(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
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.
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
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.
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
Fatkin’s Web site refers to her interest in
“Roman religions, especially Judaism.”
Anyone who thinks Judaism is a
Roman religion cannot be faulted for finding only Palestinians in the Land of
ALL THIS pseudo-research about nation-building and its supposed
parasitic relationship with the scholarly creation of a “mythical” Jewish past
is all caught up in the “post-structuralist, anthropological, Marxist
interpretation” of nonsense.
But it is worthwhile to examine the critic’s
Those who want to find evidence for the politicization of
archeology theoretically have to look no further than at what is being
excavated. Examining a list of recent excavations in Israel, one can view any
excavation focused on Iron Age (1300-600 BCE) as being biased toward “Israel”
since it is in this period that the Jewish monarchy of David and Solomon is
believed to have existed.
The Antiquities Authority and foreign funders
are all accused of conspiring to dig right through Islamic era relics to find
the evidence for Jewish settlement in older periods. One gets the picture of
savage archeologists throwing aside Ottoman stonework, smashing Ummayid
buttresses and bashing through Mameluke decorations to get to the mother lode of
addictive Hebrew artifacts that may or may not exist underneath.
evidence is misleading though. One list of 27 excavations from 2003 supposedly
shows that “very few” excavations deal with the Islamic/Ottoman
True. However the excavations don’t deal with a search for
Jewish relics either, rather nine deal with the Byzantine era (330-630 C.E.)
sites and 12 with the Bronze Age, the period of the Canaanites (3500-2300 BCE).
An examination of sites being explored in 2004 shows that numerous Roman,
Nabatean and even Neolithic (9500 BCE) sites were being examined.
Foreign Ministry document lists 16 sites accepting volunteers from
Among them were Ein Gedi, Omrit (site of a possible Herodian
temple), Bethsaida (site of a Jesus miracle), Ashkelon (Canaanite, Islamic and
Crusader periods), Mount Zion (“we will be digging the early Islamic levels”),
Tel Hazor (“the Canaanite period will be explored”), Kfar Hahoresh
(9,000-yearold village), Tel Dor (major Canaanite-Phoenician-Hellenistic-Roman
port) and Hippos (site of a Roman building). An examination of the topics
presented at Israeli tour guide schools finds no overemphasis on the Jewish
history of Israel. In a similar vein, the country’s national parks include a
disproportionate number of Crusader, rather than Jewish, sites such as Ein
Hemed, Castel, Yehiam, Belvoir, Apollonia and Tel Afek.
More could be
done to examine sites that relate to the Ottoman and Mameluke periods,
especially the very interesting khans and flour mills that exist in varying
states of decay. Some of the Arab sites, such as sheikh’s tombs, are of interest
as well. But disinterest in the 13th-19th centuries doesn’t add up to bad
Is it wrong for a country to have some interest in the past
that relates to the people currently living in it? The Irish might be
No fans of Israel, the Irish were accused by Janis McEwan in
Archaeology and Ideology in Nineteenth Century Ireland: Nationalism or
Neutrality? of manipulating archeology to fashion a national past. Many
nationstates have been accused of politicizing archeology by daring to
interested in their own past, such as the French interest in the Gauls
Danish, Italian and Slovene interest in themselves. Thus the
archeology is part and parcel of the wider European attempt to
Europeans from themselves, to eradicate all forms of nationalism and
connected to it. Jewish history should not be forced to suffer on
that European trend.
The writer is a PhD researcher at
and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.