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Facts on the Ground? Keep on Digging for Historical Truth

November 29, 2007 By:
Jonathan Rosenbaum
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The successful consideration of an applicant for tenure at Columbia University's Barnard College received a great deal of attention from outside of the world of scholarship.

Why did anyone outside of that particular campus care about the career of Dr. Nadia Abu El-Haj, a Palestinian-American assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard? The reason for that is the storm around her book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, which alleges that Israeli archaeology has been motivated by Zionism rather than scholarship. This controversy highlights far larger questions for academe:

· Can tendentious, politically motivated, subjective, polemical, unbalanced, and/or intentionally misleading publications qualify the possessor of a terminal degree for tenure in his or her field?

· Is the promotion of a personal political agenda under the guise of an academic discipline legitimate scholarship protected by academic freedom?

· Are disseminating demonstrably erroneous information and extolling the destruction of primary data acceptable elements of publications considered for academic advancement?

Many critics have suggested that El Haj's work contains these components.

During the academic popularity of the so-called "New Criticism" in literary studies from the 1920s to the 1960s, and with the subsequent emergence of Deconstruction, Postmodernism and Poststructuralism, the assumption emerged that scholarly conclusions based on research in the humanities or social sciences are inherently skewed by cultural biases and "prisms" of subjectivity.

When applied to historical studies, this approach leads inexorably to the conclusion that history is simply what a people tells itself its past was, not what actually happened. By this calculus, there are no absolute truths; empirical data are irrelevant, and "facts" are simply subjective perceptions. All knowledge is considered relative. This conclusion results in the denial of the possibility of truth itself. The classic goal of universities to seek veritas is altogether negated.

Over the last century, Near Eastern archaeology has grown in sophistication and scientific precision. The history of ancient Israel was once the purview of 19th-century biblical scholars, exemplified by Julius Wellhausen, who made no secret of their antagonism toward Judaism and their scholarly goals of undermining its history as described in biblical texts. In the 20th century, the emergence of precise methods of excavation in Near Eastern archaeology, and advances in stratigraphy and ceramic and paleographic typologies, have allowed archaeologists to contextualize artifacts.

Yet, over the last three decades, a loosely linked band of scholars known variously as Minimalists, or the Copenhagen School, have sought to challenge the historical accuracy of virtually the entire biblical narrative, despite the conclusions of more than a century of archaeology and epigraphy.

Scholars such as Gary A. Rendsburg and Anson Rainey have pointed out that the key proponents of the Minimalist position "have never excavated an Israelite or any other archaeological site and they have no experience in dealing with an archive of ancient Near Eastern texts." This is a point that seems relevant to the attempt of an anthropologist like El-Haj seeking to discredit Israeli archaeology.

Exposing the prejudices of scholars who slant or distort conclusions for personal gain or ideology must stand as a central responsibility of academe. Promoting such prejudices in the very name of uprooting them in the works of scholars who genuinely seek critical objectivity represents a cynical perversion of a fundamental academic precept.

If El-Haj has sought to alert archaeologists of ancient Israel to a subconscious Israeli nationalistic bias whose elimination would strengthen their research and conclusions, then she may have performed an important service to scholarship generally and Near Eastern archaeology specifically. If, however, she has intentionally maligned an entire discipline with the accusation of nationalistic prejudice when her personal agenda is, paradoxically, precisely or cynically furthering her own Palestinian ideology at the expense of decades of careful excavations and rigorous publications, then she would be unworthy of tenure, period.

In the end, El-Haj received tenure, but the debate engendered by her work is not finished. Columbia has historically been identified with meticulous scholarship. Its tenure process should reflect these values. Far more than one scholar's academic future is at stake.

Jonathan Rosenbaum is president of Gratz College.

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