I’ve been corresponding with Gregory Starrett, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, about the anti-tenure campaign waged against Nadia Abu El-Haj by right-wing ultra-Israel supporters. Thanks to him I’ve uncovered yet another gross distortion in their characterization of Professor Abu El-Haj’s record which appeared in the New York Sun. Here’s what Starrett writes about Abu El-Haj’s knowledge of Hebrew and the Sun’s criticism:
No one’s research is above criticism, but critics need to play by the rules of accuracy…
One of the most telling distortions of her work is the claim that she denies the Romans sacked and burned Jerusalem in CE70, and instead claims that the Jews did it. Of course in her book, that section has to do not with the destruction of Jerusalem in that year, but with a particular small archaeological site called “Burnt House,” whose curators present the site as being the remains of one of the houses burned by the Romans. Her point was not that the Romans did not burn the house, but that it is impossible to identify with certainty who did burn that particular site, given that some Jewish zealot groups were also torching homes in Jerusalem at the same time. The question becomes, then, why—in the absence of evidence one way or another—do we choose the Romans-Burned-This-Particular-Site narrative? Obviously because it makes sense within the larger story nationalist archaeologists in any country try to tell. That’s the whole point.
Abu El-Haj does not make this an accusation of sinister intent on the part of Israeli archaeologists, but presents it as an observation about how scientific and cultural work proceed in living contexts. Abu El-Haj’s work is sophisticated, nuanced, and well-supported, but many of her critics reduce it to a damaging and hateful caricature. But of course their point is not to worry about how the world really looks, but to advance a political agenda by victimizing a young woman who does.
(Note: I have never actually met Nadia, but have used her book in a couple of seminars on Israel/Palestine, and worked with her over phone and e-mail some years ago on a project for the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association.)
I did a Google search and discovered this New York Sun article which claims:
In “Facts on the Ground,” Ms. Abu el-Haj suggests Jerusalem was destroyed not by the Romans, but by the Jews themselves due to rising class tensions among them. Yet, the 1st-century historian and scribe Josephus described in great detail the Roman siege of Jerusalem.
And Starrett is precisely right in noting that Abu El-Haj is only talking about this specific home possibly being burned by Jews and not the entire city. But what makes the charge by the Sun especially odious is this actual passage in Facts on the Ground (p. 145):
Clearly, we know from historical accounts (from Josephus’s book The Jewish Wars for one) that the Roman Legion burned the city down…
There you have it. Yet another example of the bad faith shown by Abu El-Haj’s opponents. Not content to argue facts and evidence, they just make it up on the fly.
It looks like we’ve smoked Paula Stern out of whatever dark den she inhabits and she’s commented here about my charges against her petition. Since she notes all the negative reviews of Abu El-Haj’s book, I thought it worthwhile to point out a glowing review in the MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies by Elias Zureik.