Left Hook: Beyond Chutzpah Book Review

October 18, 2005

In News

by Samule Waite.

Norman Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.
University of California Press, 2005. 343 pp. $22.50

Several months ago, I was tabling for University of Pittsburgh Students for Justice in Palestine when a student approached carrying Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel. He asked if I’d read it. I replied that I had, and had been unimpressed. He then gave me a look one might get after telling someone she’d survived a 20-story fall, uttered some words of disbelief, and stomped away.

Sadly, such reactions are somewhat to be expected. After all, reviews in the nation’s foremost periodicals give the impression that Dershowitz’s book constitutes the very pinnacle of Zionist intellectual achievement. But as Norman Finkelstein shows in Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, if The Case for Israel is the best our opponents can do, then clearly they’re the ones in trouble.

The biggest part of Beyond Chutzpah is devoted to dismantling Dershowitz’s defense of Israel’s human rights record. In some cases, mere faulty logic is shown to be in evidence: in one memorable passage, responding to the contention that the well-known 3:1 ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed in the latest intifada somehow neglects attempted Palestinian attacks, Finkelstein points out that the documented firing of some one million bullets and other projectiles in the first days in the uprising could just as easily be interpreted as “a bullet for every child.” More often, though, Dershowitz’s Case rests on distortions of fact and outright fabrication: tall tales of terrorists hiding in ambulances and building bomb factories next to kindergartens; quotations from Palestinian human rights activists trimmed and taken out of context to make it appear as if they praise rather than condemn Israel’s conduct; and so on.

In addition to showing how the very references cited in The Case for Israel often contradict the claims made in the book, Finkelstein draws on an array of indisputably mainstream sources to demonstrate Dershowitz’s duplicity: human rights organizations, well-regarded scholarly texts, and major U.S. and Israeli newspapers, all usefully cited in footnotes. One might find some fault in this approach on the grounds that (as Peter Boyle, Michael Mandel and others have argued) human rights groups are far from immune to the influence of imperialist interests. While I would have liked to see some mention of this issue, the approach nevertheless works for Finkelstein’s purposes. Audiences outside of the typical pro-Palestinian milieu – audiences that might have read Dershowitz’s book – are far more likely to be persuaded by references to these organizations than by criticisms thereof.

Three appendices are also devoted to The Case for Israel. One demonstrates beyond doubt that part of the book was plagiarized from Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial. The other two chart chronologically Dershowitz’s accounts of the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and of the “peace process”, contrasting each claim made with the actual record. Reading Dershowitz’s allegations side-by-side with the facts in these latter appendices really makes apparent the degree to which Dershowitz eschewed actual research, and instead presented his readers with a series of incessantly recycled myths, from the odds being against the Israelis in the 1948 war to Egyptian aggression in the Six Day War to Barak’s “generous offer” at Camp David. And precisely because these myths are so commonly heard in the public arena (but so rarely refuted in the same), these appendices should serve as superb reference tools for activists.

This thorough debunking of The Case for Israel perhaps gives some insight into why Dershowitz tried so hard to prevent Beyond Chutzpah’s publication: it isn’t just the book that’s debunked, but Dershowitz himself. The public image that Dershowitz has so meticulously cultivated – that of a respected academic, civil libertarian and masterful legal mind – is exposed as a self-contradicting, logic-chopping, torture-advocating hack. His promotion in the media and academia – like that of all such hacks – is shown to be merely the product of a consistent willingness to shill for the establishment.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that The Case for Israel was released at around that the press and the publishing houses were transparently using the specter of a “new anti-Semitism” to deflect criticism of Israeli policies. This tactic, Finkelstein argues, is hardly new. Whenever Israel has come under renewed international criticism for its conduct – during the brutal 1982 invasion of Lebanon, for example – spurious but loud claims of the same sort have been made. Finkelstein provides an historical overview that is as frightening as it is enlightening.

More space is devoted to exposing the mythical nature of the most recent wave of “new anti-Semitism”. One could take issue with some of Finkelstein’s interpretations of the issues involved (do people who say Jews wield too much influence really do so for the same reasons they might say whites or men wield too much influence?) or some of his phraseology (can those who would exploit Jews to further certain geopolitical interests really be called “philo-Semites”?). But the crux of his argument – that while anti-Semitism continues to exist, there’s not been the dramatic increase claimed by Zionists; and that the silencing of legitimate criticism of Israel is often what allows anti-Semitism to sustain itself – is beyond dispute, details aside.

Beyond Chutzpah is crushing salvo in the battle with those who would deny the humanity of the Palestinian people. It should take its place alongside Finkelstein’s Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict as a classic of radical writing on the Palestinian liberation struggle. The attention drawn to it by its main target will hopefully help it to reach a wide audience.

Sam Waite is an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.
He is active in the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee.