Nadia Abu El-Haj

The Big Dig
Nadia Abu El-Haj Interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba

Able to link land, populations and power through the recovery of an artifact, it’s no wonder that archeology is a loaded arena. And yet, it is often overshadowed by more obvious political processes and motives. Excavating the discipline itself, acclaimed anthropologist and author of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society Nadia Abu El-Haj examines the role archeology played within the Zionist project: a role that originated long before 1948 in order to map geographic space to Old Testament claims of Jewish ownership. In this fascinating interview, Abu El-Haj reveals the ways in which relics and their study have been deployed to alternately exclude, divide and welcome those staking claim on the Holy Land – and to familiarize new Israelis with a set of ready-made historical associations to be embraced as their own.

JI: Can you describe your study of Israeli archaeology? How did the discipline evolve over time, and what is its relationship to nation-building?

NA: I tried to think about archaeology as a discipline in its own right and then analyze how it intersected the project of settler-nation-building and territorial appropriation. I take the history of the discipline very seriously. In the book I’m very insistent that its work is not merely derivative of the politics of nation-building.

I analyzed archaeology in terms of its disciplinary specificity: what are the forms of evidence? What are archaeology’s ‘objects’? Most critical engagements with the discipline focus on the historical narratives developed by archaeologists. Yet while archaeologists produce historical narratives they do so differently than other kinds of historians in that they focus on material culture. So I ask, what are the practices of archaeology? What is specific to the historical methods used by archaeologists? I think about those questions genealogically, beginning with the work of creating maps and developing into the more specific work of excavating historical sites and producing artifacts.

Archaeology in Palestine began in the late 19th century with the project of mapping the land carried out by members of the Palestine Exploration Society, a group of British biblical scholars and colonial officials interested in giving empirical and geographic form to biblical stories. Today one doesn’t think of mapping as an activity specific to archeology, but that’s where the archaeological project in Palestine began. The Palestine Exploration Society–and the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society which was founded in the 20th century–became the central institutional organs of archaeology per se (what we think of as archaeology from today’s perspective) by about the 1940s. They began with these mapping and historical geographic projects that prefigured possible excavation sites. It is only in the 1940s and 50s that the discipline became organized around the practice of excavating. So part of the question is, ‘where does one locate a discipline that isn’t quite itself yet’? without being ahistorical and claiming that these earlier forms weren’t archaeology.

JI: So the mapping or documenting of geographical territory is an early practice in archeology, one which has direct political implications.

NA: Many academic disciplines were professionalized during the course of the 19th century. The historical and social sciences developed methodologies and areas of focus; they developed their own domains of authority by defining or producing the ‘objects’ over which they exercised expertise. Archaeology was clearly tied to a political project. The Palestine Exploration Society was founded by devout British Protestants who not only tried to ground faith in empirical truth, but saw their scientific work as relevant to the ambitions of the British Empire. For example, there are explicit arguments for the importance of Britain taking control over Palestine to protect the Holy Land, and the people who actually carried out the initial surveys were officers in the British Colonial Army many of whom were engaged in the survey of India and then moved to Palestine. It was never a purely scholarly project. In the colonial era science, politics and empire were totally entangled.

JI: In the case of Israel, you say that archaeology doesn’t reflect prevailing political beliefs and narratives about the people and land, but that it actually creates political beliefs and forms constituencies of people.

NA: There are two sides: one, how does one think about archaeology as a science, and two, how does the specific history of archaeology relate to politics? When I began this research it was acknowledged among major Israeli historians and social scientists that archaeology in Israel had been a fundamentally nationalist practice, but it became evident through my work that archaeological methods, arguments and epistemological assumptions were not simply reducible to a desire to find evidence to substantiate a political ideology. Of course in a broad sense these archaeologists were digging for the land of Israel within a tradition of biblical archaeology, with even the Protestants focusing heavily on the Old Testament as the foundation. Yet the dynamics of everyday work could never be fully explained by political or religious ideologies.

That led me to focus on method: what methods did archaeologists use, what were their actual practices and what were their epistemological assumptions? I argue that when Palestine was mapped back into biblical geography, first by the British, and later by the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society and the Israel Exploration Society, specific sites were identified and excavated and those practices produced a particular material culture that is embedded in the landscape. Historical narratives were given geographical shape through these practices, structuring what we now take for granted, the existence of Israel as the Jewish homeland. Today, although we can argue about what might be an appropriate political solution to the conflict over land, it is no longer possible to raise the question of whether this really is the Jewish homeland or whether Zionism really was just a project of the Jewish people returning to an existing homeland.

The Zionist project is more complicated than that. It’s a nationalist project, like any other, that constructed its own homeland. And at the same time it’s a colonial project of settling a land, displacing its indigenous inhabitants in the process of state-building. Archaeology was not the sole force in that process, but it was an important constitutive element because it rendered biblical history – the fact of ancient Israelites and the origins of the Jewish homeland – empirical, factual and most importantly, visible. It extended and enriched the geographical expanse of a general Zionist commitment,
a belief that this was the homeland, and gave it form. One sees that process very strongly with maps. Maps drawn by the Palestine Exploration Fund in the late 19th century were actually used by the European mandate powers to negotiate the borders of Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon. Archived maps were marked-up with prospective borders, producing direct political transformations based on these maps of biblical geography.

JI: What role does archeology play in the creation of the border and the conception of the territory of Israel?

NA: The land of Israel as a Jewish space was not always so simple, because in reality the land had never been uniform. Jewish spaces existed among vast Arab spaces, both pre-1948 and immediately post-1948. Extending the limits of the territorial conception further and further outward became imperative in the early State period. Moreover, while Zionist ideology presupposed that this was the land of Israel and that the Jews were returning home, when the European immigrants arrived – particularly prior to the State – it was a deeply foreign, alien and alienating landscape. Archaeology substantiated the belief that Israel was not an alien land, despite the fact that the phenomenological experience was not one of coming home, but of going to an alien territory that was often experienced as hostile.

JI: How exactly did archaeology become what you call a national hobby?

NA: Archaeology converged with the practices of yedi’at ha-Aretz, which meant ‘The Knowledge of the (Home)Land’. This convergence was only possible because of a strong and already existing Labor Zionist commitment to traveling the land and working the land as a way of becoming acquainted with it which was embedded in and engendered by the ethos of the New Hebrew. Unlike the Jews of the Diaspora, who were urban and detached from the land, the New Hebrew was imagined as someone who would have contact with the land, walk the land, work the land and know it in order to engender a sense of ownership and familiarity. The question again was how to become unalienated as an immigrant ‘returning’ to what is in fact a foreign, unknown place. How can one develop an intimate relationship–to know and connect with the space–or a sense of belonging with the Land of Israel in its entirety from the Upper Galilee down to the Negev? There was a very phenomenological commitment to seeing, traveling and experiencing the Land of Israel in its entirety, as both a historical and contemporary concept. It’s about producing a kind of citizen-subject tied to the land by walking across the expanse of space and working in direct contact with it.

There is a complex history of how and why archaeology was integrated into that larger yedi’at ha-Aretz project (composed partly of nationalist and partly of disciplinary interests) but in effect, it was through that integration that archaeology emerged as a so-called national hobby.

JI: You discuss urbanism and archaeology in studying Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter. Can you explain how ruins are not found, but made?

NA: There are different ways to think about ruins being made. The techniques of excavating create different kinds of archaeological artifacts on sites and there is also the question of how you preserve them and what they come to signify in the larger urban architectural landscape.

Ruins aren’t simply found. You can create very different material histories depending on the historical questions posed and the techniques used for excavating. I don’t argue that ruins are made out of nothing, or that archaeologists are making things up, but rather that the different ways in which archaeologists cut through the landscape can produce different historical remainders. It’s a generative project and not merely a practice of discovery.

My research expands on science studies literature that thinks of experimentation as an intervention, that in an experiment we’re not just representing nature, but intervening in it. The argument does not suggest that there’s no materiality, but that the material itself is far more complex than the object produced by scientific techniques and instruments.

In that same sense ruins are not simply material objects, but material objects that are rendered historically significant for the present through particular techniques. For example, in rebuilding or, more accurately, in building the Old City (the new Jewish Quarter) they produced a site that signals its relationship to the ancient past, specifically the moment of the First and Second Temple, in reference to which the Israeli state was often called the ‘Third Jewish Commonwealth’. One of the most straightforward arguments is that Israeli archaeology is a nationalist project in that it seeks the remains of Jewish history. I argue that it’s not that straight forward in that it specifically seeks the material remainders of state-level events. Until relatively recently Israeli archaeology was never really a project of everyday life, but of finding remainders of the kingdom, of the city-state, of Second Temple life in Jerusalem, the wealthy, Herodian Upper City. Ruins signal not just connections between the present and the past, but signify what are considered historically significant events.

JI: What is the relationship between archaeology and urban design? The archaeological project is not just an affirmation of particular pasts, but extends and becomes integral to the urban design of the Old City. Helping to define new configurations for a city around a present imperative.

NA: Archaeology becomes specifically integral to urban design projects in the Jewish Quarter which now comprises approximately one-fourth of the Old City and which is much larger than it ever was historically. In the period when it was built there was a kind of mantra in Israeli architecture and urban design that one can’t just design something that is new. One must design the new to signal an appropriate historical reality. The new Jewish Quarter was never intended to be just new, but simultaneously a living and an historic space. The Jewish Quarter had to be a place of contemporary Israeli Jewish life and a place that constantly reminded one of the prior histories and prior destructions out of which the present was built. It is in that sense that Theodor Herzl referred to Palestine as an ‘old new’ homeland. The Jewish Quarter had to embody within it the memory of that past and resurrect the key elements of that past in the present.

JI: It is intended to be a place that is very much lived in and actively occupied, not a museum of sterilized objects.

NA: Absolutely. The design of the new Old Jewish Quarter attempted to make artifacts part of the living fabric. There are museums that are literally the basement levels of contemporary Yeshivas and homes. The present is built stratographically on preserved archaeological remains that form the lower level of the landscape. There was a conscious decision to directly integrate these remains into a lived space. One sees this lower level of history and it embodies this idea of resurrection or renewal.

There were very explicit debates about how to answer those two imperatives in the design: to preserve this past and to live in the present. What should contemporary buildings look like, and how should they integrate earlier histories? Sometimes a single contemporary building incorporates older architecture that was destroyed in 1948 within the lower level with newer stones placed on top of it after 1967.

JI: What are you working on now?

NA: I’m looking at a subset of genetic anthropology projects that try to reconstruct the origins of groups of people on the basis of genetic and genomic evidence. I’m focusing – though not exclusively – on projects that have tried to recreate the history of the Jewish Diaspora: whether the Jewish population originated in Palestine and whether contemporary Jewish communities around the world are related more closely to each other than to their ‘host’ populations.

The project thinks about contemporary Jewish identity politics in relation to the histories of different biological sciences: I look at Zionism and its relationship to race science in the 19th and early 20th centuries alongside Israeli population genetics in the 1950s and 60s. In part I’m revisiting the articulations of Modern Jewish politics, nationalism and identity in different eras from the perspective of the practices and projects of different biological sciences.

I’m also using specific genetic anthropology studies to think about the politics of genetic anthropology more broadly, approaching it as a natural science that is making historical claims. These projects attempting to reconstruct the origins of a population are made possible by an intersection with specific developments in the larger discipline of genomics because they piggyback on mainstream genomics and post-genomic research and they intersect with a set of political and cultural configurations. If archaeology had a particular affinity with nation-state nationalism, genetic anthropology has a particular affinity with the politics of identity and more specifically with a diasporic politics of identity.

There’s a line of social theorizing that turns to various diasporas to think out an alternative to all the problems produced by nationalism: the demand for homogeneity, the politics of exclusion and inclusion, discrimination against minorities, all the problems that have emerged from nationalism. These theorists see diasporas as a more playful, creative, hybridized, alter native political space. Genetic anthropology has an affinity with the politics of diaspora, but it’s a politics of diaspora that, contrary to that line of social theorizing, is not an alternative to nationalism. Instead it is a politics of diaspora configured through the grammar of a nation-state. In other words, this isn’t an anti-nationalist diasporic politics but one forged within the terms of nationalism. While it may not want to return to or ground itself in the land, it is nonetheless a view of peoplehood that is refracted through nationalist ideology.

























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