According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, current students and alumni from Barnard College as well as Columbia are drafting an online petition to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj, assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard. They claim that her research, particularly her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, distorts the evidence and is skewed against Israel. According to the Chronicle, "The petition, which has drawn just over 1,000 signatures, accuses Ms. Abu El-Haj of ignoring or mischaracterizing large parts of the archaeological record, of not being able to speak Hebrew, and of treating Israeli archaeologists unfairly in her work." If true, I think not being able to speak Hebrew would be particularly damning if that is the primary language of the work she is examining.
I have not read her book, but I have heard quite a bit about it, always in a very charged context. In any case, I refrain from making direct evaluations about something I have not read. But I would like to make some comments about archaeology and nationalism in general and perhaps a few comments on archaeology in Israel. If you look at the history of modern archaeology, it always seems to be intertwined with the rise of modern nationalism. The Greek Archaeological Association was created with the birth of the modern nation-state of Greece to recover essential "greekness." In fact, if you look at the earliest digs from this group, the most famous being that of the Acropolis, you might notice that they tore away everything until they got to 5th century BCE Periclean Athens (so, they removed everything from the Byzantine and Ottomon periods). By today's archaeological standards, however, the Athenian Acropolis stands as a prime example of bad archaeology. And they are now in the awkward position of trying to reconstruct some of the structures from later periods. This is even true, or perhaps especially true, of more imperialistic nation-states, especially those groups that conduct digs in other countries in order to provide a narrative of their own national origins OR, if not origins, their own national imperial power. Napoleonic archaeological exploits, especially in Egypt, are probably the most famous in this regard. And who can forget the Germans actually removing the absolutely gargantuan Pergamon Altar to Berlin? The British relationship with Greece is particularly famous, especially the fiasco with "Elgin's marbles." So, if Israeli archaeology has been used or been implemented to reconstruct an origins myth, they would be doing exactly what most archaeologists of many countries have done in the past couple of centuries. This is not to say that this is good archaeology (it is not!), but just to say that bad archaeology has been quite common and been implemented if not invented for nationalistic and imperialistic (it is often difficult to distinguish between the two) endeavors.
But current archaeologists do recognize the problematic nature of their field, especially its past, and they are doing something about it. Greek archaeology is much more sophisticated than it used to be, and later layers of rubble are being taken seriously (those of late Roman, Byzantine, and Ottomon periods). And, if you know anything about current Israeli archaeology, you know that Israeli archaeologists do not agree on the interpretation of anything! Most of them are very skeptical about the biblical sources and are more likely to deny that their site supports any textual evidence, or would be quick to point out how the material evidence gives a completely different picture than anything that can be reconstructed critically or uncritically based upon the surviving texts. This is not to deny that there are many still out there who are seeking to affirm biblical evidence, often squeezing the archaeology into the texts, but this is just to note the variety of views of Israeli archaeologists and that the field has significantly changed over the years with much more sophisticated methods and a great deal more of healthy skepticism.
In the end, this is not the first time Columbia University or its affiliates has been at the center of Palestinian-Israeli debates, as most of my readers know or perhaps even know better than I do (see some of the recent posts on Kishkushim). And I have a strong feeling that we will be hearing a lot more about this in the coming months.