August 2018 Recent Installments in the Series Uncategorized

Alan Dershowitz and Anti-Palestinian Politics in Academia

Alan Dershowitz is back in the news. The long time Harvard Law School professor is now claiming to be the victim of liberal attacks over his defense of President Donald Trump.

Alan Dershowitz is back in the news. The long time Harvard Law School professor is now claiming to be the victim of liberal attacks over his defense of President Donald Trump. While ICE agents arrest and deport thousands, major American cities go without drinking water, and what little is left of America’s safety net is systematically destroyed, poor Alan Dershowitz is having some problems of his own. Most recently, he was shunned from his Martha’s Vineyard social circle for public defending the President. Prior to this, Dershowitz was on the defense over his friendship with and legal counsel of Jeffery Epstein, a hedge fund manager and convicted sex offender who used his money to operate an underage sex-slave ring on his private island. Years before Dershowitz was being “persecuted” for his political beliefs and publicly called out for being a part of rape culture, however, he himself was targeting a fellow academic who was a prominent critic of Israel.

In the late 1990s and early 2000’s, Norman Finkelstein rose to prominence first as a graduate student at Princeton University and later after landing a tenure track job at DePaul University in Chicago. Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, became famous as a fierce, (some would say fanatical) critic of Israeli policy. His early work focused on questioning the once-popular text, Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial. Peters’ book argued that prior to Jewish immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Palestine was a largely barren land without a substantial population. This was viewed as a confirmation of the Zionist argument that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.”  Finkelstein devoted a substantial amount of time to debunking Peters, as well as other pro-Israel writers culminating in his 2003 work Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.[1] His work generated both praise and controversy, with one’s reaction generally depending on one’s view of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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Courtesy of Fox News Insider.

Finkelstein was not the only one writing about Israel in 2003, however. In the same year, Professor Dershowitz released his book own book: The Case for Israel.[2] His work was written in the style of a legal brief and intended to show the legitimacy of the Jewish state, as well as making a politically liberal case for a two-state solution. Dershowitz was so confident in the accuracy of what he had written that he offered to donate $10,000 to Hamas if anyone could find flaws in his argument. Never one to back down from a confrontation, Finkelstein accepted Dershowitz’s challenge and proceeded to point out numerous errors in Dershowitz’s scholarship, including Dershowitz’s assertion that there was no evidence that Israeli soldiers deliberately killed a single civilian. Citing the scholarship of groups such as Human Rights Watch, Finkelstein refuted this claim, as well as others made by Dershowitz, casting doubts on Dershowitz’s central thesis and calling his work a hoax on the progressive news show Democracy Now.

Finkelstein even went so far as to devote a part of his next book, 2005’s Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Antisemitism and the Abuse of History to responding to Dershowitz’s claims in the Case for Israel. Among other things, Finkelstein argued that Dershowitz plagiarized sections of text from Joan Peters’ by then largely discredited work, including taking quotes from famous writers like George Orwell directly from Peters’ work instead of citing them in their original context. No stranger to inflammatory rhetoric, Finkelstein claimed, “He (Dershowitz) is effectively no different from a professor lifting sources wholesale from a leading Holocaust revisionist in a book on the Holocaust.” Dershowitz responded by attempting to prevent Finkelstein’s book from being released by the University of California Press. True to form, Dershowitz hired a law firm to threaten to sue the publisher if the book was released. Dershowitz’s expensive efforts proved futile, and the book was ultimately released, likely to much more fanfare than if Dershowitz had not tried to intervene.

Dershowitz was so confident in the accuracy of what he had written that he offered to donate $10,000 to Hamas if anyone could find flaws in his argument. Never one to back down from a confrontation, Finkelstein accepted Dershowitz’s challenge and proceeded to point out numerous errors in Dershowitz’s scholarship.

In 2007, Finkelstein was up for tenure at DePaul. Finkelstein’s colleagues in the Political Science department voted in favor of tenure. The Dean of the Arts and Sciences department argued against tenure, however. Over the course of Finkelstein’s tenure review, Dershowitz corresponded with the chair of Finkelstein’s department, saying in part, “the ugly and false assertions…are not incidental to Finkelstein’s purported scholarship; they are his purported scholarship. Finkelstein’s entire literary catalogue is one preposterous and discredited ad hominem attack after another.”[3]  Ultimately, Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul. The reason given was that he did not pass DePaul’s standards for personal conduct. While it is certainly true that Finkelstein was assertive and did not back down from fights, in the larger context of his confrontations with Alan Dershowitz, it has been suggested that something else was afoot in the decision. Finkelstein himself cited his views on Israel-Palestine as the main reason that he did not receive tenure.

Finkelstein was not the last academic to be silenced over their views on Israel. In the summer of 2014, Professor of English Steven Salaita was supposed to be moving from Virginia Tech university to the University of Illinois. However, tweets that Salaita made during Israel’s 2014 invasion of the Gaza Strip became widely discussed and caused a great deal of controversy. Major donors to the University of Illinois threatened to rescind their support for the institution unless Salaita’s contract offer was removed. This caused Salaita to have his employment offer rescinded from the University of Illinois. Salaita sued, and won a substantial judgement; however the damage to the academic integrity of the school was already done. Clearly, vocal pro-Palestine activism is still a dangerous proposition in academia.

Ultimately, Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul. The reason given was that he did not pass DePaul’s standards for personal conduct. While it is certainly true that Finkelstein was assertive and did not back down from fights, in the larger context of his confrontations with Alan Dershowitz, it has been suggested that something else was afoot in the decision.

So why is a decade plus old battle for tenure at a small Chicago school meaningful for us today? The issues surrounding Norman Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz reflect deeper issues both with the academy itself and with our current political administration. While it is somewhat of a stretch to connect Dershowitz’s newfound appreciation for Republican Donald Trump with his battle against professor Finkelstein, his response to Finkelstein’s criticism is very telling. The Trump administration is filled with personalities similar to Dershowitz: extreme privilege, large egos, little self-awareness, and a massive victim complex just to make their other glaring personality defects a little bit worse. Much like Dershowitz, Donald Trump is famous for lawsuits against people he considers enemies. A closer look at Alan Dershowitz offers a clearer picture of the inner workings of the Trump White House. Unfortunately, what we see is continued pettiness, egoism, and general cluelessness. When he is not defending Trump, Dershowitz continues to aggressively support Israel by threatening legal action against various people and institutions. Most recently, he threatened to sue the University of California at Berkley for allegedly making it easier for critics of Israel to speak on campus than supporters of Israel. In true Dershowitz form, he cited himself as a pro-Israel speaker who was struggling to get a speaking engagement at the prestigious university. Clearly Dershowitz’s struggle against Israel’s critics continues.

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Notes

[1] Norman Finkelstein Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict New York: Verso books 2003.

[2] Alan Dershowitz The Case for Israel

[3] Allen Dershowitz quoted in Frank J. Menertz “Dershowitz versus Finkelstein: Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong? Counterpunch April 30, 2007. https://www.counterpunch.org/2007/04/30/dershowitz-v-finkelstein-who-s-right-and-who-s-wrong/

Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history. Eric’s dissertation, The Last Step to Whiteness: American Jews and the end of the Civil Rights Coalition argues that allegations of antisemitism made against Black Power groups in the 1960s were part of a larger effort to distance liberal American Jews from the cause of civil rights. The work explores Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. It emphasizes the impact that Jews becoming “white” i.e. culturally accepted had on the relationship between American Jews and African Americans. He received an MA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a BA from Concordia University-Nebraska, and an Associate of Arts from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE. Eric was born and raised in Bismarck North Dakota, but really hates cold weather. He currently lives in Connecticut where it is still too cold. He can be reached here.

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