Neve Gordon: Review of Norman Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah

October 17, 2005

In News

Editor’s Note: A follow-up letters exchange between Dershowitz, Gordon and Finkelstein

Reader’s letters are located bellow the review.

Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (University of California Press 2005)
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[Neve Gordon teaches human rights at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He is the editor of From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Prespectives on Human Rights (2004) and can be reached at .]

It is not everyday that a professor hires a prestigious law firm to threaten the University of California Press, yet for months Alan Dershowitz, Harvard’s Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, tried to stop UC Press from publishing Norman Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah. When the Press’ director Lynne Withey replied that she believed in academic freedom and would therefore go ahead with the book, Dershowitz sent letters to the university’s board of trustees and even to California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, asking them to intervene on his behalf. Following both the trustees’ and governor’s decision not to get involved, one would have thought that the struggle had ended, but now that the book is on the shelves it seems that a new campaign is underway; this time an attempt to cancel the author’s reading engagements for example at Harvard Bookstore and Barnes and Noble in Chicago. So what is the controversy about?

On the face of it, the conflict stems from an allegation which Finkelstein, a professor of political science at de Paul University, makes against Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, accusing him of “lifting” information and ideas from Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine. In addition to the fact that Peter’s book has been, in Finkelstein’s words, “dismissed as a fraud,” Harvard University’s own definition, (“passing off a source’s information, ideas, or words as your own by omitting to cite them” would, argues Finkelstin, convict Dershowitz of plagiarism. After a careful examination of the documents Finkelstein presents in Beyond Chutzpah, it is difficult not to infer that the Harvard professor did indeed pass off someone else’s information as his own.

In spite of the public furor about Dershowitz’s alleged plagiarism, this plays a relatively small role in Beyond Chutzpah, thus it is no coincidence that the documentation of his use of Peter’s work is relegated to three appendixes, and is not in the main body of the book. Indeed, it is worth noting that the thrust of Finkelstein’s book is political, not personal. It provides a revealing analysis of the “new anti-Semitism” and a critical discussion of Israel’s human rights record. Could it be that the attempt to stop the book’s publication was in some way connected to what Finkelstein has to say about these two issues?

In Part One, “The Not-So-New New Anti-Semitism,'” Finkelstein makes a double move. He begins by providing a historical account of the literature discussing anti-Semitism, showing how the notion of a “new anti-Semitism” actually emerged in the mid-1970s with the publication of Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein’s book The New Anti-Semitism; this was followed in the early 1980s by Nathan and Ruth Ann Perlmutter’s The Real Anti-Semitism in America. Accordingly, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman was merely repeating an established refrain when he wrote Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism in 2003, becoming just one voice in a chorus of prominent writers like Phyllis Chesler in the US (The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do about It also from 2003) and philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in France.

The crucial point, though, is not that these writers are making false claims about the resurgence of anti-Semitism, even though it is clear that many of them exaggerate the intensity and prevalence of contemporary hate crimes against Jews. Foxman, for instance maintains that “we currently face as great a threat to the safety and security of the Jewish people as the one we faced in the 1930s.” Rather, Finkelstein’s central criticism of such writers concerns who they consider the major culprits responsible for spreading anti-Semitism and what the reemergence of the new anti-Semitism aims to achieve politically.

As to the instigators, he shows how from the 1970s onward there has been a growing tendency in the literature discussing anti-Semitism to blame the left, not the right, for spreading hatred around the world. The anti-globalization movement and human rights organizations are deemed to be the major purveyors of anti-Semitism, while arch-nationalist leaders like Jean Marie Le Pen and Joerg Haider as well as fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberston are regarded as more or less benign.

Finkelstein’s second move exposes how the rhetoric of the new anti-Semitism is used as a political tool to ward off and delegitimize all criticism of Israel. He writes:

The consequences of the calculated hysteria of a new anti-Semitism haven’t been just to immunize Israel from legitimate criticism. Its overarching purpose, like that of the “war against terrorism,” has been to deflect criticism of an unprecedented assault on international law.

While Finkelstein’s basic claims are on the mark, he makes a couple of serious mistakes. First, the Israeli case in no way constitutes an unprecedented assault on international law. Not only has the Iraq war, which Finkelstein mentions, led to more egregious violations, particularly if one counts civilian deaths, but one could easily come up with a series of other recent assaults on international law that have produced much more horrific results. One only has to think of Chechnya, Rawanda, and Darfur.

My second concern involves a non-sequitur contained in Finkelstein’s argument. Finkelstein convincingly maintains that a connection has been drawn between Israel’s illegal actions in the Occupied Territories and the new Anti-Semitism. This link has a dual character. On the one hand, the literature discussing the new anti-Semitism is used to fend off all criticism of Israel, while, on the other hand, Israel’s violation of the occupied Palestinians’ basic rights has generated anti-Semitism. I follow Finkelstein thus far, but he then proceeds to an odd and troubling conclusion: the Jews, Finkelstein implies, are also to blame for the rise of anti-Semitism. Using Jean Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew as a reference point, Finkelstein criticizes the French philosopher in the following manner:

Sartre’s point of departure is that Jewish peoplehood lacks any content except what anti-Semitism endows it with: “the anti-Semite,” in his famous formulation, “makes the Jew” (his emphasis). But from this premise Sartre goes on to argue that stereotypical Jewish vices are either the invention or the fault of the anti-Semite — which means (or can be understood to mean) that Jews possess no vices or don’t bear any responsibility for them.

This, Finkelstein claims, is a mistake. But Sartre means that as an ethnic group per se Jews cannot be characterized or judged in moral terms and no Jew can be held responsible for anti-Semitism, even though individuals and their organizations should, of course, be held responsible for their actions. Neither world Jewry nor one’s Jewishness can be responsible for anything, regardless of what Israel or any single Jew does. Moreover, while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the state of Israel should be held responsible for oppressing the Palestinians, they are not responsible for anti-Semitism, and I take issue with Finkelstein who insinuates that they are to blame for fanning the flames of anti-Semitism. No one is to blame for anti-Semitism except the anti-Semites. Finkelstein in a number of places blurs this crucial point, and therefore unwittingly provides an excuse for anti-Semitism. The crux of the matter, as Sartre cogently observed, is that anti-Semitism “precedes the facts that call it forth,” so that even if Israel were the most law abiding state on this planet, anti-Semitism would still exist. History has proven Sartre right.

Beyond Chutzpah’s second part is its best. It is here that Finkelstein uses Dershowitz’s polemic to explore crucial aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly Israel’s human rights record. Dershowitz’s central claim in The Case for Israel, is that “no nation in the history of the world that has faced comparable threats to its survival — both external and internal — has ever made greater efforts as, and has ever come closer to, achieving the high norms of the rule of law.” Taking Dershowitz seriously, Finkelstein meticulously examines whether Israel’s human rights record is, as Dershowitz maintains, “generally superb.”

The way he goes about it is noteworthy. Finkelstein cites claim after claim made in The Case for Israel and examines their accuracy by comparing them with human rights reports published both by organizations who have a global mandate like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as local groups like B’tselem, Physicians for Human Rights and Al Haq. Dershowitz maintains, for instance that, “There is no evidence that Israeli soldiers deliberately killed even a single civilian.” Finkelstein replies that according to HRW there were many civilian deaths which amounted to “unlawful and willful killings.” When the Harvard professor asserts that “Israel tries to use rubber bullets and other weapons designed to reduce fatalities, and aims at the legs whenever possible,” Finkelstein rejoins with a study published by PHR, which shows that nearly “half of the victims [in Gaza] were shot in the head. There were several victims shot in the back or from behind and in one instance, evidence indicates, the victim was probably on the ground when shot.” And when Dershowitz contends that Israel’s interrogation tactics were “nonlethal and did not involve the infliction of sustained pain,” Finkelstein responds with scores of reports which document multiple deaths of Palestinians during interrogation.

Slowly, a clear picture of abuse emerges. The reader learns, for example, how many Palestinian houses were demolished and how many people were left homeless, the number of prisoners who were tortured and the methods their interrogators used, and how Palestinian medical facilities were attacked and the population’s access to medical care constantly hindered. Moreover, Israel’s Supreme Court, which in certain circles is highly respected, is shown in Beyond Chutzpah to be a key mechanism in the legitimization of abuse.

Two important implications can be drawn from Finkelstein’s study, one political and the other academic. Politically, Beyond Chutzpah reveals how Israel has defied the rule of law in the Occupied Territories by providing a condensed and precise summation of literally thousands of pages of human rights reports. In this way, Finkelstein does a great service for those who long for a better Israel, since one is left with the conclusion that the only way of putting an end to the violations of Palestinian rights is by ending the occupation. There is no other option.

Academically, the section discussing Israel’s human rights record raises serious questions about intellectual honesty and the ideological bias of our cultural institutions, since it reveals how a prominent professor holding an endowed chair at a leading university can publish a book whose major claims are false. The significant point is not simply that the claims cannot be corroborated by the facts on the ground — anyone can make mistakes — but that any first-year student who takes the time to read the human rights reports would quickly realize that though The Case for Israel has rhetorical style and structure, it is, for the most part, fiction passing as fact.

All of which leads me back to the question raised at the beginning: what is the controversy about? While it is in part about Dershowitz’s political investments and his intellectual veracity, its intention goes much deeper than that to expose a grave cultural distortion. On the one hand, the controversy surrounding Beyond Chutzpah seems to be a reaction to Finkelstein’s attempt to expose how elements in academia have played an active role in covering up Israel’s abuse, and by extension, the abuse of other rogue regimes, not least the US itself. Obviously those intellectuals who do participate in this covering tactic prefer to operate in the dark. On the other hand, the heated response to his book is just another example of how the literature discussing the new anti-Semitism delegitimizes those who expose Israel’s egregious violations of international law. The major irony informing this saga is that Finkelstein’s book, not Dershowtiz’s, constitutes the real case for Israel, that is, for a moral Israel.

[A letter to Neve Gordon cc’d to Finkelstein]
From: “Art Hilgart”
To: ngordon[at]
CC: NormanGF[at]
Subject: In These Times-Finkelstein

Dear Professor Gordon,

I rarely find quibbles with your fine reporting in the US press. However…

“An unprecedented assault on international law” may be an exaggeration, but nearly sixty years of ethnic cleansing and other flagrant violations of international law comes close.

Some Jews have been responsible for some anti-Semitism—- before the implantation of Israel in Palestine, there was little anti-Semitism in the Mideast, where Jews had lived in relative security for millennia. And the egregious behavior of AIPAC toward members of the US Congress may have induced irritation that leaks from AIPAC to “Jews”. Certainly Foxman et alia interpret criticism of any Jew as anti-Semitism. By attributing responsibility for, say, the behavior of Sharon to all Jews, Foxman et alia are the most pernicious anti-Semites.


Art Hilgart

Hello Prof. Finkelstein,

This is Jeff S., student from Rhode Island College e-mailing you again. I was just wondering if you had read Neve Gordon’s review of Beyond Chutpah yet? It was posted on on Oct. 13th, published on Oct. 12th. It is bittersweet I think.

Neve calls into question one topic that I feel needs
to be addressed, which is the claim that “Finkelstein
insinuates that they are to blame for fanning the
flames of anti-Semitism” and his assertion that “No
one is to blame for anti-Semitism except the
anti-Semites.” I am on the fence about this claim.
On one hand I agree,sort of, if “they” means all Jews
(I don’t think that is what you meant whatsoever) but
I also have heard the AK Press CD where you said this
in a talk, and it may not be in the context it is made
out to be. I am not sure. I would like to hear what
your thoughts are about this claim.

Also, Gordon challenges the point you raise about
Israel being a “constitutes an unprecedented assault
on international law” and then goes on to cite other
examples of such an “assault” presumably to
equate the “Israel case” with them. I am not an expert on Rwanda
(which Gordon spells Rawanda) or Darfur but I do know
a little about Chechnya (I have a good relation with
CAN: Chechnya Advocacy Network, a great org. on the
topic and the connection he
makes does not make sense as far as I can tell.

I know you are busy, but this particular review seems
to warrant a reply. If you need any data or opinion
about the situation in Chechnya now or in the past I
could send you that if need be. In my estimation
choosing Chechnya (a topic the West has chosen to
ignore for the most part) is foolish. I can only
imagine that he meant to write Russian Federation and
cite that as a comparable “assault on International
law” but to claim the “Israel case” is akin to the
ongoing struggle in Chechnya is misguided.

Thanks Prof. Finkelstein,


Subject: Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah

Thanks for your review of Finkelstein. Just a couple points. The first is that I’m fairly certain Finkelstein never meant to imply that other grave breaches of human rights and international law have not been committed by other regimes, such as those you mention, but rather that the US-Israeli assault on human rights and international law is unprecedented in recent history insofar as the offenses are being committed with total impunity by the most monstrously powerful states on earth, states essentially beyond the reach of any legal institution.

As to Israel in general and Sharon in particular fomenting world anti-Semitism, I was surprised to read your objection to what to me amounts to a truism. Finkelstein rightly outlines Israel’s incessant claim to be a representative body of Jews everywhere, a fact coupled with broad support for Israeli policies by nearly all mainstream Jewish organizations. Given Israel’s appalling, Nazi-inspired behavior which has disgusted the world, it is hardly surprising that the outcome is increased anti-Semitism. Finkelstein often makes the analogy with America’s genocidal campaign in Indochina as a potent source of global anti-Americanism. Again, the results are not surprising and the U.S. government most certainly IS responsible for encouraging anti-Americanism, then as now.

Of course, a state which purports to speak for all Jews, to be the homeland for all the world’s Jews and to expect allegiance from world Jewry is a far more direct source of anti-Semitism than America’s war in S.E. Asia was a source for anti-Americanism, given the massive anti-war protests in this country which eventually caused LBJ to forego his campaign for reelection.

Every Jew (like every American) fully deserves to be judged on his or her merits, but if the majority of Jews (or Americans) support Israel’s barbarities, then the majority of Jews (or Americans) should be castigated for it. Mercilessly, in my view.

richard harth

Greetings Professor Finkelstein

Re: Neve Gordon’s review of Beyond Chutzpah.

In response to Mr. Gordon taking issue with your view
that Sharon and Israel are contributing to
anti-Semitism through their oppression of the
Palestinians, I quote Uri Avnery, well know Israeli
Jewish writer and former member of the Knesset:

“The Sharon government is a giant laboratory for the
growing of the anti-Semitism virus. It exports it to
the whole world. Anti-Semitic organizations, which
many years vegetated on the margins of society,
rejected and despised, are suddenly growing and
flowering. Anti-Semitism, which has hidden itself in
shame since World War II, is now riding on a great
wave of opposition to Sharon’s policy of oppression.

“Sharon’s propaganda agents are pouring oil on the
flames. Accusing all critics of his policy of being
anti-Semites, they brand large communities with this
mark. Many good people, who feel no hatred at all
towards the Jews, but who detest the persecution of
the Palestinians, are now called anti-Semites. Thus
the sting is taken out of this word, giving it
something approaching respectability.

“The practical upshot: not only does Israel not
protect the Jews from anti-Semitism, but quite on the
contrary – Israel manufactures and exports the
anti-Semitism that threatens Jews around the world.”
(Manufacturing Anti-Semites, Counterpunch, 2 October

Kindest regards
Gary D. Keenan
Vancouver, Canada

Dear Neve Gordon

I am chagrined by what you wrote on the Counterpunch website,
apropos of Norman Finkelstein, that only anti-semites are
responsible for anti-semitism.

Orthodox rabbis are on record stating that without anti-semitism
Kalal Yisroel would not exist. Some of these rabbis need it and they
feed it:

“…in the mid-19th century, Rabbi (Samson Raphael) Hirsch, the
leader of Germany’s Orthodox Jews, wrote that anti-Semitism is the
tool through which the God of Israel preserves his people…”
Source: “Haaretz, June 3, 2004.

If a state identified as Jewish commits war crimes people are going
to hate “Jews,” just as the Nazi state that arose in the name of the
German people led to hatred and distrust of Germans.

Shall we say that anti-German racism is solely the responsibility of
professional German haters, and not anything the German government
circa 1939-1945 perpetrated in the name of the German people?

Your argument reflects the rabbinic formula that “Esau hates Jacob
forever” and is a most unfortunate repetition of this horrible

Michael Hoffman