J’accuse: Finkelstein and Dershowitz

It’s a dispute that involves just about every emotive issue you can think of – Israel, Palestine, human rights, freedom of speech. Gary Younge dissects the academic battle that has gripped America

Gary Younge, The Guardian, 10 August 2005

In his landmark book, Democracy in America, the 19th-century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the fever pitch to which American polemics can often ascend. In a chapter entitled Why American Writers and Speakers Are Often Bombastic, he wrote: “I have often noticed that the Americans whose language when talking business is clear and dry … easily turn bombastic when they attempt a poetic style … Writers for their part almost always pander to this propensity … they inflate their imaginations and swell them out beyond bounds, so that they achieve gigantism, missing real grandeur.”

When it comes to a duel between DePaul university political science professor Norman Finkelstein and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz over Finkelstein’s upcoming book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, gigantic bombast feels like an understatement. It is a row that has spilled on to the pages of most of the nation’s prominent newspapers and gone all the way to the desk of California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Like the two professors in Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House who abandon their high-minded theoretical clashes for a drunken brawl in a car park, Finkelstein and Dershowitz hover between principle and raw verbal pugilism in which the personal and the political are almost indistinguishable.

Finkelstein says Dershowitz is a “total liar”, adding that “If a true word were to leap out of his mouth he would explode.” Dershowitz eschews direct personal attacks only to ascribe his jibes to others. “Many people have thought he was unstable … he is like a child … he makes up facts.”

But beneath the vitriol lie many vital issues: namely Israel, Palestine, human rights in the Middle East, anti-semitism, academic freedom and intellectual honesty. Not to mention the scope for discussing these subjects in the United States, Israel’s greatest ally, where the parameters for debate are relatively narrow compared with the rest of the western world. “The atmosphere for publishing critical stuff on Israel here is very intimidating,” says Colin Robinson, who as publisher of the New Press initially intended to publish Finkelstein’s book.

Finkelstein billed his book as “an exposé of the corruption of scholarship on the Israel-Palestine conflict,” but essentially it is an attack on Dershowitz in general and his bestselling book, The Case for Israel, in particular, which Finkelstein describes as “among the most spectacular academic frauds ever published on the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

This is fighting talk. But then both of these writers come to this subject and each other with some form.

Finkelstein is best known for his book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. The book, serialised in the Guardian, argued that the Holocaust should not be treated as a sacred event to be exploited by a huge “memory industry” but understood as one of many genocides. Translated into 17 languages, it drew widespread criticism from many Jews for playing to an anti-semitic gallery in both its tone and tenor. It is “filled with precisely the kind of shrill hyperbole that Finkelstein rightly deplores in much of the current media hype over the Holocaust”, wrote historian Omer Bartov, who holds a chair at Brown university. “It is brimming with the same indifference to historical facts, inner contradictions, strident politics and dubious contextualisations.” Other experts believe he has a point.

Dershowitz is not just a prominent figure in American academe but the nation’s cultural life. He was part of both OJ Simpson and Mike Tyson’s defence teams. In 1991, he wrote Chutzpah, in which he argued that American Jews should shed their self-image as second-class citizens and engage more bravely with gentile America. In 2003 he wrote The Case for Israel.

A passionate advocate of Zionism and Israel, who after September 11 made the case for torture of suspects whom authorities believed to be hiding information about “an imminent large-scale threat”, Dershowitz is also loathed by the left. Noam Chomsky has described him as a “Stalinist-style thug”.

Both insist they would rather not stoop to the other’s level but have been provoked. “I feel that I have an obligation to defend the ideas,” says Dershowitz. “He is not going to destroy my career. But if they can attack me in this way then it can have a powerful message for others who share my ideas that their careers can be destroyed.”

Finkelstein insists that Dershowitz is either baiting him or is insane. “On a public relations front his attacks have become so hysterical that [Dershowitz] is either trying to provoke me or he’s imploding. My friends keep telling me, ‘Norman, don’t respond’.”

Finkelstein’s criticisms of the book can be reduced to two central themes. The first amounts to an accusation of academic fraud. He originally asserted that Dershowitz “almost certainly didn’t write [it] and perhaps didn’t even read it prior to publication”. He also charged that Dershowitz “plagiarises large swaths” of From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, a now-discredited – by Finkelstein – 1984 book, which attempted to buttress the Zionist argument that the land that is now Israel was underpopulated, and its few inhabitants a collection of different peoples, not Palestinians with a strong claim. (In the version that has just gone to press, the word “plagiarise” has been softened to “lifts from” or “appropriates without attribution”.) Finkelstein alleges that of the 52 quotations and endnotes in the first two chapters of Dershowitz’s book, 22 are almost exact replicas of Peters’ book. However, instead of quoting Peters as the source, Dershowitz cites the original sources from Peters’ footnotes.

The second accusation is that Dershowitz’s defence of Israel’s human rights record during the second intifada is based on flawed or fraudulent data, which Finkelstein challenges with reports from organisations such as Amnesty International, the US-based Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem. “I juxtapose what he says is going on there and what is actually going on there,” says Finkelstein.

A recent piece in the American leftwing magazine The Nation details some of the points of contention. Finkelstein takes issue, for example, with Dershowitz’s assertion that “when only innocent civilians are counted, significantly more Israelis than Palestinians have been killed.” Yet, he says that, according to Amnesty International, even when only unarmed civilians are counted, the ratio is still three to one, Palestinian to Israeli. Dershowitz argues that the IDF tries to use rubber bullets “and aims at the legs whenever possible”; he points to a 2002 Amnesty report that rubber bullets are regularly used against children, at close range, often injuring their heads or upper bodies.

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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: http://insidehighered.com.

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.

Giving Chutzpah New Meaning

Alan Dershowitz is on the defensive over his research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jon Wiener, The Nation, JUNE 23, 2005

What do you do when somebody wants to publish a book that says you’re completely wrong? If you’re Alan Dershowitz, the prominent Harvard law professor, and the book is Norman Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, you write the governor of California and suggest that he intervene with the publisher–because the publisher is the University of California Press, which conceivably might be subject to the power of the governor.

Schwarzenegger, showing unusual wisdom, declined to act. The governor’s legal affairs secretary wrote Dershowitz, “You have asked for the Governor’s assistance in preventing the publication of this book,” but “he is not inclined to otherwise exert influence in this case because of the clear, academic freedom issue it presents.” In a phone interview Dershowitz denied writing to the Governor, declaring, “My letter to the Governor doesn’t exist.” But when pressed on the issue, he said, “It was not a letter. It was a polite note.”

Old-timers in publishing said they’d never heard of another case where somebody tried to get a governor to intervene in the publication of a book. “I think it’s a first,” said Andre Schiffrin, managing director at Pantheon Books for twenty-eight years and then founder and director of the New Press. Lynne Withey, director of the University of California Press, where she has been for nineteen years, said, “I’ve never heard of such a case in California.”

But if you’re Alan Dershowitz, you don’t stop when the governor declines. You try to get the president of the University of California to intervene with the press. You get a prominent law firm to send threatening letters to the counsel to the university regents, to the university provost, to seventeen directors of the press and to nineteen members of the press’s faculty editorial committee. A typical letter, from Dershowitz’s attorney Rory Millson of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, describes “the press’s decision to publish this book” as “wholly illegitimate” and “part of a conspiracy to defame” Dershowitz. It concludes, “The only way to extricate yourself is immediately to terminate all professional contact with this full-time malicious defamer.” Dershowitz’s own letter to members of the faculty editorial committee calls on them to “reconsider your decision” to recommend publication of the book.

Why would a prominent First Amendment advocate take such an action? Dershowitz told Publishers Weekly that “my goal has never been to stop publication of this book.” He told me in an e-mail, “I want Finkelstein’s book to be published, so that it can be demolished in the court of public opinion.” He told Publishers Weekly his only purpose in writing the people at the University of California Press was “to eliminate as many of the demonstrable falsehoods as possible” from the book before it was published.

Everyone knows who Alan Dershowitz is–the famed Harvard professor, part of the O.J. Simpson defense team, author of the number-one bestseller Chutzpah, portrayed by Ron Silver in the film Reversal of Fortune, about his successful defense of accused wife-murderer Klaus von Bülow. He’s also one of the most outspoken defenders of Israel, especially in his 2003 book The Case for Israel; it reached number twelve on the New York Times bestseller list. That’s the book Finkelstein challenges in Beyond Chutzpah.

Norman Finkelstein is not so famous. The son of Holocaust survivors, he is an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago. He’s the often embattled author of several books, of which the best known is The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering–an exposé of what he calls “the blackmail of Swiss banks.” It was originally published by Verso in 2000, with an expanded second edition in 2003, and has been translated into seventeen languages. The book was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by the distinguished Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, who holds a chair at Brown University; he wrote that the book “is filled with precisely the kind of shrill hyperbole that Finkelstein rightly deplores in much of the current media hype over the Holocaust; it is brimming with the same indifference to historical facts, inner contradictions, strident politics and dubious contextualizations; and it oozes with the same smug sense of moral and intellectual superiority.” (A positive review, written by Neve Gordon, appeared in these pages on November 13, 2000.)

Finkelstein’s Holocaust Industry, however, has some prominent supporters, and not only leftists like Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn. Most significant is Raul Hilberg, the semi-official dean of Holocaust studies and author of the classic The Destruction of the European Jews, who wrote of The Holocaust Industry, “I would now say in retrospect that he was actually conservative, moderate and that his conclusions are trustworthy…. I am by no means the only one who, in the coming months or years, will totally agree with Finkelstein’s breakthrough.”

Dershowitz did not see the manuscript for Beyond Chutzpah before writing his letters, which were based instead on statements Finkelstein had made in interviews and lectures. Dershowitz’s attorney objected first of all to Finkelstein’s statements that Dershowitz “almost certainly didn’t write [The Case for Israel], and perhaps didn’t even read it prior to publication.” He also objected to the charge that Dershowitz is guilty of plagiarism–more on that later–and that “every substantive sentence” in the Dershowitz book “is fraudulent.” Finkelstein has been telling this to anyone who will listen, and wrote as much in an e-mail to me: “I devote some 200 pages to documenting that every substantive fact in the book is a flat-out lie.” (Emphasis in original.)

Now that the “uncorrected pages” of Beyond Chutzpah are being sent out to reviewers, it’s possible to see what Finkelstein’s book actually says. (Disclosure: A senior editor of The Nation served as a freelance editor of Beyond Chutzpah.) The claim that Dershowitz didn’t write The Case for Israel has been removed–the UC Press explained in a statement accompanying review copies that “Professor Finkelstein’s only claim on the issue was speculative. He wondered why Alan Dershowitz, in recorded appearances after his book was published, seemed to know so little about the contents of his own book. We felt this weakened the argument and distracted from the central issues of the book. Finkelstein agreed.”

But the rest of the claims Dershowitz and his attorney railed against are still there: Beyond Chutzpah describes Dershowitz’s Case for Israel as “among the most spectacular academic frauds ever published on the Israel-Palestine conflict.” In Dershowitz’s book, “It’s difficult to find a single claim…that’s not either based on mangling a reputable source or referencing a preposterous one, or simply pulled out of the air.” He charges that Dershowitz “plagiarizes large swaths” of his book from Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial, whose scholarship Finkelstein had debunked in an earlier book. The introduction concludes by calling The Case for Israel “rubbish.”

The body of Beyond Chutzpah shows Finkelstein to be an indefatigable researcher with a forensic ability to take apart other people’s arguments. The core of the book challenges Dershowitz’s defense of Israel’s human rights record by citing the findings of mainstream groups, including Amnesty International, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch.

The most important part of the book examines Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians during the second intifada, which began in September 2000. Since then Israel has killed three Palestinians for every Israeli killed. Dershowitz tries to defend this ratio, writing that “when only innocent civilians are counted, significantly more Israelis than Palestinians have been killed.” But Finkelstein cites Amnesty International’s conclusion that “the vast majority of those killed and injured on both sides have been unarmed civilians and bystanders.” That means Israel has killed something like three times as many unarmed civilians and bystanders as Palestinians have.

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June 24, 2005
“Beyond Chutzpah: The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History” by Dr. Norman Finkelstein

Grainger Hall, University of Wisconsin
975 University Avenue
Madison, WI
7:00 PM – 8:30 PM

Dr. Norman Finkelstein, Professor of Political Theory at DePaul University and author of Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict will present this keynote address at the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation Upper Midwest Regional Organizing Conference. The event is free and open to the public.

For more information, contact rafahsistercity at yahoo.com.