Plagiarism Accusations Political, Unfounded

Letter to the Editors

To the editors:

I simply do not understand the charge of plagiarism leveled against me by Norman Finkelstein and Alexander Cockburn ("News, “Dershowitz Accused of Plagiarism,” Sept. 29). It is not that I use anyone else’s words without attribution, since they acknowledge that every quote is properly identified and cited. It is not that I use Peters’s ideas without attribution, since I do not agree with her ideas or conclusions, and I do cite her on eight occasions; their claim is that several of the quotes I use in my book, I originally came across in her book. This is factually untrue of the Twain and Peel quotes, which I found before her book was published. It is true of a few other quotes, some of which I cite to her, others of which I cite to the original source. That is simply not plagiarism. It is scholarship.

I trust the scholarly conclusions of James O. Freedman—who was the President of Dartmouth, the University of Iowa and the American Academy of Sciences—more than the biased, ideologically driven accusations leveled by two rabid anti-Israeli polemicists, whose views I have repeatedly attacked over the years. Finkelstein and Cockburn have a long history of leveling unfounded charges against their ideological opponents. This is the conclusion reached by Freedman after reviewing the relevant materials:

I do not understand Mr. Cockburn’s charge of plagiarism against Alan Dershowitz. There is no claim that Dershowitz used the words of others without attribution. When he uses the words of others, he quotes them properly and generally cites them to the original sources (Mark Twain, Palestine Royal Commission, etc.) Cockburn’s complaint is that instead he should have cited them to the secondary source, in which Dershowitz may have come upon them. But as the Chicago Manual of Style emphasizes:

“With all reuse of others’ materials, it is important to identify the original as the source. This...helps avoid any accusation of plagiarism.”

This is precisely what Dershowitz did. Moreover, many of the sources quoted both by Dershowitz and Peters are commonly quoted in discussions of this period of Palestinian history. Nor can it be said that Dershowitz used Peters’s ideas without attribution. He cites Peters seven times in the early chapter of his book, while making clear that he does not necessarily accept her conclusions. This is simply not plagiarism, under any reasonable definition of that word.

I first came upon the Mark Twain quote in 1970 (14 years before the Peters’ book was published) when I was doing research for a TV debate about Israel on The Advocates. I have quoted it repeatedly in speeches and debates since then. It would be absurd for me to cite it to Peters rather than to its original source. I also read the Royal Commission report on Palestine (The Peel Report) from cover to cover before Peters published her book, and I rely on it much more than she does. I cite it numerous times, quote it repeatedly in the text and devote an entire chapter (six) to its findings and recommendations. It is preposterous to suggest that I should have cited these quotes to Peters, just because she also cites one or two of them in her book—generally in very different ways and for very different conclusions. I did discover a few sources in Peters that I found useful. On eight occasions, when I could not check the original source directly, I cited them to Peters. In other instances I cited the original sources. That is the proper method.

Let it be absolutely clear that my demographic conclusions are very different from Peters’s. Moreover, her 600-page book is all about 19th and early 20th Century demography. My 264-page book is primarily about the modern conflict in the Middle East, since I expressly argue that there must be some “statute of limitation for ancient grievances” (p. 5).

I argue that, “It is impossible to reconstruct the demographics of the area with any degree of precision, since census data for that time period are not reliable, and most attempts at reconstruction—by both Palestinian and Israeli sources—seem to have a political agenda.”

Accordingly, the estimates I offer in my book are more general and rough. Moreover neither Finkelstein nor Cockburn take issue with them, as they do with Peters’s.

How can I be accused of plagiarizing ideas with which I disagree?

Finally, a word about the Finkelstein chart. By juxtaposing quotes from my book with quotes from Peters’s book, he makes it appear that I am borrowing words from her. But these are all quotes—properly quoted and cited in my book—from third parties. Of course they are similar, or the same. One does not change a quote. And since I did find some of the quotes in Peters’s book, as she found them in others, it should come as no surprise that the ellipses are sometimes similar or the same as well.

I am proud of my book. I did nothing even arguably wrong.

Alan M. Dershowitz
Sept. 29, 2003

The writer is Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard Law School and author of The Case for Israel.