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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 149-163



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Reflections on Archaeology and Israeli Settler-Nationhood

Nadia Abu El-Haj


A "national hobby"—that is how archaeology was often described in Israeli society. During the early decades of statehood, this historical science transcended its purview as an academic discipline—archaeological sites and the ancient stories they told galvanized public sentiment. Archaeological science and the popular imagination were deeply enmeshed. In the words of one Knesset member describing and defending the Masada myth of Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in response to a critical historical reading, "Masada is far more than an archaeological or historic site. It is an expression of the independence and heroism of the Jewish people." He could not imagine "his national identity without Masada." 1 Various excavations—the most famous of which were carried out in the 1960s at Masada and the Bar Kochba cave—received financial, logistic, and symbolic support from the state and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They were sustained by the work of volunteers and the Zionist youth movements, and they received wide coverage in the national press. Such excavations emerged as idioms through which contemporary political commitments and visions were articulated and disputed. 2 More broadly, archaeology became a widespread national-cultural practice among the Jewish public. Jewish public schools, Zionist youth movements, and the IDF (during its basic training for draftees) marched students and soldiers around the country in an effort to teach a knowledge of the homeland (yedi'at ha-Aretz). This was a project in which past and present, antiquities and contemporary settlements, and culture and nature were all brought into view. [End Page 149]

Until now, scholars have analyzed the significance of archaeology to Israeli society primarily in relation to the question of nationhood. In a land in which the vast majority of Jewish inhabitants were "immigrants," members of distinct Jewish communities who came together in what was first Palestine and later the state of Israel, archaeology as a national-cultural practice has been argued to have formed an integral part of the struggle to produce a cohesive national identity. Certain circumstances are widely identified as having generated the salience of archaeology in Israeli society: the desire of a largely secular, immigrant Jewish national community to find "roots" in their ancient (now revived) homeland; and the ideological needs of the state as it struggled to produce a cohesive national community in the decades following the establishment of Israel in 1948. 3 But if one is to understand more fully both the salience of archaeology to the project of Israeli nation-state building and, more specifically, how the work of archaeology actually helped to generate and extend "commonsense" understandings of past and present, of the nation and its homeland, one needs, in addition, to bring the colonial question, and the conflict over territory that it entailed, center stage. As I realized in the course of my research, to analyze archaeological practice solely within the framework of nation building is to accept uncritically one of the most significant effects of archaeology's work: the transformation of Palestine into the Jewish national home.

Jewish settlement in Palestine was framed and legitimized in terms of a belief in Jewish national return, an ideology that became ever more powerful and salient for its members and supporters following the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Palestine and Israel, that is the colony and the metropole, were the same place, the former quite rapidly and repeatedly transformed into a cultural and historical space to which the Jewish settlers would lay national claim and over which they would assert sovereign ownership. 4 The practice of archaeology was essential to substantiating nationalist sensibilities and claims in this settler-colony. It rendered demonstrable the ideological contours of Jewish settlement in Palestine—that, in contrast to settler-colonial projects elsewhere, this was simply a nation returning home. The work of archaeology incrementally reformulated political, geographic, historical, and epistemological truths. In so doing, it engaged in the "work of extending" 5 the very parameters of what was imaginable and plausible, rendering...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1453
Print ISSN
0163-6545
Pages
pp. 149-163
Launched on MUSE
2003-05-23
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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