Alex Stein is the Abba Eban Scholar in International Relations (M.Phil) at Queens' College, Cambridge and an avowed Zionist. In the following blogpost (here reprinted in its entirety), he does a remarkable job of pointing to many serious flaws in Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel. Well worth the read, in my opinion.
‘Taking you way back’: Some comments on Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel
“Alain, in Matin du Gard’s Lieutenant Colonel Maumort, says that the first rule – he calls it the rule of rules – is the art of challenging what is appealing. You will notice that he describes this as an ‘art’: it is not enough simply to set oneself up as a person who distrusts majority taste as a matter or principle or perhaps conceit; that way lies snobbery and frigidity. However, it will very often be found that people are highly attached to illusions or prejudices, and are not just the sullen victims of dogma or orthodoxy…Allegiance is a powerful force in human affairs; it will not do to treat someone as a mental serf if he is convinced that his thraldom is honourable and voluntary.” Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian.
It is extraordinary that somebody with such an extensive resume, such a reputation, and such obvious intelligence can produce a book full of so many obvious flaws and still be applauded for it. This could be explained away by the fact that, when dealing with the Middle East conflict, people often suspend all rationality. It is worth, in the case of leading American lawyer Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, looking past such easy explanations, especially when there is a tremendous validity at the heart of his enterprise, “a defence – not of every Israeli policy or action, but of its basic right to exist, to protect its citizens from terrorism, and to defend its borders from hostile enemies.” Amen to that. However, unfortunately this justification soon turns out to be merely a disingenuous attempt to return us to the days of the classical Zionist myth, when Israel is always the victim, when all its government’s policies are an attempt at securing a fair peace, and when the Arabs are unrelenting in their pursuit of Israeli lives. In critique of Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, then, I hope to make my own ‘case for Israel’.
There is a dual thrust to Dershowitz’s methodology. Firstly, he tries to refute a number of historical and contemporary charges against ‘Israel’ (the majority of his defences are really defences of the Israeli government, hence the inverted commas) using the paradigm of question-accusation-accusers-reality-proof. Secondly, as fall-back, he argues that, whatever Israel’s misdemeanours might be, they pale into comparison to those of other states - states which are never condemned by Israel’s prime accusers. This strategy, however, is riddled with flaws and contradictions, belying his status as a top legal figure.
The first half of the book concentrates on historical issues relating to the conflict. Dershowitz is trained in law, and he obviously never faced the experience my friend once did in a history seminar at university. When asked what he knew about some aspect of the ancient world, he began to answer. He was interrupted by his tutor – “no, you have no fucking idea. When you are aware of that as the starting-point for historical enquiry, we can make progress.” Do not mistake this as a blow for post-modernism, rather a powerful warning that a prerequisite for making serious historical claims is radical humility. Certainly not the crude Dershowitz tactic (which reflects the ‘work’ of Mitchell Bard, an arch-propagandist of the Israeli right ), of ‘reality’ and ‘proof’, as if things were ever so simple.
Despite this empirical certainty, Dershowitz has no qualms in outlining a historical philosophy which clearly contradicts the basic methodology of large parts of the book. This occurs in the context of a discussion on what led to the Palestinian exodus in 1948.
“Because it is impossible to reconstruct the precise dynamics and atmospherics that accompanied the 1948 war waged by the Arab states against Israel, the one conclusion about which we can be absolutely certain is that no one will ever know – or convince his or her opponents – whether most of the Arabs who left Israel were chased, left on their own, or experienced some combination of factors that led them to move from one place to another. Israel has recently opened many of its historical archives to scholars, and newly available information has produced more insights and interpretations but has not – and will never – end all disagreements.”
There is no reason why this approach could not be applied to any historical situation. Thus, it surely applies to the rest of the material in Dershowitz’s book. It seems impossible, then, to square this ‘humility’ (which clearly has a lot to be said for it) with Dershowitz’s unrelenting attempts to show us the Arab-Israeli ‘Reality’.
This ‘Reality’ is clearly taken from elsewhere. Many accusations of plagiarism have been levelled at Dershowitz over the book. It is not worth getting into details of these here, but it is important to note that many of the historical ideas seem literally lifted wholesale from classic works in the Zionist-apologist canon, for example Joan Peters’ debunked work, From Time Immemorial. And in the midst of Dershowitz’s potted history, the first specific confusions in his strategy emerge. In the introduction he argues “when the Jewish nation is the only one criticized for faults that are far worse among other nations, such criticism crosses the line from fair to foul, from acceptable to anti-Semitic.” Of the particularities in this claim, more later. For now, it is important to note that it is unclear whether inclusion as an ‘accuser’ in one of Dershowitz’s chapter headings means that he considers you an anti-Semite. After all, he cries out “When the best is accused of being the worst, the focus must shift to the accusers, who I contend may be guilty of bigotry, hypocrisy, or abysmal ignorance at the very least. It is they who must stand in the dock of history, along with others who have also singled out the Jewish people, the Jewish religion, the Jewish culture, or the Jewish nation for unique and undeserved condemnation.” Thus the usual suspects of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky become anti-Semitic by default, as well as Christopher Hitchens Rabbi Michael Lerner, the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Member of Knesset Azmi Bishara, and Yael Stein of the leading Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. While Dershowitz does not explicitly call (most of) these figures anti-Semitic, by defining the ‘accusers’ as he does, he certainly opens the door for their inclusion as Jew-haters. This, of course, is not backed by any real evidence of anti-Semitism.
Dershowitz is keen on highlighting double standards whenever possible. As we have noted, he declares “when the Jewish nation is the only one criticised for faults that are far worse among other nations, such criticism crosses the line from fair to foul, from acceptable to anti-Semitic.” He goes on to say that “A good working definition of anti-Semitism is taking a trait or action that is widespread, if not universal, and blaming only the Jews for it.” It seems pertinent to test this definition. Let us replace Jewish nation with American nation. Many people criticise the American prison system, levelling accusations of racism or institutional human rights infringements against it. However, Brazil seems to have far more of such problems in its prisons. If someone writes about the American prison system without also criticising the Brazilian prison system, does this make the person anti-American? Of course not. In fact, every day we see figures in the media take a problem which is universal and examine a particular manifestation of it. Different people have different interests and focuses. I can apply Dershowitz’s standard to myself by using a favoured comparison of his – that of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. I sometimes write about what goes on in Israel, and I am often critical of the Israeli government. I do not write about the Chinese occupation of Tibet or any of the other far worse injustices that go on in the world. According to Dershowitz’s standard, this makes me an anti-Semite. In reality, I write about Israel because I am passionately interested in what goes on there and, for right or wrong, am not similarly interested in what goes on in Occupied Tibet. But having a particular interest does not necessarily mean that someone discriminates , it just illustrates the intriguing nature of what drives human interests.
Favourable comparisons of the situation in Israel with other trouble spots in the world forms a central part of Dershowitz’s thesis. He claims that Israel has performed more admirably than any other country that has faced ‘comparable dangers’ (although he does not give any examples of such countries ), and has a far better human rights record than most countries in the world. It is hard to assess his claim about ‘comparable dangers’, since it is deliberately vague, but his claim about Israel’s human rights record is an interesting one. Put simply, he might be right. Israel may have the best human rights record in the world, or maybe it is in tenth place, or one hundredth. Who knows? Investigations into this question have come to contradictory conclusions. Either way, it is irrelevant. It is especially irrelevant when states have never been great protectors of human rights. Anyone who cares about ‘league tables’ on such matters clearly does not care about human rights, they simply care about appearing better than the rest. All we can do is campaign consistently on the issue wherever we are, something that thankfully goes on in such an admirable way in Israel by groups such as B’tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights. It does not matter if torture takes place more in the country next door. What matters is that human rights abuses are wrong and need to be opposed.
In the context of the human rights issue, it is no surprise to see that Dershowitz is an enthusiastic supporter of Israel’s legal institutions, principally the Supreme Court. Perhaps that is why his picture of Israel is primarily drawn from its deliberations. “It is fair to say that Israel, led by its progressive Supreme Court, is making considerable progress in eliminating the vestiges of anti-Arab discrimination that were largely a product of the refusal of the Arab world to accept a Jewish state. It is also fair to say that despite some lingering inequalities, there is far less discrimination in Israel than in any Middle Eastern, Arab, or Muslim nation.” His faith in legal institutions is closely followed by his faith in opinion polls. He makes the curious suggestion that “It is not unjust to make the cause itself suffer for terrorist actions committed on its behalf, especially if there is widespread support for the terrorism within the cause.” His evidence for the widespread Palestinian support for terrorism is a 2002 poll which found that 87 percent of Palestinians supported continuing terrorist attacks. Wherever possible, Dershowitz uses this single poll as if it was from heaven, as indisputable evidence that a majority of Palestinians simply want to kill Israelis whenever possible. We all know that it is impossible to rely on single polls, and there are many contradictory pictures painted of Israeli and Palestinian society. For example, a recent poll suggested that over 50% of Israelis supported ‘transfer’ of the Arabs . Does this mean that there is widespread support for ethnic cleansing within the cause of Zionism? No, of course not, especially when poll after poll shows that a majority of the Israeli population supports withdrawal from the Occupied Territories in return for a genuine peace. Indeed, Dershowitz contradicts his own ‘poll of polls’ by referring to a 1996 poll by a Palestinian political scientist, who found that 80% of Palestinians admired the Israeli government. Polls, however reliable they may seem to be, are never comprehensive. They serve to highlight contradiction, not do away with it. And then there is the claim that ‘it is not unjust to make the cause itself suffer for terrorist actions committed on its behalf.’ This is false. The cause stands alone, either just or unjust, irrespective of the actions of its primary ‘defendants’. The Palestinian cause for self-determination is undoubtedly a just one, and the job of the international community is to try and achieve that - even if there are sectors within Palestinian society that insist on shooting themselves in the foot.
Dershowitz’s book, despite being packaged for more sophisticated, cynical times, slips in a number of the classic non-starters of the Zionist right. Firstly, there’s the subtle claim that ‘Jordan is Palestine’, due to the fact that Jordan has a Palestinian majority: “Yasser Arafat rejected the Barak proposal, making it clear that he would never surrender the right of more than 4 million Palestinians to return to Israel rather than live in the Palestinian state with compensation. This would, of course, quickly turn Israel into yet another Palestinian state, in addition to Jordan and the new West Bank-Gaza Strip state.” Dershowitz clearly thinks it is merely a matter of numbers, and that having a majority of your national group in a single state means your desire for independence has been achieved. The shameful treatment of Palestinians in Jordan, their status as permanent refugee-camp dwellers (which Dershowitz is right to highlight), as well as their mass slaughter at the hands of King Hussein in 1970, should show him that Jordan is far from Palestine. Secondly, in his defence of the Israeli government against the charge of collective punishment for its policy of destroying the homes of suicide bombers, Dershowitz is quick to put all their families in the same boat. In referring to King Abdullah’s criticism of the policy of house demolitions, Dershowitz writes “Abdullah failed to mention that McVeigh’s family did not praise their son’s actions. Nor did they assist him and encourage him to become a martyr. Moreover, he was not part of an ongoing effort that continues to terrorize civilians.” While it would be naïve to claim that no suicide bomber’s family fits this description, there have been too many exceptions to prove the rule. Being part of the family of a suicide bomber does not necessarily make one an ‘accessory to terrorism’, anymore than being Ariel Sharon’s son makes you culpable for the crimes at Sabra and Chatila.
Incredibly, there are some contradictions in Dershowitz’s approach that can only be described as childish. Chapter 22, for example, asks “Is the Israeli Occupation the Cause of All the Problems?” The accusation, however, reads “The Israeli occupation is the longest and most brutal in modern history.” Note the difference – the accusation is fundamentally different to the original question. He also claims that “Israel ended its occupation in 1995” , a linguistic slight of hand referring to Israeli withdrawal from major population centres that he knows only too well is completely dishonest, as Palestinians still remain without basic control over their lives, at least in comparison to genuine nation-states. He is correct in claiming that the Chinese occupation of Tibet has been ‘worse’, at least in terms of harm done to the Tibetans, but his purposes in pointing this out are completely malignant. The fact that there may be more Tibetans than Palestinians does nothing to change the fact that the Palestinians are an occupied people, and the fact that the Chinese government has built more Chinese settlements in Tibet does not make even one Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories right. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the United Nations and other international bodies in condemning Israel while failing to condemn other world occupiers is important, but only if it is being done to promote the claims of other stateless peoples, not as a way to distract from Israeli government policies.
On a similar note, Chapter 26 asks “Is Settlement in the West Bank and Gaza a [my italics] Major Barrier to Peace?” The accusation, however, is that “The Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are the [my italics] major barrier to peace.” Whether they are the major barrier to peace is of course a legitimate debate. However, it is truly perverse to suggest that they do not even constitute a barrier. It seems as if Dershowitz conceives of the settlements as idyllic little Jewish towns passively dotting the landscape of the Occupied Territories. The reality of perpetuating the settlements, however, is well documented – checkpoints, Jew-only roads, human rights abuses, and much worse. Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s prediction has come terrifyingly true:
“Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions. After a few
years there would be no Jewish workers or Jewish farmers. The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police – mainly secret police. A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech, and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the state of Israel. The administration would have to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.”
Dershowitz also draws on the classic ‘they [the Palestinians] will always want more’ argument: “If terrorism succeeds in securing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, why should it not continue to be used to secure that the vast majority of Palestinians say they want?” We criticise certain Palestinian groups (and fellow travellers) for not being satisfied with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, claiming that in reality they want all of pre-1967 Israel as well – Haifa, Jaffa – the lot. But many people in Israel are guilty of the same crime, in fact often even worse. Many groups want all of Palestine, and Israel has all of Palestine – in the form of Judea and Samaria, as an exponent of ‘Greater Israel’ would call the Occupied Territories. It seems a bit rich to use the Palestinians’ historical desires (however misplaced) as evidence for a genocidal mentality towards Israelis and Jews, when those same historical desires have been fulfilled by Israel, with disastrous consequences.
Despite trying to create the impression of being a fair advocate for Israel who is not averse to criticism, Dershowitz sometimes crosses the line from dishonesty to crude stereotyping which verges on racism. We have referred above to Dershowitz’s comments on the families of suicide bombers. In a similar vein, when defending home demolitions against the charge of collective punishment, he writes “Even when it is clear that no one is inside, the inevitable picture of the crying woman bemoaning the loss of her home creates sympathy, even if that same woman was yesterday encouraging her son to become a martyr and tomorrow will be cheering at the news of an Israeli restaurant being blown up with a dozen teenagers.” Dershowitz is largely correct in noting that the bulldozers make sure the people are out of the house before going to work (although there have been enough exceptions to be ashamed of), but this should not detract from the fact that survival must seem scant consolation when you are witness to your home being destroyed. More importantly, however, Dershowitz’s derision of the crying woman again assumes that the family members of suicide bombers are always to blame, and also forgets that it is not only the families of suicide bombers who are victims of home demolitions. Take what happened in Rafah recently, for example. I wonder what he thought of Tommy Lapid’s (Israeli Justice Minister) comments. Unlike Dershowitz, Lapid did not see the eyes of a prime supporter of terrorism in the ‘crying woman bemoaning the loss of her home’. He was reminded of the eyes of his grandmother under Nazi occupation.
This libelling of the Palestinian people extends to the more progressive elements within the their leadership. “The fact that so many are now optimistic about the appointment of a new prime minister, despite the fact that Abu Mazen wrote a book denying the Holocaust, is a testament to the perseverance of the peace camp, as well as to the paucity of Palestinian leaders with acceptable views.” Abu Mazen’s flirtation with Holocaust denial was undoubtedly appalling, but is of little contemporary relevance. He has clearly apologised for holding such beliefs and has distanced himself from them. Sadat was also once an ally of the Nazis, and repented for these connections during the period in which he “courageously indicated a willingness to make peace with Israel in exchange for the Sinai.” In fact, far from demonstrating the ‘paucity of Palestinian leaders with acceptable views’, Abu Mazen was no different from Sadat, unequivocally expressing a willingness to make peace with Israel in exchange for the return of occupied land. Unfortunately he found himself sandwiched between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, with no room to manoeuvre whatsoever. Dershowitz recognizes that Abu Mazen desires a fair two-state solution, but makes the error of implying that Ariel Sharon does as well. Sharon still wants to eventually annex as much of the West Bank as possible, and the Gaza disengagement proposal fits in with this plan. He is not willing to even consider any settlement that would remotely satisfy the most legitimate of Palestinian demands.
If Dershowitz had been serious about his laudable aims, he would have maintained some form of critical angle. In reality, there is none. Israel is never to blame; anything that looks like a mistake can be explained away by the fact that it remains a teething democracy. Dershowitz is really trying to stifle dissent, both from within and without. His primary ire is targeted at those he perceives as anti-Zionist, but progressives within the Zionist ranks are tarnished along the way. The time for trying to win the historical battle should be over by now. There is a more important battle to be fought, a battle for peace, for pressure to be placed on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to pursue a path of peace. This is never done by apologising for its wrongful actions. It can only be done through constant self-criticism and reform. In doing that, we would be making a stronger case for Israel than any lawyer could.