The Nation on Beyond Chutzpah

July 23, 2005

In News

Editor’s Note: See Dershowitz-Billiington et al. – Wiener follow up exchange w/Finkelstein’s comment here.

By Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is Professor of History at UC Irvine. His most recent book is Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Power in the Ivory Tower (New York: New Press, 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.

The most important part of the book examines Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians during the second intifada, which began in September 2000. Since then Israel has killed three Palestinians for every Israeli killed. Dershowitz tries to defend this ratio, writing that “when only innocent civilians are counted, significantly more Israelis than Palestinians have been killed.” But Finkelstein cites Amnesty International’s conclusion that “the vast majority of those killed and injured on both sides have been unarmed civilians and bystanders.” That means Israel has killed something like three times as many unarmed civilians and bystanders as Palestinians have.

Dershowitz has a second argument: While Palestinian terrorists have targeted Israeli civilians intentionally, the killing of Palestinian civilians by the Israel Defense Forces is “unintended,” “inadvertent” and “caused accidentally,” because the IDF follows international law, which requires the protection of civilian noncombatants. For example, Dershowitz writes, the IDF tries to use rubber bullets “and aims at the legs whenever possible” in a policy designed to “reduce fatalities.” But Finkelstein’s evidence to the contrary is convincing: Amnesty International reported in 2001 that “the overwhelming majority of cases of unlawful killings and injuries in Israel and the Occupied Territories have been committed by the IDF using excessive force.” Amnesty cited the use of “helicopters in punitive rocket attacks where there was no imminent danger to life.” As for the rubber bullets, Amnesty reported in 2002 that the IDF “regularly” used them against demonstrators who were children “at distances considerably closer than the minimum permitted range…and the pattern of injury indicates that IDF practice has not been to aim at the legs of demonstrators, as the majority of injuries suffered by children from rubber-coated bullets are to the upper body and the head.”

Another of Dershowitz’s examples of Israeli protection of Palestinian civilians concerns Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh. Dershowitz writes that on several occasions, the army passed up opportunities to attack him “because he was with his wife or children.” But in July 2002 an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb on Shehadeh’s apartment building in Gaza City, killing Shehadeh and fourteen Palestinian civilians, nine of whom were children.

Most of Beyond Chutzpah consists of these kinds of juxtapositions–arguments by Dershowitz on Israeli practices of torture, assassinations, treatment of Palestinian children, and water and land rights, refuted by documentation from human rights organizations. The cumulative effect is a devastating portrait of widespread Israeli violations of human rights principles and international law.

Finkelstein has won support for his book from leading scholars, whose statements appear in the book’s publicity materials: Baruch Kimmerling, who holds a chair in sociology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and whose book on Palestinian history was published by Harvard University Press, calls Beyond Chutzpah “the most comprehensive, systematic and well documented work of its kind.” Sara Roy of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, whose book on political Islam in Palestine has just been published by Princeton University Press, calls Beyond Chutzpah “a vigorous, intelligent, succinct and powerfully argued analysis.” Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at Oxford, calls it a work of “erudition, originality, spark, [and] meticulous attention to detail.” Daniel Boyarin, professor of Near Eastern studies at UC Berkeley, calls the book “accurate, well-written, and devastatingly important.”

The argument about plagiarism, which has figured prominently in the pre-publication controversy over the book, has been relegated to an appendix. Finkelstein’s evidence has already been presented in these pages by Alexander Cockburn and debated by Dershowitz in letters exchanges with Cockburn [October 13, October 27 and December 15, 2003]; thus it can be summarized here briefly. In the Dershowitz book, twenty-two out of fifty-two quotations and endnotes in the first two chapters “match almost exactly” material quoted in Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial–including the placement of ellipses in quotations. Beyond Chutzpah has an eleven-page chart comparing these quotations. They are virtually identical. But Dershowitz never acknowledges Peters as the source for these quotations; instead, he cites the original sources that appear in Peters’s footnotes.

The official policy on plagiarism at Harvard, where Dershowitz teaches, is clear on this issue: “Plagiarism is passing off a source’s information, ideas, or words as your own by omitting to cite them.” Dershowitz in an e-mail made three arguments in his defense: first, for three of the quotations in question, “I have incontrovertible evidence that I was using those quotations in the 1970s in debates,” and thus “I did not originally find them in the Peters book.” Second, although he did not cite Peters for the quotations listed by Finkelstein, he did cite her as the source of “at least eight” others. As to why he failed to cite Peters for the quotations in question, Dershowitz acknowledges that he found them originally in Peters, but “I then went to the Harvard library, read them, and cited them in the original,” without indicating that he found them first in the Peters book–a citation practice that he (and some of his defenders) regards as proper.

But Finkelstein somehow obtained a copy of the uncorrected page proofs of The Case for Israel containing some devastating footnotes, which he reproduces in Beyond Chutzpah–including one that says “Holly Beth: cite sources on pp. 160, 485, 486 fns 141-145.” Holly Beth Billington is credited on Dershowitz’s acknowledgments page as one of his research assistants; the pages to which he refers her are from Peters’s book. The note doesn’t tell Holly Beth that Dershowitz is going to the Harvard library to check the original sources, nor does it tell Holly Beth that she should go to the library to check; it says she should “cite” them–copy the citations from Peters into his footnote, presumably to give readers the impression that he consulted the original source. That’s not plagiarism in the sense of failing to put in quotation marks the words of somebody else, and the Harvard administration has taken no action in response to Finkelstein’s charge. But it’s clearly dishonest for Dershowitz to have passed off another scholar’s research as his own.

The Finkelstein book was originally under contract to the New Press, and Dershowitz claims he succeeded in persuading the New Press to drop it. He told me in an e-mail that after he wrote the New Press pointing out “numerous factual inaccuracies in Finkelstein’s manuscript, New Press cancelled it’s [sic] contract with him.” New Press publisher Colin Robinson says that’s not true: “We did not cancel the agreement to publish Norman’s book and never wanted to do so.” Finkelstein said the same thing in an e-mail: “I was the one who pulled out of the contract when publication was delayed due to Dershowitz’s letters. In fact, Colin urged me to reconsider the decision and stay with New Press.”

Now, despite Dershowitz’s best efforts, UC Press is publishing the book–to the great credit of director Withey and history editor Niels Hooper. The book is appearing in August rather than June–because, according to the press statement, “editing and production took longer than we hoped.” Hooper explained that California published the book not as part of a personal feud between Finkelstein and Dershowitz but because the chapters on human rights “show what is going on in the Occupied Territories and Israel.” Dershowitz is relevant as a prominent defender of Israeli policies and practices.

Will Dershowitz now sue for libel in federal court in Boston, or in London, where the law makes it easier for libel plaintiffs to win–as his attorney at Cravath, Swaine & Moore has threatened? That would be another shameful act by a man who claims to be a defender of free speech.