His own worst enemy.

October 4, 2005

In News

Nathan Burstein

‘I could own him and I could own the University of California Press,” says Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz of his adversary Norman Finkelstein, speaking by phone from his campus office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Everything he says is demonstrably false.”

The author of more than 20 books, including two novels, Dershowitz did not achieve fame through understatement or by avoiding controversy.

Instead, Harvard’s youngest-ever full professor — he got the job at 28 — has skillfully cultivated a flourishing media career that both builds on and departs from his impressive academic background.

He’s used his trademark outspokenness in defense of those academic credentials since the publication of 2003’s The Case for Israel, whose unapologetic support of Israel’s existence and policies drew a wave of controversy among Dershowitz’s opponents on the far Left. Spearheaded by DePaul University assistant professor Norman Finkelstein, the attacks alleged that Dershowitz had plagiarized nearly the entirety of The Case for Israel, which Finkelstein and Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn described as a “hoax” and a “fraud.”

Despite his contention that he could “own” Finkelstein because of what he considers libelous claims in Finkelstein’s latest book, Dershowitz says he will not pursue litigation. Though clearly infuriated by the charges, Dershowitz has so far kept the case out of the courtroom. Instead, he has responded with his legendary writing and rhetorical skills, which he famously refined as part of O.J. Simpson’s legal “Dream Team” and in the case of Claus Von Bulow, whose 1982 murder conviction was overturned after Dershowitz got involved in the case.

Dershowitz’s subsequent book about the affair went on to critical and commercial success as a movie of the same name, Reversal of Fortune, starring Ron Silver as Dershowitz and winning Jeremy Irons an Academy Award for his portrayal of the defendant. The film received two additional Oscar nominations, including one for the screenplay adapted from Dershowitz’s memoir.

The Brooklyn-raised Dershowitz brings up the plagiarism allegations repeatedly over the course of his newest book, The Case for Peace. There, he devotes an entire chapter — entitled “A Case Study in Hate and Intimidation” — to Finkelstein and his allies on the radical anti-Israel Left. The chapter notes Finkelstein’s history of attacking pro-Israel writers’ honesty rather than their arguments and evidence, occasionally stepping back to poke fun at some of Finkelstein’s wilder theories, such as that the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust was produced to strengthen Israel’s bargaining position at the Camp David peace talks.

A potentially career-ending accusation against an academic, the plagiarism allegations came at a particularly charged moment on Dershowitz’s own campus, where Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin had admitted a year earlier to unintentionally copying parts of one of her most celebrated books.

While the accusations against Dershowitz will inevitably continue to circulate among his enemies on the far Left, the allegations have been discredited in the academic mainstream. Dershowitz himself requested a Harvard Law School inquiry into the matter — before the accusations were known to school officials — and the resulting report vindicated Dershowitz’s research and attribution practices.

As he notes in the “Case Study” chapter, the former president of Dartmouth College and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences also reviewed the case, ultimately writing that “I do not understand [Finkelstein’s] charge of plagiarism” and noting that Finkelstein’s definition of “plagiarism” is directly contradicted by the ruling authority on the issue, The Chicago Manual of Style.

In the telephone interview, Dershowitz says The Case for Israel received a “superb reception” among his colleagues, and that Harvard president Lawrence Summers has also “been very supportive.”

He also notes — perhaps gloats — that he received a writing prize in June from Harvard law dean Elena Kagan, who praised his “exceptional scholarship” in Rights and Wrongs, another Dershowitz book published earlier this year.

Though both The Case for Israel and The Case for Peace are extensively footnoted and indexed, Dershowitz has nevertheless taken steps to ward off more misleading charges this time around. The Finkelstein allegations centered on quotations used in a demographic history of Israel, From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, which Dershowitz then matched against the original sources and reproduced in his own book.

“This is simply not plagiarism, under any reasonable definition of the word,” the former Dartmouth president wrote in his review. Even so, Dershowitz’s endnotes for The Case for Peace note that a Beirut Telegraph quotation from 1948 also appears in the Peters book. Just to be perfectly clear.

The 35-page endnotes section features other interesting bits of information as well, including the fact that stridently anti-Israel MIT professor Noam Chomsky worked as a counselor at the same Zionist summer camp that Dershowitz attended as a child.

The two will likely appear together for another installment of their decades-long feud this fall, debating Middle East politics either at Harvard or two subway stops away at MIT.

Dershowitz won’t debate Finkelstein, however. “There’s a big difference [between Chomsky and Finkelstein],” he says. “Chomsky is an extremely influential person. I don’t give him any extra publicity or attention when I debate him. He’s taken seriously all over the world, whereas Finkelstein is a nobody who has no credibility. He is trying to use me for publicity, and I won’t let him do it.”

For the same reason, Dershowitz says he won’t pursue litigation against Finkelstein in a California court. He is, however, still available to help a famous client in the state: O.J. Simpson. “I never liked him much,” Dershowitz says, “but my theory is, once a client always a client. They can always call me for advice, but I don’t have to like them.”

The prolific author, who writes all his books by hand, has another volume on the way early next year, a legal study entitled Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways. In the meantime, Dershowitz says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, naming Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Gaza withdrawal as reasons for hope.

“I would rather see a full and complete resolution,” he says, “but I think the trajectory is moving in the right direction. The ball is now quite squarely in the Palestinian court, and they have to take some steps to instill trust in the Israelis to make the next move.”