Beyond Molehills, the High Ground: Dershowitz, Finkelstein, Plagiarism, and Academic Freedom (1.7)

At Home in a Dysfunctional Family

dershowitzIt was like listening to a family argument, my family, the style of argumentation, the hot flashes of temper, the rhetorical devices, the particular turns of phrase, even right down to the sounds of the voices themselves, that had my ears glued to the speakers for an hour last night listening to an old, maybe the first, virulent exchange between these two foes. One, Alan M. Dershowitz (Harvard law professor), reminded me very much of my father, able to calm himself down quickly, trying to assume the voice of reason, being particular about protocol, and wearing social prestige like a casual, loose fitting, Zilli’s 24-carat Gold thread cashmere sweater that he, oh, just threw on. The politics are very different, but the style and mannerisms are my father’s. Let’s keep in mind, however, that normally Alan Dershowitz is extremely aggressive and abrasive in his debates with other scholars and in his television appearances — the sudden, disarming sheepishness of the man on this occasion suggested he knew he would be exposed and have little to offer in his defense other than glib remarks.

finkelsteinThe other, Norman G. Finkelstein (former DePaul University political scientist), much more like my brother (bearing a shocking resemblance to my brother, who happens to be an elite professor himself with his own background at Harvard). Finkelstein was sounding a lot like both my brother and myself, full of recrimination, haranguing, raising the voice, indicting, not being distracted by foolish attempts at trivialization and deflection, none of the cool gesso of faux objectivity that readies itself, as does Dershowitz, for a just-in-time application of mind-fucking heat shimmers. Finkelstein made absolutely correct points: the plagiarism is documented, proven; to state the fact is not an ad hominem attack. Robert Fisk, columnist for The Independent, really hit the nail on the head when he described Finkelstein this way:

“I’ve known Norm for years and he is a tough, no-holds-barred polemicist, angry against all the traditional supporters of Israel, especially those who turn a blind eye to torture. Personally, I find Norm’s arguments sometimes a little overwrought. In radio discussions, his voice will take on a slightly whingeing tone that must infuriate his antagonists.”

Yes, and at times even I lost patience with Finkelstein, especially with his ability to avoid the mountains and open fire on all the molehills — at least this was my very first reaction, which has been revised considerably since then. I am referring to the clash between these two on Democracy Now! on September 24, 2003, as I searched for the first or one of the earliest encounters that may have explained the acrimony between those two. Somehow I expected a debate about Israel, so the debate about scholarly practice at first took me by surprise.

My purpose in writing this post is to offer some comments on the diverse issues that arose from this early clash, focusing primarily on issues of plagiarism, academic freedom, and, counterintuitively at times, the productive role of personal animosity.  Nonetheless, I regret that in this early exchange, Dershowitz’s views on how peace might be achieved were not fully confronted by Finkelstein (they have been since, in many different ways, in numerous fora). I also suspect that this encounter left a lasting mark on Dershowitz, who has become bitter and vindictive to the point of self-destruction, and I do not hide my overall sympathy and support for the work of Finkelstein. Finkelstein’s primary aim — and one can read this in different ways — was to show that The Case for Israel (both as an idea, and as a book by Dershowitz) was in fact fraud.

Enter a Saint, Exit a Sinner

alan_dershowitzSomething about this encounter, and maybe others like it that followed, certainly blow torched away any veneer of pretended civility from Dershowitz in his encounter with Finkelstein (with others he has always been confidently abusive). Fast forward to the present, and Dershowitz has become a howling Grand Inquisitor, threatening to mobilize the American-Israeli lobby in a massive retaliation against Hampshire College, which has been the first academic institution in the U.S. to divest from companies operating in Israel. Sounding as if he were talking about Hamas, Dershowitz commands Hampshire College’s administration: “What they have to do is make it impossible for the students to plausibly be able to declare victory.” Dershowitz’s current sporting activities include labeling American Jewish intellectuals critical of the bloody Israeli genocide machine, as self-hating Jews and holocaust-deniers. This includes Finkelstein, whose mother was tortured by the Nazis and whose father was in Auschwitz, and yet his mother was called a Nazi collaborator by Dershowitz. In return, Dershowitz alleges that Finkelstein and a cartoonist accomplice, have shown him masturbating to images of Israeli massacres of civilians, and he now refuses to ever appear on any news program with Finkelstein, sternly stating that he will not appear with an anti-Semite. Read this as a sample of how Dershowitz feels:

For those of you unfamiliar with Norman Finkelstein, he is [a] Holocaust-justice denier and overt anti-Semite, who repeatedly attacks Holocaust survivors as frauds and says that Jewish leaders resemble the grotesque anti-Semitic cartoons published by the Nazis and in Der Stürmer. He repeatedly calls Israel a Nazi regime and calls prominent Jews, like me, Nazis and moral perverts. He claims that Elie Wiesel made up his past and calls him a “wimp.” Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, got it absolutely right when he described Finkelstein as “poison, he’s a disgusting self-hating Jew, he’s something you find under a rock.”

As if to prove Wieseltier’s statements, Finkelstein recently published an article entitled “Should Alan Dershowitz Target Himself For Assassination?” In the article he called me [a] “moral pervert who missed the climactic scene of his little peep show.” To illustrate this point, he commissioned a Neo-Nazi cartoonist [Latuff], who had recently finished second in an Iranian Holocaust denier cartoon contest, to draw a cartoon of me masturbating in ecstatic joy while watching Lebanese civilians die on a television set while sitting in a chair labeled “Israel Peep Show” with a Star of David. If you want to throw up, you can view this cartoon [see above].

Dershowitz, unfortunately, goes on to call one of my favourite publications, Counterpunch, “a Stalinist website that glorifies Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist enemies of the U.S. and Israel,” which besides being factually incorrect, is also uncivil and meant to implicate his opponents as characters who might be better “employed” as inmates at Guantanamo. I have known Stalinist communists, personally, and not one would be caught dead defending religious, ethno-fundamentalist, anti-communist types. Dershowitz is a famous professor, uttering such banal tripe. Not that Finkelstein is innocent either, if we believe what Dershowitz claims: “Finkelstein calls me a Nazi not once, but twice, first saying that I subscribe to ‘Nazi ideology’ and then comparing me to Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, who was prosecuted at Nuremberg by my mentor Telford Taylor.”

What are the issues?

It’s quite simple, from what I heard. (The full audio file is below — with an abrupt transition from part 1 to part 2, and the two videos of the clash.)

A Two-State Solution

Dershowitz wanted to present his position, which some might call a “liberal” one, for a proposed two state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said so explicitly, that he was not just a blind supporter of anything and everything Israel did, and there was a path forward, which demands that Israel surrender some cherished projects:

I oppose the settlements [in the West Bank], always opposed the settlement since 1967 I opposed the occupation. I think Israel made in my view a terrible [move] in my view what it should have done is made border adjustments pursuant to U.N. resolution 242 which I actually consulted with Justice Goldburg, he was the ambassador to the U.N. was involved in the process of that 242 resolution, which presupposed some territorial adjustments. The problem is Israel should never have occupied people. Land is different from people. And today I think unilaterally what it ought to do eventually is if it can’t kind the peace partner to make some unilateral changes, small ones. End the settlements, in fact my peace proposal is that Israel ought to have schedule for ending settlements. That is a schedule for saying on so and so date the settlement ends conditioned on best efforts by the Palestinians to end terrorism. That would create incentive to ending terrorist acts. By the way you never condition anything on the end of terrorism, that gives terrorists a veto. What you condition it is on making good faith efforts and if we can get Israel to end the settlements and occupation and Palestinian leadership to stop using terrorism as a tactic, I think finally something could have happened in 1917, two-state solution, in 1937 when the commission recommended noncontiguous Jewish homeland and Israelis accepted it and the Arabs rejected it. In 1947 when the U.N. allocated that portion of Palestine that had majority of Jews in it to a Jewish state, and the portion of Palestine that had Palestinian majority in it to an Arab state, could have had a two state solution.

Some of those statements are in fact some of the same that critics of Israel, including those calling for a boycott, are also saying, and therefore there is room here for some sort of dialogue based on shared understandings. Or maybe not — not, if as Dershowitz said in that same statement on Democracy Now!, with ample self-contradiction, that,

Israel is the only country in modern history that has never deliberately and explicitly retaliated against those who attack its civilian targets. For example, during the Six Day war in 1973 war, the 1948 war, its own residential areas were bombed by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, 1600 shells lobbed into west Jerusalem. Israel never bombed Amman, Damascus or Cairo, they have of course bombed areas of Beirut in the process have killed innocent civilians. That is deliberately targeting civilians and going after the way the United States did in Iraq, which I am very critical, but nonetheless with the United States did going after military targets, knowing that they’re going to kill civilians in the process.

Still, Dershowitz is making points in common with those who are critics of both Israeli military actions, and American military actions in Iraq. This is not, to my ears, the voice of a rabidly, right-wing, nationalist, genocide-stroking lover of total extermination.

However, what Dershowitz was also doing was trying to duck any charges that the scholarship on which he advances his case for Israel, is in fact shoddy at best, deceptive at worst, and founded on plagiarizing other scholarship long since exposed as fraudulent as well. If Dershowitz was seeking to act on Israel’s behalf, he clearly botched their case.


Finkelstein wanted to focus on something entirely different from Dershowitz’s peace plan: the rules of plagiarism. That was particularly disappointing to me, at first anyway, because it seemed like a mismatch: one argues the politics, the other responds with intellectual property issues. I can see better now (see comments that followed this post) the kind of game that Finkelstein was playing, not to trivialize it by calling it a game, but to appreciate his chess moves against Dershowitz.

But my first reaction, that discussions about footnotes were a waste of time, reminded me of an earlier point on this very blog, when I criticized someone whose work I very much respect, David Price, for going after the Human Terrain System’s Montgomery McFate on the issue of plagiarism in the U.S. Army’s then newest counterinsurgency manual. I thought the issue was largely irrelevant, and I still do. Yes, it may not live up to the sometimes absurd standards of non-plagiarized work some hold dear in academia, but this was an army manual, not meant as a work of scholarship, and in any case the point we should have focused on was the role of anthropologists in furthering their nation’s imperial adventures, not whether they got their quotes right. I thought that such an approach was insipidly bookish, obsessed with minutiae, microscopic, and basically unimportant. Since then, I have also dropped the salary issue as one of my critiques of the Human Terrain System — let them get paid whatever, who cares really, it’s not the dollars that count.

Why did Finkelstein take this approach? There can be numerous reasons, perhaps some he would not admit to. One is to expose a pillar of public commentary as a twig. By showing Dershowitz to be a poor scholar, he invalidates Dershowitz’s ability to argue as a scholar. Perhaps Finkelstein is jealous of Dershowitz’s Harvard position — he shouldn’t be: the high and mighty and prestigious often produce great rivers of muck. Let him have his Harvard. Perhaps the repeated references to Harvard are not jealousy: perhaps Finkelstein wants Harvard to know it has something of a scoundrel on its payroll and will want to defend its name. In that case, Finkelstein was aiming to get Dershowitz defrocked, only Dershowitz was then also going to play that game, and arguably won, not because he was better, or smarter, but because the system was unfair and imbalanced against Finkelstein to begin with. Nonetheless, these people play for really big stakes: each other’s jobs. Dershowitz argued that Chomsky should have been fired for educational malpractice. Great, but now Finkelstein shows Dershowitz’s own malpractice, and wonders how an institution like Harvard can bear to have him around. It is a dangerous game, and Finkelstein lost this round eventually. Take the advice of any wolf: watch how you lunge for that jugular, you might be exposing your own.

What Finkelstein does achieve, among many things, is to remind us that the social capital of Harvard, Harvard as a brand name, does not serve as a guarantee that what its scholars do is necessarily good scholarship. In the case of Dershowitz, it was painful and embarrassing to listen to the kind of material he used for his book, The Case for Israel.

The body of Finkelstein’s argument with Dershowitz in this earliest encounter was this, and I am paraphrasing and summarizing: Dershowitz has produced a fraud because in his book he plagiarizes and makes other factual errors. The plagiarism issue works like this: I read a book by a certain Smith, and in that book I see some passages from Mark Twain being quoted — I like those Mark Twain quotes, so I lift them, plant them in my own book, but I never mention that I read them in Smith’s book. Not only that, the Twain quotes are in fact full of errors and redactions, that only Smith made. Dershowitz is thus formally guilty of plagiarism. Now, remember: Ward Churchill, a tenured professor has been fired for plagiarism, perhaps of even lesser extent and depth than what Dershowitz has committed, who remains at Harvard, and has never even been as much as reprimanded by Harvard. To make matters worse, Dershowitz plagiarized a seriously debunked work, full of misquotes, errors, exaggerations, conveniently ignored evidence, etc., speaking now specifically of Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial (read Edward Said’s “Conspiracy of Praise” online). So Dershowitz is not just copying, he is uncritically copying what is basically, bluntly, crap.

As a MA student, I frequently resorted to references like “(Smith quoted in Hobsbawm 1992: 53).” My supervisors put an end to that immediately: they thought it was lazy, and risky, because I could be, like Hobsbawm let’s say, taking Smith’s words out of context and reproducing the error. Not only that, it’s always best to check the original, you might learn more from it, and seeing the full copy you might decide that other passages are even more important. So don’t do it. And I largely stopped the practice, except in rare instances where a rare text is being quoted that I cannot access.

It is not just Finkelstein who has documented the plagiarism and factual errors. Frank J. Menetrez has amply documented each and every instance, as well as his repeated communications with both Dershowitz and Harvard, concerning both plagiarism and academic misconduct, especially concerning Dershowitz’s misrepresentation of Harvard University itself : see here.

Dershowitz also publicly committed himself to sending $10,000 to the Palestinian Authority (now more of a partner of Israel than an opponent), if anyone could find a factual error in his book. Finkelstein found it, as you will hear/see below. What was Dershowitz’s response? Ok, but that error actually hurt his own argument, rather than making it stronger. This is the side-step that deflects into irrelevance, a move for which lawyers are famous. The fact is Dershowitz was wrong, and never honoured his commitment.

Audio file of the Democracy Now! encounter of Sept. 24, 2003:


Part One: Dershowitz v. Finkelstein, Democracy Now!

Part Two: Dershowitz v. Finkelstein, Democracy Now!

On Academic Freedom

In a section above, where my comments were italicized, I compared Dershowitz and Ward Churchill. Both have been held by others to be guilty of plagiarism and academic misconduct. Only one of them was made into a public whipping post, only one of them got fired. That tells you something about how academic freedom really works in the U.S., and it usually works against the most radical of the professors. The academic hegemony existing in the U.S. is a liberal-to-conservative one, and what Americans call liberals, the rest of us know as right wingers. Maybe in Canada might some be better able to argue that leftist professors predominate, but they are on extremely shaky ground when they try to make that case for the U.S.

While the case against Dershowitz has been amply documented, it was Finkelstein who was fired. On what grounds? A part of it, as bizarre as it seems to me, has to do with the tenor and tone of Finkelstein’s comments, made in a private capacity, off campus. The President of DePaul University, Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, in his tenure-denial letter to Finkelstein of June 8, 2007, wrote, first quoting the University Board on Promotion and Tenure (UBPT):

Notwithstanding the strength of some aspects of Dr. Finkelstein’s record, the [UBPT] expressed several concerns touching upon his scholarship, specifically what they consider the intellectual character of his work and his persona as a public intellectual. The [UBPT] acknowledges that Dr. Finkelstein is a controversial author, provocative and challenging. Yet, some might interpret parts of his scholarship as “deliberately hurtful” as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions. Criticism has been expressed for his inflammatory style and personal attacks in his writings and intellectual debates. These concerns are relevant to the [UBPT] in the recognition that an academic’s reputation is intrinsically tied to the institution of which he or she is affiliated. It was questioned by some whether Dr. Finkelstein effectively contributes to the public discourse on sensitive societal issues.

Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider continued, speaking for his part:

In addition to the UBPT statement, I have considered the fact that reviewers at all levels, both for and against tenure, commented upon your ad hominem attacks on scholars with whom you disagree. In the opinion of those opposing tenure, your unprofessional personal attacks divert the conversation away from consideration of ideas, and polarize and simplify conversations that deserve layered and subtle consideration. As such, they believe your work not only shifts toward advocacy and away from scholarship, but also fails to meet the most basic standards governing scholarly discourse within the academic community.

Indeed, as the American Association of University Professors has recognized, all professors have basic obligations, as colleagues in the community of scholars: (1) to “not discriminate against or harass colleagues,” (2) to “respect and defend the free inquiry of associates,” (3) to “show due respect for the opinions of others,” and (4) to “acknowledge academic debt and strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues.”

Keeping in mind that Alan Dershowitz actively lobbied members of Finkelstein’s department, plus everyone in DePaul’s law school, the process was never one uncontaminated by questionable political judgments.

I think that both Finkelstein, and some of his highest profile supporters, lay out the case against DePaul very effectively in the videos below:

Tariq Ali, introduction to the Chicago symposium on academic freedom and the case of Norman Finkelstein, 12 October 2007:

Noam Chomsky at the Chicago symposium on academic freedom and the case of Norman Finkelstein, 12 October 2007:

Norman Finkelstein at the Chicago symposium on academic freedom and the case of Norman Finkelstein, 12 October 2007:

Some tentative conclusions

Given the variety of issues this Dershowitz-Finkelstein clash raised, some of which are not entirely relevant to one another, it is difficult for me to arrive at a coherent conclusion. I will therefore resign myself to a disjointed series of observations and opinions.

Both sides are alleged to have used the “Nazi” aspersion against each other (in Dershowitz’s case, it is not an allegation). This is a fundamental mistake, on both sides. The only value of a clash along these lines, is that it is valuable to the rest of us: for underscoring that there is a vigorous difference of opinion among Jews on the question of Israel, and that there is no use pretending that there is “a Jewish voice,” “a Jewish perspective,” in the homogenous singular. Others would do well to finally learn their lessons from this. One Melanie Phillips ought to pay the most attention, instead of writing spurious and fundamentally racist insults against the likes of Finkelstein:

Throughout the centuries of Jewish persecution, from the medieval ‘conversos’ to Karl Marx and beyond, there have always been Jews who, for a variety of reasons, have been ready and willing to advance the agenda of the persecutors of the Jewish people. Today, the west is teeming with their successors – almost always on the left, very often but not always highly secularised and with a tangential or deeply conflicted relationship with their Jewish identity, they are in the forefront of the movement to demonise, delegitimise and destroy Israel. [It gets worse as you read on.]

Phillips, and those like her, use Jewishness as a weapon, to curb dissent, and smash all into unquestioning obedience and deference. It is a fundamentally anti-democratic stance, and it is racist because it demands that all members of an ethnic category think in line with those who would claim to rule over those followers — as if being a Jew meant that there is only one way one can think like a Jew. Like any weapon, it invites combat, it demands that weapons be raised against it. When that happens, these types then get to enjoy living a self-fulfilling prophecy: “we made them hate us, now they hate us, oh see how they hate us.” It is pathetic. It is intellectual squalor. Nor is it any different from the opinion of a Ku Klux Klan member who views whites with black friends, or whites who fought for civil rights, as “nigger lovers” and “race traitors.” It reflects an aspiration toward hegemony, by annihilating all contrasting views. And it is doomed from the start, a fascism that unmakes itself.

If pro-semitism is going to be advanced along such idiotic, racist, and vulgar fascist lines, it is going to make anti-semitism look good.

On academic freedom, Bill Williams raises some critical points, one of which has to do with the “collegiality” that Finkelstein supposedly violated:

Historically, “collegiality” has not infrequently been associated with ensuring homogeneity, and hence with practices that exclude persons on the bases of their difference from a perceived norm. The invocation of “collegiality” may also threaten academic freedom. In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display “enthusiasm” or “dedication,” evince “a constructive attitude” that will “foster harmony” or display excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrators.

Williams is also right in noting that academic freedom is not upheld by DePaul, which simultaneously ejected two critics of Israeli and U.S. policy in the Mideast. This enhances the aura of fear and silence that cows most of those who would question such policies, which is utterly antithetical to free discourse and free thought, which should be hallowed principles above all else at any university.

As painful as it can be to watch or hear, I do not discount the value from this clash between Dershowitz and Finkelstein, in any and all of its manifestations. Why? Because inevitably there is something to be learned from it, and I chose learning as a career. I did not choose upholding someone else’s comatose or bankrupt agenda as my career, and I certainly would not have endured hardship and massive debt to do so — if you want my compliance, then you bloody well pay every single cent of my “education.”

Another valuable function of such acerbic public clashes is that they get all the assumptions, all the biases, all the prejudices, all the fears, all the real inclinations “out there” in the open, where finally they can be assessed and discussed. There is nothing better than open discussion, and it is certainly far better than secretive quibbles and unspoken antagonisms hidden behind masks of impartiality and a veneer of faux decorum.

DePaul’s administration also condemned Finkelstein on the grounds of his persona, his public performance. The argument was that anything he does or says in public is inextricably reflective of the university. Utter rubbish, and malignant, likely illegal rubbish at that. I do not know American laws very well, but in Canada such a position would mean that the fact of where one is employed supersedes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Finkelstein, on Democracy Now!, is speaking as a free citizen. That cannot be curtailed, without harming democratic rights as a whole. The university has no right to lay claim to all of Finkelstein’s time, to all aspects of his life, to exercise surveillance over his every word and thought. If universities could claim that all academics’ time is their time, then believe me, they are in for one massive bill for unpaid wages stretching back generations. When academics should have more time and space to reflect, speak, and criticize, instead DePaul argues that the reverse is the case.

On spaces of dissent and freedom of communication, Finkelstein did make some key mistakes, and this is of some relevance to us bloggers. Finkelstein chose all the usual academic venues and academic formats, and thus academic resources, to engage in public, political controversy. Right aims, wrong means. He should have been a blogger. He should have written, written freely, written massively, and never subjected such writing or speaking (or not all of it) for consideration by a promotion or tenure review committee, denying it from their scope of consideration. Not on the table, not available for discussion. He would have thus needed perhaps two or more separate tracks of research and writing — it’s a lot more work, but rest assured, some of us do that. In the meantime, he could have built up inspiration for resistance from outside the university system, that could have then indirectly fed back into it. He could have also chosen a more enlightened university.

What I do not like about my comments here, however, is that they seem to abide by the same unfair system that expelled Finkelstein wrongly. In addition, Finkelstein did submit his writing, and 17 versus 7 of the faculty who reviewed his file voted for his tenure. In a university run by academics, he would have tenure, and academics are supposed to be in charge of tenure and promotion decisions. Moreover, it is not that clear that there are few or no consequences for academic freedom where blogging is concerned — as the case of Juan Cole seems to suggest.

So the bigger problem is not one of format, but of a degenerative liberal democracy whose fortunes have been hitched to the wagon of empire, both now in their death throes. We are dealing with a terminal culture, saturated with taboos designed to keep the powerful in power, where meaningful dissent is stifled and where every Joe The Plumber thinks he has a god-given right to silence someone else because he just doesn’t like their views. If that is the democracy being exported to the rest of the world, then we can expect one more garbage commodity to undergo rapid devaluation leading to bankruptcy.

On plagiarism, Finkelstein has performed an invaluable service in finally exposing Dershowitz’s flaws, as an academic anyway. On the other hand, he has reinforced some increasingly dubious concerns. Where so much borrowing, exchange, interaction, dialogue, mutual inspiration, emulation, etc., occur, it is hard to impose such proprietary boundaries around knowledge as the copyright/plagiarism apparatus would like us to impose. Now we are told to also police student work, in case they do not paraphrase enough of an indirect quote, for which full attribution has been provided.

Academic bloggers often do not follow such a stringent regard for proper referencing as Finkelstein would like. As I have seen happening on numerous occasions, some will come to a blog, read something of interest, get a few links, and then write up a post around those links as if they had found them on their own, coincidentally at the same time as the other blog. These are professional academics to which I am referring. There is no “hat tip” (others, instead, offer numerous hat tips to the left, hat tips to the right, hat tips to the centre, so I do not mean to generalize) — perhaps they have personal or political reasons for not publicizing a certain blog. In other cases, one blogger posts a story first, and then a few days later another blogger posts a related version of the same story. A third party produces a roundup of links, and credits the second party, not the first, for being the one who has broached a particular topic. A good RSS feed reader will prevent that, as will use of Sphere, so there is no excuse for that. This, and much more, happens all the time in the blogosphere, and I do not care. But like all of us, I do notice it and see it happening.

I also plagiarize most of the images I use on this blog, with not even so much as a hat tip to the original creator. It is terrible. Everyone does it. In return, this blog is under a creative commons license, and nonetheless I have already seen portions used without attribution. Thank you for the indirect recognition, much appreciated, and I mean that honestly.

But this is what Finkelstein’s focus on plagiarism did not help to address: what about Dershowitz’s ideas on the two-state solution and full withdrawal from the West Bank? Interesting, not so? Well, who knows, because Finkelstein was too busy going through footnotes in this instance. That debate would have to be deferred to another time and venue.

Dershowitz, for his part, has ended up as a Naipaul-like character, making Finkelstein his Walcott (such clashes, after all, are entirely normal among intellectuals, who are no angels, thank god for that). As Dershowitz spins and spins, gnashing his teeth and snarling, seeing self-hating Jews here, anti-Semites there, terrorist-loving Stalinists everywhere, I think of the final words of Walcott’s poem The Mongoose:

…and far off, the Mongoose raves

and time draws close

with its slow judging waves.


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10 thoughts on “Beyond Molehills, the High Ground: Dershowitz, Finkelstein, Plagiarism, and Academic Freedom (1.7)

  1. Marc Tyrrell

    Hi Max,

    Really good post! If you are agreeable, I will assign as required reading for one of my classes next year. There is so much to think about in it that, at the moment, I’m just going to let it steep in my brain :-).

    One point that I will toss out, and I’ll probably elaborate on it later in a post of my own, surrounds the plagiarism issue and blogging. How often, do you think, that “ideas” are “in the air”? I don’t know about you, but I’ve sat down with friends (students, colleagues, etc.), got into conversations and heard people literally construct arguments that paralleled published works when they had never read those works, sometimes using the same “data”.

    I think that there is an inbuilt flaw in the concept of plagiarism as it is currently applied (but not as conceived). This flaw is an assumption of total, conscious knowledge and presumed causality – i.e. if someone replicates what someone else wrote, then a) they must have read it, b) consciously accessed it and c) they must have “stolen” it. Each of these assumptions have problems [wry grin].

    Can we assume that everyone of our students and colleagues has read everything? Only an idiot (or bureaucrat) would assume that given the amount of material published even if we only include books and articles. If we look at the blogsphere it is even worse…

    How about the assumption of consciously accessing it? Again, that assumption is flawed, showing a complete misunderstanding of how the brain operates. All too often, people “store” ideas or memories without referencing “tags” in separate memory tracks (ever tried to remember who wrote a tune that you can remember but haven’t looked at in years?). Since plagiarism requires intent, at least at Carleton (most of the time), can someone be convicted of it if they cannot consciously access the material?

    The final point, the intention to “steal” the work, has all sorts of resonances with property rights issues. Given the length of copyright, can I rip off Socrates or Tacitus (hey, I can do my own translations on them or just quote them in the originals) without plagiarism occurring since there is no copyright? Or, to take another twist on the problem, what happened to the concept of “general knowledge”? When I was doing my undergraduate, we had the assume of general disciplinary knowledge that did not require referencing because everyone in the discipline “knew” where it came from, although over the past 10-12 years, I have seen this concept disappear in how we deal with student plagiarism cases.

    It strikes me that one of the issues in the specific case you are looking at – the concept of the university “owning” the time of academics – ties in with this property rights issue.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Great points Marc, I agree with all of them. In my case, and I am sure many of the students I have known, there is precisely that phenomenon of thinking through things on one’s own/in a group, and developing ideas that parallel or resemble what can be found in the literature, a literature too vast to ever be known. It also seems to be very arid to then step in and say, “um, so-and-so already said that in such-and-such book.” And? So what? Tell me why I should take time to read that volume, not that it was written, and don’t assume that author was any more original either. So you’re very right, there are a ton of flawed assumptions at work with the plagiarism issue.

      I noticed that Dershowitz (he is a lawyer after all), spoke repeatedly of “willful, material intent.” He was preparing a loophole for himself, as if to say that he did not intentionally copy without proper attribution, and that much of what he was accused of copying without due attribution to Joan Peters, is “out there.” Finkelstein is instead insisting on applying a plagiarism policy that I am familiar with, and I was a bit surprised that Dershowitz was not familiar with it. Finkelstein is playing the game, and beating the powers that be at their own game, showing that even the elite does not hold itself accountable to its own standards. I can appreciate it on that level, but I would not want to insist on those rules of plagiarism.

      There is one point I would concede to Finkelstein and my past professors here: If I only read Twain in Peters, then I need to be intellectually honest enough to admit that I really did not read much of Twain, may not have understood him, may not have caught the deliberate misquoting (for which Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial has been exposed in numerous instances, and yet she retains the high praises of Dershowitz), and thereby create a kind of paper trail for anyone else to reconstruct how I developed my thinking. It’s a way for people to (in)validate my work. In the meeting of minds that is reading, Dershowitz should not be blocking out the middleman/middlewoman that he relied upon. In court, his supposed citation of Twain, which actually came from Peters, would be struck out by the judge as “hearsay.”

      Otherwise, didn’t you find the clash between these two to be one of those most riveting academic exchanges we have seen? I noticed that Amy Goodman, for once, actually looked distressed.

  2. Marc Tyrrell

    Hi Max,

    I agree it is much better to read the original work rather than a redaction or selective quotes from it. Still and all, that can be a problem, especially when the original is in a language one doesn’t read. For many of my students, Weber is a really good example since few of them read German and only 1 in the past 10 years could read “academic” German. This makes all of us reliant on some type of middleman. Sure, I could probably translate Tacitus or Xenophon – if I wanted to take 6 months to do so. It’s a really tricky issue to go to the originals, although it is an ideal [wry grin].

    Oh, yeah, the clash between them is great [GRIN]. Personally, I would like to see more such exchanges, albeit in a much more civil manner, where “collegiality” means you can get together for a friendly pint afterwards and not a form of PC thought control [wry grin].

  3. tali

    Hey Max,
    I’m not an academic, so here’s my (almost) non-censored, un-formally-educated opinion:

    This debate was torture for me, because I can’t stand Dershowitz’s smug mug , either. I can’t seriously regard his “ideas on the two-state solution and full withdrawal from the West Bank” seriously, because he is obviously disregarding basic facts that may give him a slight comprehension of the humanitarian situation:

    “Israel made in my view a terrible [move]” – I’ve heard this speak before. As you say “voice of reason”. You talk about it from a tactical point of view, as if lives weren’t at stake.

    “The problem is Israel should never have occupied people. Land is different from people.” – Does that mean they should have occupied the land? What do you do with the people then? Transfer? Genocide? The minute Israelis decided that someone else’s land was theirs- that was the minute they became occupiers.

    “if it can’t find the peace partner to make some unilateral changes” – “Peace partner”- a reference to Barak’s idiotic claim after Camp David that “there is no peace partner”. Also, if you have a partner, why do you need to do anything unilaterally (very abused word in this “conflict”). And since when does Israel “find” anything? This statement is so cynical, I don’t think Dershowitz really knows how much!

    “Israel ought to have a schedule for ending settlements.” – Another promise to break. It would be so easy to say “schedule ending the settlements in 5 years” and then find a reason (say terrorism) not to do so. Not to mention that there’s that tinsey problem of Israel- in contrast to its self proclaimed democracy- transferring its own people (as it did in 2005). Personally, I’d love to see a two-state solution, in which the settlers are a minority in the Palestinian state (they can have their precious holy land and eat it too).

    “conditioned on best efforts by the Palestinians to end terrorism. That would create incentive to ending terrorist acts… By the way you never condition anything on the end of terrorism, that gives terrorists a veto.” – Fact: The Palestinian RESISTANCE is a direct result of occupation, annexation, torture, house demolition, bone breaking and murder. I think it was Chomsky who pointed out that the Irish stopped the “terror”, when they got their human rights. And how do you measure “best efforts”?

    “in 1937 when the commission recommended noncontiguous Jewish homeland and Israelis accepted it and the Arabs rejected it. In 1947 when the U.N. allocated that portion of Palestine that had majority of Jews in it to a Jewish state, and the portion of Palestine that had Palestinian majority in it to an Arab state, could have had a two state solution.” – Check your facts, professor!

    Dershowitz is an unoriginal thinker (if he thinks at all), as Finkelstein assesses, and quite the blind supporter of Israel. Never read the waste-of-paper, which he refers to as “academic research”, and after this debate- I don’t plan to, for the simple reason that this video demonstrates it will be full of demagogy.

    Sorry for blogging on your blog, I thought this merited response :)

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Far from accepting an apology, let me say thanks very much for your very incisive examination of Dershowitz’s commentary. I was really ready to be generous with him, but as you noted, his language is heavily laced with all sorts of contradictions, false assumptions, and softly stated prevarications. Dershowitz wanted to jump in to this field and be taken as a serious scholar, using the name brand recognition both he and Harvard have acquired. But the scholarship is junk. He was lazy in just adopting whatever Joan Peters says, without checking her sources, and without checking those who did check her sources, Finkelstein chief among them.

      Dershowitz has been caught in the act of writing propaganda. To call his book, The Case for Israel, “shoddy scholarship” is actually praise, because one can think of many other ways of characterizing it.

      What is Finkelstein’s sin here? He clearly started, as a very young man, as a skeptic. He asked himself lots of hard questions, and did not automatically trust what the authorities said. That, by the way, is what is absolutely necessary for being a scientist of any kind. Having asked questions, he did research, and lo and behold, he uncovered all sorts of problems. Skepticism moved into criticism. Then he encounters a heavy mass of layers of conventions, institutions, arbitrariness, and all sorts of power being exercised to prevent the truth from being known. Anyone with a mind, any intellectual especially, would be outraged. Why should lies be taught and praised as excellent scholarship? They shouldn’t, and hence his activism.

      Now, why there are academics whose response to Finkelstein is to call him a stupid, dumb, idiot, rather than recognize the depth and importance of his research, goes to show the caliber of some of the people I have as colleagues. For too many, science means being aligned with power, and politics is only to be found in the criticisms of power, in their view. Few dare to recognize that the politics of the criticism are a reflection of the politics of what is being criticized.

      Then there are those who call me political, biased, etc., for criticizing those anthropologists who go and serve the U.S. Army in its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan…as if those were not fundamentally political and biased missions. That’s another story, but it shows us all once more the kind of pathological hypocrisy that reigns in North America.

      Thanks very much again Tali, it was refreshing to read.

  4. tali

    You know, Max, it’s a sick-sad-world, where humanism is considered a political view point and not an across-the-board point of departure. If being a humanist makes me a “dirty Lefty”- I’m glad to be filthy! ;)

    I may not be an academic, but I have a deep respect for scientific methods. You are very open minded to give Dershowitz an intellectual second chance. That’s what I did, when Chomsky mentioned him in one of his lectures. I went online to see what the man stands for (lest I be accused of making non-collegial remarks without basis). The first thing I found was the above debate. Being well versed in Israeli rhetoric, his “peace proposal” completely slipped under my radar (I was busy grinding my teeth). Since you emboldened it, however, I decided I should go back and give it a second chance (silly peaceniks… suckers for peace-making opportunities…). Learning from the best, I just went word for word (trying not to take the statements out of context) and found the root of the problem.

    Out of this cavity, you’ll find a man that won’t do me (or Finkelstein) the same honors. I think you’re wrongfully harsh with Finkelstein. I think he was very correct not to address Dershowitz’s “peace proposal”, as it was completely irrelevant to the debate, which was, in fact, “Dershowitz’s new theses”.

    In closing, here’s a link to a video of Dershowitz (which was another thing I watched while researching this “academic”) denying that the accusation of anti-semitism is used as a silencing tactic, by the Jewish lobbies, when, in fact, that is one of Finkelstein’s very important contributions to the “Jewish debate”.

    Thank YOU for the platform :)

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I watched the video and added it to the collection. Yes, given that Dershowitz is himself especially guilty, in the extreme, of precisely what he says never happens (critics of Israel being labeled anti-semite), he is perpetrating one more fraud. And in this fraud, once again he offers a monetary reward, which he clearly has no intention of paying. I think that Dershowitz is quite ridiculous, lacks any credibility as an intellectual, and is a perfect match for CNN.

      Tali, I am not only thankful for all of your points, I have to agree with them. I’ll probably be revising this article again soon, because I don’t want to be overly generous with Dershowitz, who shows no generosity to anyone except himself.

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