Responding to Complaints about Beyond Chutzpah Review

Matthew Abraham

My review essay of Norman G. Finkelstein’s book, Beyond Chutzpah: The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, stirred Alan Dershowitz, Berel Dov Lerner, Maoz Azaryahu, and Jason Jungreis to write complaints to the Logos editors, alleging that my review: 1) was biased and vastly overstated its case; 2) contained historical inaccuracies; 3) had an ideological affinity with Finkelstein’s views, and that therefore, since I also am not a historian, I should not have been allowed to write the review; 4) that I have made common cause with Islamicists and fascists who seek to destroy Israel; 5) and contrived an accusation against Israel of “ethnic cleansing.” According to this line of thinking, it is only Israeli Jews who have been “ethnically cleansed” as evidenced by the Israeli government’s recent disengagement from Gaza.

I shall answer each complaint in turn. If nothing else, these letters reveal that the old reliable alibis, justifying Israel’s subhuman treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, are facing a severe legitimation crisis. First, permit me to apologize to clear-eyed and rational members of the Logos audience for my having to clarify what is wholly transparent to those familiar with the hoary tactics of apologists for state violence.

1) The charge of bias is always an interesting one. Appearing “evenhanded” and “objective are transparent attempts to hide the imbalance of power between Israel and Palestinians. I stated in my review that Israel’s apologists systematically have had to distort the diplomatic and historical record with respect to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and, until recently Gaza, because the facts plainly do not correspond with the requisite propaganda image. Israel and the United States have blocked a diplomatic settlement for nearly thirty-eight years. If to express this truism makes one “an anti-Israel activist,” then so be it. Those interested in fully rounded scholarship on the diplomatic and historical record, however, would do well to consult and consider Ilan Pappe’s The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Naseer Aruri’s Dishonest Broker: The Role of the United States in Palestine and Israel, Steven Spiegel’s The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Making America’s Middle East Policy from Truman to Reagan, Charles Enderlin’s Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, and Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians.

2) I’d be more than happy to correspond with any Logos reader who would kindly point out where my review was historically inaccurate. I wrote to Mr. Lerner and Mr. Jungreis seeking clarification on this score but never received a response. I did have brief exchanges with Mr. Azaryahu and with Mr. Dershowitz’s research assistant, Mitch Webber. Other than further knee jerk polemics and ad hominem attacks, these exchanges unfortunately went nowhere. In his recent book, In The Shadow of the Holocaust: The Struggle Between Jews in Zionists in the Aftermath of World War II, Yossef Grodzinsky carefully documents the outright coercive efforts to which the Zionist movement resorted to bring Jewish ‘displaced persons’ to Palestine at the end of WW II. Although Leonard Dinnerstein’s America and the Survivors of the Holocaust leaves open for interpretation the exact role American Zionist Jews played in blocking immigration of Jewish DPs to the US after World War II, I probably focused too much on their efforts. The efforts, to block immigration to anywhere but Palestine, mainly came from Zionists in Palestine. I would like to thank Professor Grodzinsky for correcting me on this point.

3) As to my qualifications, I would argue that since the topic of the U.S.-Israel-Palestine conflict is of interest to me, and Norman Finkelstein’s book addresses particularly important issues pertaining to that topic, I wrote a review of the book based on what I read there, as well as facts pertaining to the controversy surrounding publication of the book. Where is Dershowitz’s Ph.D. in History? Who cares? The veracity and quality of work is what counts.

4) As to whether or not I—as a progressive—have made common cause with Islamicists and fascists, I can only observe how fascinating it is that dissenting intellectuals are always pegged as inhabiting the same camp as the supposed enemies of the Holy State under consideration.

5) Israel’s thirty-eight year occupation of the Gaza Strip was illegal according to international law. What is ambiguous or erroneous about that? According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is illegal for an occupying power to transport its population into occupied territory. The removal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip brought Israel into some compliance with international law, although human rights organizations such as B’tselem have since labeled Gaza as the world’s largest “open-air prison.”

Dershowitz expressed astonishment that I would label Israel “a crazy state,” and “not a democracy.” As noted in my review essay, the term “crazy state” is a term of art within the international affairs literature. It was developed by an Israeli scholar, Yeheskel Dror, in a book entitled Crazy States: A Counterconventional Strategic Problem (Lexington: Heath Lexington Books, 1971). Those interested in the topic should also read Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle (Chapter 7, Section 4.2.2) about the grave threat Israel poses to the world if it chooses to exercise its Samson Option. “Crazy,” in this instance, does not refer to insanity in the psychiatric sense, but to something more specific: pressuring other countries for diplomatic, material, and military support by threatening cataclysmic violence if such support is denied. Israel has done so repeatedly.

Israel is only a “democracy” to the extent that it is “a democracy for Jews,” with its 1.5 million Palestinians considered a demographic time bomb that threatens Israel’s “Jewish character.” According to Zionist thinking, as Yosef Gorny powerfully demonstrates in his Zionism and the Arabs, 1882-1948: A Study of Ideology, the Palestinian-Arab population has long posed the main obstacle to the creation and maintenance of an exclusively Jewish state. As Yehoshua Porath points out in his two-volume work on Palestinian nationalism and as Benny Morris has confirmed in his inexhaustible The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Palestinian resistance to Zionist conquest arose out of a fear of territorial displacement and not, as is frequently assumed and rhetorically insisted, because of Arab anti-Semitism. By the main tenets of Zionist thinking Israel’s Arabs are a cancer on the larger body politic that must be removed either by transfer or by the creation of an apartheid state; these Arabs within Israel are second-class citizens in an “Israeli democracy.” See Fouzi El-Asmar’s To Be an Arab in Israel for a powerful and moving testimony of the effects of “Israeli democracy” on the Palestinian Arab.

I will now respond to Professor Dershowitz’s specific points of contention about the circumstances preceding the University of California Press’s publication of Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah. Dershowitz writes in his letter to the Logos editors:

In order to deflect attention away from their lack of academic standards and hard-left anti-Israel bias, Finkelstein and his publisher have lied about the issue of academic freedom. Nobody has ever tried to censor Finkelstein’s drivel. He can always publish it with presses that acknowledge their anti-Israel bias. The issue is, and has always been, one of academic standards: how could the University of California Press publish a work so lacking in standards, so filled with misquotations, falsifications, and faked data by a failed academic with a well deserved reputation for the “pure invention” of his sources? No objective university press would have published this sequel to a book the New York Times called a “variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Most interestingly, Dershowitz claimed that he never tried to block publication of Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah, seeking only to ensure that the book met the requisite standards for publication. The controversy, according to Dershowitz, is not one about academic freedom but instead about academic standards. Dershowitz’s statements are clearly red herrings. First, why then did Dershowitz hire the New York law firm, Cravath, Swaine, & Moore, to write intimidating letters about the anticipated content of Beyond Chutzpah to employees at the University of California Press if he was not seeking ultimately to block publication? Dershowitz claims he did so to ensure that demonstrable falsehoods, such as that he did not write or even possibly read The Case for Israel, would be removed. Such charges do not appear in Beyond Chutzpah because Finkelstein focused on something much more important: documenting how Dershowitz’s avoidance of the findings of human rights organizations about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and mainstream scholarship about the conflict betrays something startling about an intellectual culture, which not only tolerates but celebrates books such The Case for Israel. The University of California Press, and not outside parties, decides which manuscripts meet its high standards for publication and has a rather good track record in that regard. In other words, the Press did not need Dershowitz’s help. Six experts on the U.S.-Israel-Palestine conflict, experts in Israel and the United States, twenty faculty members on the editorial board of UC Press at the University of California at Berkeley, and several libel attorneys determined that Beyond Chutzpah was suitable for publication. When Dershowitz could not prevail upon the editorial board, he then turned to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for assistance. Dershowitz’s continued repetition of inane charges, such as that the University of California Press published Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah because of the Press’s well-known anti-Zionist and anti-Israel bias, betoken little more than lapses into pure demagoguery. It is indeed an interesting enterprise for someone like Dershowitz, whose book The Case for Israel is the target of Finkelstein’s critique, to set himself up as the determiner of appropriate standards for publication. Of course, it is no less worth questioning how Wiley & Sons could publish The Case for Israel, an extremely tendentious book, and then publish, less than two years later, Dershowitz’s The Case for Peace, which is at least equally problematic. An answer is offered in Beyond Chutzpah: “The point, of course, is not that Dershowitz is a charlatan. Rather, it is the systematic institutional bias that allows books like The Case for Israel to become national best sellers” (17; emphasis in original). Lucky Dershowitz.

Neve Gordon, in his November 2000 Nation review of Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry, aptly writes: “Informing Finkelstein's analysis is a universal ethics, which echoes Arendt's important claim that Eichmann should have been sentenced for his crimes against humanity rather than his crimes against the Jews. His book is controversial not entirely because of his mistakes or his piercing rhetoric but because he speaks truth to power. He, and not the Jewish organizations he criticizes, is following the example set by the great Jewish prophets” ( Much the same can be said about the motives and means of Beyond Chutzpah. Exposing the unmitigated chutzpah of Dershowitz should prod us to ask serious questions about U.S. intellectual culture and, more importantly, about ourselves. That Finkelstein’s case against Dershowitz is so well documented proves that something has gone seriously awry in the quality-control mechanisms governing our culture’s understanding of the U.S.-Israel-Palestine conflict. That Dershowitz has gone to such great lengths to vilify anyone who writes even a faintly positive review of Beyond Chutzpah attests to his underlying desperation. Dershowitz’s recent attacks against Beyond Chutzpah reviewers such Neve Gordon and Michael Desch, for example, demonstrate that the eminent Felix Frankfurter Professor has not only gone beyond chutzpah but has blasted off to Planet Dershowitz—a frightening and lonely place.

That the U.S. intellectual community has been nothing short of timid in reigning in Alan Dershowitz and criticizing popular books such as The Case for Israel and The Case for Peace, while simultaneously not defending and praising the courage of Norman Finkelstein and critical books such as Beyond Chutzpah, reveals the extent to which power politics can corrupt our perception and moral sense.

Matthew Abraham is assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and was named the Rachel Corrie Courage in the Teaching of Writing Award Winner in 2005. For an extended response to critics, see: