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Giving Chutzpah New Meaning | The Nation

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Giving Chutzpah New Meaning

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What do you do when somebody wants to publish a book that says you're completely wrong? If you're Alan Dershowitz, the prominent Harvard law professor, and the book is Norman Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, you write the governor of California and suggest that he intervene with the publisher--because the publisher is the University of California Press, which conceivably might be subject to the power of the governor.

About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

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Schwarzenegger, showing unusual wisdom, declined to act. The governor's legal affairs secretary wrote Dershowitz, "You have asked for the Governor's assistance in preventing the publication of this book," but "he is not inclined to otherwise exert influence in this case because of the clear, academic freedom issue it presents." In a phone interview Dershowitz denied writing to the Governor, declaring, "My letter to the Governor doesn't exist." But when pressed on the issue, he said, "It was not a letter. It was a polite note."

Old-timers in publishing said they'd never heard of another case where somebody tried to get a governor to intervene in the publication of a book. "I think it's a first," said Andre Schiffrin, managing director at Pantheon Books for twenty-eight years and then founder and director of the New Press. Lynne Withey, director of the University of California Press, where she has been for nineteen years, said, "I've never heard of such a case in California."

But if you're Alan Dershowitz, you don't stop when the governor declines. You try to get the president of the University of California to intervene with the press. You get a prominent law firm to send threatening letters to the counsel to the university regents, to the university provost, to seventeen directors of the press and to nineteen members of the press's faculty editorial committee. A typical letter, from Dershowitz's attorney Rory Millson of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, describes "the press's decision to publish this book" as "wholly illegitimate" and "part of a conspiracy to defame" Dershowitz. It concludes, "The only way to extricate yourself is immediately to terminate all professional contact with this full-time malicious defamer." Dershowitz's own letter to members of the faculty editorial committee calls on them to "reconsider your decision" to recommend publication of the book.

Why would a prominent First Amendment advocate take such an action? Dershowitz told Publishers Weekly that "my goal has never been to stop publication of this book." He told me in an e-mail, "I want Finkelstein's book to be published, so that it can be demolished in the court of public opinion." He told Publishers Weekly his only purpose in writing the people at the University of California Press was "to eliminate as many of the demonstrable falsehoods as possible" from the book before it was published.

Everyone knows who Alan Dershowitz is--the famed Harvard professor, part of the O.J. Simpson defense team, author of the number-one bestseller Chutzpah, portrayed by Ron Silver in the film Reversal of Fortune, about his successful defense of accused wife-murderer Klaus von Bülow. He's also one of the most outspoken defenders of Israel, especially in his 2003 book The Case for Israel; it reached number twelve on the New York Times bestseller list. That's the book Finkelstein challenges in Beyond Chutzpah.

Norman Finkelstein is not so famous. The son of Holocaust survivors, he is an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago. He's the often embattled author of several books, of which the best known is The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering--an exposé of what he calls "the blackmail of Swiss banks." It was originally published by Verso in 2000, with an expanded second edition in 2003, and has been translated into seventeen languages. The book was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by the distinguished Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, who holds a chair at Brown University; he wrote that the book "is filled with precisely the kind of shrill hyperbole that Finkelstein rightly deplores in much of the current media hype over the Holocaust; it is brimming with the same indifference to historical facts, inner contradictions, strident politics and dubious contextualizations; and it oozes with the same smug sense of moral and intellectual superiority." (A positive review, written by Neve Gordon, appeared in these pages on November 13, 2000.)

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