Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz has found himself at the center of an imbroglio involving issues ranging from anti-Semitism to the First Amendment after he tried to discourage the University of California Press from publishing a forthcoming book about Israel.
In the book in question, “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History,” Norman G. Finkelstein—a professor of political science at DePaul University whose contentious positions on Israel and criticisms of the modern presentation of the Holocaust have angered many Jewish groups—argues that supporters of Israel deflect charges against the country by calling its critics anti-Semites.
An article in the Nation, set to appear on July 11, contends that Dershowitz, whose academic work is assailed in the book, made several attempts to persuade Finkelstein’s publisher, the University of California Press, not to publish “Beyond Chutzpah.”
Dershowitz, an outspoken critic of Finkelstein and no stranger to controversy himself, admitted to making such overtures, but said that his requests were not intended to bar the book’s publication entirely. Rather, he says, he tried to encourage the press to give “serious consideration” to publishing Finkelstein’s charge that Dershowitz did not actually write, and may not have even read, one of his own books, “The Case for Israel”—an accusation that Dershowitz calls “a clear, willful, and defamatory lie.”
The University of California Press has said it will move forward with plans to publish Finkelstein’s book in August—although the suggestion that Dershowitz did not read his book has been removed from the text.
According to Dershowitz, Finkelstein wrote an e-mail to Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan explaining that he would criticize Dershowitz in “Beyond Chutzpah.” But Finkelstein went further in the e-mail, reportedly writing that Dershowitz “has come to the point where he’s had so many people write so many of his books [that] it’s sort of like a Hallmark line for Nazis….They churn them out so fast that he has now reached a point where he doesn’t even read them.”
Dershowitz balked at Finkelstein’s words.
“That’s like being accused of being a child molester,” he said in an interview last week. “Any journalist has the right to make an honest mistake, but you do not write something you know is false.”
“I write every word by hand, and I have a hundred witnesses to prove it,” he added.
Finkelstein did not respond to requests for comment from The Crimson.
In reaction to the article in The Nation, Dershowitz offered an explanation that he hoped would clarify his intentions concerning “Beyond Chutzpah,” which he said he believes were distorted in the article.
“I want it to be published, but not by the University of California Press,” he said. “I think it should be published by a press that publishes this kind of trash….No legitimate newspaper and no legitimate publishing house would allow a knowingly false statement to be published.
“What is the University of California Press doing down in the gutter with this guy?” he asked.
Lynne Withey, the director of the University of California Press, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday that she “disagree[s] completely” with Dershowitz’s charge that the press is “getting down in the gutter” by publishing “Beyond Chutzpah.”
“Finkelstein’s book was reviewed by six outside experts and approved by our Editorial Committee, which consists of 20 [University of California] faculty, appointed by the university’s Academic Senate,” she wrote. “It is a thoroughly researched, very scholarly book. It just makes arguments that [Dershowitz] doesn’t like.”
Withey added that it was not clear to her whether Dershowitz only wanted Finkelstein’s book to be published by another press.
“He tried to convince us not to publish,” she wrote. “I have to assume that means he doesn’t want the book published at all.”
Dershowitz responded that he believes that the committee’s approval reflects “a completely biased selection.”
“I have no objection to arguments on the merits, but Finkelstein has refused to confront me on the merits,” he said. “I’m very confident in the conclusions I made in “The Case for Israel.’”
Withey told Inside Higher Ed why the University of California Press decided to remove Finkelstein’s suggestions that Dershowitz did not write “The Case for Israel.”
“It was unclear the point he was trying to make, and he couldn’t document that, so we asked him to take it out,” she said, noting that there could have been multiple readings of the reference in Finkelstein’s book.
Dershowitz said he sees the press’ decision as a victory.
“They took it out because they knew that if the reference had appeared, I would have sued them, I would have owned the University of California Press, and the First Amendment would have been in fine shape,” said Dershowitz, who is a well known defender of the First Amendment. “If they say that I either didn’t write the book or that I plagiarized it, I will sue them.”
The article in The Nation, written by Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California at Irvine, struck a particularly powerful cord because it implied that Dershowitz’s actions in this instance make him a hypocrite.
“The way you challenge an untrue book is not to prevent its publication, but to argue against it in print,” Wiener said. “If you go back to John Stuart Mill…you don’t try to silence your opponents, you argue against them.”
“I think I’ve served the interest of the First Amendment,” Dershowitz responded. “In America, you just can’t get away with writing false stories about people.”
According to Wiener’s article, which was posted online on June 23, Dershowitz’s lawyers sent letters to University of California demanding that the press not publish the book, and Dershowitz himself asked California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and top administrators at the University of California.
“No one as far as I can tell has tried to get a governor to intervene in publishing a book,” Wiener said in an interview.
In last week’s interview, Dershowitz expressed his satisfaction with the present outcome, saying that he hopes Finkelstein’s work will be “judged in the marketplace of ideas.”
—Staff writer Daniel J. T. Schuker can be reached at email@example.com.