Dershowitz versus Chomsky


I have just watched the Chomsky-Dershowitz debate. I’m not entirely sure how debates are judged or graded, but unless one is blinded by Zionist/pro-Israel bias, there’s no question that Chomsky scored a decisive victory–on a number of counts.

The topic was Israel and Palestine After Disengagement: Where Do We Go From Here? Chomsky consistently stayed on topic, whereas Dershowitz hardly referred to it, except at the end when directed to it by a question. What’s the debate penalty for ignoring the topic?

In his opening address, Dershowitz only dealt with the issue obliquely, and devoted most of his time to berating the Palestinians, Chomsky, and professors who criticize Israel, and challenged Chomsky to form an alliance with him to work for peace in the area– a seemingly worthy proposal but totally off topic. Chomsky began by saying that the only thing Dershowitz said that he couldn’t take issue with was that the two of them had once been in some summer camp together. Chomsky then proceeded to provide background to the crisis and pointed out that the current Israel-USA policy and any proposal emanating from it would lead to only further disaster. The Palestinians are not prepared to accept a non-contiguous Bantustan “state” which is what is being offered. Instead he clearly stated that it was the Geneva Accord that provided a basis for meaningful future negotiations. Dershowitz, on the other hand, only at the end, when pressed on this matter, said that the new Sharon-Peres party would “offer” the Palestinians a “proposal”–which the Palestinians should not refuse! This was his answer to “where do we go from here.” So much for substance by Dershowitz. Debate score?

Looking back at the “debate,” Dershowitz’s approach was characterized by a consistent tirade of comments aimed at character assassination, rather than salient arguments relevant to the topic. At almost every instance when he spoke, Dershowitz peppered his address with ad hominem attacks on Chomsky–from the very beginning to the very end. Chomsky conducted himself with the dignity and decorum that such an occasion demanded. He kept to the topic, never raised his voice, never interrupted Dershowitz, and only at one time did he speak over the moderator’s voice who tried to cut off a much needed response to Dershowitz. What’s the debating penalty to Dershowitz for his abysmal ad hominem performance?

Right from the beginning it was obvious that Dershowitz did not intend to engage in honest debate. Instead, his aim was to smear, vilify, misrepresent and discredit Chomsky, and at intervals, in an almost childish manner, invited the audience to visit “Planet Chomsky.” There were countless examples of this. It’s hard to believe that Dershowitz would not have read some of Chomsky’s major works on the Israel-Palestine issue. But if he did read them, it means that he purposefully proceeded to misrepresent Chomsky’s views–views which Chomsky denied were his and challenged Dershowitz to cite such references. For example, how could Dershowitz claim that Chomsky never supported a two-state solution, which Chomsky has done over a 30-year period. Yet that’s what Dershowitz asserted in his opening remarks, which Chomsky immediately refuted. Then when Chomsky referred to his own writings, Dershowitz blustered that none of this work was available, or that it was “selected passages,” or in Esperanto or in some Czech edition immature, scandalous behaviour and outright lies. Indeed, it’s “selected passages” or quotations, with references, that often provide the required documentation. On several occasions, in putting forth a position or as a challenge to Chomsky’s argument, Dershowitz would say in a pretentious tone, ” President Clinton told me directly and personally . . .” In rebuttal, with devastating effectiveness, Chomsky responded, “You can believe what the research shows or you can believe what Mr. Dershowitz says someone told him.”

Dershowitz can’t claim he didn’t read the Geneva Accord or that it was in Esperanto, yet he asserted that the Accord’s major flaw was its insistence on the Right of Return. This shows either inexcusable ignorance or it was a deliberate lie. When Chomsky challenged this, the moderator cut him off so he couldn’t explain what the Accord actually says. As provided in Resolution 242, an alternative to the refugees actually returning to their original homes is the right of appropriate compensation. The Accord states that some refugees may return (up to about 50,000) but this would have to be with Israel’s agreement. As for the remainder, the Accord specifically spells out the provisions for compensation. For Dershowitz to deny this shows that to try to score a “debating point” he was fully prepared to lie, knowing that most people would not be aware of the Accord’s specific provisions.

When Chomsky stated that the American media did not report Clinton’s delivery of a huge number of helicopters to Israel to counter the Intafada, Dershowitz ridiculed the idea of media bias and said that it occurred only in Chomsky’s imagination. Dershowitz ignored Chomsky’s challenge to provide such documentation. Chomsky then went on to say that a media search showed that it was widely reported in Europe, but that the search showed zero results in the USA.

Dershowitz kept harping on the wonderful “generous” deal offered by Barak at Camp David–never once addressed the fact that what was offered was a nonviable “state” consisting of three non-contiguous Bantustans–and disingenuously tried to divert attention by waving a map showing the provision for a rail/road connection to Gaza. In confronting Chomsky’s position that Israel terminated discussions at Taba after one week, Dershowitz said it was done because Arafat had rejected the Camp David proposal. Utter nonsense. Taba was simply a continuation of the Camp David negotiations, and when it appeared that some real progress was being made, Israel terminated the discussions. In later years, it was the continuation of these discussions that led to the Geneva Accord. Despite being an acclaimed academic at Harvard, and being obsessed with Israel, Dershowitz appears to be clueless on many crucial issues.

One of the reasons for Dershowtiz’s hatred of Chomsky is the fact that back in 1973, Chomsky exposed and proved that Dershowitz lied in an attempt to discredit an Israeli civil libertarian. In the years that followed, Dershowitz has conducted a personal jihad against Chomsky. And recently, Chomsky, Finkelstein, and Alexander Cockburn exposed Dershowitz’s shoddy scholarship in his book The Case for Israel. So the animosity between them is long standing.

In the above cited reference, Chomsky states that Dershowitz “knows that he can’t respond to what I say. He doesn’t have the knowledge or the competence to deal with the issues. Therefore, the idea is to try to shut it up by throwing as much slime as you can.”

The scene at the end of the debate was nauseating. Dershowitz trots up to Chomsky to shake hands “look how magnanimous I am let’s be friends!” After his scurrilous attacks on Chomsky, he indeed owed him an apology, but I’m sure he didn’t offer one. One wonders what Chomsky said to him. It could be that Dershowitz realized he had crossed the line in civility, and he then wanted to somehow ingratiate himself with Chomsky, at least for public appearances.

JOHN RYAN, Ph. D., is a retired professor of geography and senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg, Canada. He can be reached at: