The Attacks on Beyond Chutzpah

The Winter 2006 issue of Middle East Journal ran a scathing review by Professor Marc Saperstein of my book Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history. Saperstein alleged that my book was a “prolonged diatribe,” replete with “outrageous ad hominem attacks” and written in the “rhetorical style of the arrogant academic pit bull.”

Before directly addressing these criticisms, it merits setting the broader context of Saperstein’s review. Readers of MEJ are undoubtedly aware that my publisher, University of California Press, was subject to an unprecedented and highly public campaign by Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University, reaching up to Governor Schwarzenegger’s office, to block publication of my book. UCPress was accordingly at great pains to ensure that my book met the most stringent scholarly (and legal) standards. Numerous editors, libel lawyers and leading scholars in the field from Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States were called upon to render judgment. Having concluded after this extraordinary peer review process that Beyond Chutzpah did indeed make a significant scholarly contribution, and notwithstanding brutal external threats and pressures, UCPress courageously went ahead and published it. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) subsequently commended UCPress for its principled stand.

Saperstein has now weighed in on Dershowitz’s side, expressing puzzlement that UCPress should have committed such an egregious blunder. This judgment in a prestigious academic journal constitutes a grave indictment not only of my own reputation but also that of a respected publisher, distinguished scholars and the main professional organization in the field. Careful and sober scrutiny of the evidence Saperstein adduces is clearly warranted. Should it prove that Saperstein’s claims lack merit, it would seem that the responsible gesture of the journal’s editors would be to retract their imprimatur from the review.

The central thesis of Beyond Chutzpah is that on crucial dimensions of the Israel-Palestine conflict little (if any) controversy remains among serious scholars and that what passes as controversy in public life is in reality a contrived discourse to deflect criticism of Israeli policy. Paradoxically Saperstein’s review, although intended to refute my thesis, lends further weight to it:

(1) To demonstrate that I have misrepresented the conflict’s history, Saperstein cites as his one and only example my claim that Israel “ethnically cleansed Palestine in 1948.” Not only is this not true, according to Saperstein, but “the fact is the only ethnic cleansing that occurred in 1948 in Palestine was by Arabs of Jews from the West Bank and Gaza” (his emphasis). In my book I cite the research of Ieading Israeli scholars Baruch Kimmerling, Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe. (Each has used the descriptive “ethnic cleansing” in his respective writings on the topic.) An unimpeachably mainstream figure like Shabtai Teveth, who is Ben-Gurion’s official biographer, acknowledged long ago that once the Arab armies attacked on 15 May “one may properly speak of expulsion by Israel” of the Palestinians (“Charging Israel With Original Sin,” Commentary, September 1989). Indeed one might even cite former Israeli foreign minister and respected historian Shlomo Ben-Ami, who documents in his study Scars of War, Wounds of Peace (Oxford: 2006) that Palestinians were expelled in accordance with the Zionist “philosophy of transfer,” which framed Ben-Gurion’s “strategic-ideological” vision and “provided a legitimate environment for commanders in the field actively to encourage the eviction of the local population.”

Against this wealth of research by leading Israeli scholars across the political spectrum, Saperstein cites not a single academic authority but rather the avowal of an Israeli novelist (Amos Oz). It is, or should be, cause for wonder that such a lone reference passes muster in a serious academic journal as scholarly rebuttal, and that the remarkable claim that no Palestinians–none–were expelled in 1948 passed editorial scrutiny. Will the editors now approve quotation of Leon Uris as a scholarly source? Saperstein can perhaps be excused since his area of expertise is ancient Jewish texts (he’s apparently never written professionally on the Israel-Palestine conflict). But how did the explosion of scholarship on the birth of the Palestinian refugee question confuting the novelist’s statement escape the notice of MEJ’s editors? Saperstein’s only other evidence that Palestinians weren’t ethnically cleansed is that of the 900,000 Palestinians living in the areas Israel conquered 150,000 managed to remain in situ at war’s end. Yet, apart from Holocaust deniers who would argue that Jews weren’t subject to a genocide because of the 7,000,000 Jews living in the areas conquered by the Nazis 1,000,000 managed to survive at war’s end? (For charity’s sake I ignore Saperstein’s argument that Israel couldn’t have expelled Palestinians from the areas of Palestine it conquered in 1948 because they continued to live in areas of Palestine that Israel didn’t conquer.)

(2) To demonstrate that I have grossly misrepresented Israel’s human rights record in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Saperstein takes me to task for relying on mainstream human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and–what’s yet more sinister in his view–Israeli human rights organizations like B’Tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), which he derides as “useful rhetorically.” He further impugns the documentation I cite from these organizations as “facts” (his scare quotes) and waxes indignant that I didn’t cast doubt on their judgments.

In researching Beyond Chutzpah I perused thousands of pages of mainstream human rights reports. One surprising conclusion I reached was how uncontroversial Israel’s human rights record was. Although each of these human rights organizations has a fiercely independent research, legal and field staff, I came across only one instance over a 15-year period where two human rights organizations differed on a (tiny) point of fact. I then compared the uniform findings of these organizations with the claims of Professor Alan Dershowitz in his book The Case for Israel. More often than not Dershowitz either cites no source whatsoever or, as I document, fabricates a source out of whole cloth.

Consider torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees. In Beyond Chutzpah I cite the annual findings of Amnesty International over a ten-year period that “Palestinians were systematically tortured or ill-treated during interrogation”; the findings of a major Human Rights Watch report that “the number of Palestinians tortured or severely ill-treated while under interrogation during the [first] intfiada is in the tens of thousands”; and the findings of B’Tselem that “[S]ome eight-five percent of persons interrogated by the GSS were interrogated by methods constituting torture.” Against these findings I juxtapose Professor Dershowitz’s unsourced counterclaim that Israel only “sometimes” employed what he calls a “modified form of non-lethal torture.” Saperstein wonders why I regard the evidence and findings of human rights reports as valid. The obvious answer would seem to be that if all mainstream human rights organizations reach identical conclusions and no contrary evidence exists, there’s no rational reason to infer that their reports are false–unless one accepts the faith-based counterclaim that Amnesty, HRW and B’Tselem are part of a vast (anti-Semitic) conspiracy to malign Israel. Saperstein appears to belong to the latter school since he characterizes my evidence, culled overwhelmingly from mainstream human rights reports, as “every anti-Israel argument in the arsenal of its opponents.” He wonders why I didn’t engage in a “critical weighing of evidence on different sides of a controversial issue.” Again, the obvious answer would seem to be that Dershowitz doesn’t supply any evidence to weigh, and there’s no controversy among mainstream human rights organizations to adjudicate. On a related matter Saperstein is appalled that I should treat as “self-evidently true” the allegation of all mainstream human rights organizations that Israel committed war crimes during its 2002 invasion of Jenin. Should I have doubted this uniform conclusion because a notorious apologist for Israel asserted without any evidence that it wasn’t so?

The remainder of Saperstein’s indictment can be more easily dispatched. He deplores that I treat with “scorn and sarcasm” the claims of New Anti-Semitism authors that “Western-based international human rights organizations,” “Jewish feminists,” Associated Press, Reuters, Time, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, BBC, NPR, CNN and ABC are all anti-Semitic; that the creation of Israel was a plot by European governments to concentrate all Jews in Palestine in order to exterminate them; that it’s only a matter of time before “a loudspeaker goes off and a voice says, ‘All Jews gather in Times Square.'” Among scholars who base their findings on evidence and conclusions on reason the obvious retort would seem to be, Why shouldn’t these ravings be treated with “scorn and sarcasm”? Saperstein wonders why I don’t consider anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Yet, although surely a significant phenomenon it’s also surely not new, while the burden of my first chapters was to analyze the so-called New Anti-Semitism that allegedly now permeates the Western world. Incidentally, Saperstein’s recommendation of MEMRI as an objective source on the Arab world is of a piece with his recommendation of an Israeli novelist for the truth on the 1948 war.

Objecting to my comparison between the Nazi destruction of Lidice and Dershowitz’s notorious policy prescription for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Saperstein states that the Nazis killed adult male inhabitants whereas Dershowitz merely advocated the destruction of “empty houses in a particular village.” In my book I juxtaposed Dershowitz’s deploring that “Hitler destroyed the entire Czech village of Lidice” with his own advocacy of the destruction of entire Palestinian villages. To dispute this comparison Saperstein introduces an element not mentioned by Dershowitz, that beyond destroying the village the Nazis also killed adult males at Lidice. However, is it even true that Dershowitz’s proposal bears merely on “empty houses in a particular village”? Although you wouldn’t know it from Saperstein’s disingenuous gloss, here’s what Dershowitz actually advocated: “[D]estruction of a small village which has been used as a base for terrorist operations. The residents would be given 24 hours to leave, and then troops will come in and bulldoze all of the buildings. The response will be automatic. The order will have been given in advance of the terrorist attacks and there will be no discretion.” Dershowitz couldn’t be clearer on the fate of residents who don’t abandon their homes: “the response will be automaticthere will be no discretion.” Saperstein also expresses perplexity that UCPress should have allowed me to document Dershowitz’s plagiarism from a notorious hoax. It’s unclear why a serious allegation of professional malfeasance shouldn’t be reported especially since Saperstein doesn’t dispute a single word of the 25 pages of evidence I assembled.

The “bottom-line” for Saperstein is that my book is the work of an “arrogant academic pit bull.” Beyond Chutzpah is the product of twenty years of sustained reflection and what all reviewers (including Saperstein) agree was prodigious research. Saperstein consented to review the book although he’s never written a single word on the main subject area. But I am the arrogant academic. Saperstein dismisses the accumulated research of Israeli historians by citing a statement of an Israeli novelist. But I am the arrogant academic. Saperstein mocks the cumulative findings of all mainstream human rights organizations as “facts” (his scare quotes). But I am the arrogant academic. In order to discredit my work Saperstein blots out existing scholarship, cites only preposterous sources, impugns the integrity of all human rights organizations and disingenuously quotes Dershowitz. But I am the pit bull. Saperstein accuses me of “getting carried away in his rhetoric” and of resorting to “outrageous ad hominems” and then labels me an “arrogant academic pit bull.” On a related note, MEJ’s stated policy prohibits the use of “intemperate or abusive language” in its pages, which must mean that the editors don’t consider the phrase “arrogant academic pit bull” intemperate or abusive.

Saperstein wonders why University of California Press published my book. The obvious answer would seem to be that it both passed an unprecedentedly rigorous peer review process and met the press’s rigorous publication standards. In a sane intellectual culture the only questions would be: Why did MEJ commission a review from Saperstein, and why did he agree to do it? His only qualification for reviewing my book would seem to be that for many years he sat on the Board of Directors of Harvard Hillel and was a colleague of Dershowitz. Readers of MEJ would have been better served if the editors had exercised minimum professional responsibility rather than let their pages be used for a transparent–not to mention slightly ridiculous–hatchet job.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN’s most recednt book is Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (University of California Press). His web site is



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