schoolbooks, in sermons, in the Arab press, in Middle Eastern study centers at 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, 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, in fact uncovered the true facts on the ground that shape the uninterrupted 3000-year Jewish presence in the land that became Israel.

Related Links

  • Nadia Abu El-Haj: Whatever her opinions her methods are not shoddy, as alleged, says scholar

  • Richard Silverstein: Barnard Alumni Cabal Opposes Tenure

  • Richard Silverstein: Lies and distortions of the campaign against Abu El-Haj

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    Elliott Aron Green - 10/16/2007

    Another irony is that Abu El-Haj acknowledges plentiful Christian remains in the country. Most of the significant Christian remains are from the pre-Arab conquest late Roman-Byzantine period. Christian writings, including those of Church Fathers like Eusebios and Jerome who lived in Israel, regularly point out the presence of a large Jewish population in the country during their lifetimes. The basic Christian writings in the New Testament make clear that the country was predominantly Jewish in their time. The NT calls the country Land of Israel [Matthew chap 2] and Judea [in parts of Acts & Luke], although the name Judea is usually used in the NT only for the southern part of the country, the former kingdom of Judah.

    Elliott Aron Green - 10/16/2007

    It was only in 1920 that the Arab leadership in the newly erected entity of "palestine" accepted that name for the country, but only provisionally. Previously they had demanded to be included in Faisal's short-lived kingdom of Syria [bilad ash-Sham in Arabic]. In the 20s, 30s, & 40s they stressed their Arab [or pan-Arab] identity. Arab expert witnesses testifying before the 1946 "Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine" denied that there was such a place as "Palestine," it was all Syria [bilad ash-Sham] they claimed.
    The future "Palestinian identity" seems to have been elaborated from the late 1940s to the early 1960s as a project of Western Judeophobes & psywar experts, mainly British, it seems. The Palestinian Arabs and other Arabs were persuaded to use this newly constructed identity, which Majid Khadduri among others, found absurd. Hence, Arabs began to stress a "palestinian" identity rather than a pan-Arab identity for the Palestinian Arabs, especially when speaking to non-Arab, non-Muslim audiences.

    Elliott Aron Green - 10/16/2007

    Ironically, it is really what is now called "palestinian identity" that had to be invented [for political purposes] and constructed out of misrepresentations & simple fraud. In the year 1900, there was no "palestinian people" in the geographic or ethnic nomenclature of the Arabs and other Muslims [although some Middle Eastern Christians may have used the term]. There was no "palestine" on the ground, no Ottoman district or province of that name. Nor was there any Ottoman territory that came even close to the boundaries of the Provincia Iudaea which Rome under Hadrian renamed "Syria Palaestina" in 135 CE, nor any Ottoman territory that approached the borders of what the international community set up in 1920 as the Jewish National Home with the territorial name of "Palestine." Likewise for the Mamluk empire that preceded the Ottoman empire [ca. 1260 to 1517]. Before the Crusades, Arabs/Muslims had used the name "Filastin" for the former Roman sub-province of Palaestina Prima, the southern part of the country, roughtly speaking [see Encyc of Islam].

    Elliott Aron Green - 10/16/2007

    Ironically, Arab historians and the Quran itself agree in general terms with the Bible and other Jewish sources about the Jewish connection to what the Quran calls the Holy Land [for instance, sura 5:20-22]. The Quran has several verses that can be called Zionist, since they foresee a Jewish return to the Jews' land, etc. One quranic verse echoes a verse in the Book of Zechariah about the Jews being gathered as a multitude from among the nations.

    I suggest that Abu el-Haj dust off her copy of the Quran, perhaps Pickthall's indexed edition, and look up in the index "Jews", "Holy Land," "Children of Israel" [or Sons of Israel], etc. Does she deny the validity of the Quran's history? Is the Quran historically defective, in her view? If so, then let her say so loud and clear.

    By the way, the name Judea [Ioudaia, IVDAEA] appears before the year 300 BCE in the writings of Aristotle's disciple Clearchos of Soli. Clearchos quotes his master speaking about a Jewish sage from Judea who had influenced him. The official Roman name for the country in the heyday of the Roman Empire was Judea [IVDAEA], as attested in books, inscriptions, documents such as military diplomas, etc. The Romans had the help of Arab auxiliary troops in conquering Jewish Jerusalem in the year 70 CE [Tacitus, Histories 5:1], and again had the help of Arab troops in suppressing the Jewish anti-imperialist revolt led by Bar Kokhba in 132-136 BCE.

    Nadia Abu el-Haj is rewriting history on a monumental scale. In that, her work has something in common with archeology which is also interested in monuments.

    Richard Silverstein - 10/16/2007

    Apparently just about anyone can get published at HNN. Cravatts isn't a historian, nor an archaelogist, nor an anthropologist all of which are relevant either to this site or to analyzing Abu El Haj's work. Yet the editors of HNN, after being informed of previous lies published here by Diana Muir regarding Abu El Haj's work, have published virtually the same lies once again.

    I'm pleased that the editors have linked to two of my posts debunking those lies, but what does Cravatts bring that is new to this subject? Exactly nothing. I'd ask HNN readers to withhold judgment on Abu El Haj based on anything they read in this article. It isn't worth the virtual paper its published on.

    Louis N Proyect - 10/15/2007

    Daniel Lazare
    Harper's Magazine
    Issue: March, 2002

    False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible's Claim to History.

    Not long ago, archaeologists could agree that the Old Testament, for all its embellishments and contradictions, contained a kernel of truth.

    Obviously, Moses had not parted the Red Sea or turned his staff into a snake, but it seemed clear that the Israelites had started out as a nomadic band somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Mesopotamia; that they had migrated first to Palestine and then to Egypt; and that, following some sort of conflict with the authorities, they had fled into the desert under the leadership of a mysterious figure who was either a lapsed Jew or, as Freud maintained, a high-born priest of the royal sun god Aton whose cult had been overthrown in a palace coup. Although much was unknown, archaeologists were confident that they had succeeded in nailing down at least these few basic facts.

    That is no longer the case. In the last quarter century or so, archaeologists have seen one settled assumption after another concerning who the ancient Israelites were and where they came from proved false. Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an 'indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.

    full: http://www.worldagesarchive.com/Reference_Links/False_Testament_(Harpers).htm

    Gregory Starret - 10/15/2007

    Richard Cravatts misrepresents Nadia Abu El-Haj's book, Facts on the Ground, in numerous ways that are easy to check by actually opening a copy of the book. So he has either not read the book himself, relying instead on the previous misstatements of the myriad misguided critics who have come before him, or he is not a terribly careful reader. Abu El-Haj has neither denied nor questioned the presence of Jews in the lands of Israel in ancient times. Her book is an examination of the way nineteenth and twentieth century archaeologists, both European and Israeli, have made sense of that presence, and have used archaeology as a means of nation-building. She does examine the perfectly legitimate issues of how Israeli archaeologists themselves have argued about the meaning of archaeological data, the way that museum displays are developed, and how particular archaeological sites are understood through the construction of familiar narratives not always unambiguously supported by the data. Dr. Cravatts should do himself and his readers a favor, and make an effort to represent accurately the work of the people he's criticizing.

    Gregory Starret - 10/15/2007

    One of the ironies of the internet is that, originally developed as an instrument of scholarly communication among engineers and scientists, it has been commercialized, democratized, and laid open to the opinions of nearly everyone. This has many wonderful consequences. One of the less wonderful is that "everyone" can now speak freely about topics of which they know little to an extraordinarily broad public that knows even less.

    Giyus Team - 10/15/2007

    Thank you for tackling this issue and for shedding light on this controversial book.

    If you'd like to take action on this problematic issue please click here (http://ws.collactive.com/points/point?id=VxCfPjUqiROi)
    to send this HHN review and your comments to Barnard College at Columbia University which now considers tenure for Nadia Abu El-Haj.

    Giyus Team - 10/15/2007

    Thank you for tackling this issue and for shedding light on this controversial book.

    If you'd like to take action on this problematic issue please click here (http://ws.collactive.com/points/point?id=VxCfPjUqiROi)
    to send this HHN review and your comments to Barnard College at Columbia University which now considers tenure for Nadia Abu El-Haj.

    Giyus Team - 10/15/2007

    Link Correction:

    The correct link to take action is:


    Sorry about this typo.

    Ralph Harrington - 10/15/2007

    Apologies to Richard L. Cravatts for getting his name wrong in my earlier message!

    Ralph Harrington - 10/15/2007

    Richard Cravatt quotes from my work on 'bulldozer archaeology' in his essay. Readers interested in the source of the quote can find it here:


    Ralph Harrington