Professor says UC Press must publish Beyond Chutzpa

Two emails from Beshara Doumani

June 28, 2005

Dear Friends,

I want to alert you to a disturbing development on the academic freedom front: It is possible that the University of California Press might not, after all, publish the long-awaited book by Norman Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. The reason is that UC Press, under pressure from outside political forces as well as pressure from inside the UC administration, has asked Norman Finkelstein to make further changes despite and in violation of an earlier commitment to publish the final galleys without any further changes.

This commitment came after a very long and tortuous editing process during which Norman has bent over backwards in accommodating queries by editors, reviewers, and several (nine is the figure I heard) libel lawyers that UC Press consulted. As the article by Jon Wiener that appears in the current issue of the Nation magazine shows, the book has received excellent reviews by eminent scholars and has been cleared by several lawyers. The new demands seem to be the result not of scholarly concerns, but of intensive lobbying by Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard professor and author of the book The Case for Israel, which Norman tears apart by showing that every substantive claim the book makes is false. Norman also makes a strong case that Dershowitz is a plagiarist.

My understanding is that the core of the new demands by UC Press is the deletion of any references to plagiarism on the part of Alan Dershowitz, primarily in order to avoid being sued. That is a dangerous abdication of the right of academic freedom and the consequences go well beyond Norman Finkelstein and his book. If the heavy handed tactics succeed in muzzling UC Press and Norman Finkelstein, university presses in general will become very wary of publishing any book critical of Israeli policies or of the apologists for these policies, of which Dershowitz is a prime example. The capitulation of the President and Provost of Columbia University when it comes to what ME professors can teach now may have its publication equivalent.

There is no doubt in my mind that Norman’s book would have been published by now if the normal procedures of peer review were followed. The folks at UC Press, if left alone to do their work freely, would have seen this book through. But peer review procedures and academic freedom do not always apply when it comes to critical academic works about Israel. What we have before us here is a naked in-your-face attempt to exercise political muscle in support of bankrupt intellectual arguments.

The article by Jon Wiener was written before these new developments, hence the assumption that the book will be published in its current form. I should also note that despite claims to the contrary, the letters sent by Dershowitz and his lawyers unequivocally aim at suppressing the publication of the book.

It is ironic that when Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, was asked to intervene on behalf of Dershowitz and prevent the publication of this book, his office replied that it cannot do so, for this is a clear case of academic freedom. I think it is very important that UC Press and the UC administration and lawyers be reminded that this core principle is at stake and they should not allow outside pressures to dictate the political boundaries of what can or cannot be published.

Below is a link to yet another article on Norman’s book. This one is by Scott Jaschik, “First Amendment Furor,” and is available at the following link:

It includes a wonderful quote from Lynne Withey, editor of UC Press, contradicting Dershowitz’s claim that he has not tried to suppress the publication of the book and rejecting Dershowitz’s charge that it is anti-Semitic:

    “But Lynne Withey, director of the University of California Press, said in an interview Friday that Dershowitz had tried to stop publication of the book. “He doesn’t want the book published,” Withey said, adding that it was “outrageous” for Dershowitz to charge the book with being anti-Semitic. “To say that the book is anti-Semitic is to say that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic,” she said.”

As I mentioned in my last email, the folks at UC Press, if left to their own devices, would have seen this book through. They have been sitting on a very hot seat ever since they “dared” to publish Norman Finkelstein’s book and few would trade places with them. The threat of lawsuits is real and the financial consequences can be severe. At the same time, the threat to academic freedom is also very real, as is the chilling effect of scare tactics on honest and reasoned discussions of Middle East issues in this country. It is vitally important for the UC administration and UC Press to muster the political will and allocate the resources to defend the principle of academic freedom and fulfill their already agreed on agreement with Norman Finkelstein. If they do, I expect that they will receive strong support from the academic community and from the informed public.

Beshara Doumani

Beshara Doumani is a Palestinian-American professor in the Department of History at Brown University, specializing in Middle Eastern history. He is the Director of the Brown Middle East Studies Program.