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Lecture Hop: Archaeological Warfare

In which Bwog correspondent Josh Mathew reports on last night’s lecture about a book and all the hubbub it’s caused.

kkThe Underground Lecture Series: What Archaeology Tells Us About Ancient Israel

Alan Segal, PhD, Professor of Religion and Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies, Barnard College

What does Biblical archaeology tell us about the First Temple Period?

Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj is wrong. At least, that’s what I learned pretty quickly from Professor Alan Segal. The flyer for the event hadn’t mentured El-Haj, but Segal made it clear that, though not a “harangue or tirade,” his remarks served to question El-Haj’s scholarship.  

The event was sponsored by LionPac and the cheerfully-named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, who, according to their website, are “trying to counterbalance the well-documented and increasing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic forces that have made their way to the college campuses today.” A survey of their position papers reveals a dearth of articles actually about peace or conflict resolution, but the name sounds nice.

Segal’s lecture focused primarily on the debate between Biblical maximalists and minimalists—those who consider the Bible to be a reliable historical source regarding non-miraculous things, vs. those who don’t—and finally moved on to El-Haj’s supposed reliance on the latter in her book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society.  He accuses her of inaccurately portraying maximalists as Biblical fundamentalists and evangelicals, and minimalists as rational thinkers.  In a short history, Segal discussed the historical dominance of the maximalists and the challenges posed by the minimalists, whom he described as an academic minority with little supporting archaeological evidence.

During the 1960s, archaeologists, now referred to as Biblical maximalists, “had proven a whole range of aspects of the Bible to be truth.”  While the first 11 books of Genesis were understood to be “pure myth,” the rest of the Pentateuch was considered more reliable “legend,” in that it provided a credible social context in which the events of the Hebrew Testament could have occurred in the 2nd millennium BCE.  

Discussing the emergence of Biblical minimalists during the 1980s, Segal focused on the Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who raised a critical debate over the ancient gates at Gezer, Megiddo, and Khatol.  Although they were traditionally thought to be built by Solomon, Finkelstein dated the gates 150 years later to the Israelite kingdom of Omri, a position that Segal rejects.

This seems like an esoteric debate, but as Segal emphasized, these gates are the only archaeological evidence of the Israelite United Kingdom, that ruled by King David and Solomon.  Finkelstein then made “the argument from silence” that the United Kingdom therefore never existed and cautioned archaeologists against using the Bible during digs, as it might prompt incorrect interpretations of excavated sites. Critical of this interpretation, Segal suggested that Finkelstein, an assistant professor in Israel at the time, had proposed the theory simply to make a name for himself.

In response, Segal went on to cite numerous archaeological examples to support the Israelite kingdom’s existence, including the Mesha Stele and the Merneptah inscriptions, as well as “ethnic identifiers” such as instruments for circumcision, certain types of pottery, and almost a complete lack of pig bones in specific areas.

The question and answer period was markedly more political. When asked about the minimalists, Segal tersely responded that they were just scholars trained in a new type of hermeneutics looking for an intellectual exercise. Then, abruptly, he assured the audience that as an academic, he is not interested in which nation lived in the Middle East longer or earlier, and that the creation of Israel was based on the UN’s mandate.  

Later noting that some groups like the Jebusites are known only through the Bible, Segal criticized Yassir Arafat’s identification as an “Arab, Palestinian, and Jebusite.”  

“How do you know you’re a Jebusite?” he asked. “You have to believe the Bible.”

Segal also denied the link proposed by an audience member (as well as El-Haj in her book) that early Israeli archaeologists who had migrated from Eastern Europe were influenced by that region’s archaeology, the discipline of which had grown alongside and in response to European nationalism.    

That same audience member seemed to question the value of the lecture as a whole when he commented that after reading El-Haj’s book, he thought that El-Haj did not in fact reject the existence of an Israelite kingdom. This Bwog reporter admits that he needs to do more investigation—expect a detailed book review of Facts on the Ground in the near future.

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  • emmet says:

    @emmet Joachim Martillo is a familiar and tragic figure inthe Boston area. Wealthy and highly educated, he became mentally unstable in early adulthood and now devotes his life to what he calls “freelance journalism.”

    An example of this is his drive to New York form Boston for the purpose of attending and blogging about this lecture.

    For some of the mentally ill, this sort of activity might provide some stability. Unfortunately, Martillo has a fixation on the Jews and devotes himself to composing anti-Semitic blog posts.

    A lot of blogs block him form their comments section.

    Here’s a typical Martillo rant”

    The Legitimacy of Hating Racist Ashkenazi Americans and Zionist Colonizers
    In 1947-8 racist Eastern European Zionist colonizers stole and ethnically cleansed Palestine in an orgy of genocidal aggressive violence. Since 1948 racist Zionist colonizers have maintained their control of stolen Palestine (the territory of the State of Israel) through aggressive genocidal violence and have extended their murderous control beyond the lands seized in 1947-8 to occupy the rest of Palestine and to further oppress and abuse the native population. Racist ethnic Ashkenazim throughout the world (and especially ethnic Ashkenazim in the USA at 90% levels according to AJC statistics) identify with Zionist colonizers. Racist ethnic Ashkenazi Americans use their influence to support Zionist crimes and to thwart attempts to sanction the criminal Zionist state that controls both stolen and occupied Palestine.

    Naturally, all Arabs, Muslims and any human being committed to justice and decency hate and despise the racist Zionist colonizers in Palestine as well as their racist ethnic Ashkenazi American supporters in the USA.


    1. Joachim Martillo says:

      @Joachim Martillo As interesting as the Nadia Abu el Haj Tenure Controversy is, I did not come to NY City to attend Monday’s lecture. I was in the area and had some time to kill.

      My wife is the freelance journalist not me, but I am doing research for a book tentatively entitled The Israel Lobby and Its Domestic Effects.

      I invite anyone interested to take a look at my blog Ethnic Ashkenazim Against Zionist Israel ( ), and I wish to the American Jewish Community Shabbat Shalom (Gut Shabbos, Gut Yontif — even though it is a fast, yom kippur is considered a Holiday), and to those of you that support Zionism, atone well, for you really need it.

    2. Typical says:

      @Typical Commenter #35 is the typical crazy Zionist who will go to great lengths to totally discredit a scholar with a point of view that is not entirely pro-Israeli.

  • invisible_hand says:

    @invisible_hand thank you to joachim for actually knowing the argument that people are fighting over.
    dr. abu el-haj is not an archaeologist, but she never claims to be. and though she should really get her facts straight (the assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of israel was 722, not 701, silly), her main thesis has to do with an anthropological critique of the cultural project that was the beginning stages of israeli archaeology.
    it should be noted, however, that she does not discuss very similar procedures occurring currently, with a Palestinian-directed archaeological effort to destroy ancient israelite material culture, doing the world a disservice.

    1. Joachim Martillo says:

      @Joachim Martillo Of course, the sociology of Palestinian archeology is not the topic of Nadia Abu el Haj’s book.

      Perhaps, if Nadia Abu el Haj is tenured as she merits, she will discuss how Zionist dispossession and ethnic cleansing has conditioned Palestinian reaction to archeological evidence from the 1st or 2nd Temple period.

      In another context, I put together a short homily to discuss the relationship of Palestinian Islam to Christianity and Judaism. (See .)

      Ethnic Ashkenazim are somewhat pathetic because they are so ashamed of their own history and ethnogenesis in Eastern Europe and Southern Russia that they are attempting to steal the history of Palestine.

      Palestinians are so abused and traumatized by Zionism that they do not want to hear anything about their true history which has been misrepresented by European Christian, ethnic Ashkenazi and German Jewish scholars. (See pages 36-37 of Facts on the Ground — apparently there were no Israelite peasants, who were among the ancestors of modern Palestinian fellahuna.)

      Recently, there was a lot of buzz in the news about the possibility that Turkey would loan the Siloam inscription to the Israeli Jerusalem Municipality. If Turkey really wants to lend it to anyone in the Holy Land, the Siloam insrciption should really go to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities.

      Ethnic Ashkenazim that want to get in touch with their past should really be digging in Eastern Europe and Southern Russia while Israeli Jews of Moroccan, Iraqi, and Yemen should head to Morocco, Iraq and Yemen.

      The references on are worth reading even if some of the positions of the various authors are disputable. I disagree with both Neusner and Shaye Cohen with regard to the time period for the beginning of Jewishness, but the issue is more a matter of detail than of substance because we all agree that modern Jewishness begins in the 4th century CE or later well after the period of the archeological issues that appear in either Abu el Haj’s or Zerubavel’s books. Neither Cohen nor Neusner addresses the connection of Islam as it crystallizes in the 8th century to Judean peasant forms and practices of the 2nd or 3rd century.

      Crone probably overestimates the Samaritan contribution to the development of Islam or assumes a much greater differentiation between peasant Samaritanism and peasant Judaism in Palestine of the Greco-Roman period than there really was.

  • Joachim Martillo says:

    @Joachim Martillo When I asked Segal about the Eastern European and German origins of Zionist archeology, Segal rather defensively and dismissively answered that all six of the professional archeologists [of the New Settlement] could have been in that tradition.

    I did not pursue the point, but the New Yishuv had many amateur archeologists and geographers, who had at least a few courses in archeology or geography from German, Eastern European or Russian universities, where those two subjects were highly politicized, and the professional archeologists were if am not mistaken all educated in Germany.

    The archeological site most visited by Zionist colonists in the 1920s was Masada, which stands outside the interest of Biblical archeology.

    I criticized Abu el Haj for insufficiently addressing the German and Eastern European roots of Zionist archeology. I have the impression of diffidence because she uses a quotation from Magen Broshi on p. 48 to tell the reader that yediat haaretz is a calque of the German word Landeskunde. (In view of the controversy her book generated without discussing the German roots of Israeli archeology and geography, I am willing to forgive Abu el Haj for treading extremely lightly on this subject.)

    Abu el Haj mentions Biblical archeology in conjunction with the Yadin Aharoni debate of th 50s, which is the time frame when Biblican archeology becomes an issue in Israeli archeology, for she is trying to give a sense of the limits in which Israeli archeology generally operates. As she points out, it has often been a debate over details. In the Polish seminary this type of dispute is quodlibet. In the Polish Yeshiva it is pilpul.

    When Segal started to talk about Abu el Haj’s analysis of the debate, I began to suspect Segal had not really read the book because he claimed that she only referenced Joshua and ignored Judges. One would come to such a conclusion if one onlylooked through the index because the index is flawed, but she definitely notes the different histories of the Israelite immigration into Canaan in the two books as well as in Chronicles.

    The book discussed the Israelite/Judahite monarchial period in the context of Avigad’s search for an Israelite presence on Jerusalem’s Western hill (starting p. 137). Abu el-Haj is terminologically sloppy because she calls the Judahite monarchy the Judean monarchy, but anyone paying attention as he read would realize the time period under discussion. In this contexts she discusses the disputes among Israeli archeologists as well as which questions are asked and which questions are omitted because she is trying to show how Israeli archeology functions and not attempting to produce a survey of Israeli archeological results or claims.

    I do not know whether Emily has really read Zerubavel or Abu el-Haj. While there is considerable overlap between Recovered Roots and Facts on the Ground, to call Zerubavel more serious than Abu el Haj shows a lack of understanding. Zerubavel describes the creation of collective national memory. Archeologists play a role, but they are only part of the process, and Zerubavel has less interest in the internal debates of pre-state or Israeli archeology. She is actually showing how a false artifically created consciousness becomes the source of false memories, which blot out true memories. Hence the title of the book, which suggests recovered memories which are often false as has been a topic of legal debate in the context of the Fells Acre child abuse case. In effect, if not in intent, Zerubavel is making a statement that modern Jews have deluded themselves into believing they have a connection to ancient Israelites, whether or not an ancient Israelite kingdom ever existed as described in the Bible.

    Abu el Haj investigates in more detail how Israeli archeology functions because the Zionist political use of archeology goes beyond German or Eastern European political use of archeology. Germans, Poles, Rumanians, etc. like Zionists use archeology to make territorial claims, but Germans, Poles, and Rumanians did not necessarily need archeology to create the German, Polish or Rumanian sense of national identity.

    As I pointed out previously ( ), the idea of single Jewish nation was bogus even within the territories of historic Poland. Abu el-Haj is arguing that pre-state and Israeli archeology was critical to creating to consciousness of an Israeli identity that connects seamlessly to ancient Israelites. As Abu el-Haj correctly points out, Israeli and Israelite are the same word in Hebrew. As a consequence, Israeli archeologists are much more interested in historical questions that are ill suited to archeological resolution than in sociological and technological questions that archeology can answer as Mark Lehner has done very impressively in the field of Egyptology.

    Joachim Martillo

    1. Joachim Martillo says:

      @Joachim Martillo I neglected to mention the link to Emily’s article in the Columbia Spectator.

      It is .

  • those snippets says:

    @those snippets of el-haj’s writing are typical of anthropology, and i’ve never been impressed with the writing of anyone in that discipline.

  • CML says:

    @CML These snippets of Abu El-Haj’s writing are making me look good.

  • i demand says:

    @i demand that bwog cease its war on terrible grammar:

    “Segal’s lecture focused primarily on the debate between Biblical maximalists and minimalists—those who consider the Bible to be a reliable historical source regarding regards to non-miraculous things, vs. those who don’t—and finally moved on to El-Haj’s supposed reliance on the latter in her book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society.”

    also, hemingway person that sentence wasnt hard to read.

    1. it was says:

      @it was more of a comment on how verbose/pretentious the paragraph was than its readability. I could care less whatever side of the aisle she’s on in this never ending columbia poo flinging episode but i feel sorry for anthro students if they have to read entire books like this

      1. oh they do says:

        @oh they do i took an anthro class once. there are a few decent writers, but most of them are like that.

        no anthropologist, however, is as bad a writer as spivak. (note: because this is a bwog comment, my one anthro class qualifies me to quantify universally.)

    2. speaking of grammar says:

      @speaking of grammar “The flyer for the event hadn’t mentured El-Haj, but Segal made it clear that, though not a “harangue or tirade,” his remarks served to question El-Haj’s scholarship.”

  • agreed says:

    @agreed Much better than Spec coverage. Although the lack of MEALAC people commenting would make it hard, it must be possible to find someone–students, former colleagues–who would have something to say…but I didn’t write the article, so maybe I’m wrong.

  • Lydia says:

    @Lydia Also, the originally simplistic explanation of Biblical maximalism vs. minimalism was an editing error on my part, not Josh’s. Mea culpa.

    1. fair enough says:

      @fair enough so segal isn’t necessarily a biblical literalist. good. it’s worth noting, though, that emily steinberger’s attach on abu el haj in today’s spec is basically on the grounds that people who question her religion should have to be super-amazing to be given tenure:

      Would a reputable university like Columbia offer tenure to someone whose work deconstructs Jewish history and basic Judaic premises as a whole? Perhaps, if that someone had outstanding and comprehensive evidence to support this radically new and divergent idea.

      i mean, what the fuck. as an atheist, i think religion, particularly religion that believes in and endorses the God of the old testament, who likes to murder egyptian children for pharaoh’s crimes, is bullshit. why should jews or christians get special protection from being offended, but not me? why does contradicting somebody’s superstitions have any bearing whatsoever on the tenure process?

      1. are you says:

        @are you denying the holocaust? I think you are.

        The ADL is so on your ass for that comment.

      2. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous as a bible major at JTS, the thing that pisses me off the most is the lack of general knowledge about these subjects. oh man, no one is making sense here, because no one has the background or vocabulary.
        to the spec opinion writer cited by #21, a “myth,” anthropologically speaking is not a value judgment regarding facticity, but a genre signifying a narrative frameowrk by which a certain people inscribes their identity through history and symbolism.
        even dr segal is the most quite qualified to be speaking on this, as he is, primarily, a scholar of late antiquity, or Syrio-Palestine when controlled by the Roman Empire. This is a millenium after the posited existence of the Unified Monarchy and the First Commonwealth (until the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple).
        What is being glossed over in the article is not the presence of Israelites in what was known as Israel and Judea in the 2nd to 1st millenia BCE but rather the existence of an original unified kingdom, as led by David and Solomon.
        The state of the field is much less confident than dr segal in term of the bible’s historicity. “maximalism” has not been a tenable position for many years, and “minimalism” he come to be a pejorative term. the existence of a unified kingdom is by far not a bygone conclusion in the field; though it has not been definitively disproven either. the “merneptah stele” referenced by the josh the blogger is an inscription citing “David, king of Israel.” however, it comes from a time far after David’s posited existence. it may indicate the davidic line’s origin, or it may be the cultural mimesis of a mythic line.
        finally, commenter #21, your discourse regarding the phenomenon we call “religion” is simplistic, offensive and mistaken. you have accepted, hook line and sinker, the picture of religion as portrayed by the fundamentalists, as irrational faith rooted in a literal reading of the canonical biblical text, that you serve to perpetuate their current cultural capital. if you truly want to combat their pernicious influence, then you must look critically at your own views on religion and begin to accept that religion is a phenomenon rooted in the human experience, though you do not see yourself as participating in a specific faith tradition. finally, you must begin to theorize a new vision of what religion is and what it means.

        1. commenter #21 says:

          @commenter #21 you’re perfectly right that to say religion, as such, is “bullshit” is unjustified. i apologize. i do think that there is no God, and that there are very good arguments for this (problem of evil for any omnipotent & benevolent God, problem of inconsistent revelation for any omnipotent God interested in being believed in). i dislike euphemisms like ‘i don’t see myself as participating in a specific faith tradition’; ‘atheist’ is perfectly adequate, more precise and much more compact. i dont think that religion in general is so stupid as to qualify for “bullshit”. i would only apply that term to, eg, the worship of an entity believed to have literally have killed every first-born child in a nation as collective punishment for the sins of the unelected, hereditary ruler of that nation. a worship which is unfortunately common, but not i think at the forefront of most christians’ faith.

  • get the name right! says:

    @get the name right! “abu el-haj.” how hard is that?

  • Josh M. says:

    @Josh M. I’d like to apologize and clarify; Biblical maximalists do not necessarily accept the Bible as the literal truth (for example, in regards to miracles), nor do minimalists necessarily reject it completely. That’s a theological question. From what I gathered at the lecture, maximalists consider the Bible a reliable historical source and a guide for archaeological digs/interpretations. Minimalists might think it is not a reliable historical source and definitely do not think it should be used as a guide for digs. Sorry for the confusion.

  • note says:

    @note this bwog article is vastly superior to the spectator coverage, which, while being totally openly in favor of segal, did much less to inform about the actual content of the lecture.

    1. wait says:

      @wait are you saying that Spec is a pawn of LionPAC and the Columbia-Zionist conspiracy?

    2. Sadia says:

      @Sadia El-Haj didn’t comment. And no one from MEALAC has either, which is probably smart, but it makes it hard to provide a balanced perspective.

      Also, I don’t think it’s the Spectator’s function to do a blow-by-blow of the content of Segal’s lecture because 1.) we would have to validate his claims to a certain extent (or else we’d come off as “more pro-Segal” or “anti-Segal” depending on who reads into what)and 2.) we would need to provide the same depth / blow-by-blow of El Haj’s work.

      And if you’re qualified to do that, by all means, write something. But I’m betting you’re not.

      The point is you can accuse us of anything.

      1. Well says:

        @Well It might have been nice if the Spec had, for example, let people know what exactly “Scholars for Peace in the Middle East” is.

        1. Sadia says:

          @Sadia agreed

      2. If you're says:

        @If you're not qualified to report the basic issues surrounding the story, maybe it’s time to stop pretending.

      3. spec critic says:

        @spec critic it was more than just describing Scholars for Peace in the Middle East as a simple ‘academic organization’. three people hostile to El-Haj were quoted, with no defenders. the article quotes Segal’s allegation that Barnard asked him for non-Jewish reviewers, and says Barnard couldn’t be reached for response: that’s either deceptive or based on inexcusable ignorance, because Barnard has denied that allegation to other newspapers. from the NYT:
        Elizabeth Gildersleeve, a Barnard spokeswoman, said that a high official of the college had met with Professor Segal on the tenure case and asked him to submit names for letters of reference. But Ms. Gildersleeve said that “the charge that restrictions were put on that request is absolutely untrue.”

        abu el-haj’s tenure is labelled ‘controversial’ but paula stern’s decision to move to an illegal settlement, which even people like alan dershowitz view as extremist, is not. and there’s more.

        sadia, you know perfectly well who you could talk to on campus to find a quote in defense of abu el haj. there was a whole group of students who defended Massad two years ago under the name “stop mccarthyism at columbia”, some of whom must still be around. there is Filasteen, the Palestinian cultural/political group. (LionPAC is quoted…)

    3. also says:

      @also bwog had the benefit of a bit more time in posting this. no? i agree it is a good post.

  • wait wait wait says:

    @wait wait wait so Segal’s argument is *dependent* and *based on* the belief the stories of the bible are *literal historical truth*? for serious? i wasn’t at the lecture and don’t know anything about the guy – am i totally misreading this? ’cause, y’know, there are some serious problems with that view.

    1. to number 8 says:

      @to number 8 Yeh, I do think you are misreading it. He was explicit that he does not rely on the bible as truth. I was at the event and this really wasn’t part of his message.

  • Alum says:

    @Alum I’m not Tao. If I were, that comment (and this one) would have been more condescending.

  • Two things says:

    @Two things @ #1- Tao Tan. Stop posting.

    and, here’s an excerpt from El-Haj’s book:

    ““The making of archaeological evidence, however, entails interventions that go well beyond interpretative acts. In excavating the land, archeologists carve particular (kinds of) objects out of the contours of the earth’s depths – depending, of course, on the specific excavating techniques used, the kinds of remains made visible, and which of those remains are recognized as significant and thus recorded (inscribed as evidence) and preserved. In so doing, archaeologists assemble material culture henceforth embedded in the terrain itself, facts on the ground that instantiate particular histories and historicities.””

    In so doing, El-Haj reminds us she needs to channel some of Hemingway’s writing style or STFU.

  • ok. last sentence says:

    @ok. last sentence kinda of funny. *golfclap*

    In response, Segal went on to cite numerous archaeological examples to support the Israelite kingdom’s existence, including the Mesha Stele and the Merneptah inscriptions, as well as “ethnic identifiers” such as instruments for circumcision, certain types of pottery, and almost a complete lack of pig bones in specific areas.

  • Josh says:

    @Josh speaks truth to power.

  • Alum says:

    @Alum A misplaced comma early in the article suggests that Ingeborg Rennert is a Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard. In reality, she is the namesake of Alan Segal’s professorship.

    1. Bwog says:

      @Bwog Truth. Fixed.

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