December 12, 2005
Editor’s note: German edition of Beyond Chutzpah.
Criticism of Israel and Anti-Semitism: Norman Finkelstein’s polemic against Alan Dershowitz
Translated by MAREN HACKMANN
Ernest Goldberger, ” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 10 December 2005.
In his latest book with the weird title Beyond Chutzpah, Norman Finkelstein, a professor
of political science at Chicago’s DePaul University and the author of the polemic and
hence controversial book The Holocaust Industry, passionately fights against those who
make false allegations of anti-Semitism and distort facts and history in an effort to
shield Israel from criticism.
Finkelstein’s discussion is both emotional and sharp-tongued, which can mostly be
ascribed to the author’s personal rivalry with Alan Dershowitz, a famous and
controversial defense lawyer teaching at Harvard University. Dershowitz churns
out a new book almost every year, for readers who have a penchant both for verbosity
and theses without depth. In August 2003 his book, The Case for Israel, was published.
It became a national best seller, and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs purchased
a large number of copies and distributed them.
In this book Dershowitz, for instance, calls Israel’s human rights record in the occupied
territories “superb,” and discredits all human rights organizations which have, for many
years, been documenting – in meticulous detail and with undisputed accuracy – Israel’s
serious violations of the Palestinians’ basic human rights. Dershowitz even ventures so
far as to assert that Israel is not at all bound by international law and that, therefore,
it needn’t pay attention to it. He sticks by his principle, which he has publicly aired on
multiple occasions, that his job, as he sees it, is to gain acquittals for the criminal
offenders he defends in court, even if he is aware of his clients’ guilt.
The largest part of Finkelstein’s book, Part Two, is titled “The Greatest Tale Ever Sold.”
Here he responds, with meticulous precision, to Dershowitz’s assertions, relying on
authoritative studies and documents by human rights organizations like B’Tselem, Human
Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. Furthermore [sic], he denounces the targeted
killings of terror suspects, the use of house demolitions as collective punishment, the
arbitrary land confiscations, and other assaults.
In the first part of his book, Finkelstein presents a searing indictment of those forces
who seek to immunize Israel from criticism by automatically smearing its critics with
the anti-Semitism slur. Arguably the most prominent protagonist of that faction is the
leader of the influential Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman. This has been on full
display in his 2003 book, Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism, but even more
so in his almost daily attempts to equate criticism of Israel with hostility toward Jews
generally. Foxman even goes so far as to assert that the mere frequency of reports on
Israel by certain media is a manifestation of anti-Semitism.
Finkelstein offers hardly any new facts; rather, he has compiled, with the utmost diligence
and with the help of numerous sources and correspondents, a substantial amount of
documentation, which, alas, makes the book difficult to read. However, while the two
issues in question are not new, Finkelstein deserves credit for the fact that – since
his name is well-known and the book has been written for a large audience – his book does
help to enlighten the public and make people more sensitive to these issues. Regrettably,
he focuses almost exclusively on combating his ideological opponents, so ample space is
given over to their often absurd theses. As a result, the book reads like a polemic, which
is not very helpful. This is probably why the pressing, larger questions are painfully
missing from the book. Considering, for instance, the search for identity, the attraction
of belonging to a certain group of supporters, or the misconceived notions of solidarity,
one might ask, What drives intelligent people to use wrongful means to make criticism of
the current Israeli government a taboo, and what are the likely consequences for the
future of Israel if the critical perception is being suppressed?
In nationalist and religious Israeli circles, authors like Dershowitz are perceived as
friends, while Finkelstein and his supporters are perceived as enemies of the state.
If, however, we consider the outcome of their work, we might well reach the conclusion
that in fact the reverse is true. Had Finkelstein elaborated on this, he could have
widened the scope of his book. In his eagerness, however, Finkelstein did not reach
beyond his anti-thesis. Therefore, one puts the book down with the uneasy feeling that
these two American-Jewish intellectuals might after all be more concerned about being
right, and about selling their books, than about the fate of the far-away hotspot,