A persistent discussion about the politicization of Israeli archeology.
Seth J. Frantzman
20 July '10
At a recent International Geography Conference in Tel Aviv, Deborah Cvikel of the University of Haifa’s Recanti Institute of Maritime Studies unveiled her latest work on 19th-century naval battles off Acre.
In the course of her study she had carried out groundbreaking research, alongside Dr. Ya’acov Kahanov, on a shipwreck inside the ancient harbor of Acre. It is postulated that this wreck may be related to the naval bombardments by the Egyptians in 1831 or British in 1840.
The unique research into maritime archeology being pioneered at the University Haifa is part of the larger interest archeologists inevitably express in the Holy Land and its long history. But since the 2007 dustup over the granting of tenure to Nadia Abu el-Haj at Barnard, there has been a persistent debate about the supposed politicization of Israeli archeology. The infamous case of Haj concerned the typical circle: Anti-Israel polemics passed off as scholarship, condemnation by pro- Israel supporters, accusations of freedom of speech being threatened and finally the legitimization of the anti-Israel polemic in the name of protecting free speech.
According to one interpretation, archeology in Israel is not a discipline or a science but rather purely political. The sites chosen to be excavated and illuminated, according to one critic, “have been selectively co-opted by the Israeli government in order to strengthen its claims to the land.” Yael Zerubavel of Rutgers noted in 1995 that “archeology thus becomes a national tool through which Israelis can recover their roots in the ancient past and the ancient homeland.”
Keith Whitelam’s pretentious 1997 The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History argues that Israel was “invented by scholars in the image of a European nation state; one that resembles the State of Israel created in 1948.” Terje Oestigaard of the University of Bergen claims in Political Archeology and Holy Nationalism that Israel’s interest in its history is akin to “the distortions and false claims made by the Nazi archeologists.” Comparing Israel to the Nazis is par for the course of scholarly anti-Israel hate speech. Disparaging Israel’s connection to the land has even spawned an entire school of archeology called the Copenhagen School, populated by such scholars as Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas Thompson.
Another critic is Knox College’s Danielle Steen Fatkin, author of National Building and Archeological Narrative in the West Bank (2002). A recipient of an Albright Institute fellowship (funded partly by the US National Endowment for the Humanities), she carried out research in Israel but her most recent work has been in Jordan. The same scholar who condemns Israel’s “national mythologizing run amok” waxes eloquent about how “developing a coherent national identity is vitally important not just for creating at least a fiction of Palestinian unity, but important also for the presentation of Palestinian needs to the international community.”
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