A Brief Evaluation of Methodology and Use of Evidence in Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society by Nadia Abu El-Haj
Command of the Hebrew Language
El-Haj has undertaken to write an anthropology of Israeli attitudes towards archaeology and their role in "self-fashioning in Israeli society," yet there is no indication in the text that she either explored these topics in conversation with Israelis in a systematic way (she cites only conversations with tour guides) or by reading materials published in the national language. Indeed, there are indications in the text that she was not capable of doing so due to her apparent unfamiliarity with Hebrew. Even when following a source (p. 95), El-Haj repeatedly mistakes neve (settlement) for nahal (stream), misnaming, for example, Nahal Patish as Neve Patish (writing, roughly, the town of Patish in place of Patish Creek, a stream valley named for its hammer [patish]-shaped rock formation.)
On the next page (p. 96), she accuses Zionist pioneers of naming Tell Hai, Tell Yosef, and Tell ha-Shomer in a manner intended to mislead, that is, by implying that these new villages were built on tells, that is, on sites "of the remains of ancient settlements." El-Haj not only condemns such misappropriation of the word tell but asserts that the government Committee on Place Names (Va'adt ha-Shemot) "insisted" that "such improper terminological uses could not be continued."
Throughout this remarkable passage, Abu El-Haj appears to be entirely unaware that tell (tel) is a common Hebrew word meaning both "hill" and "artificial hill created by the remains of an ancient settlement." A direct translation of Tel Aviv, for example, is Hill of Spring, a hopeful name for a city that makes no pretense to antiquity. El-Haj's assertion that the names of these towns were condemned by the Va'ad ha-Shemot is sheer untruth.
A lack of familiarity with the language of a nation disqualifies a scholar from attempting certain projects. Lack of Hebrew disqualifies a scholar from undertaking a technical discussion of Hebrew and Arabic place-naming.
A study of "archaeological practice" in Israel could be carried out without a working knowledge of Hebrew. It would require the investigator to master the fundamentals of archaeological field research. There is no indication in the text that El-Haj has conducted such a study.
Familiarity with Previous Scholarship
In her discussion of place names, El-Haj demonstrates no knowledge of the indispensible work of Ruth Kark, Haim Goren, Yossi Katz and Dov Gavish. In her discussion of Israeli historical memory, she demonstrates no awareness of the important work of Nahman-ben-Yehuda, Anita Schapira, or Yaakov Shavit. Lack of familiarity with the work of the leading scholars who have written on her chosen subjects is part of what marks El-Haj’s book as falling outside the realm of scholarship.
Use of Anonymous Sources and Unsourced Assertions
El-Haj repeatedly makes assertions of fact based on citing unnamed informants or no sources at all. These assertions would be shocking, if they were true. Examples:
“One archaeologist told me of a right-wing colleague who was constantly labeling Christian sites Jewish.” (p. 233)
“In general, however, in Israeli archaeology… the practical work of excavating favors larger (mostly, well-preserved architectural) remains over smaller remains…smaller finds…do not survive the onslaught of bulldozers.” (pp. 148-9)
On page 148, El-Haj makes a direct, personal attack on David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, whom El-Haj accuses of “bad science,” using “large shovels,” failing to sift dirt “in search of very small remains,” and of using bulldozers “in order to get down to earlier strata which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible.” According to El-Haj, he did so in such a way that “the remains above it were summarily destroyed.”
El-Haj supports these assertions with nothing more than stories “recounted to me after the fact by both archaeologists and student volunteers,” none of whom she names.
Ussishkin has responded that “All her accusations are based on talks with anonymous participants after the excavations…This is not a proper and serious way of research.” He details his field methods and demonstrates the falsity of her assertions.
We consider El-Haj’s accusations to be slanderous.
Facts on the Ground exhibits an inability to understand the language (Hebrew) of the nation that the author pretends to study, a broad failure on the part of the author to encounter the scholarly work in her field, a failure on the author’s part to understand the use of evidence, and, finally, descends to the baseless slander of a highly respected scholar.
Signed by the Va’ad ha-Emet (Truth Committee)