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.