July 18, 2005

In News

Legal wrangling and disputes over the author’s claims plagued ‘Beyond Chutzpah’


The University of California Press announced this month that it would proceed with the publication of a controversial book by Norman G. Finkelstein, an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University, that attacks some pro-Israel scholarship on the continuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The press will release Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, next month, despite the threat of legal action by one of the chief targets of the book, the Harvard University law professor Alan M. Dershowitz.

The wrangling over the book has put Lynne Withey, director of the press, to a highly public test of the resolve she publicly expressed last month in remarks to the Association of American University Presses. In her first speech as president of the association, Ms. Withey called on members to continue publishing on controversial topics despite “a political culture that seems bent on suppressing information.”

The fight over Beyond Chutzpah has embroiled the press in a pitched battle between Mr. Finkelstein and Mr. Dershowitz, himself the author of many books, including Chutzpah (Little, Brown) and The Case for Israel (John Wiley & Sons). But it is also a case study in how hard it can be for an academic press to publish a book that deals with such charged material.

Mr. Finkelstein’s book examines documentation assembled by human-rights groups, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, and unfavorably dissects the writings of certain pro-Israel commentators, including Mr. Dershowitz, in light of those groups’ findings. Earlier versions of the manuscript also reiterated allegations of plagiarism that Mr. Finkelstein has made elsewhere against Mr. Dershowitz.

Before agreeing to publish it, Ms. Withey put the book through what she calls “a very detailed peer review.” But the potential repetition of the plagiarism allegations, along with a suggestion that Mr. Dershowitz might not even have written The Case for Israel, led the Harvard professor to take action. He and his lawyers, from the New York firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, sent letters to the press’s Board of Directors and to University of California administrators, urging them to reconsider the decision to publish.

Mr. Dershowitz, who told The Chronicle that he had not seen galleys of Beyond Chutzpah, objected to what he understood to be two of its arguments in particular. “I said that if you put in the claim that I did not write The Case for Israel, I will sue you,” he said in an interview. “And if you say that I have plagiarized, I am going to sue you.”

The University of California Press’s public response to the correspondence was to include a statement along with initial galleys of Beyond Chutzpah sent to reviewers, describing Mr. Dershowitz’s “letter-writing campaign” as “an attack on academic freedom.”

But just as the book was poised to go to press in late June, lawyers for the university abruptly halted publication to take another look at it. At issue were the specific charges and the definition of plagiarism, including Mr. Finkelstein’s claim that Mr. Dershowitz had lifted portions of The Case for Israel (2003) from Joan Peters’s 1984 From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine (Harper & Row).

After 10 days of what Mr. Finkelstein described as “nonstop, round-the-clock negotiations with lawyers,” he agreed to several wording changes designed to forestall legal action by Mr. Dershowitz, including a softening of the specific language about plagiarism.

Now that the final changes are in hand, Ms. Withey says, the press hopes to meet the original publication date of August 28. “We’re aiming to have bound books by the end of July,” she says.

Shelf Lives

The 11th-hour delay was far from the first hurdle that Beyond Chutzpah had to clear on its road to publication. Mr. Finkelstein had originally planned to publish the work with the New Press, an independent commercial house, but under pressure from Mr. Dershowitz and his lawyers, the press delayed publication in order to review the plagiarism charges. That decision bumped the projected publication date from the spring of 2005 to the fall of 2005.

Frustrated by the delay, Mr. Finkelstein took the project to the University of California Press and its history editor, Niels Hooper, with whom he had worked when Mr. Hooper was at Verso, an independent press based in London and New York.

California engaged six outside reviewers, instead of the standard two, to complete the peer-review process. Some of the six are in the United States, others in Israel; their identities have not been disclosed. “Our peer review is confidential,” Ms. Withey says.

The press’s editorial committee, which is made up of 20 faculty members from the University of California’s nine campuses, also had to sign off on the decision to publish, as it does with all the press’s titles. Because of the sensitive nature of the material and the risk of a libel action, Ms. Withey alerted the press’s Board of Directors as well.

“It was more a matter of sharing information than asking for permission,” Ms. Withey says. Beyond Chutzpah was then dispatched to lawyers for review. In addition to consulting its in-house counsel, the University of California retained several outside lawyers, including American and British legal experts, to examine the manuscript.

Mr. Hooper, the book’s editor, describes the vetting and editing of the book as “a very arduous process because of Dershowitz’s threats. We had to be very, very careful. We know how meticulously opponents of this book will go through this.” At his old house, Verso, he says, it was much easier to put out controversial books.

Representatives of the human-rights groups cited in the book reviewed the manuscript, too. “Every comma, every full stop” in the book has been checked, Mr. Hooper says.

All in all, the manuscript went through some 15 drafts in the past eight months, says Mr. Finkelstein.

Letters and the Law

The University of California Press gave Mr. Finkelstein a contract in October 2004. Mr. Hooper says he first heard from Mr. Dershowitz in November, when the Harvard professor forwarded him a package of letters he had sent to the New Press when Beyond Chutzpah was under contract there. “I heard from him first, before we even cataloged the book,” Mr. Hooper says. According to Ms. Withey and reports elsewhere, letters to the press’s board, university administrators, and the governor of California followed.

In late May, as publication drew nearer, Mr. Dershowitz’s letters to university officials as well as the press’s defense of its decision to publish Beyond Chutzpah dominated news accounts about the book in The New York Times and Publishers Weekly.

Mr. Dershowitz denies that he sought to block the book’s publication. In an e-mail message to The Chronicle, he wrote, “In my letters I specifically said: ‘I have no interest in censoring or suppressing Finkelstein’s freedom of expression. …’ In a further letter, I made it clear that ‘I am not trying to get the Governor to prevent the publication of Finkelstein’s book. …’ I did say that I believed it was inappropriate for a university press to publish the bigoted falsehoods in which Finkelstein specializes.”

In Mr. Dershowitz’s view, “University presses should have higher standards of accuracy and scholarship than other presses.” The book and the statement that the press sent out with galleys about academic freedom being under assault “were clearly designed to garner publicity,” he says. In a forthcoming book, The Case for Peace (John Wiley & Sons), Mr. Dershowitz devotes a chapter — “A Case Study in Hate and Intimidation” — to disputing Mr. Finkelstein’s allegations.

Would he have sued the California press if it had allowed publication to proceed without further changes in Mr. Finkelstein’s manuscript? Although Mr. Dershowitz’s letters have not been made public, it is clear that the press and its lawyers considered legal action from him a clear and present danger. “The threat to the press was real,” says Mr. Hooper.

The final changes in Beyond Chutzpah focused on specific phrases concerning plagiarism and how to define it. “There was a question about how to raise the issue of plagiarism without incurring very costly litigation,” Mr. Finkelstein says. “What they asked me to do, and what I agreed to do, was provide the Harvard definition of plagiarism and reiterate my own findings in the appendix and let readers judge for themselves.”

In the body of the book, the word “plagiarizes” has been replaced with such phrases as “lifts from” or “appropriates from without attribution,” the author says. An appendix now refers readers to the definition of plagiarism laid out in Harvard University’s Writing With Sources: A Guide for Students.

“We juxtapose the definition with the evidence and leave it to the reader to decide,” Mr. Finkelstein says.

Lessons for Presses?

According to Ms. Withey and to the University of California administration, the press operates with a considerable degree of independence, even though it is an arm of the university. The press director credits the university with a “hands off” attitude toward the press’s decisions, as well as with consistent support for the decision to publish Beyond Chutzpah.

The final negotiations took place among the lawyers, the press, and representatives of the author. (Mr. Finkelstein did not engage lawyers during the last round of talks with the press. Instead he relied on two mediators he describes as “interlocutors”: a Palestinian, whose identity he would not disclose, and Roane Carey, a senior editor at The Nation, who also served as a freelance editor for Beyond Chutzpah.)

The university administration agrees that its role was limited. “The press has a general charge to publish books of scholarly interest,” says Julius M. Zelmanowitz, a senior vice provost at the University of California. “Within that, the press has a good deal of autonomy.” He was brought in late in the process, he says, to help in the three-way negotiation among author, press, and lawyers, but otherwise the university did not intervene.

“This book was brought to the attention of the university’s leadership … as an information item — a heads-up, if you will,” Mr. Zelmanowitz says. “I never heard anyone within the university … suggest that the book not be published. That really reflected respect for the process by which the press vets a book.”

In the final stages, Ms. Withey says, “the difficult part was that we had a very unhappy author on our hands.”

“I was angry, and I’m not going to deny it,” says Mr. Finkelstein. “For a brief period I was in an adversarial relationship with [Ms. Withey], but never did I lose sight of the fact that she was not the enemy. She was under incredible pressure to preserve her institution.”

Mr. Finkelstein adds that he was not permitted to see the letters from Mr. Dershowitz. “I’ve been kept completely in the dark about all the machinations,” he says. “I was very concerned that these lawyers were being bombarded with all this slander, and I wasn’t allowed to answer it.”

Ms. Withey says that at the press itself, “people were very, very upset” about the possibility that California would not finally publish the book. When the announcement came down that an agreement with the author had been reached, she says, “there was lots of cheering here.”

“It wasn’t pleasant,” Mr. Finkelstein says of the legal back-and-forth. “It wasn’t pleasant at all.” But he describes himself as “totally satisfied” with the final version of Beyond Chutzpah: “I think the argument on crucial points has been strengthened.”

Several people interviewed for this article, including Mr. Finkelstein; Mr. Hooper, the editor; and Mr. Zelmanowitz, the vice provost, expressed concern that the bad blood between Mr. Finkelstein and Mr. Dershowitz would continue to get more attention than the book’s analysis of the scholarship on Israel’s human-rights record. Those arguments should “not be overshadowed by what seems to be an intense personal dispute between these two people,” Mr. Zelmanowitz says.

“We all feel here it’s a very important book, and it’s about how limited the discussion is on Israel in this country,” Mr. Hooper says. “The difficulty in publishing it demonstrates how difficult it is.”

The personal clash between Mr. Finkelstein and Mr. Dershowitz adds an unusual level of drama to this case, but there may be useful lessons in it for other university presses faced with shepherding controversial material into print. “You have to be really solid with your review process, and if you know you’ve got a controversial book on your hands, you have to go beyond the usual peer review,” Ms. Withey says. She also stressed the importance of making sure that every party — university administrators, for instance — with a stake in the outcome is kept apprised of the situation.

Is it becoming harder to publish such controversial books? Ms. Withey believes that university presses are “standing firm” despite the oppressive political atmosphere that she mentioned in her June speech. But “the sense that I get in talking to people is that they’re concerned not about specific legal action but a general dampening of the climate.” That could have an effect, she says, on what authors choose to write about and what publishers choose to publish.

As for the press director’s immediate plans, “I’ve got to get back to all the other things I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. “We really are just trying to publish the damn book and get on with it.”

Richard Byrne contributed to this article.
Section: Research & Publishing
Volume 51, Issue 46, Page A1