Web Only / Culture » October 12, 2005
The Real Case for Israel
What lies behind Alan Dershowitz’s campaign against Norman Finkelstein?
It is not everyday that a professor hires a prestigious law firm to threaten the University of California Press.
Yet, for months, Alan Dershowitz, Harvard’s Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, tried to stop UC Press from publishing Norman Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah. When the Press’ director Lynne Withey replied that she believed in academic freedom and would therefore go ahead with the book, Dershowitz sent letters to the university’s board of trustees and even to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, asking them to intervene on his behalf. Following both the trustees’ and governor’s decision not to get involved, one would have thought that the struggle would end. But now that the book is on the shelves, it seems that a new campaign is underway to cancel the author’s reading engagements, for example, at Harvard Bookstore and Barnes and Noble in Chicago. So what is the controversy about?
On the face of it, the conflict stems from an allegation which Finkelstein, a professor of political science at DePaul University, makes against Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, accusing him of “lifting” information and ideas from Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine. In addition to the fact that Peters’ book has been, in Finkelstein’s words, “dismissed as a fraud,” Harvard University’s own definition–“passing off a source’s information, ideas, or words as your own by omitting to cite them”–would, argues Finkelstein, convict Dershowitz of plagiarism. After a careful examination of the documents Finkelstein presents in Beyond Chutzpah, it is difficult not to infer that the Harvard professor did indeed pass off someone else’s information as his own.
But in spite of the public furor over Dershowitz’s alleged plagiarism, it plays a relatively small role in Beyond Chutzpah; the documentation of Dershowitz’s use of Peters’ work appears not in the main body of the book, but is relegated to three appendixes. Indeed, it is worth noting that the thrust of Finkelstein’s book is political, not personal. It provides a revealing analysis of the “new anti-Semitism” and a critical discussion of Israel’s human rights record. Could it be that the attempt to stop the book’s publication was in some way connected to what Finkelstein has to say about these two issues?
In Part One, “The Not-So-New ‘New Anti-Semitism,’” Finkelstein makes a double move. He begins by providing a historical account of the literature discussing anti-Semitism, showing how the notion of a “new anti-Semitism” actually emerged in the mid-’70s with the publication of Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein’s book The New Anti-Semitism. This was followed in the early ’80s by Nathan and Ruth Ann Perlmutter’s The Real Anti-Semitism in America. Accordingly, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman was merely repeating an established refrain when he wrote Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism in 2003, becoming just one voice in a chorus of prominent writers like Phyllis Chesler in the United States–whose The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do about It also came out in 2003–and philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in France.
The crucial point, though, is not that these writers are making false claims about the resurgence of anti-Semitism, even though it is clear that many of them exaggerate the intensity and prevalence of contemporary hate crimes against Jews. (Foxman, for instance, maintains that “we currently face as great a threat to the safety and security of the Jewish people as the one we faced in the 1930s.”) Rather, Finkelstein’s central criticism of such writers concerns just who they consider the major culprits responsible for spreading anti-Semitism and what the re-emergence of the new anti-Semitism aims to achieve politically.
As to the instigators, he shows how from the ’70s onward there has been a growing tendency in the literature discussing anti-Semitism to blame the left, not the right, for spreading hatred around the world. The anti-globalization movement and human rights organizations are deemed to be the major purveyors of anti-Semitism, while arch-nationalist leaders like Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jorg Haider, as well as fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, are regarded as more or less benign.
Finkelstein’s second move exposes how the rhetoric of the new anti-Semitism is used as a political tool to ward off and delegitimize all criticism of Israel. He writes:
The consequences of the calculated hysteria of a new anti-Semitism haven’t been just to immunize Israel from legitimate criticism. Its overarching purpose, like that of the “war against terrorism,” has been to deflect criticism of an unprecedented assault on international law.
While Finkelstein’s basic claims are on the mark, he makes a couple of serious mistakes. First, the Israeli case in no way constitutes an unprecedented assault on international law. Not only has the Iraq war, which Finkelstein mentions, led to more egregious violations, particularly if one counts civilian deaths, but one could easily come up with a series of other recent assaults on international law–Chechnya, Rwanda or Darfur–that have produced much more horrific results.
The second problem involves a non sequitur contained in Finkelstein’s argument. Finkelstein convincingly maintains that a connection has been drawn between Israel’s illegal actions in the Occupied Territories and the new anti-Semitism. This link has a dual character. On the one hand, the literature discussing the new anti-Semitism is used to fend off all criticism of Israel, while, on the other hand, Israel’s violation of the occupied Palestinians’ basic rights has generated anti-Semitism. I follow Finkelstein thus far, but he then proceeds to an odd and troubling conclusion: The Jews, Finkelstein implies, are also to blame for the rise of anti-Semitism. Using Jean Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew as a reference point, Finkelstein criticizes the French philosopher in the following manner:
Sartre’s point of departure is that Jewish peoplehood lacks any content except what anti-Semitism endows it with: the anti-Semite,” in his famous formulation, “makes the Jew” (his emphasis). But from this premise Sartre goes on to argue that stereotypical Jewish vices are either the invention or the fault of the anti-Semite–which means (or can be understood to mean) that Jews possess no vices or don’t bear any responsibility for them.
This, Finkelstein claims, is a mistake. But a closer reading suggests that what Sartre actually means is that, as an ethnic group per se, Jews cannot be characterized or judged in moral terms and no Jew can be held responsible for anti-Semitism, even though individuals and their organizations should, of course, be held responsible for their actions. Neither world Jewry nor one’s Jewishness can be responsible for anything, regardless of what Israel or any single Jew does. Moreover, while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the state of Israel should be held responsible for oppressing the Palestinians, they are not responsible for anti-Semitism, and I take issue with Finkelstein’s insinuations that they are to blame for fanning the flames of anti-Semitism. No one is to blame for anti-Semitism except the anti-Semites. Finkelstein blurs this crucial point in a number of places, and therefore unwittingly provides an excuse for anti-Semitism. The crux of the matter, as Sartre cogently observed, is that anti-Semitism “precedes the facts that call it forth,” so that even if Israel were the most law-abiding state on this planet, anti-Semitism would still exist. History has proven Sartre right.
The second part of Beyond Chutzpah is its best. It is here that Finkelstein uses Dershowitz’s polemic to explore crucial aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly Israel’s human rights record. Dershowitz’s central claim in The Case for Israel, is that “no nation in the history of the world that has faced comparable threats to its survival–both external and internal–has ever made greater efforts as, and has ever come closer to, achieving the high norms of the rule of law.” Taking Dershowitz seriously, Finkelstein meticulously examines whether Israel’s human rights record is, as Dershowitz maintains, “generally superb.”
His approach is noteworthy. Finkelstein cites claim after claim made in The Case for Israel and examines their accuracy by comparing them with human rights reports published both by organizations who have a global mandate like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) as well as local groups like B’tselem, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and Al Haq. When Dershowitz maintains, for instance that, “There is no evidence that Israeli soldiers deliberately killed even a single civilian,” Finkelstein cites HRW’s findings of many civilian deaths, which amounted to “unlawful and willful killings.” When the Harvard professor asserts that “Israel tries to use rubber bullets and other weapons designed to reduce fatalities, and aims at the legs whenever possible,” Finkelstein rejoins with a study published by PHR, which shows that nearly “half of the victims [in Gaza] were shot in the head. There were several victims shot in the back or from behind and in one instance, evidence indicates, the victim was probably on the ground when shot.” And when Dershowitz contends that Israel’s interrogation tactics were “nonlethal and did not involve the infliction of sustained pain,” Finkelstein responds with scores of reports which document multiple deaths of Palestinians during interrogation.
Slowly, a clear picture of abuse emerges. The reader learns, for example, how many Palestinian houses were demolished and how many people were left homeless, the number of prisoners who were tortured and the methods their interrogators used, and how Palestinian medical facilities were attacked and the population’s access to medical care constantly hindered. Moreover, Israel’s Supreme Court, which in certain circles is highly respected, is shown in Beyond Chutzpah to be a key mechanism in the legitimization of abuse.
Two important implications can be drawn from Finkelstein’s study, one political and the other academic. Politically, Beyond Chutzpah reveals how Israel has defied the rule of law in the Occupied Territories by providing a condensed and precise summation of literally thousands of pages of human rights reports. In this way, Finkelstein does a great service for those who long for a better Israel, since one is left with the conclusion that the only way of putting an end to the violations of Palestinian rights is by ending the occupation. There is no other option.
Academically, the section discussing Israel’s human rights record raises serious questions about intellectual honesty and the ideological bias of our cultural institutions, since it reveals how a prominent professor holding an endowed chair at a leading university can publish a book whose major claims are false. The significant point is not simply that the claims cannot be corroborated by the facts on the ground–anyone can make mistakes–but that any first-year student who takes the time to read the human rights reports would quickly realize that while The Case for Israel has rhetorical style and structure, it is, for the most part, fiction passing as fact.
All of which leads me back to the question raised at the beginning: What is the controversy about? While it is in part about Dershowitz’s political investments and his intellectual veracity, its intention goes much deeper than that to expose a grave cultural distortion. On the one hand, the controversy surrounding Beyond Chutzpah seems to be a reaction to Finkelstein’s attempt to expose how elements in academia have played an active role in covering up Israel’s abuse, and by extension, the abuse of other rogue regimes, not least the United States itself. Obviously those intellectuals who do participate in this covering tactic prefer to operate in the dark. On the other hand, the heated response to his book is just another example of how the literature discussing the new anti-Semitism delegitimizes those who expose Israel’s egregious violations of international law. The major irony informing this saga is that Finkelstein’s book, not Dershowitz’s, constitutes the real case for Israel–that is, for a moral Israel.
Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel. One can read about his most recent book, Israel's Occupation, and more at www.israelsoccupation.info.