First Amendment Furor

June 27, 2005

In News

By Scott Jaschik

Some books are destined to set off controversy. The University of California Press has such a volume in Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, slated for release in August. The book argues that supporters of Israel prevent human rights abuses by that country from getting the attention they deserve, in part by calling those who raise such issues anti-Semites. That thesis would be controversial from most authors, but the book in question is by Norman G. Finkelstein, a political scientist at DePaul University who has enraged Jewish groups by questioning the role of the Holocaust and with consistently harsh criticism of Israel.

Even before the release of Beyond Chutzpah, the book has set off a broader debate over the First Amendment. An article published Friday by The Nation charges that Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who is attacked in the book and who has been a critic of Finkelstein, tried to get the California press to call off publication.

The article — by Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine — says that Dershowitz had lawyers send threatening letters to the press, and that Dershowitz appealed to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, top University of California officials and others to try to block publication. Given that Dershowitz is famous for his defense of the First Amendment, the clear implication of the article is that he is a hypocrite.

Dershowitz, in an interview on Friday, said nothing could be further from the truth. He said that the letters referenced in The Nation article were designed to prevent publication of falsehoods about him, specifically the charge that he was not the true author of one of his books, The Case for Israel (Wiley). Dershowitz said that the letters he sent offered definitive proof that he did write the book, and he noted that the University of California Press has in fact asked Finkelstein to remove the charge from his book.

“I want to see his book published now,” Dershowitz said of Beyond Chutzpah, which he said was in some ways “a sequel” to the notorious anti-Semitic tract Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “I want to see it demolished in the marketplace of ideas.”

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. (Finkelstein could not be reached for comment.)

As detailed in The Nation article, Dershowitz first became aware of Beyond Chutzpah when it was under review at The New Press. When the book ended up at California, he started sending letters to the press there, as well as to political and education leaders in the state.

One letter from one of Dershowitz’s lawyers, quoted by The Nation, said that the California press, in publishing the book, was “part of a conspiracy to defame” Dershowitz, adding, “The only way to extricate yourself is immediately to terminate all professional contact with this full-time malicious defamer.”

Dershowitz said that sending such letters was not inconsistent with his support for the First Amendment, which he noted assured citizens both of free speech and of the right to petition the government over grievances. He was exercising the latter right, he said, when he sent copies of his letters to California officials.

As to the part of the First Amendment that provides for free speech, Dershowitz said, “Any person has a right to make an honest mistake, but no one has the right to defame another maliciously and knowingly.”

On The Case for Israel, Dershowitz said not only that the claim that he didn’t write the book himself was false, but that he could prove it was false. Dershowitz said that he writes all of his books longhand, and saves his drafts, and that he offered to share copies with the California press. He also said that while Finkelstein questions some of his footnotes, implying that they came from another book, Dershowitz was able to show that he was citing those sources before the other book was published.

“I don’t think Finkelstein takes these charges seriously. He just uses them as a weapon,” Dershowitz said. “I’m not going to let him get away with it.”

He stressed that objecting to these statements did not amount to trying to quash the book as a whole. “My whole career is devoted to being involved in controversies,” Dershowitz said. “I never, ever sought to suppress criticism or this book, but he cannot expect to get away with saying that I didn’t write my book.”

Withey, the press director at California, said that the book will not suggest that Dershowitz didn’t write The Case for Israel. Finkelstein did originally have a reference that might have been read that way, she said, but that was not necessarily the only reading. “It was unclear the point he was trying to make and he couldn’t document that, so we asked him to take it out,” she said.

Press officials reviewed Dershowitz’s complaints, she said, and took them seriously. But Withey added that debate over the book’s claims won’t be black and white. “What constitutes an error can be a matter of opinion,” she said.

And Wiener, the professor who wrote about the controversy in The Nation, said in an e-mail interview that one of the letters he quoted from to press officials asked them to reconsider the decision to publish the book. “Please note that he did NOT ask them to make sure errors were corrected,” Wiener said.

The Inside Higher Ed page for this article also contains comments, including 1 from Alan Dershowitz and one directly addressing his challenge “to quote a single prominent Jewish leader who has ever equated mere criticism of Israel with anti-semitism” by presenting the following: “[NYU’s Israel Public Affairs Committee co-president Ronen Khordipour] explains, criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic because other countries do things that are far worse and nobody complains.” Source: Read more comments here.