Malcolm F. Lowe on Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History

, November 15, 2007

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)


A Fierce Debate

Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History by Norman Finkelstein, University of California Press, 2005, 332 pp.

Reviewed by Malcolm F. Lowe

The larger “Part Two” of this book is a polemic against Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel (2003). To that polemic Dershowitz has responded in The Case for Peace (2005) and elsewhere. Also the book’s title alludes to Dershowitz’s earlier Chutzpah (1991). Since there is extensive online documentation of the ongoing battle between the two authors, the task of a reviewer can be correspondingly brief.

Finkelstein’s manuscript at first accused Dershowitz not only of plagiarizing From Time Immemorial (1984), the bestseller by Joan Peters, but even of not acknowledging that his own book was entirely ghostwritten. The latter claim was withdrawn at the behest of the publisher when Dershowitz produced his own handwritten manuscript, besides pointing to explicit references to Peters. As for the allegation of plagiarism, it amounts to showing that a score of passages from original documents that Dershowitz cites are found identically cited by Peters. This is not the first case of academics surreptitiously exploiting the pioneering work of Peters, while deprecating her scholarship, but it falls short of plagiarism.

Had Finkelstein accused Dershowitz of hasty and sloppy writing of a book that was not original or even meant to be, he might have made a case. Unfortunately, and this repeats itself constantly, Finkelstein’s penchant for verbal overkill makes it difficult for a reader to know where he does have a valid point.


Puzzling Aims

Two questions are puzzling. First, why did Finkelstein trouble to start the controversy? Regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, as a committed liberal Dershowitz advocates a two-state solution including the redivision of Jerusalem. He has constantly opposed Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. He insists, however, that the Palestinians should not receive more than they were offered by Bill Clinton at Camp David (2000), so as not to reward the terrorism of their Second Intifada. His defense of Israel was intended to counteract the chorus of hostile voices that blame Israel exclusively for the conflict and seek to force it into such concessions as the return of the Palestinian refugees of 1948.

One answer is that Finkelstein himself supports the “right of return” for those refugees, that is, their “right” to create an Arab majority in the state of Israel. With evident approval, he documents (305-07) how UN General Assembly resolutions, together with such NGOs as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, clamor for the implementation of that “right” as “part of the international consensus among states and human rights organizations for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.” In fact, no resolution of the UN Security Council endorses that “right” and the so-called Road Map of 2003 cites three Security Council resolutions, but no General Assembly resolution, as the basis for solving the refugee issue.

Consequently, it is disingenuous of Finkelstein to repeat endlessly that Israel refuses offers of peace with the Arabs in exchange for withdrawal from occupied Arab territories (22, etc.). The current “peace initiative” of the Arab League, dating from its 2002 meeting in Beirut, explicitly demands the “right of return” in addition to withdrawal. This also is the standpoint of all Palestinian factions. So if Finkelstein is not deliberately misrepresenting Arab demands, he must tacitly include among “occupied Arab territories” wherever in Israel those millions are meant to go. Either way, the unwary reader will be deceived.

Second, for whom has Finkelstein written apart from those who already totally agree with him (his blurbs include Daniel Boyarin, Avi Shlaim, and Noam Chomsky)? If the University of California Press had expected a wider audience, it might have tried to persuade him also to tone down the chronically overblown rhetoric that must deter anyone else.

Already in his “Introduction,” Finkelstein calls From Time Immemorial “a colossal hoax” and The Case for Israel “among the most spectacular academic frauds.” This is the tone that continues throughout. A “hoax,” according to dictionaries, is a “trick or fraud intended to deceive.” Anyone who has met Peters, as this reviewer has, should know that she had no such intent. Rather, she was herself a typical liberal whose life changed when she was employed by the Carter administration. Only then, through increasing confrontation with discordant facts, was she forced to revise previous presuppositions of the kind that her book combats. She thus spent seven years researching and writing her book.

Her thousands of footnotes show that she willingly gave others the opportunity to evaluate her querying of claims that today’s Palestinians are people who have dwelt in Palestine “since time immemorial.” The critics have fallen into two classes. One class acknowledges that she raised, for the first time, important questions that remain unresolved, despite the imperfections of a novice at academic writing. The other class satisfies itself with an unremitting denunciation intended to deter any consideration of her findings. Dershowitz belongs to the first class, Finkelstein to the second.


Summary Justice

The general line of Finkelstein’s polemic is to document how the consensus of NGOs disagrees with Dershowitz on Israel’s human rights record. Dershowitz, however, does not deny this. Instead, he would claim that the NGOs often use unreliable information taken out of context and that their agenda often implies the ultimate disappearance of Israel. Here too, it is others, such as NGO Monitor, that have done more thorough and original work than Dershowitz.

Unfortunately for Finkelstein, he has fallen into the trap of playing the relentless prosecutor against the defense attorney Dershowitz, a battle for which this Harvard law professor is better equipped. Consequently, the reader may be left with an uneasily felt “not proven” because the tactics on both sides smell of evasion. Take the fictitious Jenin “massacre” of 2002, where initial Palestinian claims of five thousand dead eventually dropped to 1 percent of that figure. Finkelstein deals with this issue in one sentence in a footnote (54-55), endorsing Amnesty International’s claim that it was Israel itself that started the rumors of a massacre. There also are some apparently incredible statements that Finkelstein repeats without hesitation.

The shorter “Part One” of Finkelstein’s book occupies itself with the topic of its subtitle. Here he claims that all talk of a “new anti-Semitism” focusing on Israel is no more than a tactic to stifle criticism of Israel. Inconsistently, admitting that in Europe Jewish institutions are targeted by enemies of Israel, he takes this to show that Israel’s actions foment anti-Semitism.

Finkelstein scores academic points against some popular discussions of the “new anti-Semitism.” But he disregards the basic distinction between two kinds of indicators of Judeophobia. One comprises cases in which wholly fictitious accusations are made against Jews. The other kind involves accusations that may have some foundation but are pursued exclusively and obsessively against Jews while ignoring equally founded, or indeed far better founded, accusations against others.

It is not a fact worth disputing that other peoples have suffered far more destructive violence than the Palestinians in recent decades, but that, for instance, UN bodies devote far more time, resolutions, and money to the Palestinians than to any other people. This persistent imbalance, be it “anti-Semitism” or “Judeophobia” or whatever, deserves serious analysis. The UN World Conference on Racism in Durban (2001) provided a paradigmatic example, but Finkelstein has fewer words for it than for the Jenin affair.

Repeatedly, rather than discussing the issue on its merits, Finkelstein is content to dismiss from consideration anyone who has raised it. Thus he disposes of Bernard Lewis (59) as “the leading academic denier of the Armenian holocaust” who “was indicted and convicted by a French court for denying the Armenian holocaust.” This is a misleading oversimplification of the matter. Both before and after the court case, Lewis constantly said and wrote that a million or more Armenians died horrible deaths at Turkish hands. He declines, however, to categorize the events as a “holocaust” or “genocide.” The court ruled that it was incompetent to rule on the historical issue, but that Lewis had pained Armenians in France by the way in which he had formulated his views in an interview with Le Monde. It consequently fined him a symbolic one franc and ordered him to pay some costs.

It was unwise of Finkelstein to resort to such tactics himself while denouncing so many others as hoaxers and apologists; he leaves himself open to the charge of being no different himself. This reviewer thinks Finkelstein may have the talents to make some academic contribution. But there can be no permanent contribution when such talents are swamped by temperament and antipathies.

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MALCOLM F. LOWE is a Welsh academic in the fields of Greek philosophy, the New Testament, and Christian-Jewish dialogue.