Interview: Nadia Abu El-Haj

by Alex Shams, Ma’an News Agency

In early January, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that it would begin excavation on an archaeological site inside a Jewish settlement near the heart of Hebron’s old city. The announcement sparked outrage among many who viewed the move as an attempt to legitimize the presence of illegal settlements in the center of the flashpoint southern West Bank city. Since then, Israeli authorities have also moved forward on plans for a Jewish history theme park in the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Local residents—dozens of whom have received home demolition orders in recent months—have loudly objected to the idea, while the Al-Aqsa Foundation has raised alarms that Israel archaeologists have destroyed a number of non-Jewish archaeological sites in ongoing excavations nearby.

In order to understand the political uproar over seemingly innocuous archaeological projects, Ma’an interviewed anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj to discuss the broader historical context. Abu El-Haj is a professor at Barnard College and Columbia University and the author of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, among other books. Her work explores how archaeology played an integral role in the Zionist settler-colonial project and the legitimization of Israeli territorial claims in the region.

What is the historical relationship of archaeology to the Israeli state and society, both within the pre-1967 borders as well as in the West Bank?

The role of archaeology in the settlement project in the West Bank cannot be understood without taking into account the political and cultural work that archaeology did in the early decades of Israeli statehood, and at the same time, it is a significant reconfiguration of that project.

In the 1950s and 1960s in particular, archaeology had both disciplinary and popular prominence in Israeli society. 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 Israel Defense Forces. They were sustained by the work of volunteers and the Zionist youth movements, and they received wide coverage in the national press.

More broadly, archaeology became a widespread national-cultural practice in the Jewish public, especially among the Ashkenazim. Jewish public schools, Zionist youth movements, and the IDF (during its basic training for draftees) marched students and soldiers around the country in an effort to teach them the past and present of ha-aretz, that is, of the Jewish national home.

Archaeology is an important part of nation-building projects around the world, and political elites in many countries manipulate the discipline for their own purposes. But in Israel, archaeology was extremely popular not only among this small elite, but also among the broader public. Why is Israel relatively unique in this way?

For a long time, the academic answer that was long given to that question went as follows: In a land in which the vast majority of Jewish inhabitants were “immigrants,” members of distinct Jewish communities who came together in what was first Mandatory Palestine, and later the state of Israel, archaeology as a national-cultural practice was integral to the struggle to produce a cohesive national identity.

That answer, however, sidelines a constitutive piece of the Zionist project: that is, it effaces the colonial question and, with it, the conflict over territory that Jewish settlement entailed. The work of archaeology was one element in a larger set of practices and projects that transformed Palestine into the Jewish national home. Through its work, archaeology rendered demonstrable, in material form, the ideological contours of Jewish settlement in Palestine. It demonstrated that, in contrast to settler-colonial projects elsewhere, this was simply a nation returning home. This was not just one more European colonial project.

The success of that transformation has made it possible for Israel, at least within its 1948 borders, to be accepted today, at least in Europe and the US, as but another normal nation-state that established by demanding national autonomy for an independent “people.” Yes, this nation-state like many before it was founded upon expulsions and population transfers of dubious ethical standing. But those were acts of war. However regrettable, they were necessary: They were the conditions of possibility for the Jewish nation to have a state of its own.

To be clear, I am not saying that archaeology alone effected the transformation of a project of settler-nationhood in to one of a nation simply “returning home.” What I am arguing is that archaeology was one among a series of practices and projects that together turned what was a source of contention (is this place the Land of Israel, or is it Palestine?) into a “resolved” historical fact—at least for particular and very powerful publics in Israel and beyond.

How has this relationship with archaeology developed since 1967, particularly in relationship to the Jewish settlement project in the West Bank?

The relationship between settlement and archeology in the post-1967 period has taken various turns. Its most expansive and sustained projects were the Jerusalem excavations that went on for more than a decade and that were integral to building the new Jewish Quarter and claiming East Jerusalem as part of the united capital of Israel. Those were the last of the grand excavations that characterized archaeology in the early state period. I have written extensively about the Jerusalem excavations in my book, Facts on the Ground.

Built into the very landscape and architecture of the Old City’s new Jewish Quarter today is the “fact” of the State’s claim to all of Jerusalem as an inseparable part of the Jewish state: one sees it in the archaeological sites of significance to Jewish history that are privileged in the quarter’s design; one sees it in the architectural form of “rebuilding” in which contemporary housing stands, often literally, upon the ruins of ancient Israelite archaeological sites, contemporary Jewish life seemingly “rising out of their ashes;” and one hears it in the tours and how they narrate the loss and reclamation of the Quarter (which, it is worth noting, is significantly larger than the Jewish quarter ever was prior to 1967).

The Jerusalem excavations were a project of the state. At the same time, however, they were the last of the “mythological” digs that captured an Israeli public imagination. But if digs of national-mythological proportions didn’t really materialize in the rest of the occupied territories during the 1970s and 1980s, the work done by Israeli archaeologists under the authority of the Civil Administration and the Israel Antiquities Authority was crucial to the central academic debates that drove not just Israeli archaeology but, more generally, the international field of biblical archaeology for decades.

The West Bank is identified as the “biblical heartland” and as such, central historical questions about the “Israelite conquest” that dominated disciplinary debates in the 1950s and 1960s could not be answered without access to data from West Bank sites; neither could questions about the Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms. For decades following 1967, Israeli archaeologists crossed the Green Line without much (perhaps any) thought to the political or ethical implications of digging, in effect, under the authority of the IDF.

What is the role of the archaeologists themselves in this history? Is archaeology as a profession in Israel directly implicated in the political, or is it more correct to say that archaeological work is exploited by those with political interests?

These were not, by and large, right wing, pro-settlement academics. They were academics who apparently thought nothing about pursuing research regardless of the conditions of possibility for such work: that is, military occupation.

Was the project of excavating the West Bank an intentional effort to support the expansion Jewish settlement and, especially following Menachem Begin’s rise to power in 1979, a settlement project driven by the religious nationalist movement? I think for the most part it was not. But it doesn’t matter. Intentional, unintentional—the effect was the same: The work of Israeli archaeologists and their foreign colleagues, regardless of their personal political convictions, produced “evidence” of the truth of the biblical heartland in a political context in which biblical origins grounded state and settler claims to the present.

By focusing narrowly on professional goals, it seems Israeli archaeologists entered into a relationship of complicity with the settlement project. Even if this complicity was not necessarily intentional, it was to a certain extent predictable given the previous relationship of archaeology to the secularized discourses of claiming the “Jewish homeland.” But how has this relationship of complicity evolved given the increasingly religious nationalist character of the settlement project?

The relationship to archaeology of the religious nationalists who have driven settlement deep into the territories has been less clear. Archaeological sites are taken to be material signs of the ancient truth of the biblical tales of Israelite settlement in Judea and Samaria; but for many settlers, the biblical texts are evidence enough.

For others, such sites are viewed more as sacred sites than as archaeological monuments. Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, is one of the most obvious examples. The settlement movement, in general, was not driven by the same kind of desire to excavate the land as was a national culture dominated by secular Zionist politics in the earlier decades of the state. Nevertheless, the very presence of ancient sites (from one perspective archaeological, from another sacred) extended a historical common sense about national “ownership.” This is the biblical heartland; archaeological remainders (and/as religious sites) render visible what is “already known” via the biblical texts.

There have, however, been some sites where settler investment in archaeology has been direct and sustained. Excavations of the “City of David” (in Silwan) are the most obvious and developed instance. And of course, the recent push to more extensively excavate Tel Rumeida in Hebron is a second example. These projects are squarely and explicitly positioned in an ideological and material battle over land.

The archaeological park at the City of David has its roots in the 1990s when El Ad, a settlement group in the Old City of Jerusalem, first pushed Jewish settlement into the “Muslim Quarter,” and then beyond the walls of the Old City into Silwan. The City of David project was unabashedly a project of land confiscation.

And yet, academic archaeologists carried out extensive excavations at the site. Meanwhile, El Ad insisted on building and now runs an archaeological park built around the excavated remains, a tourist site designed to bring more and more Jewish visitors to the site in order to extend El Ad’s ideological agenda.

I suspect the City of David excavation and archaeological park serves as the model for the currently launched Tel Rumeida project: Excavations allow one to expropriate land. Moreover, through a combination of archaeological preservation, architectural design, and tourism they enable settlers to produce a “common sense” of Jewish ownership—at least among some publics. Archaeology in such instances is harnessed intentionally to establish facts on the ground.

How has the relationship of Palestinian society to archaeology been shaped by the historical affinities between Zionism and archaeology in the region?

There is of course no single Palestinian relationship to the practice of archaeology. Nevertheless, it is clear that one cannot understand any of the reactions among Palestinians to Israeli excavations without placing those responses within the long history of archaeology as a powerful terrain for the symbolic and material appropriation of Palestine.

If one knows for a fact that once a new ancient Israelite site or Judaic remain is uncovered that land is going to be expropriated, why wouldn’t one want to hide it—destroy it even? One’s very ability to live on one’s own land, in one’s own home, hangs in the balance.

However, “hiding” or “denying” Jewish historical presence is not the dynamic vis-Ă -vis archaeological sites as it actually unfolds. What happens is settlers drive the excavation of sites as part and parcel of land expropriation and settlement expansion, and Palestinians fight back.

And I think we need to be clear: Whether or not there was an Israelite or Jewish presence at Tel Rumeida, or at the City of David, or at any other site 2,000 or more years ago, is entirely irrelevant to the political question of rights in the present. People who in living memory were expelled from their homes—in 1948, in 1967—are being told they cannot “return,” and yet, an ancient history is being called upon to ground Jewish settlement on lands that are indisputably inhabited by Palestinians in the here and now. Outside of a set of extreme ideological blinders, that argument makes absolutely no logical or ethical sense.

In other words, the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” cannot be framed as a conflict over the truth or falsity of ancient historical facts. And I think it a huge political mistake to engage on those grounds. Why? Because even if the biblical story were entirely true, it wouldn’t change the problem of the injustice that founding the State of Israel brought into being in 1948. It wouldn’t change the fact that Israel is a settler-nation, that is, a project of European colonial settlement that imagined and believed itself to be a project of national return.

The struggle for Palestine is a struggle for rights, citizenship, and sovereignty in the here and how, and what we need to be talking about is what kind of a society and state might provide a just solution to the reality of an ongoing Palestinian dispossession.


This interview first ran July 9 on Ma’an News Agency.

Photo: Al-Aqsa Mosque seen from the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Credit: MaanImages/Mimmi Nietula

From our Daily Report:

Political archaeology advances in West Bank
World War 4 Report, Jan. 10, 2014

Israel set to raze 3,000-year-old village
World War 4 Report, Oct. 14, 2013

Israeli pol: ‘blow up’ Dome of the Rock
World War 4 Report, Jan. 23, 2013

Palestinians charge land-grab in Jerusalem greenbelt plan
World War 4 Report, Jan. 20, 2012

Multi-sided struggle for Jerusalem (on “City of David” project)
World War 4 Report, Dec. 29, 2011

Did PA call for ‘Judenrein’ Palestine?
World War 4 Report, Sept. 26, 2011

UK courts: Western Wall is in occupied territory
World War 4 Report, Aug. 13, 2010

Temple Mount violence signals renewed Intifada?
World War 4 Report, March 1, 2010

Archaeology wars rage on at Temple Mount
World War 4 Report, July 17, 2007

Secret wars for the Temple Mount
World War 4 Report, Sept. 25, 2005

See also:

by Maath Musleh, Ma’an News Agency
World War 4 Report, November 2011

World War 4 Report, May 2008

Pollution, Apartheid and Protest in Occupied Palestine
by Ethan Ganor, Earth First! Journal
World War 4 Report, Oct. 1, 2005

by Talal Alyan, +972 Magazine
World War 4 Report, April 2013

Reprinted by World War 4 Report, July 11, 2014