The Pitfall of Nationalism in Archaeology

At its core, Archaeology is about the formation of identities. One aspect of this is the formation of national identities. In Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s lecture, “Decolonization and the Jews of the Sahara: National Myth Making in Israel, Algeria, and France,” she addresses a specific example of this issue by asking who has the rights or control of the Algerian Jews’ past history? In order to answer this, one has to take into consideration the historical and archaeological records. However, due to nationalism, archaeology and history can often be misused for a country’s own benefit.

After the Algerian War of Independence, the French government wanted to allow Jews from both North and South Algeria to immigrate to France. The process became complicated and messy since before the war the French created a huge divide between the North and South Jews. They granted the North Jews legal status so that they could become French citizens. The South Jews, however, were much more resistant to French control. Therefore, France did not give them legal rights. This lack of documentation for the South Jews became a critical issue after the war since they could not immigrate to France without the legal documents. In response, the French government forged new documents for them.

Who truly has the rights to the Algerian Jew's history?

The current debates center on ownership of these documents. France, Algeria, and Israel claim rights to them for the benefit of their own nations. To the French, the Algerians are a part of their history and past. Without the documents, France would lose records of its supposed citizens and colonization and therefore a critical part of its national history and identity. Algeria claims these records since it wants to reverse France’s claims of colonization and retain its people as a part of its history. Israel took offense to the mass exodus of Jews to France instead of Israel. Due to this resentment and tension, Israel wants to claim rights the documents as well. Overall, nationalism underlies the motives of all these countries.

Thus, if archaeology is used to help settle this issue, archaeologists must be objective and implement a scientific method. Nationalism is one of the biggest reasons why archaeology is misused (Feder 11). France, Algeria, and Israel each have their own personal and nationalistic reasons for wanting rights to the documents of the Jews. If the archaeologists are biased by these reasons, then the issue will only become more problematic, and contentious debates will never end.

Controlling Historical Narratives

Who deserves control over a historical narrative when its key players are spread across nations and cultures?  This is the question that Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein attempts to answer with her research on the documentation of Jews living under French rule in Algeria from 1830 to 1962.  She began by studying the history of the colonization and its societal impact on Jews living in both the northern and southern regions of the nation.  The French conquered northern Algeria first and subsequently attempted to transform the Jews into typical French citizens.  Therefore, they were granted the same legal status as the colonizers, a markedly different one than was later granted to the Jews of southern Algeria.  Those Jews were more resistant to subjugation and therefore declared indigenous subjects.  This label “outsourced” legal control to the rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community.

The difference in treatment of the Jews became a problem when, towards the end of the Algerian war of independence, the French decided they wanted to undo the north/south differentiation they had created to allow Jews to immigrate to France.  To do so, they forged paperwork for those southern Jews that didn’t have any.  This documentation was particularly faulty because some Jews wished to change their names to make them sound more French or to claim a relation to a famous historical figure.

            Nevertheless, the project was eventually completed and many Jews did move to France when they had the opportunity.  The trials of such a fragmented cultural identity, however, were far from over.  Firstly, the state of Israel considered the relocation a betrayal of the Zionist project because so few Jews elected to move to Israel.  Although immigrants were apparently treated like second-class citizens while there, Israel continues to have shaky relations with Algeria to this day.  On the historical preservation front, a huge debate rose over which nation had the right to those papers of southern Algerian Jews.  French officials wanted the list to confirm citizenship and retain evidence of their colonization.  Algerians wanted the list to somewhat undo said colonization.  And Israel, to a certain extent, wanted the list because of that tension between it and those Jews that moved to France.

Professor Stein was unable to find any easy answers to the question of ownership, particularly due to the lack of international cooperation and clear access to historical databases.  These difficulties exemplify the complexity of narrative ownership due to colonization and immigration.  Countries across the globe, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, are confronted with this same issue today.

Nationalism and Record-Keeping in Archaeology

One of the major questions that came up during Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s lecture, “Decolonization and the Jews of the Sahara: National Myth Making in Israel, Algeria, and France” was who has the right to write the history of Algerian Jews? After the decolonization of Algeria, several countries claimed to be in charge of collecting documents pertaining to Jewish history in Algeria both under French rule and the following period of decolonization. Why were France, Algeria, and Israel so concerned with who got to write the history of the Algerian Jews? The answer is nationalism. Archaeological and historical evidence is paramount in establishing a country’s legitimacy and generating national pride.

In his book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, Kenneth Feder notes that nationalism is one of the most common motivating factors among people that try to use archaeological evidence for their own personal gain. Feder writes that the need “to show that ‘we’ were here first or that ‘we’ were civilized before ‘you’ has led some to play fast and loose with the archaeological facts”(11). One major example of playing fast and loose with the archaeological facts is seen in the record-keeping before, during, and after Algerian decolonization. There is evidence that many documents were forged, giving a false impression of the history of Algerian Jews.

an organized way to store documents?

Incongruities in record keeping further complicated the debate over who had access to certain documents which country should be in charge of storing and protecting all of these documents. During, before, and after Algerian decolonization documents associated with the Jews of the Sahara were lost, buried, hidden and falsified. Each person or group of people in charge of creating, recording, storing, and maintaining these documents at various points in history used different methods. At some points record-keepers such as the Jewish leadership of Algeria were very lax in their record keeping, at other points documents were forged and falsified. Algerian Jews immigrating to France also changed their names to assimilate into French culture and adopt a new identity which further complicated the records.

This inconsistency in record-keeping makes it extremely difficult for archaeologists and historians to go back and decipher these documents. As we discussed in class today one of the standards of being an ethical archaeologist is properly recording data in way that all other archaeologists will understand it. We also discussed the importance of sharing data and documents, something Algerian, French, and Israeli government officials were reluctant to do.

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A Story about National Identity and Archaeology

The archaeology of historical documents can be illuminating in our search to understand human history – how identities are created and maintained through acts of documentation.

Spongebob understands the fruitful results of painstaking documentation.

During the last eighty years of French colonial rule in Algeria, laws that granted Northern Algerian Jews access to French citizenship were extended to the

A Stylish Algerian Jew in Contrapposto

Southern Sahara Algerian Jews, who had previously been denied this legal distinction. When the Sahara Jews were granted permission to immigrate to France, problems of documentation arose as the community had been overlooked for eighty years – there was no “official” documentation to legitimize their ancestry or to monitor their futures in the French governmental system. The Northern Algerian Jews had been developing a very different identity than the Sahara Jews for 80 years, even though they were the ‘same people.’

The French forged a register of the Sahara Jews’ names, which marked the first cross-cultural struggle over documentation and the identities that it would be creating and solidifying. The French wanted to control and monitor the movements of the Jews who would be entered into their system, and The Sahara Jews wanted to control what was documented about them – often attempting to ‘purge’ their historical Jewishness by creating Europeanized names for themselves. It was an example of the power of written historical documents in the creating, reshaping and maintaining of cultural and national identities.

I wonder if he identifies as French?

The end of the war of independence came before the registry was completed, however, and throughout the ensuing years the Jewish community in Algeria was faced with a dilemma as their community collapsed. Where would they immigrate to – France, or Israel? Where did they ‘belong’ legally, geographically, historically? The French government, Israel and Algeria were suddenly fighting over the forged registry that would dictate who belonged where based on rather arbitrary categories of identity. Who had access to the Algerian Jews’ historical documents – did the France or Israel have the right to store them, keep them, or utilize them?

Archaeology, with its unbiased scientific approach to studying human pasts, can help us begin to answer questions such as these. We know that archaeology is not all about digging in the dirt: the archaeological analysis and preservation of historical documents and artifacts can help us understand how and why identities are created and reshaped throughout history.