An Interview with Alan Dershowitz

John K. Wilson asked Alan Dershowitz to respond to some questions via email about his role in the denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein. With the exception of correcting Dershowitz’s mistake of referring to Peter Novick as “Michael,” his full and unedited response is below.

Here are the questions:

1) DePaul officials strongly criticized your intervention in the Finkelstein tenure case, and claimed that your efforts did not influence their decision. Do you think that’s true, or do you think that you deserve the credit for getting Finkelstein fired?

2) For a long time, you claimed that you “never tried to prevent Finkelstein’s book from being published” and refused to answer questions about whether you had written to Gov. Schwarzenegger, asking him to prevent the publication by the University of California Press of Finkelstein’s book. Are you now willing to admit you wrote such a letter, and do you have any regrets? Do you think it’s a good idea to have politicians intervening in the editorial decisions of university presses?

3) One of the concerns prompted by the Finkelstein case is that professors who speak out publicly and forcefully on controversial issues may be subject to more scrutiny than the timid faculty. Are you concerned that scholars working on Israel-Palestine issues may feel silenced? Do you think that defenders or critics of Israel are more likely to be silenced on college campuses?

By Alan Dershowitz

I became involved in Finkelstein’s tenure matter after being requested to do so by Professor Patrick Callahan, who had served as chairman of the department which was then considering Finkelstein for tenure. He invited me to submit a letter documenting “the clearest and most egregious instances of [intellectual] dishonesty on Finkelstein’s part.” Requesting input from outside academics regarding tenure decision is common throughout the world. I have written many such letters, some positive, some negative. This is part of what I wrote about Finkelstein:

I would like to point out from the outset that the ugly and false assertions that I will discuss below are not incidental to Finkelstein’s purported scholarship; they are his purported scholarship. Finklestein’s entire literary catalogue is one preposterous and discredited ad hominem attack after another. By his own admission, he has conducted no original research, has never been published in a reputable, scientific journal, and has made no contributions to our collective historical knowledge. . . . Although he claims to be a “forensic scholar,” he limits his defamations to one ideological group and never applies his so-called “forensic” tools to his own work or to those who share his ideological perspective. . . . That is not forensic scholarship; it is propaganda.

After documenting dozens of misstatements, made-up quotations and false citations, I quoted from other critics of Finkelstein’s “scholarship,” beginning with Peter Novick, the University of Chicago historian whom Finkelstein said had inspired him:

As concerns particular assertions made by Finkelstein . . . , the appropriate response is not (exhilarating) “debate” but (tedious) examination of his footnotes. Such an examination reveals that many of those assertions are pure invention. . . . No facts alleged by Finkelstein should be assumed to be really facts, no quotation in his book should be assumed to be accurate, without taking the time to carefully compare his claims with the sources he cites.

Finkelstein’s book is trash.

I next quoted the New York Times review of his book by the distinguished Brown University professor Omer Bartov:

[Finkelstein] combines an old-hat 1960s view of Israel as the outpost of American imperialism with a novel variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, ‘‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’’ There is also something indecent about it, something juvenile, self-righteous, arrogant and stupid.

This book is, in a word, an ideological fanatic’s view . . . by a writer so reckless and ruthless in his attacks. . . . [His theory is] both irrational and insidious. . . . An international Jewish conspiracy verges on paranoia and would serve anti-Semites.”

The University of California Press, which purports to publish scholarship, violated their own standard in deciding to lend its scholarly imprimatur to Finkelstein’s unscholarly screed. I never tried to prevent Finkelstein’s book from being published. Indeed, I urged him to publish it so that it could be defeated in the marketplace of ideas. I opposed the decision by a scholarly university press to violate its own rules by publishing his unscholarly book, and I wrote to each member of the Board of the University of California Press expressing my views. The Governor, as a member of that Board, was among those who received my letter. If university presses don’t want politicians involved in their editorial decisions, they should not put them on their boards. They cannot have it both ways. I also published a lengthy article documenting the numerous false statements, citations and quotations that any “scholarly” press could easily have caught if they were interested in accuracy rather than propaganda.[Response to Beyond Chutzpah, Congress Monthly, September/October 2005, pp. 11-18.]

I believe that professors who take an overtly anti-Israel view have a better chance of getting appointed today than professors who strongly support Israel. Today, the hard left is far more active, and much more successful, in denying appointment to conservative scholars, than are right wingers in denying appointments to qualified leftists. In the past, the opposite was true. Neither situation is acceptable. The important point is to keep the marketplace of ideas open to all points of view and not to have political opinions influence appointment decisions—either way.

Norman Finkelstein was appropriately denied tenure because of his record of non scholarship. He had previously been fired, for the same reason, by several other universities—before I even knew who he was. The role I played in the DePaul matter was to call attention to his lack of scholarship, his distortion of facts, his miscitation of sources and the one-sidedness of his writings. I am proud of the role I played in his tenure decision. If asked, I would play the same role in if a candidate were an academically unqualified right wing pro Israel advocate.

6 thoughts on “An Interview with Alan Dershowitz

  1. I wish to comment on some of the questionable claims made by Dershowitz in my interview with him. Dershowitz claims that he wrote to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger because he was a member of the Board of Directors of the University of California Press; I can find no evidence that this is true. Dershowitz and his attorneys wrote many letters to the University of California Press, trying to cajole and threaten them into censoring Finkelstein’s book. More importantly, it was wrong, is wrong, and will always be wrong to ask the governor of a state to prevent publication of a book by a university press, and that’s what Dershowitz did.

    It is true that Dershowitz was initially asked for negative information on Finkelstein by DePaul professor Patrick Callahan. However, Dershowitz then initiated a personal and public crusade against Finkelstein’s tenure. DePaul’s Faculty Governance Council expressed its “dismay at Professor Dershowitz’s interference in Finkelstein’s tenure and promotion case.” Michael Budde, chair of DePaul’s political science department, told the New York Times that Dershowitz’s campaign “shows no respect for the integrity of our process and institution.” Peter Novick, whom Dershowitz cites approvingly, condemned Dershowitz’s campaign against Finkelstein’s tenure and refused to respond to a request for dirt on Finkelstein.

  2. According to Frank J. Menetrez in his article ‘Dershowitz Vs Finkelstein: Who’s right, and who’s wrong?’ –
    “Dershowitz has never […] responded to Finkelstein’s argument concerning the identical errors in The Case for Israel and From Time Immemorial. He wrote the List, for example, one year after publication of Beyond Chutzpah, but in it he expressly declines to address the plagiarism issue. Dershowitz has not argued that the alleged errors do not exist, or that his errors are not identical to Peters’, or that the identity of the errors is just a coincidence and the errors are easy to make even when one checks the primary sources.
    Finkelstein’s argument concerning the identical errors strikes me as persuasive, and Dershowitz’s failure to respond to the argument strikes me as telling.”

    Despite repeated requests from Menetrez for some clarification of the plagiarism allegation, he received no answer, other than some abusive and ‘not entirely coherent responses from Dershowitz’.

  3. “I opposed the decision by a scholarly university press to violate its own rules by publishing his unscholarly book.” (Dershowitz) ” I never tried to prevent Finkelstein’s book from being published.” (Dershowitz) *** MY COMMENT: Does Dershowitz actually read what he writes? (‘I did not set Dr. Finkelstein on fire, I simply warmed him up by dousing him in gasoline and lighting a match nearby.’ … Let’s cut through Dershowitz’ double-talk; he basically admits to fear mongering to create a behind-the-scenes climate of censorship.) The guy is anti academic freedom when some one comes along and effectively challenges his pet-cause of ‘Israel-can-do-no-wrong.’

  4. “I became involved in Finkelstein’s tenure matter after being requested to do so by Professor Patrick Callahan, who had served as chairman of the department which was then considering Finkelstein for tenure. He invited me to submit a letter documenting “the clearest and most egregious instances of [intellectual] dishonesty on Finkelstein’s part.”

    This is a lie. Callahan sent the referenced request in response to receiveing Dershowitz’ ‘anti-tenure packet,’ sent to every member of the PolSci dept. as well as the review board. In fact most, if not all, of his claims are ‘disingenuous’ at the very best, and outright lies at worst (and most likely), easily provable by anyone with a library card or internet connection.

    Mr. Dershowitz, are you even capable of shame, or do you just think everyone else is an idiot? The internet age has really bit you in the petootie, eh?

  5. Apart from the falsities pointed out by the previous commenters, Dershowitz’s claim that “Norman Finkelstein was appropriately denied tenure because of his record of non scholarship” is a complete fabrication. In fact, the University issued a statement declaring that Finkelstein is “an outstanding teacher and a prolific scholar.”

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