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. Continue reading

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.