Times Higher Education Supplement (United Kingdom) on Beyond Chutzpah

December 18, 2005

In News

by Mandy Garner

A fierce row has erupted in the US between a maverick scholar and a legal giant. Mandy Garner reports on allegations of plagiarism and anti-Semitism.

If you were asked to picture the scene evoked by the words “academic debate”, you might think of grey-haired types sitting in a drafty building arguing politely about the positioning of a comma. Only in the US could academic debate reach the status of all-out war and only with regard to the tortured issue of Israel’s policy on the Palestinians. And the cause of the battle? A fairly slim volume by Norman Finkelstein, assistant professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, titled Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.

The book argues that research on the Israel-Palestine conflict has been corrupted, in the US at least, by the pro-Israel lobby, which “contrives controversy” over the issue when there is “a consensus among historians and human rights organisations on the factual record”. While much of the book is a catalogue of human rights groups’ reports on Israel and attacks on Israel’s critics by pressure groups such as Campus Watch, a large part is a full-frontal assault on one of the most prominent pro-Israel academics: the Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz.

Most people might think twice before taking on a law professor, especially one who represented none other than O. J. Simpson, but Finkelstein is not one to turn down a fight. “Dershowitz’s book [The Case for Israel] has become very influential so it cannot be ignored,” he says, comparing Dershowitz’s take on Israel to the way the Communists operated in the 1930s. “It’s about the big truths and the little truths. Dershowitz has falsified the little truths for his big truth: the cause, Israel. Except that we now know about the slave labour camps.”

Finkelstein’s stance has earned him both plaudits from academics such as Oxford University’s international relations professor Avi Shlaim, who praises his “courage”, and brickbats from academics and members of the US media. The Washington Post, for instance, described him as “a writer celebrated by neo-Nazi groups for his Holocaust revisionism and comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany”.

In addition to calling Dershowitz’s book “a hoax” and accusing the author of plagiarism, Finkelstein also claims that the Harvard law professor has tried to censor his work and is even seeking to get him thrown out of his university. Dershowitz denies these claims, says he is in favour of civil liberties and that he has “requested the right to speak at Finkelstein’s tenure hearing [in the new year]” because Finkelstein has “staked his career on mine – his book, his every lecture and his website are devoted to me. It would be strange if I were not present.” He has also asked for Peter Novick, emeritus professor of history and author of a controversial book on the Holocaust, to speak at the tenure meeting. Novick has questioned the accuracy of many statements in Finkelstein’s book.

Dershowitz also claims that Finkelstein has lobbied Harvard, asking for Dershowitz to be fired. Finkelstein says he has asked Harvard to remove a statement on Dershowitz’s Harvard website in which he says that Finkelstein suspects his mother was a “Kapo” – a Nazi collaborator. Dershowitz says he is merely citing Finkelstein. Finkelstein denies he has ever suggested his late mother, who was in a Nazi concentration camp, was a collaborator and adds that, if she could, she would “rise up out of the grave and throttle Dershowitz”. He argues that it is the very fact that he is a Jew whose parents lived through the Holocaust that makes him a hate figure for the pro-Israel lobby. “Dershowitz said I was a Holocaust-denier and when that did not get the reaction he wanted, he thought ‘he’s a good Jewish boy’ so he tried to get me through my mother, hoping I would sue for libel, but I will not take the bait,” he says.

For his part, Dershowitz, who claims Finkelstein’s book is “filled with anti-Semitic stereotypes, deceptions, misstatements and outright falsifications”, also says he will not rise to the libel “bait”. He says Finkelstein is using him to create publicity for his book and claims that reports that he was trying to destroy the University of California Press, which published the book, are untrue. He says he is in favour of civil liberties and that his quibble is over academic standards. “This is not about academic freedom – the University of California Press is free to publish whatever it chooses. It is about academic standards. Plainly the press’s decision to publish Finkelstein’s drivel was influenced largely by sympathy for his radical ideology.” However, Jon Weiner, professor of history at the University of California, says in The Nation magazine that Dershowitz got a law firm to write not only to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger but to the University of California regents and provost, 17 directors of the press and 19 members of its faculty editorial committee asking them to intervene with regard to the book. Dershowitz initially denied that he wrote a letter to Schwarzenegger, says Weiner, but was later forced to admit that he did write “a polite note”. Weiner says the letters to the press and university members state: “The only way to extricate yourself is immediately to terminate all professional contact with this full-time malicious defamer.” Finkelstein claims the press could have been forced to close if Dershowitz had taken legal action (the press says this “overstates the case”). He adds that Dershowitz withdrew only when he was criticised for seeking to censor another author. Finkelstein says he would not put the press through a similar ordeal in future and will publish with another press. Verso, his UK publisher, says it has had no direct contact with Dershowitz and knows little of his criticisms. A spokesman added that Verso believes the book is “of the highest academic standard”.

Finkelstein, an academic maverick who prefers to avoid conferences and mainstream journals, admits some of his friends have argued heatedly with him over the book. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky, for example, thought that he should focus on the “facts of the matter” with regards to Dershowitz and “his devastating refutation of Dershowitz’s claims (either unsourced, or distorting the few sources) supporting Israeli criminal actions” rather than on the allegations of plagiarism, particularly since he says it is unclear what counts as plagiarism. Dershowitz, for instance, has responded to extensive claims by Finkelstein that he plagiarised from Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial (which argues that Palestinians do not have a strong claim to Israel) by saying that he may have used some of the same sources, but he had them checked independently from the original documents. Shlaim believes the plagiarism charge “is proved in a manner that would stand up in court.”

Chomsky says he told Finkelstein that if he insisted on the plagiarism line, Dershowitz would “seize on it to try to evade the main topics”, as would the media “which tend to prefer gossip to contents” and that this would marginalise “the crucial parts of the book, which have to do with the real world and what is happening to people – and for the US in particular, the decisive role the US is playing in blocking a political settlement for 30 years and supporting serious crimes”. He adds: “The interesting question is what we learn about the intellectual/moral culture from the fact that [Dershowitz] can get away with it.”

A lot of the arguments surrounding the book centre on political interpretation and language. For instance, Dershowitz claims Finkelstein is lying when he says Dershowitz advocates torture. He says he opposes torture “as a normative matter” but that in a “hypothetical” situation, such as imminent mass terrorism, the public would favour its use and therefore it would need to be regulated. He also denies he “demanded” to speak at Finkelstein’s tenure meeting, saying he merely “requested” to give his views.

In the UK the media response to the row has been much more muted than in the US. When Finkelstein was over here a couple of weeks ago to launch the book, he was bumped off Radio 4’s Start the Week and Sky News and had slots only on the BBC World Service, Radio 4’s Today programme and al-Jazeera. He thinks the lack of interest is a form of censorship and accuses Start the Week of dropping him for being too controversial. He also spoke at universities, including Sussex and the School of Oriental and African Studies, which itself has been at the centre of a row over anti-Semitism.

In the US, too, Finkelstein says that, apart from the hullabaloo over the Dershowitz spat, there has been no serious mainstream review of his book and he talks of “a conspiracy of silence”.

The whole debate takes place against a background of fierce lobbying by pro-Israeli pressure groups on US campuses. They accuse Middle East scholars of being biased against Israel. There have certainly been heated discussions every time Finkelstein has appeared on campus. For instance, he recently spoke at Georgetown and Harvard universities and his appearance caused a storm of protest on both campuses.

Ironically, given the liveliness of the issues Beyond Chutzpah raises, Finkelstein’s main concern about his book seems to be that it may be too heavy-going. He says the University of California Press’s lawyers removed “much of the humour”.