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On Finkelstein and Dershowitz

Howard Friel

On April 11, Norman Finkelstein gave a lecture at the student center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Finkelstein's subdued but excellent talk focused on the international law aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He essentially argued that a final-status peace agreement could be reached today if Israel were willing to abide by international law with respect to Israel's borders, Israel's settlements in the West Bank, and the status of East Jerusalem. For the record, Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School opposes Israel's compliance with international law on each of these counts.

The following night, April 12, the New York Times published a story about the personal campaign by Dershowitz to persuade DePaul University in Chicago to deny Finkelstein tenure. In that article, Dershowitz described Finkelstein's scholarship as "one-sided agitprop" against Israel. The next night, the Independent published an article by Robert Fisk about Dershowitz's determined efforts to have Finkelstein's tenure denied.

At the moment, we don't know what Dershowitz has said about Finkelstein's scholarship in his correspondence with DePaul. Thus, we can only consider whatever claims Dershowitz might have made by evaluating his attacks against others who have criticized Israel. These include, most recently, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

I had spent much of the summer of 2006 reading reports about the Israel-Palestine conflict by the major human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and B'Tselem. HRW issued one of those reports on August 3. ("Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon.") I had read that report several times when I happened to come across an analysis of it by Alan Dershowitz that appeared on the Huffington Post on August 21. ("The 'Human Rights Watch' Watch, Installment 1.") In brief, the HRW report had presented overwhelming evidence that Israel had indiscriminately killed Lebanese civilians during its aerial bombardment of southern Lebanon in July. It found no evidence that Hezbollah had used civilians in those attacks as human shields. Dershowitz argued, to the contrary, that Hezbollah had used human shields, including (though he doesn't say so precisely) in the Israeli bombings investigated by HRW, and bitterly criticized HRW for its report.

In his analysis, Dershowitz charged that HRW had "cooked the books" while falsely accusing Israel of indiscriminately bombing civilians. His evidence consisted of nine news articles. Dershowitz reproduced excerpts from each of these articles, then wrote: "How could Human Rights Watch have ignored-or more likely suppressed-this evidence from so many different sources? The only reasonable explanation is that they wanted there to be no evidence of Hezbollah's tactic of hiding behind civilians. So they cooked the books to make it come out that way."

Because I was familiar with the report by Human Rights Watch, including the date on which it was issued (August 3-Dershowitz never mentioned the date of HRW's report), I noticed immediately that four of the nine news articles that Dershowitz had accused HRW of ignoring included publication dates (Aug. 2, 5, 7, and 8th) that were either later than or nearly simultaneous to the August 3 publication date of the HRW report. How could HRW deliberately ignore news articles that were published either immediately before or after August 3? Furthermore, Dershowitz charged HRW with ignoring a report in the New York Times about Hezbollah using human shields in southern Lebanon that I had recalled seeing in the HRW report. Here is how Dershowitz began his excerpt from the Times report that he accused HRW of ignoring/suppressing:

"Hezbollah came to Ein Ebel to shoot its rockets," said Fayed Hanna Amar, a young Christian man, referring to his village. "They are shooting from between our houses."

Rather than ignore the Times report, as Dershowitz charged, HRW quoted these same words while citing the same article from the New York Times:

Christian villagers fleeing the village of 'Ain Ebel have also complained about Hezbollah tactics that placed them at risk, telling the New York Times that "Hezbollah came to [our village] to shoot its rockets.... They are shooting from between our houses."


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Also, Dershowitz claimed that HRW, in his words, "conducted no interviews with Israeli officials or witnesses" for the August 3 report. However, in the report, HRW stated: "Human Rights Watch also conducted research in Israel, inspecting the IDF's use of weapons and discussing the conduct of forces with IDF officials."

While falsely claiming that HRW omitted the New York Times and Israeli officials as sources for its report, Dershowitz somehow cut out other HRW sources as well. In the August 3 report, HRW wrote that it had "collected information from hospitals, humanitarian groups, and government agencies" about civilian casualties. (Emphasis added) Dershowitz, however, wrote that HRW collected information "for" those sources, not "from" them, thus eliminating (perhaps mistakenly) hospitals, humanitarian groups, and government agencies, in addition to the Times and Israeli officials, as sources that HRW had actually consulted.

In summary, Dershowitz produced no evidence of HRW "cooking the books" with respect to its August 3 report. Yet, in the absence of any evidence to support that charge, Dershowitz concluded: "Human Rights Watch no longer deserves the support of real human rights advocates. Nor should its so-called reporting be credited by objective news organizations." One might imagine Dershowitz providing similarly groundless advice to DePaul about Finkelstein's scholarship and tenure case.

On August 29, Huffington Post had posted another article by Dershowitz on its web site ("Amnesty International's Biased Definition of War Crimes: Whatever Israel Does To Defend Its Citizens"). This one criticized an Amnesty report issued on August 23 ("Deliberate Destruction or 'Collateral Damage'? Israeli Attacks on Civilian Infrastructure"). Similar to HRW, Amnesty was critical of the Israeli bombing of civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. In his analysis, Dershowitz began: "The two principal 'human rights' organizations are in a race to the bottom to see which group can demonize Israel with the most absurd legal arguments and most blatant factual misstatements." Dershowitz then cited Amnesty's "nefarious anti-Israel agenda," presumably as a motivation for its report. Thus, Dershowitz was bitterly critical of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for criticizing the Israeli bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure in southern Lebanon in summer 2006.

It seemed quite incredible, though not surprising, that Dershowitz would set out to ruin the credibility and reputation of these two human rights organizations because they had criticized Israel for indiscriminately bombing Lebanese civilians and infrastructure, especially given the abundant documentation to that effect presented by the reports in question. It was all the more astonishing given what the New York Times and the Israeli press had reported prior to Dershowitz's commentary in late August 2006.

On August 1 the New York Times, citing a column that was published on July 31 in the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, reported that Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz had "relieved the [Israeli] army of restrictions on harming civilian population [sic] that lives alongside Hezbollah operatives." Indeed, on July 16, reported that "Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Sunday [July 16] that IDF troops have been given the go-ahead to set aside routine regulations not to harm civilians, according to Army Radio. Peretz said that civilians in south Lebanon who assist Hizbullah terrorists may also be targeted." In addition, the American Jewish newspaper, the Forward, reported on August 4 that "current and former Israeli officials acknowledge that the Israeli military has loosened the restrictions on targeting militants in populated areas." The Forward also noted that "many critics-including Israeli ones-are questioning the military's policy of bombing in densely populated Lebanese areas," and that "Israeli authors and intellectuals signed a petition calling for an immediate cease-fire and protesting the killing of civilians."

It is doubtful that a close reader of the American and Israeli press, such as Dershowitz, would have missed these reports, published on July 16, July 31, August 1, and August 4, thus before Dershowitz's accusations against Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that he issued on August 21 and 29. It is thus doubtful that Dershowitz did not already know that Israel's Defense Minister had relaxed rules pertaining to the protection of Lebanese civilians before he attacked HRW and Amnesty for their reports documenting Israel's attacks on civilians in Lebanon.

Arguably, the public has an interest in Finkelstein's tenure case at DePaul University. Harvard Law School's most prominent commentator on the Israel-Palestine conflict-Dershowitz-viciously attacks human rights organizations for documenting Israel's bombing of civilians in Lebanon. Likewise, the recent director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights, Michael Ignatieff, was an open advocate of incorporating "torture lite" into US policy. If the likes of Dershowitz are rewarded professionally, or at least are protected by the nation's most prestigious university, it seems more than sufficient to draw the line there, and not extend Dershowitz's considerable academic privileges to a veto of tenure outside of Harvard for those who disagree with him. Otherwise, tenured faculty at the rest of the nation's colleges and universities will resemble the most prominent ones at Harvard. It is difficult to picture at the moment how this would benefit the United States or the world.

Howard Friel is coauthor with Richard Falk of Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, May 2007), and (with Falk) of The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004).

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