On the face of it, the conflict stems from an allegation which Finkelstein, a professor of political science at de Paul University, makes against Dershowitz’s book, 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.
In spite of the public furor about Dershowitz’s alleged plagiarism, this plays a relatively small role in Beyond Chutzpah; thus it is no coincidence that the documentation of his use of Peter’s work is relegated to three appendixes, and is not in the main body of the book. 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-1970s with the publication of Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein’s book The New Anti-Semitism; this was followed in the early 1980s 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 US (The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do about It also from 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 who they consider the major culprits responsible for spreading anti-Semitism and what the reemergence of the new anti-Semitism aims to achieve politically.
As to the instigators, he shows how from the 1970s 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 Joerg Haider as well as fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberston 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 that have produced much more horrific results. One
only has to think of Chechnya, Rwanda, and Darfur.
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 Sartre means 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 who insinuates 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 in a number of places blurs this crucial point, 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.
Beyond Chutzpah’s second part 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.”
The way he goes about it 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 as well as local groups like
B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights and Al Haq. Dershowitz maintains,
for instance that, “There is no evidence that Israeli soldiers
deliberately killed even a single civilian.” Finkelstein replies that
according to HRW there were 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
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 though 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 US 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
They Don’t Deliberately Target Innocent Civilians?
by Sunil K. Sharma
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