February 21, 2023
In Diary Norman Finkelstein
Is a Beating Heart Buried under Alan Dershowitz’s Floor Boards? (February 21, 2023)
In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator cold-bloodedly commits murder, chops up the corpse, and buries the body parts beneath the floor boards in his home. As his mental state deteriorates, he hallucinates that he can hear the heart of the dead man beating ever louder under the boards until, driven mad by a guilt-ridden conscience, he confesses to the crime.
This story, which I read in eighth grade, leapt to mind the other day when a correspondent wrote me that Alan Dershowitz, in his new book, The Price of Principle: Why Integrity is Worth the Consequences, mentions me on the very first page:
Nearly all of my books are by hand. One year, my secretary estimated that she typed nearly a million of my handwritten words! I recently learned how to type short op-eds on my iPhone, and I dictate a bit. But handwriting is still my primary technique.
My handwritten drafts, which I generally preserve at least for a time, once protected me from a false charge of plagiarism. Norman Finkelstein, a virulent anti-Israel hater, tried to discredit my book, The Case for Israel, by claiming that I didn’t write it—he said the Israeli Mossad ghosted it. When I produced my handwritten draft, he had to withdraw his absurd claim.
Wholly out of character, Dershowitz does utter something that bears faint resemblance to something just six tantalizing degrees shy of something not completely demented. When I alleged on a public affairs program that he hadn’t written—or, for that matter, even read—The Case for Israel, Dershowitz publicly declared that he could present his handwritten draft as proof. I of course immediately wrote him to obtain it. I’m still waiting for the package. Dershowitz purports that I “had to withdraw [my] absurd claim.” That never happened. In fact, in my new book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It!, I recount the charge and put it in context:
Debating Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School after release of his national bestseller, The Case for Israel, I alleged on the public affairs program Democracy Now! that he had plagiarized a hoax (indeed, the very hoax I had exposed in 1984); that he had falsified and otherwise mangled his source material; and that every substantive claim in his book, beginning with the author’s name on the cover, was open to question. It became appallingly clear as the debate unfolded that Dershowitz was ignorant of the book’s content. After playfully needling him about “his” book’s authorship, I finally got him to take the bait:
FINKELSTEIN: I read your book. Or the book you purport to have written.
DERSHOWITZ: Now you claim somebody else wrote it?
FINKELSTEIN: I hope so. For your sake I truly hope you did not write this book.
DERSHOWITZ: I proudly wrote it.
FINKELSTEIN: I think the honorable thing for you to do would be to say I didn’t write the book, I had no time to read it, I’m sorry.
Dershowitz would later allege that he had been “ambushed” on the program. Truth be told, he did have a point: Was it fair that only one of us had read “his” book? I then proceeded to fully document his scholarly crimes and misdemeanors in my forthcoming book Beyond Chutzpah. When Dershowitz got wind of the book, he prodded California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to block its publication. But the governor refused to “exert influence in this case because of the clear, academic freedom issue it presents.” Dershowitz next threatened via his lawyer to bankrupt UC Press: “your appendix—if it is not removed before publication—is going to lead to painful surgery for the Press.” (The book’s appendix exposed Dershowitz’s plagiarism.)
It’s a matter of perplexity what possessed Dershowitz to dredge up this episode—so embarrassing to himself—after almost two decades and emblazon it on his book’s first page. Was he driven mad by contrition as my heart beat louder and louder beneath his floor boards? It’s a sweet imagining, but most improbable. Not even the thumping hearts of all the dead in Flanders Field could awaken this squalid shyster’s conscience. So what happened? Dershowitz was the dream lawyer. His mind stood exquisitely poised between two diametrically opposed mental states: he believed in all earnestness his nonstop lies but, simultaneously, he was always conscious that he was lying. Thus he was able, on the one hand, to sincerely convince interlocutors in the courtroom of that which he had convinced himself—the defendant’s innocence—and, on the other hand, to lucidly plot the best defense fully cognizant that his client was guilty as sin. (His one flaw was an irrepressible tic whenever he was called on his lies to his face.) In the rotting decomposition of his dotage, the border between these two cerebral compartments has eroded. As he searches his memory, he can no longer remember what was true and what wasn’t. When he wrote the paragraph in question, it was probably an “honest” error: he forgot that he had made everything up. On that same first page in his new book, Dershowitz invites the reader to judge whether, at age 83 and post-operative, he was “compos mentis,” and he promises to keep writing “as long as I have the … mental capacity to do so.” Well, the verdict is now in: he should cease and desist from writing; indeed, he should have stopped 83 years ago.