The Smearing of Robert Trivers: Dershowitz Style

Robert Trivers is a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He has written on topics ranging from natural selection, selfish genetic elements, to self deception. Both of Trivers’ sisters married Lebanese men, according to a recent article by Scott Jaschik in InsideHigherEd, which led Trivers to learn much about Lebanon because he has family there. His most recent work has focused on how sustaining myths of the nation depend upon the operation of various types of self deception, leading people who undoubtedly conceptualize themselves as good people and upstanding citizens to suppress critical instincts — that would normally be operative in condemning bad actions by others — when it comes to justifying one’s own evil deeds. It would seem, given his academic training and family connection to Lebanon, that Trivers would be well-equipped to understand how techniques of self deception would be operative in the context of intellectual rationalizations for illegitimate war, particularly when it comes to analyzing how this phenomenon works in the case of someone who works overtime to justify the military actions of Israel, actions which pose a threat to the security and stability of the Middle East. In a letter dated April 15, 2007, he wrote this to Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz:

Dear Alan,

You have long been known as a rancid defender of Israeli fascism toward its Arab neighbors but this summer you wrote an article rationalizing Israeli attacks on civilians while Israel was visiting a mini-holocaust on Lebanon. When Human Rights Watch published evidence of war crimes, you stitched together a set of lies suggesting otherwise, which lies you did not retract (of course) when they were shown to be falsehoods.

Now you try to block from tenure someone who has the courage and integrity to expose your history of lies and your resemblance this summer to classic nazi-apologists. This after earlier attempting to block publication of his work and even sliming the memory of his mother. Norman Finkelstein has integrity and intellectual quality you will never experience first-hand.

Regarding your rationalization of Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians, let me just say that if there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly, look forward to a visit from me. Nazis — and nazi-like apologists such as yourself — need to be confronted directly.

Robert Trivers

As part of his never-ending campaign of vilification against Norman Finkelstein’s tenure bid at DePaul University, Dershowitz wrote in his May 4th op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Finkelstein’s Bigotry”:

“Like the character in the ‘Groves of Academe,’ Mr. Finkelstein generated protests by students and outsiders. He has encouraged radical goons to email threatening messages; “Look forward to a visit from me,” reads one. “Nazis like [you] need to be confronted directly.” He has threatened to sue if he loses — while complaining about outside interference. No university should be afraid of truth — regardless of its source — especially when truth consists of Mr. Finkelstein’s own words.” (emphasis mine)

In his May 14th Cambridge Diarist article in The New Republic, entitled “Taking the Bait”, where he asserted that he was invited into DePaul’s tenure and promotion process by the former chair of DePaul’s political science department and that Finklestein was crying “outside interference” to justify his lack of scholarship, Dershowitz wrote:

In the past months, I have received threatening calls and letters. The Rutgers biologist Robert Trivers, for one, has warned, “Nazi-like apologists as [you] need to be confronted directly.” Suddenly I’m the Nazi? And a masturbating one to boot! I’m not shy about entering arguments, but I can’t help feeling like I walked into a trap. How could I not argue against Finkelstein? But, when I raise my voice, I know that I’m supplying essential ammunition. I guess when you’ve got no scholarship to make your tenure case, you need all the outside interference you can get. ” (emphasis mine)

As Trivers pointed out in his May 23rd letter to the Wall Street Journal:

What I Said to Dershowitz
Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2007; Page A15

In regard to Alan Dershowitz’s commentary “Finkelstein’s Bigotry” (editorial page, May 4): In it he asserts that “He [Norman Finkelstein] has encouraged radical goons to email threatening messages; ‘Look forward to a visit from me,’ reads one. ‘Nazis like [you] need to be confronted directly.'”

But all of this is untrue. I wrote the letter in question (April 15, 2007), but without Prof. Finkelstein’s knowledge, interest or approval. The key sentences had nothing to do with Prof. Finkelstein: “Regarding your rationalization of Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians, let me just say that if there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly, look forward to a visit from me. Nazis — and Nazi-like apologists such as yourself — need to be confronted directly.”

As for being an academic goon: I am late responding because I was in Europe lecturing after receiving the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Robert Trivers
Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences
Rutgers University

Norman Finkelstein is quoted in Christine Flow’s June 16th, 2007 Harvard Crimson article, “Dershowitz Foes Face Scrutiny”, confirming Trivers’ account: “I wish I could claim people of that stature as my friends,” Finkelstein said. “But…how could we be friends? I have no idea what he’s talking about [in his work]. We might as well be talking from Earth to Mars.” So much for Dershowitz’s assertion that Finkelstein “encouraged radical goons to email threatening messages” to him. Also, notice how Dershowitz recasts what Trivers actually wrote: he removes the crucial qualifying portion of the sentence, “….if there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly,” leaving the reader to believe that Trivers wrote “Look forward from a visit from me. Nazis like [you] need to be confronted directly,” which he clearly did not.

Trivers was scheduled to speak at Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics on Friday, May 25 th. About an hour before his talk, Trivers was informed by Michael Nowak, PED’s director and a professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard, who had pleaded with Trivers for several months to commit to the engagement at Harvard, that the talk, as well as the reception to be held in Trivers’ honor, had been cancelled because Trivers had supposedly called a Harvard professor a Nazi, as reported in the Boston Globe. In an email to InsideHigherEd, Dershowitz confirmed that his “…office routinely sends letters that can be construed as threatening to the Harvard police…” “The Trivers letter fit into that category. I am and always have been opposed to the cancellation of speeches of any kind, whether it be of David Duke, Norman Finkelstein, or Robert Trivers. I do favor counter speech such as leafleting,” Dershowitz wrote. Indeed, as reported in Flow’s Harvard Crimson article, Dershowitz, upon learning that PED would be holding a celebration for Trivers after his talk, decided he would not attend, but would instead stand outside the hall where the celebration was scheduled, handing out copies of Trivers’ April 15th letter to Dershowitz to those entering. As it turns out, Dershowitz sits as a faculty affiliate on PED and was retained as a defense lawyer for Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted for soliciting prostitution and donated 6.5 millions dollars to PED. “I don’t think you should have a party at which a Harvard faculty doesn’t feel comfortable,” Dershowitz wrote to InsideHigherEd. “I have a right to go anywhere at Harvard without feeling a risk to my bodily integrity.” Trivers has insisted that he, at no point, intended for the letter to be read as promising to deliver on a physical threat.

As one can see, by reading Trivers April 15th letter in its entirety, that Trivers did not label Dershowitz a Nazi, but instead noted the resemblance between Dershowitz’s apologetics for Israel’s bombing of South Lebanon last summer and the performances of classic Nazi-apologists. Similarly, in the last line of his letter, Trivers notes that “Nazis — and nazi-like apologists such as yourself — need to be confronted directly,” which clearly suggests that he was calling Dershowitz a “nazi-like” apologist not a Nazi or Nazi-apologist. The difference between a “nazi-like apologist” and a “classic Nazi-apologist” should be wholly clear to those who are familiar with the operations of the English language. The appellation “nazi-like apologist” would apply to someone who provided rationalizations for indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas that resembled the apologetics provided by those in pay to the Nazi regime.

There can be little doubt that the Israeli air force engaged in indiscriminate bombing last summer throughout South Lebanon. Similarly, there can be little doubt that Alan Dershowitz sought to justify these bombings under various arguments, including that Hezbollah was using the civilian population as a human shield to protect its soldiers and armaments from Israeli attack. Dershowitz’s most egregious claim, and the one that probably inspired Trivers’s letter, is that all Lebanese were legitimate targets because an overwhelming majority supported resistance to the Israeli invasion. Trivers, without naming Dershowitz or drawing a comparison between Dershowitz and Nazis, states that Nazis should be confronted directly. Who could disagree? Trivers then clearly designates that Dershowitz is a nazi-like apologist, i.e. someone who intellectualizes about and provides rationalizations for state violence against civilians. That’s precisely what Alan Dershowitz did do last summer during Israel’s thirty-three days of bombing in South Lebanon .

Finally, we must consider whether or not Trivers’ letter constituted a legitimate physical threat against Dershowitz’s bodily integrity in its promise to make good on “a visit” if Dershowitz decided to publicly rationalize a future Israeli butchery in Lebanon. Trivers did not write “expect me to come up to Cambridge and punch your lights out” in the event of another Israeli air strike in Lebanon and another Dershowitzian rationalization of that action, nor did he write to Dershowitz that “I will kill you if you rationalize future Israeli air strikes in South Lebanon.” All Trivers promised to do was to pay Dershowitz a visit “…if there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly..”

Given that Dershowitz cannot, or at least pretends not to be able to, distinguish between a “Nazi apologist” and a “Nazi-like apologist,” why should he be given the benefit of the doubt in his attempts to make Trivers’ promise of a “visit”, in the event of another Israeli butchery in south Lebanon, tantamount to a physical threat? The answer is simple for those familiar with Dershowitz’s favorite tactic: when he has no defense for his attempts to justify U.S. and Israeli war crimes, he attempts to shift the focus of the debate, poses as the victim, and vilifies those who have exposed him. It’s a familiar tactic, especially for one practiced in the Stalin-like school of vilification. Below, one can see my many attempts to get some clarification from Dershowitz on the exact contents of Trivers’ letter, before Trivers himself sent it to me, and how — yet once again — Dershowitz misrepresents what Trivers actually wrote.

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Alan Dershowitz <>
Date: May 26, 2007 6:05 PM
Subject: Re: letter
To: Matthew Abraham <>

The correspondence is over. Any frther emails from you will be harassment.
Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless

—–Original Message—–
From: “Matthew Abraham” <>
Date: Sat, 26 May 2007 17:48:15
Subject: Re: letter

What should one conclude if the WSJ doesn’t publish the Trivers’ letter, which you have now apparently sent to the WSJ editors? Is there a way to independently verify that you sent them the letter?

I’m afraid I don’t understand why you are now telling me not to email you any further. What fantasy world am I living in exactly? Please be specific.

Thanks, MA

On 5/26/07, Alan Dershowitz < ude.dravrah.walnull@hsred : > wrote: Our correspondence is over. I sent the trivers letter the wsj.If they publish it you will learn the truth. Otherwise you can continue to live in your fantesy world but leave me out of it. Do not emal me any further.
Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless

—–Original Message—–
From: “Matthew Abraham” < moc.liamgnull@2aharbam.wehttam Date: Sat, 26 May 2007 13:45:11 To:ude.dravrah.walnull@hsred: ude.dravrah.walnull@hsred wrote: Will you agree to publicly appologize and admit you made up a defamatory accusation if I quoted the letter correctly? If not don't bother to reply Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless -----Original Message----- From: "Matthew Abraham" < moc.liamgnull@2aharbam.wehttam : Date: Sat, 26 May 2007 12:27:37 To:ude.dravrah.walnull@hsred : Subject: Re: Fwd: letter to D. Why not prove me wrong, and convince me that I'm wrong, in questioning your word by faxing me Trivers' letter? It would seem, if given what you say about the language in Trivers ' letter, which apparently*now*describes you as a "classic nazi apologist" "in [Trivers'] paragraph explicitely [sic] referencing finkelstein," that you would be eager to demonstrate that Trivers' is a liar and that I was wrong to doubt you. Just write to Webber and have him fax me the letter at 773-325-7328. Seems to me like a moment of truth for you, your entourage, and the agitprop you produce. Thanks, MA On 5/26/07, Alan Dershowitz < ude.dravrah.walnull@hsred: < wrote: . I was going to fax u the t letter when I got back to cambridge. It would show that he used the precise words "classic nazi appologists" in his paragraph explicitely referencing finkelstein. But since u question my word without even checking I will have no further correspondence with you Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless -----Original Message----- From: "Matthew Abraham" < moc.liamgnull@2aharbam.wehttam: To:"Alan M. Dershowitz" < ude.dravrah.walnull@hsred Subject: Fwd: letter to D. ---------- Forwarded message ---------- From: Matthew Abraham < moc.liamgnull@2aharbam.wehttam : To: <:>

Dear Professor Dershowitz:

There’s a huge difference between a “Nazi apologist” and a “Nazi-like apologist.” The phrase “Nazi apologist” does not appear in Trivers’ letter, which is why I presume you have not faxed me the letter. In addition, I’m left to wonder if Finkelstein is mentioned at all in Trivers’ letter of April 15th, 2007,as you claim he is in “the middle paragraph.” Here is what Trivers wrote: “Regarding your rationalization of Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians, let me just say that if there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly, look forward to a visit from me. Nazis — and Nazi-like apologists such as yourself — need to be confronted directly.”

Thanks, MA

On 5/25/07, Alan Dershowitz <ude.dravrah.walnull@hsred : wrote: Ask him. Or send me your fax # Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless -----Original Message----- From: "Matthew Abraham" <: : > >
Subject: Re: Trivers

Could you kindly reproduce the middle paragraph of Trivers’ letter?

On 5/25/07, Alan Dershowitz < ude.dravrah.walnull@hsred : wrote: Middlle paragraph Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless -----Original Message----- From: "Matthew Abraham" < > > > >
Subject: Re: Trivers

Dear Professor Dershowitz:

Could you kindly point me to the potions of Trivers’ letter, where he “refer explictely to f and in that very calls [you] a nazi apologist”? I trust, from what you claim below, that you have actually seen the entire letter.

Thanks, MA

On 5/23/07, Alan Dershowitz < ude.dravrah.walnull@hsred: <> > > > > > > wrote: Ask him for his entire letter and you will see he is lying. He refer explicitely to f and in that very sentence calls me a nazi appologist. By the way do you agree with that characterization? No evasion. A direct answer please.
Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless

—–Original Message—–
From: “Matthew Abraham” < Subject: Trivers Dear Profesor Dershowitz: In today's WSJ, Rutgers professor Robert Trivers responded to your recent "Finkelstein's Bigotry," and by extension your recent "Taking the Bait," which appeared in TNR. Do you have a response to his charge that you misrepresented the context of his remarks, i.e., that they had nothing to do with the Finkelstein case, as you suggested? I trust that you would never deliberately misrepresent someone's remarks on such a highly charged topic as the Israel-Palestine conflict. Thanks, MA

Matthew Abraham is an Associate Professor of English and the author of the recently released Out of Bounds: Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine (Bloomsbury Academic Publishing). Read other articles by Matthew.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Max Shields said on June 25th, 2007 at 7:02am #

    First, I’m not familiar with Professor Trivers work and his work does (along with his ties to Lebanon) certainly provide the passion and intellectual framing for his position.

    But that said, I think this reflects on another post by Mr. Ash who eloquently presented the case for the Israel boycott. I, there stated, think his tracing of what brought us – and the nuanced significant and bit players was much appreciated – an outstanding bit of work. Nevertheless, the issue of the target of the boycott seems an issue. The target, as I understand it, is acedemia, Israeli acedemia in UK and elsewhere. Israeli acedemics are not “sacred cows” but I just don’t see such a target as effectively changing anything – and perhaps, backfiring and exacerbating the problems.

    I think the situation with Finkelstein, and now Trivers, supports that concern. Dershowitz seems to have the support in the university centers of power. This issue needs to be understood. Such power can be overcome – but not one issue/person at at time. It will take a concerted, well organized effort to overcome the power that Dershowitz through influence seems to wield. This influence needs to be first: exposed; then understood; and then it must be effectively confronted. Dershowitz has levers to pull and he readily pulls them on those who are less adept at his political shenanigans. DV can provide the forum for the first, but if this is not taken to the next level we’ll just be batting Dershowitz’s facistic alliances over and over.

  2. Demize! said on June 25th, 2007 at 10:55pm #

    Israeli academics must be boycotted en masse as they are essential to the states war machine,both technically,and,intellectually.The operative phrase Dershowitz employs here is “threat to his bodily integrity”.This seems to me to be the height of hypocrisy as he has no compunction whatsoever to use his status in a never ending apologia for the Israeli state’s war machines to threaten the bodily integrity of countless civilian victims.Is coward to strong a word?