The Case for Israel

by Alan Dershowitz

New York: John Wiley & Sons; 264 pp., $19.95

Alan Dershowitz’s brief on behalf of Israel has at least some truth on its side.  Had the Arabs accepted the territorial partition arranged by the United Nations in 1947, far fewer of them would today be living in exile; and certainly the Palestinians in 1948 bore a heavy blame for the war that resulted in the expulsion of over 700,000 of their countrymen.  Moreover, had the Arab commanders won their war in 1948, they would, in all probability, have been faithful to their exhortation to their troops and permitted a massacre of the defeated Jews.  Finally, Israel has indeed established a more tolerant and (in the proper sense) liberal regime than have most of her Arab neighbors, and she did work to achieve a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians in the Camp David meetings, which the PLO rejected.

That said, it might seem that I welcome Dershowitz’s brief.  That, however, is far from being the case.  This book includes such glaring factual errors and such odious charges against those who disagree with the author that Elie Wiesel, Mario Cuomo, and other dignitaries who provided blurbs for its dust jacket ought to be ashamed of themselves.  In several internet debates with Dershowitz, historian-gadfly Norman Finkelstein, whose parents suffered in the real holocaust in Eastern Europe (rather than, like Dershowitz, in some belated postwar trauma in Brooklyn), took his antagonist to the cleaners.  Dershowitz, as it turned out, was so ignorant of his subject that he could not identify the author of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, requiring the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories.  Equally significant, Dershowitz has borrowed large gobs of his text from a biased polemic by journalist Joan Peters.  From Peters’ unacknowledged work From Time Immemorial, Dershowitz takes the claim that the Palestinian presence in the disputed territory was minimal when the first modern Jewish settlement was established in the late 19th century.  Peters also understates the number of Palestinians driven from their homes, while pretending that the expulsions had nothing to do with an Israeli plan for ethnic cleansing.  Israeli historian Benny Morris, whom Dershowitz selectively quotes, had shot to pieces fictions regarding these matters before Peters’ book appeared.  By the mid-1980’s, most of the Dershowitz-Peters account had undergone critical revision by the Israelis themselves, less inhibited than American Zionists about telling the truth.

Dershowitz might be surprised to learn that Jews and Arabs were both represented on both sides in World War I.  There were even Jews who backed the “imperialist colonialist Turkish Empire,” which Sephardic Jews—e.g., the family of Anglo-Iraqi historian Elie Kedourie—had served for generations.  There were, on the other side, Arab leaders, like the shariff of Mecca, a close friend of General Allenby and of Lawrence of Arabia, who fought for the British against the Turks.  In World War II, contrary to Dersho-witz’s assertion, Arabs again had representatives on both sides of the struggle.  While the grand mufti of Jerusalem reacted to a growing Jewish presence in the Middle East by endorsing Hitler, the Saudis backed their British allies.  And—although this could be hard for Dershowitz to believe—right-wing Zionists, in the Etzel Leumi, solicited and took aid from the Nazis to launch a “Great Revolt” against the British.

In one particularly puzzling passage, we learn that “neo-fascists” and those who “have sided with America’s enemies—the Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden”—are now against “one of America’s most loyal and valuable democratic allies.”  There were hundreds of thousands of Jews, however, some of whose descendants now live in Israel, who fought for the kaiser; and among Israel’s founders, particularly in the labor movement, were admirers of Stalin, until the Soviet tyrant turned violently against Jews in the late 1940’s.  And, as far as I can tell, American critics of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians are not exactly hot to trot with Osama bin Laden.

In Chapter 21, Dershowitz tells us that Israel is not a “racist state,” being “racially and religiously pluralistic.”  Although the term “racist” now signifies nothing beyond the fact that the multicultural left is gunning for someone, Israel is not “pluralistic” in the sense that Dersho-witz would favor pluralism for European-Americans.  Government-owned property in Israel is not available for purchase by gentiles, whether Arab Muslim or American Christian.  Under Israeli law, Jews and non-Jews cannot be legally married; and only those with Jewish mothers or those who have undergone the difficult process of an Orthodox Jewish conversion can become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return.  Non-Jews who wish to serve in the government or rise in the officer class would do well to move elsewhere.  It is also misleading to deny that Zionists in the past, including those who settled Israel, did not believe in a single Jewish state.  All right-wing Zionists—most conspicuously the Revisionists—and at least some on the Zionist left accepted the very premise that Dershowitz denies Israel’s Zionists affirmed.  Many of the early Zionists believed the Arabs should be kept around—as a service class.  What Dershowitz should have emphasized is that this view is not that of the present Israeli government.  Although descended from the Revisionists, who called for a “Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan,” the Likud coalition now in power accepts (at least in its public statements) negotiations intended to achieve Israeli security and Palestinian independence.

Dershowitz crams his foot even more deeply into his mouth around page 60.  Here we read that Christian and Muslim countries both owe the Jews their own state in the Middle East, just as American whites owe the descendants of black slaves affirmative action.  One might ask whether the millions of Christians who fought against the Nazis, and the Christian churches and countries that have never persecuted Jews, are also obligated to provide compensation.  The problem is that even Christians who aided Jews during the Nazi period, such as Pius XII, have changed from benefactors to victimizers, at least in the fevered imaginations of Dershowitz and his Harvard colleague Daniel Goldhagen.

Finally (in Chapter 31), the author lets it all hang out, like Woody Allen’s quetschy brother-in-law in Deconstructing Harry, who chides fellow Jews for not being pushy enough in standing up to non-Jews.  Two of Israel’s critics, Noam Chomsky and Pat Buchanan, “have flirted with Holocaust denial,” but Buchanan, who is a “classical anti-Semite,” is apparently easier to explain than Chomsky, “who went to the same Hebrew-speaking camp” as Dershowitz.  Their accuser, however, cites no evidence that either of these men has ever denied that the holocaust took place.  Dershowitz also fails to explain  what distinguishes a “classical anti-Semite” from the less authentic kind.  I suspect the bar is not very high for either.

What strikes me in reading Dersho-witz’s response to Finkelstein’s charges on the internet is how little sweat went into the construction of his case for Israel.  Having boasted that he would pay $10,000 to the PLO if anyone could discover a single factual mistake in his printed text, Dershowitz should pay up or claim that he was joking.  In a mere 20 pages (near the beginning of his book), he cribs repeatedly from Peters’ much longer one, and, though two of the overlapping passages are from Lord Canning and Mark Twain, they also appear in a work that came out two years earlier.  Although Dershowitz acknowledges in his footnotes some of these debts, the acknowledgements do not suggest the real extent of the borrowing.

Had Dershowitz done his own spadework, he would likely have been able to identify the British ambassador to the United Nations in 1967, Lord Caradon, as the author of Security Council Resolution 242.  This information can be found by a quick search on Google.  Is it possible, one might ask, for someone who had just authored a study on Greek literature not to know that Aeschylus composed The Oresteia?  Would the real author mispronounce the playwright’s name and attribute his work to Aesop?—as Dershowitz, in an exchange with Finkelstein, called Caradon “Carrington,” before protesting that it did not really matter.  It is likewise astonishing that someone of Dersho-witz’s presumed learning knows as little about modern European history as this book would seem to indicate.  His treatment of Arab and Jewish participation in World War I may be attributed to indiscriminate borrowing from Peters, who makes much of Turkish oppression of the Jewish settlers in Palestine and the apparent unanimity of Jewish support for England.  Such exaggeration may have been intended to validate Zionist claims on the English government—which, it could be argued, guaranteed the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  It also seems to reflect the inveterate hatred of Turkey’s ally Germany, which later persecuted Jews under the Nazi government.  One comes away from Dershowitz’s book realizing that the author, while brazen as always, is badly prepared for his latest combative encounter.  In fact, I would not be surprised to learn that someone else had done his dubious research.