Same old same old

October 4, 2005

In News

By Jacob Laksin

The name Norman Finkelstein is not exactly synonymous with serious scholarship. A professor of political science at Chicago’s DePaul University, Finkelstein has been widely denounced as a flamboyantly anti-Semitic crank for writing books like The Holocaust Industry, his 2000 jeremiad alleging that Holocaust survivors were “cheats” who had fictionalized their past out of a “greedy” desire to collect reparations. When not calumniating against Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein actively promulgates his theory about a global Jewish conspiracy, its alleged initiates running from the late Leon Uris to Stephen Spielberg. He counts neo-Nazis among his staunchest defenders. Even a passing familiarity with Finkelstein’s resume suggests that no publisher of any repute would publish his books.

There are, as it turns out, exceptions. The largest academic publisher on the West Coast, The University of California Press, has not only signed off on the publication of Finkelstein’s latest effort, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, but it has been unstinting in its defense of the book, hailing the virulent broadside against defenders of Israel and Jews generally and the liberal Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz specifically as a model of scholarly achievement.

The book, released in August, is typical of Finkelstein’s oeuvre. Bristling with invocations of the supposedly nefarious influence of “Jewish elites,” the book contains passages like the following:

Jewish elites in the United States have enjoyed enormous prosperity. From this combination of economic and political power has sprung, unsurprisingly, a mindset of Jewish superiority. Wrapping themselves in the mantle of The Holocaust, these Jewish elites pretend—and, in their own solipsistic universe, perhaps imagine themselves—to be victims, dismissing any and all criticism as manifestations of “anti-Semitism.” And, from this lethal brew of formidable power, chauvinistic arrogance, feigned (or imagined) victimhood, and Holocaust-immunity to criticism has sprung a terrifying recklessness and ruthlessness on the part of American Jewish elites. Alongside Israel, they are the main formentors of anti-Semitism in the world today. Coddling them is not the answer. They need to be stopped.

Finkelstein also revisits some of the themes of The Holocaust Industry, claiming that

Like the Holocaust, “anti-Semitism” is an ideological weapon to deflect justified criticism of Israel and, concomitantly, powerful Jewish interests. In its current usage, “anti-Semitism,” alongside the “war against terrorism,” serves as a cloak for a massive assault on international law and human rights.

Jewish leaders like Abraham Foxman, Edgar Bronfman drive Finkelstein’s into paroxysms of anti-Semitic rancor. At one point in Beyond Chutzpah, he claims that these Jewish leaders “resemble stereotypes straight out of [the Nazi newspaper] Der Stürmer.”

Finkelstein knows whereof he speaks: Rehashing a classic bit of anti-Semitic propaganda, Finkelstein’s asserts that Jewish leaders are “de facto agents of a foreign government,” namely Israel, and are “in service to their Holy State.” But Finkelstein’s reserves his most strident contempt for Alan Dershowitz, who has authored several books supportive of Israel’s right to exist—an unpardonable sin in Finkelstein’s view.

True to form, Finkelstein pointedly declines to engage Dershowtiz’s arguments. Instead, he opts for a relentless barrage of slander and outright distortion; analogies to Nazis abound. “It is hard to make out any difference between the policy [of collective punishment that] Dershowitz advocates and the Nazi destruction of [the Czech village of] Lidice, for which he expresses abhorrence—except that Jews, not Germans, would be implementing it,” Finkelstein writes. Apart from its grotesque reference to the Nazi extermination of civilians, the claim is in violent conflict with the facts: Dershowitz has never supported collective punishment. What he has done is proposed the destroying houses used by Palestinian terrorists to stage attacks on Israel, and then only so long as residents are first given sufficient warning and accommodated with alternative housing. “To equate the destruction of an empty house with mass murder is obscene,” Dershowitz tells Frontpagemag.

Especially on the subject of Israel, Finkelstein does not even attempt to do his due diligence to Dershowitz’s contentions. He insists, for instance, that Dershowitz provides “no evidence or argument for” his view that the International Court of Justice has an animus against Israel. A more fair-minded observer—or at least one unmotivated, as Finkelstein seems to be, by unalloyed malice—would at least have acknowledged that Dershowitz has provided ample justification for his claim. For instance, Dershowitz points to the fact that Israeli judges are debarred from serving as permanent members of the court, even as the heads of nations expressly committed to Israel’s destruction—and ungoverned by the rule of law—are unquestioningly accorded the distinction.

Tellingly, Finkelstein devotes much of Beyond Chutzpah to countering Dershowitz’s indictment of Palestinian terrorism. Of the Israeli security fence, Finkelstein insists, in all apparent seriousness, that is not “designed to fight terrorism.” Similarly, he takes indignant issue with Dershowitz’s statement that that Palestinian terrorists have exploded “an antipersonnel bomb made of nails soaked in rat poison.” According to Finkelstein, Dershowitz has never provided any evidence for the claim. In fact, as Dershowitz notes, just prior to publishing his book The Case for Israel, he had sent a research assistant to corroborate it. Emergency room doctors had confirmed that Palestinian suicide bombers had indeed availed themselves of rat poison, which prevents blood from coagulating.

Unable to disprove Dershowitz’s arguments, Finkelstein resorts in Beyond Chutzpah to impugning his integrity. He suggests, for instance, that Dershowitz plagiarized his book The Case for Israel. To be sure, Finkelstein doesn’t use those exact words. There’s a reason for that: After learning of Finkelstein’s spurious charge that he had “no idea what was in the book,” Dershowitz, who writes his books freehand, sent the press handwritten pages of the book. Along with his lawyers from the New York firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Dershowitz also wrote letters to the press’s board of directors as well as the University of California administrators, threatening to sue for libel and calling on the press to rethink its publication of Beyond Chutzpah. In a December 2004 letter to the press, Dershowitz wrote:

“I have no interest in censoring or suppressing Finkelstein’s freedom of expression, but merely in assuring that maliciously false statements about me, about other Jews, and about some supposed international Jewish conspiracy, are not published by a responsible press, especially at a time of spreading anti-Semitism around the world.”

The University of California Press, for its part, preferred to paper over these specific objections, as well as Dershowitz’s stipulation that he would have no problem with the book’s being published by a less august press. Instead, it dishonestly denounced Dershowitz’s “letter-writing campaign” as “an attack on academic freedom” and forged ahead with the publication. Significantly, however, the press asked Finkelstein to exorcise the plagiarism accusation.

Not that the press has been entirely candid about the redaction. This past June, Lynne Withey, director of the University of California Press, disingenuously told Inside Higher Education that “It was unclear the point [Finkelstein] was trying to make and he couldn’t document that, so we asked him to take it out.” In the final edition of Beyond Chutzpah, the word “plagiarizes” has been removed in favor of the milder “appropriates from without attribution,” an accusation that, as Dershowitz proves in a forthcoming article, is equally groundless. Indeed, the only “expert” willing to vouch for Finkelstein’s allegation is Alexander Cockburn, editor of the far left journal Counterpunch, who entertains his own perfervid notions of an all-powerful “Jewish lobby.”

In view of the numerous distortions and flagrant falsehoods collected in Beyond Chutzpah, to say nothing of its extended flirtation with sundry anti-Semitic tropes, it might be asked why the University of California Press, heretofore a distinguished publisher, assented to lend its seal of approval to Finkelstein’s book.

For one thing, the press feels that the book passes the test of meticulous scholarship. “We do believe that Beyond Chutzpah is historically and factually accurate and we did employ a very thorough fact-checker,” Niels Hooper, Finkelstein’s editor at the University of California press, told Frontpagemag. (Dershowitz rejects the charge that the press employed a fact-checker for the book; despite being the main target of the book, he recalls receiving only one call from the press, during which he was asked about an issue unrelated to Beyond Chutzpah.) Hooper is similarly dismissive of charges of anti-Semitism, explaining, “[W]e would never publish something that we felt was anti-Semitic and we actually feel that it is disingenuous for Alan Dershowitz to try to discredit a book that attacks his scholarship, not his ethnicity or religion, as such.”

Dershowitz begs to differ. By way of example, he points to Finkelstein’s likening of his views on the destruction of evacuated terrorist residences to the Nazi slaughter of civilians in the village of Lidice. Hooper stands by the press’s decision to publish such claims. It is “noteworthy,'” he contends, that Dershowitz “does not disavow the main charge of that chapter, that he supports collective punishment in the form of house and village destruction that violates international law. I might add that those laws were established precisely because of what happened in World War II.” Dershowitz calls the comparison “obscene and mendacious” for its equation of Israeli self-defense policies with Nazi genocide. Beyond that, he stresses that it is inaccurate: he supports the destruction only of those houses that serve as terrorist bases of operation, and only after the residents have been relocated. Related examples abound in the book. Notwithstanding the abundance of evidence to the contrary, the press vigorously
rejects charges of anti-Semitism. Director Lynne Withey, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said in June that it was “outrageous” to accuse Beyond Chutzpah of being anti-Semitic, adding that, “To say that the book is anti-Semitic is to say that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.”

That suggests another reason that the press decided to publish Beyond Chutzpah: its political composition. As John Braeman recently pointed out in Frontpagemag, the press publishes a number of books distinguished less by their scholarship than their adherence to left-wing politics. (It bears noting in this context that Niels Hooper, who played an instrumental role in getting the University of California press to publish Beyond Chutzpah, is an alumnus of the leftist publishing imprint Verso, where he collaborated with Finkelstein.) Indeed, Lynne Withey routinely justifies the press’s publication of these transparently polemical works by citing its right to publish “controversial books.”

Nothing fits the mold better than the anti-Israel prejudices of the hard left. On the press’s website, the endorsements for the book read like a who’s who of the Israel-bashing far left. There’s a glowing tribute from the dean of academic radicalism, Noam Chomsky, who calls Beyond Chutzpah a “very solid, important and highly informative book,” filled with “considerable historical depth and expert research.” Meanwhile, the far-left academic Avi Shlaim, who has likened Sharon to a terrorist and lauded Yasir Arafat for fighting Islamic extremists, hails Finkelstein’s book for its meticulous attention to detail. That both are Jewish has not escaped the press’s attention. In an interview with Frontpagemag, Hooper hastened to note “that in fact we have only received high praise so far from very many distinguished Jewish scholars.”

Dershowitz is impatient with that line of defense. “One of the most offensive things they are saying in their defense is that they have the support of Jews. Our staff is Jewish, the people who endorsed the book are Jewish, some of our best friends are Jewish. Well, Norman Finkelstein proves that a Jew can be an anti-Semite,” he says. In the end, Dershowitz has little doubt about why the press published Beyond Chutzpah. “I think they have a double standard for judging the hard anti-Zionist right than they would for David Duke and the far right. But David Duke and Norman Finkelstein are the same,” he says. “Except that Duke is slightly brighter.”