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Social Studies

Archaeology and National Identity in Israel

by Nadia Abu El-Haj

n 1971, Amos Elon, an Israeli journalist, first wrote of "the extraordinary appeal of archaeology as a popular pastime and science in Israel." As he explained, "Israeli archaeologists, professional and amateurs, are not merely digging for knowledge and objects, but for the reassurance of roots, which they find in the ancient Israelite remains scattered throughout the country" (280). The first generation of Israeli archaeologists dug in search of Israelites, an "ethnic group" that presumably entered Palestine in the transition from the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age. The primary question of archaeological importance after the founding of the state and, in particular, to be answered by the major work and excavations of the 1950s concerned the character of the ancient Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan. It was by that issue that the field would long be dominated, and by the divergent convictions regarding the nature of that historical process by which it would long be divided.

The archaeological garden of the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem. Archaeology has proven to be a potent force in Israeli society.

There were two schools of thought in this argument. Yigael Yadin, following the work of the American biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright, defended the historicity of the tale of conquest put forth in the Book of Joshua, which was the story of a quick and decisive Israelite military victory over the Canaanite city-states. Yohanan Aharoni, for his part, argued that the archaeological evidence supported a different story, which was that of the Israelite settlement told in the Old Testament's Book of Judges. That story, long defended by a German biblical scholar, Albrecht Alt, recounted a more gradual process of settling the land of Canaan, which was followed only later by the military defeat of the Canaanite city-states. This theory came to be known as the school of "peaceful infiltration" in this settlement debate.

This dispute has been understood as a reflection of the multiple social imageries and interests then pervasive in Israeli society. As Neil Silberman argued, "These were more than dispassionate scholarly alternatives. In their differing reconstructions of the Israelite conquest, Yadin and Aharoni both implicitly expressed their own understandings of modern processes of territorial conquest and nationhood" (1993, 237). For Yadin, who had previously been head of the operations branch of the Haganah, chief of operations of the Israel Defense Forces in 1948, and then the IDF's chief of staff, the story of a decisive military victory achieved under the unified command of an innovative leader resonated with his own understanding of Israeli victory in 1948. Aharoni, however, was rooted in the kibbutz movement. He was allied with the left wing of labor Zionism, which had envisioned land seizure via settlement as preferable to seizure through war. Sovereignty would be achieved over the whole of the land of Israel not through "political declarations or formal statehood," but, rather, through "hard work, pioneering and steadily expanding settlement" (Silberman 1993, 327). Or, as Shulamit Geva has argued, Yadin's version of events resonated in a society preoccupied with issues of military security and in a national culture that upheld the soldier as national icon, thus, his victory in both the scholarly and the popular imaginations (1992, 93-94).

Social imagery may well resonate in historical arguments, but there are far more fundamental ways in which the debate about the Israelite settlement was intertwined with the practice of nationhood. The quest for "facts" and the epistemological commitments that underwrote that quest illustrate the dynamic relationship between empiricism and nationalism and demonstrate how a commitment to the former gave credible form to the latter, not just in narrative, but, even more powerfully, in material cast.

The debate over the character of Israelite settlement and the work of generating an empirical body of evidence to prove or disprove one or another of the accounts (historical hypotheses, one could call them) established a paradigm of archaeological practice that guided disciplinary work for decades to come. No longer the pre-paradigmatic archaeology of the pre-state period, this dispute consolidated, to borrow Thomas Kuhn's term, "normal science." Archaeological practice would henceforth involve puzzle solving, which continually extended the empirical basis of the original theory, a practice in which key background assumptions, nationalist and nationalizing, were never questioned. Simultaneously, this scholarly debate is perhaps best understood as an ongoing practice of settler nationhood, one that repeatedly reenacted and reinstantiated the "national collective" in empirical form, facts of positive science that emerged as an independent evidentiary basis upon which the work of archaeology itself would henceforth rely and within which the ancient Israelite nation would emerge as visible. I trace the work through which three conceivably autonomous fields of discourse and practice--nationalism, archaeology, and the Bible--converge, each stabilized and grounded through one particular scholarly dispute.

Acrimonious debate or epistemic culture?

"Few questions in Israelite history have interested so many people from so many different points of view," Yohanan Aharoni wrote in 1957 in his account of the debate concerning the Israelite conquest (1957b, 131). As he explained in the preface to The Settlement of the Israelite Tribes in Upper Galilee, "The history of the Jewish people in the full sense of the word commences only in the Land of Israel, with the beginnings of the settlement in ancient Canaan" (1957a, 1). The archaeology of Israelite settlement was very much a search for national origins, that is, a quest for material evidence of the emergence of ancient Israel in their land. It is the character of the early phases of that settlement process--when and how the Israelites first entered and conquered "ancient Canaan"--with which I engage here, by focusing on the nature of evidence, reasoning, and argument brought to bear on the dispute.

In the fall of 1958, the Israel Exploration Society (IES) held its fourteenth yedi'at ha-Aretz conference in Safed, which was attended by approximately 1,400 persons, including, among others, the speaker of the Knesset, the head of the Jewish Agency, and the mayor of Safed. This was one forum in which Yadin and Aharoni publicly staged their dispute. Under the title "Safed and the Upper Galilee," the theme that year, the conference's sixth session was devoted to a discussion of the Israelite conquest and settlement in ancient Galilee. It was with reference to the excavations at Hazor that Yadin clarified his position in the debate.

The archaeological dig at Bet-Shean has revealed evidence of settlements dating back to the Bronze Age.

With Yadin as director, excavations began at Hazor in 1955 under the joint auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israel Exploration Society. The excavations focused on the exploration of what came to be identified as two cities: the Upper City (located on the tell itself) and the adjacent Lower City. The Lower City, Yadin explained to his audience, 700 dunams in perimeter, was founded in the middle Bronze Age (i.e., the first half of the second millennium BCE, suffered a massive destruction in late Bronze I, was rebuilt on a smaller scale, and continued to exist through the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries. The very same history of settlement and destruction was found on the tell itself, Hazor's Upper City. Those, however, were not the destruction levels on which the Israelite settlement debate would focus. Rather, above the destruction level of the last Canaanite-city, and beneath the strata of "Solomon's city," excavators had identified remains of "a small Israelite settlement" (IES 1959, 94-95). In that early-Israelite stratum, Yadin explained, they had discovered a pottery assemblage containing the same ceramic forms characteristic of the Israelite settlements in Upper Galilee (surveyed by Aharoni a few years beforehand) that had been dated to the twelfth and eleventh centuries. Given the dates Yadin assigned to these two strata--the last Canaanite city and the first Israelite settlement (thirteenth and twelfth-eleventh centuries, respectively)--he concluded that Israelite settlement in the Galilee had to have begun "after the conquest of Razor" (IES, 95).

What all this archaeological evidence verified, for Yadin, was the historicity of the story of conquest presented in the Book of Joshua. In other words, the empirical evidence excavated at Razor confirmed his historical hypothesis. Given the material evidence, he insisted, there was no reason to suppose that Joshua did not conquer Razor. Moreover, if the "time of Deborah" was fixed, as Benjamin Mazar suggested, to the end of the thirteenth century, the excavations at Razor did not contradict that biblical story either. He believed he had laid bare archaeological facts that disproved what he identified as the two "extreme" positions: dating the destruction of Razor to the fifteenth century (as had John Garstang, who conducted trial digs at Razor in the 1920s) or to the end of the twelfth. Neither date was supported by archaeological evidence.

The latter position--dating Razor's destruction to the end of the twelfth century BCE--was a reference to Aharoni's position in this conquest debate. And it was Yohanan Aharoni who spoke next. He laid out the contours of his argument on the process and dating of settlement and conquest by the Israelite tribes in the ancient Galilee: "The Bible, the external sources, and archaeological research prove that the Tribes of Israel settled initially mostly in the mountainous regions and did not have the power to conquer the tells of the Canaanite valley" (ibid.). In other words, it was on the basis of three bodies of evidence, each presumably independent of the other two, that he had developed his position on the history of settlement at Razor in relation to that of Upper Galilee more broadly. The destruction of Razor did not precede the process of Israelite settlement in the region. Rather, it succeeded it. The dating of each element in this historical tale (the destruction of Razor, the initial process of settlement in the ancient Galilee) would have to be reconsidered.

Like Yadin before him, Aharoni was forced to grapple with the question of biblical chronology. According to the Book of Joshua, after all, Hazor's destruction did not conform to Aharoni's sequencing of these historical events. It was destroyed in the days of Joshua, that is, at the very start of the era in which the Israelites crossed the River Jordan and entered the Land of Canaan. Aharoni, however, saw a clear resolution to this apparent contradiction. The Bible had corrected this impression by its mention of the fact that Hazor still stood at the head of the Canaanite alliance during the days of the war of Deborah. The question remained of how then to account for this chronological inconsistency. The war of Deborah, after all, presumably followed Joshua's conquest. The Bible's editors, Aharoni explained, passed on events with precision. The same could not be said about chronology (something about which they did not always know, he clarified): "The Israelite wars in the Galilee described in the Book of Joshua chapter 11 are wrongly attributed to Joshua." In fact, we learn quite clearly from Chronicles that Hazor was destroyed only in the era of Judges, "that is to say, during the 12th century" (ibid.).

According to Aharoni, archaeological evidence, that is, empirical facts, had not yet established with certitude the precise time of Canaanite Hazor's final destruction. Nevertheless, it was certain (on the basis of the presence of Mycenaean pottery, which was imported during the thirteenth century) that the destruction of the penultimate Canaanite city (of the Lower City) could not have occurred before the thirteenth century. On top of that late-Bronze I city, moreover, excavators had revealed a more recent Canaanite city; on the tell itself, they had isolated two Canaanite strata that also postdated that thirteenth century date. Thus, Aharoni concluded that even though an exact date for the destruction of the last Canaanite city at Hazor could not be established, there was no reason to "assume that it was destroyed before the 12th century" (ibid.). (In other words, the circa 1250 BCE date that Yadin had set could not be correct.) While the chronological problem could not yet be settled definitively, Aharoni pointed out two important historical questions for which the excavations had produced indisputable proof: First, the account in Joshua that "among all the cities of Canaan in the North only Hazor suffered a complete destruction" was accurate. The historicity of that biblical tale had been confirmed by empirical evidence. Second, the excavations proved that the tribes of Israel who settled on the Canaanite city's ruins used "Israelite pottery," the same pottery discovered during his archaeological survey of Upper Galilee.

This argument between Aharoni and Yadin was truly acrimonious and was represented in a rather tongue-in-cheek Ha'aretz article. After viewing the various Bronze Age destruction and building levels, with Yadin at his side to explain, a journalist wrote, they finally arrived at the central historical question: "And suddenly Joshua came and destroyed it all. Before Yadin said the name Joshua, he looked left and right to see if Aharoni was listening because Aharoni gets extremely angry when he hears that" (Shimon Tzabar, "Be-'Einey Tsabar: Mi Saraf et Hatsor," Ha'aretz, 17 October 1958). The disagreement polarized the two archaeologists to such an extent that Aharoni ultimately moved to Tel Aviv University. Students and colleagues were forced to take sides, and very few managed to work or maintain good relations with Yadin and Aharoni at the same time.

But for all the irascibility of the dispute, this was in effect an argument over details (see Geva 1992, 96). The debate concerned questions of chronology, sequence, and, thereby, the character of the historical process known a priori as the Israelite settlement. Both schools of thought shared far more than they disagreed about: the historicity of the biblical tales, the "fact" of an Israelite nation that entered ancient Palestine during the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition, the criteria of evidence, argumentation, and archaeological practice. Nevertheless, the work through which answers and positions in the dispute were produced crystallized the epistemological, methodological, and historical architecture of disciplinary debate and practice.

It was precisely through this dispute over details that a tale best understood as the modern nation's origin myth was transported into the realm of history--that an ancient Israelite social collectivity emerged as historical fact. Throughout the argument, the oft-repeated moral lessons and divine interventions that form the context of those events that Aharoni claims the Bible's redactors passed on with precision are elided. In their place, historical events that proceed linearly ''as part of a chronological or causal series" (Valensi 1986, 294) emerge, themselves compiled through a "naïvely realist" reading of and attitude toward the biblical texts (see Thompson 1999). In analyzing the relationship between this excruciatingly detailed scholarly argument over particulars of chronology and sequence and the concretizing of the (colonial-) national imagination's most fundamental historical grammar in empirical form, it is helpful to focus on the three linchpins that together composed the scaffold of scientific practice and historical inquiry shared by Yadin and Aharoni alike: texts, dates, and pots. At the heart of this analysis rests the most fundamental question of all: What is it that makes particular historical eras and specific forms of material culture--in this instance, a distinctive class of pottery--Israelite?

Both Aharoni's survey of Upper Galilee and Yadin's excavations at Razor, which relied on Aharoni's prior work, invoked empirical facts as the basis for verifying or falsifying, proving or disproving specific aspects of the Bible's textual accounts. But the empirical basis of disciplinary practice itself had textual roots, as can be shown through W. F. Albright's initial identification of "Israelite pottery." Once released from its initial genealogy, this archaeological data took on a life of its own, enabling paradigmatic practice to take shape, stabilizing the Bible as a historic document, and generating a body of evidence in which the ancient--the historical--nation would henceforth inhere.

Click here for a list of works cited in this article.


Nadia Abu El-Haj is assistant professor of anthropology and of social sciences in the College, as well as a member of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, at the University of Chicago. She received her Ph.D. from Duke University in 1995 and was awarded a fellowship to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Her research interests include nationalism, colonialism, the politics of identity, public culture and the Middle East.

COPYRIGHT | Excerpted from pages 99-105 of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, published in 2001 by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2002 the University of Chicago.

(c) 2004 The University of Chicago :: Please direct questions or comments to furlong@lib.uchicago.edu

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