The Case for Israel, a Critical Review

Soldiers pose for a picture outside The Tomb of Our Patriarchs. Dershowitz mentions Baruch Goldstein once, calling him “a deranged Jewish doctor from Hebron” (he was from New York) and informing the reader that “[h]is family claimed that the repeated terrorist attacks against Jews made him snap” (143-44). In the preceeding twelve months, five Jewish Israelis had been killed in what can reasonably be called terrorist attacks in Israel.

The Case for Israel
The Case for Israel (John Wiley & Sons, August 2003; paperback August 2004, $12.95) by Harvard Law School Felix Frankfurter Professor Alan M. Dershowitz has received high praise from virtually the entire American press and at least one Israeli and two British newspapers; upon its release it quickly became a New York Times Bestseller. Case “should be read by all who seek to be genuinely informed” (Jewish Chronicle, January 9, 2004). “There are many…well-argued points made in this book” and those “seeking to rebut the most scurrilous charges against Israel would do well” to read it (New York Times, November 9, 2003). The Jerusalem Post called Case “overwhelming” and “profound” (Jerusalem Post, March 11, 2004). Wiley advertises Case as the product of “scrupulous research…hard-hitting, well-reasoned, and provocative”. The Washington Post, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, the Times (London), and the Sunday Telegraph have also proffered healthy doses of praise. American intellectuals and politicians have called the book “consistent, principled, and reasoned”; “an oasis of sanity and straight talk”; “detailed and penetrating”; “essential, even life-saving reading” for “[a]nyone who cares about Israel - and about the truth”; “important”; “marvelous…essential”; and “indispensable reading”.[1]

No book in recent memory has received such unvarying praise from both the American intellectual establishment and the American and world press, certainly none for which “the ideal audience…is someone who is interested but not an expert” on the subject at hand (Palm Beach Post, January 19, 2004, paraphrasing Dershowitz). Case has been “influential among policy makers. A copy was sent to each member of Congress and to delegates at the United Nations…[m]any [of whom] have called or written thanking me [Dershowitz] for helping them formulate arguments and answer criticism” about Israel (xi). Dershowitz has “spoke[n] to tens of thousands of university students, high school students, and other audiences…” about Case (x). Such high praise, and the fact that Dershowitz has “been working on this book since 1967” (xiii) indicate that the book’s claims ought to be authoritative and well documented. Its widespread influence on the debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict warrants a careful examination of its claims.

The paperback edition has been updated from the hardcover with “revisions that address recent developments” (cover), thus I cite to the paperback. Throughout I use the edition of sources cited in Case. Parenthetical references without a title refer to Case.

An Appraisal

Dershowitz’s overall thesis is that Israel is “ ‘the Jew’ among nations” (222). As evidence, he argues that Israel is the victim of numerous double standards. Falsification of the historical record regarding Israel’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict and of Israel’s human rights record serve as the two prime examples.

Chapter twelve of Case is the book’s third longest out of thirty-two; it contains forty-four relevant citations (10.5% of the book’s total).[2] In it, Dershowitz presents one of his central arguments: the Palestinian refugee problem “was created by a war initiated by the Arabs” (79), and consequently Israel bears no responsibility for it. According to Dershowitz, Benny Morris, author of The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem and Righteous Victims, “finds a shared responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem and concludes that neither side deliberately caused it ‘by design,’ but that ‘the Arab leadership inside and outside Palestine helped precipitate the exodus’ ” (84). “Once Haifa and Jaffa were captured by the Israelis, a domino effect began, with the flight from cities leading to flight from surrounding villages, which in turn led to flight from other villages” (80). The Palestinians tipped the dominos themselves by fleeing Haifa because they refused to live as a minority in the emerging Jewish state, and because of orders to do so from Arab and Palestinian leaders (83, 85); and by fleeing Jaffa because of “fierce fighting” that “caused a panic among the town’s Arab population…” (83) The exodus came as a surprise to the Yishuv: after visiting Jaffa, David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary, “I couldn’t understand. Why did the inhabitants…leave?” (83)

Jewish forces committed no atrocities encouraging this flight with the unique exception of the Deir Yassin massacre. Indeed, “Deir Yassin stands out in the history of Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine precisely because it was so unusual and so out of character for the Jews. No single Arab massacre of Jews has that status, because there are too many to list” (82).

Finally, this account of the origins of the refugee problem is nearly universally accepted. Former Syrian and Palestinian prime ministers “placed the entire blame for the refugee problem on the Arabs.” Even scholarly research from biased sources supports this account: “a research report by the Arab-sponsored Institute for Palestine Studies concluded that the majority of the Arab refugees were not expelled and 68 percent of them ‘left without seeing an Israeli soldier’ ” (84).

The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem

Dershowitz quotes from The birth five times in chapter twelve. Four of these five quotations are taken out of context; two examples will illustrate to what degree.

Dershowitz quotes from The birth, ipsissima verba: “The Palestinian Refugee [sic] problem was born of war, not by design…. The Arab leadership inside and outside Palestine probably helped precipitate the exodus…. No guiding hand or central control is evident” (83). The context makes clear that “no guiding hand” refers to an Israeli guiding hand.

This quotation is cited to The birth pages 286-89. The first quoted sentence is on page 286, and, aside from the typographical error, is unremarkable. None of the quote appears on pages 287 or 288. The next two quoted sentences are from the following paragraph (the omitted text is emphasized):

The Arab leadership inside and outside Palestine probably helped precipitate the exodus in the sense that it was disunited, had decided on no fixed, uniform policy vis-a-vis the civilian evacuation and gave the Palestinians no consistent, hard-and-fast guidelines and instructions about how to act and what to do, especially during the crucial month of April. The records are incomplete, but they show overwhelming confusion and disparate purpose, “policy” changing from week to week and area to area. No guiding hand or central control is evident. (The birth 289)

“The Arab leadership… probably helped precipitate the exodus” clearly assigns deliberate agency to “the Arab leadership”; nowhere does Dershowitz qualify this statement. But Morris is actually arguing that if the Arab leadership helped precipitate the exodus it was through disunity, confusion and disparate purpose - i.e. owing to insufficiency rather than purposeful action. Furthermore, when Dershowitz repeats the “Arab leadership” quote on page 84 the “probably” has disappeared - that “the Arab leadership inside and outside Palestine helped precipitate the exodus” is now established fact. Finally, in The Birth, “no guiding hand” indicates no Arab guiding hand, whereas Dershowitz presents it as indicating no Israeli guiding hand. Dershowitz’s truncations are misleading.

Also according to Dershowitz, “Morris points out that ‘no Arab government closed its borders or otherwise tried to stem the exodus’ ” (83). Dershowitz presents this statement as absolute; i.e., no Arab government ever tried to stem the exodus. But the paragraph from which Dershowitz is quoting is about the exodus “[d]uring the first months, the flight of the middle and upper classes…” (The birth 289), not about the exodus as a whole. Morris continues:

the dimensions and burden of the problem created by the exodus…quickly persuaded the Arab states - primarily Transjordan - that it were best to halt the flood tide. The AHC [Arab Higher Committee], too, was apparently shocked by the ease and completeness of the uprooting…. Hence the spate of appeals in early May by Transjordan, the AHC, and various Arab leaders to the Arabs of Palestine to stay put or, if already in exile, to return to their homes. (The birth 290)

Moreover, “[d]uring the summer [of 1948], the Arab governments intermittently tried to bar the entry of new refugees into their territory” (The birth 292). Again, Dershowitz’s quotation is misleading. He presents Morris as arguing an absolutist position whereas Morris is not doing so, and despite clearly relevant qualifiers in the preceding and ensuing text. Dershowitz’s contention that Morris has “been criticized by some for…’one-sidedness…against Israel’ ” (25) in no way legitimates this.

Human Dominos

Dershowitz quotes heavily from Righteous Victims, Morris’ comprehensive history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Citations to this book alone account for 19.5% - nearly one out of five - of Dershowitz’s relevant citations.

The sixteen citations to Righteous Victims in chapter twelve account for 36% of the chapter’s relevant citations. Each and every one of these is exploited to paint a false picture of whatever Dershowitz is arguing; he uniformly fails to use Righteous Victims in an honest or straightforward manner, usually through omission or gross exaggeration. In one instance Dershowitz omits nine lines of text from a quote without inserting an ellipsis.

Despite Dershowitz’s contentions, all pre-State armed groups - the Haganah, IZL and LHI - and later the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) committed a relatively large number of atrocities during 1947-49 War; conversely, Arab forces committed relatively few atrocities. This may be because the defeated Arab forces had fewer opportunities to commit atrocities than did the victorious Jewish forces, as Morris argues elsewhere, but the facts remain as they are.[3]

Dershowitz argues the Kfar Etzion massacre was representative of “a general Arab policy” of massacring all Jews, combatants and non-combatants alike. Indeed, it is “precisely because the Israeli army, unlike Arab armies, did not deliberately kill civilians that the refugee problem arose” (79). “There is little doubt that if the Arab armies had captured Jewish cities, they would not have allowed the civilian refugees to flee…. They would have massacred them in order to prevent the creation of a Jewish refugee problem…” (80) “Extermination, not the creation of a difficult refugee population, was the goal of the Arab attack on Jewish civilian populations” (81).

The Kfar Etzion massacre was a reprehensible atrocity; that being said, it was not Arab policy to massacre all Jews anymore than it was Jewish policy to massacre all Arabs. Kfar Etzion was the only massacre of Jews in which regular Arab troops took part, despite many more opportunities the Arab Legion had to butcher with impunity. Dershowitz description of this massacre is cited exclusively to Righteous Victims. Immediately after his description, Morris reports:

The remaining three kibbutzim [in the Etzion Bloc] held on until the morning of May 14, but their position was hopeless. The Haganah general staff gave them permission to surrender [to the Arab Legion], and all the defenders and settlers, except four more who were murdered by their captors, were trucked off to a Legion prison camp…. 350 of the bloc’s defenders ended up in captivity. (Righteous Victims 214)

No massacre occurred. Moreover, when the Arab Legion captured the Jewish quarter of East Jerusalem “[a]lmost all the inhabitants and seriously wounded combatants were allowed to cross into Jewish Jerusalem…” (Righteous Victims 225) Again, no massacre took place. Dershowitz’s contention that Arab armies would certainly have massacred captured Jews if a Jewish city fell is incompatible with the war’s actual history. This transformation of one atrocity into a “general Arab policy” of genocide is disingenuous and hyperbolic, if not alarmist.

Dershowitz continues, downplaying the one Jewish atrocity he acknowledges and arguing the rest never happened.

Dershowitz describes the Deir Yassin massacre as a challenging military operation with collateral non-combatant deaths. He denies that the Haganah took part in it (249, note 12.6), and argues that “there was and continues to be considerable dispute surrounding the circumstances of these deaths…” There were no deliberate killings by Jewish forces after the fighting ended: “The fighting continued, and when it was over, 100 to 110 Arabs were dead.” “Some children and old people were also killed” (81). The incident helped precipitate the Palestinian exodus because “[s]ome Palestinian leaders actually circulated false rumors that women had been raped” (82). Finally, “Deir Yassin remained an isolated although tragic and inexcusable blemish on Israeli paramilitary actions in defense of its [Israel’s] civilian population…” Thus there is no moral comparison between this atrocity and atrocities committed by Arabs, as “the deliberate targeting of civilians remained - and still remains - the policy…of many Arab governments” (82-83).

Righteous Victims tells a different story. Before the LHI and IZL attack on Deir Yassin the “LHI men proposed that villagers who did not run away should be killed in order to terrify the country’s Arabs,” but “the IZL command rejected these suggestions.” “The attack…was carried out with the prior approval of, and in cooperation with, the Jerusalem command of the Haganah…. During the battle, Haganah machine-gunners stationed nearby supplied covering fire…and the Haganah helped the combatants with ammunition” (Righteous Victims 207).

“Deir Yassin is remembered…for the atrocities committed by the IZL and LHI troops during and immediately after the drawn-out battle: Whole families were riddled with bullets…men, women, and children were mowed down as they emerged from houses; individuals were taken aside and shot.” Haganah intelligence reported “there were piles of dead. Some of the prisoners moved to places of incarceration, including women and children, were murdered viciously by their captors…. LHI members…relate that the IZL men raped a number of Arab girls and murdered them afterward (we don’t know if this is true).” Another intelligence operative “who visited the sight hours after the event” reported the “adult males were taken to town [Jerusalem] in trucks and paraded in the city streets, then taken back to the site and killed…. Before they were put on the trucks, the IZL and LHI men searched the women, men, and children [and] took from them all the jewelry and stole their money.” Finally, the “Haganah made great efforts to hide its part in the operation…” (Righteous Victims 208)

The point is not the brutality but that Dershowitz’s description is highly misleading: there were mass killings after the battle ended; the Haganah did take part in the battle, if not in the atrocities afterwards; there were legitimate reasons to believe women had been raped.[4]

Note the disparate treatment accorded to Arab and Israeli atrocities. Regarding Arabs, one atrocity proves the existence of “a general Arab policy”, despite the fact that the example given was a unique occurrence.[5] Regarding Israelis, one atrocity is an “isolated although tragic and inexcusable blemish” on an otherwise spotless record, despite massive evidence to the contrary.

Furthermore, exaggeration and omission are the norm when describing Arab atrocities. Four days after Deir Yassin, Arab irregulars

from Jerusalem and surrounding villages attacked a ten-vehicle convoy of mostly unarmed lecturers, nurses, and doctors…. (The convoy was also carrying two IZL fighters who had been wounded at Deir Yassin.) Four vehicles, including two packed buses, were trapped…. The shooting continued for more than six hours, the Arabs eventually dousing the armored buses with gasoline and setting them alight. When the British finally intervened, more than seventy Jews had died. (Righteous Victims 209)

Killing unarmed medical personnel is a war crime. Yet instead of reporting this attack as it occurred, Dershowitz argues the “Arabs retaliated for the Deir Yassin massacre not by attacking those responsible for perpetrating it” but instead “by deliberately committing a far more premeditated [and “carefully planned”] massacre of their own. In a well-planned attack four days after Deir Yassin, Arab forces ambushed a civilian convoy of doctors, nurses, medical school professors, and patients…murdering seventy of them” (82). The only source cited is the passage quoted above. Nowhere does Morris indicate the Arab attack was premeditated or even well planned; one could infer the opposite, as it took six hours to overcome “mostly unarmed lecturers, nurses and doctors”. Premeditation is crucial to Dershowitz’s argument that “the deliberate targeting of civilians” was “a general Arab policy”. Furthermore, Dershowitz converts “two IZL fighters who had been wounded at Deir Yassin” into “patients”; nobody would assume the presence of inoffensive convalescents would enrage the attacking villagers and possibly prompt them to commit a horrendous atrocity. Nowhere does Morris indicate the presence of patients other than these two IZL men.

Dershowitz’s contention that Deir Yassin was a unique occurrence, and that atrocities against Palestinian civilians were committed only by the IZL and LHI (249 note 12.6, 250 note 12.22) is false, as is well-known. Morris reports several massacres in Righteous Victims, and many more in The birth, the worst of which occurred on July 12, 1948. After a shootout in Lydda, captured the day before by the IDF, “jittery troops responded harshly, massacring young men detained in the mosque compound, and shooting indiscriminately into houses; ‘at least 250’ of the townspeople died, according to [Israeli] Palmah records.” Immediately after this Ben-Gurion ordered the entire population of both Lydda and nearby Ramle expelled from the new state (Righteous Victims 240). These are some of the best-known events of the 1948 War; it seems quite impossible that after thirty-six years of research into Arab-Israeli relations Dershowitz is unaware of them.[6]

Now recall Dershowitz’s “domino effect” theory about the Palestinian exodus. Dershowitz argues the Palestinians fled Haifa only because they refused to live as a minority in the emerging Jewish state, and “despite a plea by the Jewish mayor that they stay.” They fled Jaffa only because of “a panic among the town’s Arab population” caused by “fierce fighting with many Jewish casualties…” (83) This flight was a complete surprise to the Yishuv, as evidenced by Ben-Gurion’s diary entry. Dershowitz’s only citations about the fall of Haifa and Jaffa are, again, to Righteous Victims.

On “April 25 [1948, the IZL] launched an offensive…with the aim of taking the northern, Manshiya, neighborhood of Jaffa, undermining morale in the town and precipitating a mass exodus of its inhabitants. IZL gunners let loose for seventy-two hours on downtown Jaffa with a hail of three-inch mortar bombs” (Righteous Victims 211). “Let loose…on downtown…with a hail” clearly implies indiscriminate shelling, but we need not infer:

as the IZL’s fire control and ranging were at best highly amateur and inaccurate, even if such restrictions [on mortaring hospitals, etc.] had been imposed, they would have been meaningless…. [T]he objectives of the mortar barrage, which went on without respite for three days, with nine tons of explosives being delivered on day two of the attack, were clear, as described by IZL OC operations, Amihai Paglin, in his pre-battle briefing to his troops: “To prevent constant military traffic…, to break the spirit of the enemy troops, [and] to cause chaos among the civilian population in order to create a mass flight.” (The birth 96)

A few days later British High Commissioner Alan Cunningham wrote that the “IZL attack with mortars was indiscriminate and designed to create panic among the civilian inhabitants” (The birth 96). IZL intelligence reported “our shells…fell on many central sites near the post office, near the municipality…and near the port. A coffee shop in the vegetable market was hit and tens of gang members were killed and injured…. Hotels turned into hospitals” (The birth 97). “The shelling ‘had produced results beyond expectation.’ It had ‘caused dread and fear among the inhabitants of the city,’ precipitating flight” (The birth 98). Finally, Morris reports - with clearly intended irony - “Ben-Gurion visited the conquered city for the first time and commented: ‘I couldn’t understand: Why did the inhabitants…leave?’” (The birth 101)

Morris argues that no single factor caused the Arab flight from Jaffa. That being said, the real picture of the exodus from Jaffa is almost exactly opposite that presented in Case. The IZL indiscriminately launched several tons of explosives into Jaffa; the articulated objectives of this mortaring included forcing the civilian population to flee; the British High Commissioner in Palestine said this was precisely the mortaring’s effect; and the IZL described Jaffa as a city in which “[h]otels turned into hospitals.” This was not “fierce fighting” that happened to cause a panic amongst the local population. This was the deliberate and premeditated use of powerful military hardware against a civilian population with the pronounced intent of forcing that population to choose between uncertain death and certain exile. Dershowitz’s description of the exodus from Jaffa is entirely misleading, and stands in stark contrast to his treatment of the Arab attack on the Jerusalem-bound medical convoy. There Dershowitz asserts premeditation without evidence; here he denies it by ignoring the evidence.

Now take Dershowitz’s description of the exodus from Haifa. “According to Morris, ‘The Arab leaders, preferring not to surrender, announced that they and their community intended to evacuate the town, despite a plea by the Jewish mayor that they stay’ ” (83). “Put another way, the last thing many Arabs wanted was to remain as minority citizens of the Jewish state…” (85) The decision to leave was political, unaffected by fear or trepidation.

“On December 30 [1947], an IZL squad threw a number of bombs into a crowd at a bus stop outside the Haifa Oil Refinery, killing six people and wounding dozens more. In a spontaneous response, the Arab workers in the refinery turned on their Jewish coworkers…massacring 39 of them and wounding another 50 before British forces intervened.” The next night “the suburban villages of Balad ash Sheikh and Hawassa…where many of the Arab refinery workers lived, were raided by Palmah and Haganah units…. The raiders moved from house to house, pulling men out and executing them. Sometimes they simply threw grenades into houses and sprayed the interior with automatic fire. The villagers suffered more than 60 dead…. In Hawassa 16 men were killed…” (Righteous Victims 198).[7]

In the first months of the 1948 War intercommunal relations in Haifa deteriorated, “with the two sides exchanging shots along the border between the two communities and planting bombs in each other’s neighborhoods.” The Arabs sought a truce, but were “turned down by the Haganah, which demanded what amounted to unconditional surrender. The Arab leaders, preferring not to surrender, announced that they and their community intended to evacuate the town, despite a plea by the Jewish mayor that they stay” (Righteous Victims 211). Without an explanation of why Haifa’s Arab leaders may have preferred not to surrender unconditionally - Haifa was already extremely violent - and why they may have ignored the mayor’s pleas - he could not control the IZL and LHI, responsible for most of the bombings against civilians - simply pointing out that they did so is, again, misleading.

Dershowitz argues that many Palestinian refugees had not lived in “the villages and towns they left” for very long, since “economic and social processes that had begun in the mid-nineteenth century” had left “large parts of the rural population…landless…” (85) Then, quoting Morris:

In consequence there was a constant, growing shift of population from the countryside to urban shantytowns and slums; to some degree this led to both physical and psychological divorce from the land. [They also] lost their means of livelihood. For some, exile may have become an attractive option, at least until Palestine calmed down. (86, ipsissima verba including the insert)

This is cited to Righteous Victims page 253. Between “land” and “lost” Dershowitz omits 115 words without inserting an ellipsis. Morris is presented as arguing that as a result of urbanization “large parts of the rural population” may have seen exile as “an attractive option…” Morris is actually arguing that because “very few Arab workers were unionized; none, except the small number in British government service, enjoyed the benefit of unemployment insurance”, and because these people were “[e]ffectively ejected from Jewish enterprises and farms…they lost their means of livelihood. For some, exile may have become an attractive option, at least until Palestine calmed down.” Dershowitz’s quotation changes the subject of Morris’s argument - for whom “exile may have become an attractive option” - from a relatively small number of middle class urban laborers to the rural masses, the clear majority of the population.[8] Moreover, the “urban masses and the fellahin [peasant farmers]…had nowhere to go, certainly not in comfort. For them, flight meant instant destitution; it was not a course readily adopted” (The birth 287). Dershowitz cites page 287 of The birth, as noted above, but chooses to ignore this (fairly obvious) point. Here, at least, the deception goes well beyond any acceptable standards of scholarship.

Beyond Chapter Twelve

Dershowitz’s contentions regarding the origins of the refugee problem and the Haganah-IZL-LHI-IDF and Arab record of atrocities cannot withstand scrutiny; his own sources contradict him at every turn. This is not through a difference of opinion between Dershowitz and Morris over how to interpret a given set of facts, but through the disclosure of facts themselves by Morris, and Dershowitz’s subsequent denial or alteration of them to fit his theses. We are left with a consistent pattern of dishonesty, all with the same tendency.

Assuming Dershowitz has read the book that makes up almost one out of five of his relevant citations, he must know that most of his contentions in chapter twelve are false. Space does not permit a detailed juxtaposition of other chapters in Case with Righteous Victims and The birth, but a few examples will demonstrate that chapter twelve is not an isolated instance.

Dershowitz argues: “Support for Jewish self-determination in those areas of Palestine in which Jews constituted a majority was seen by many as part of Wilsonian self-determination” (33). He cites Righteous Victims page 71, where Morris states: “And, in the circumstances of 1916-18, support of Zionism could always be trotted out as support for Wilsonian self-determination.” This is unambiguous falsification.

Dershowitz argues that Hajj Amin “[al-]Husseini’s ‘chief bomb maker, Fawzi al-Katab [sic], had learned his craft in an SS course in Nazi Germany’ ” (76). He cites Righteous Victims page 201, where Morris argues the “Arabs may well have learned the value of terrorist bombings from the Jews, as Arab Legion officer Abdullah Tal was later to write. But the Husseinis’ chief bomb maker, Fawzi al-Kutub, had learned his craft in an SS course in Nazi Germany.” Only by ignoring the sentence immediately preceding the quoted text can Dershowitz maintain his argument that Arabs hold a monopoly on the use of terrorism.

Dershowitz argues that “when Israel sought to protect itself against Beirut-based terrorism in 1982” the Israeli Air Force (IAF) “attacked those parts of Beirut that were home to terrorists…[and] made great efforts - although not always with success - to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties” (151). Morris devotes seven pages of Righteous Victims (507-513) to detailing the Begin-Sharon campaign of deceit that pushed the cabinet into approving Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and makes quite clear that “Beirut-based terrorism” had nothing to do with it. The casus belli settled on was the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Shlomo Argov by “members of the [anti-PLO] Abu Nidal group…. Although the shooting clearly was not a PLO operation, Begin was not to be deterred; here was the provocation for his long-sought war…. He was not perturbed by the fact that the deed had been carried out by anti-PLO gunmen. ‘They’re all PLO. Abu Nidal, Abu Schmidal. We have to strike at the PLO,’ he said” (Righteous Victims 514).

A soldier at a checkpoint outside Hebron. Dershowitz mentions the enormous and illegal system of Israeli checkpoints once, on page 10, to inform the reader that part of Yassir Arafat’s “grand plan” (120) to control the world media was to get them to film “disturbing images of Israeli soldiers…stopping women at checkpoints…”

Furthermore, Israel did bomb Beirut indiscriminately. On August 12 the cabinet even forbade Ariel Sharon - then Defense Minister - from activating “IDF artillery, the navy, and the IAF without prime-ministerial or full cabinet approval” following the August 11-12 bombings of Beirut. Ronald “Reagan called Begin twice on August 12, protesting that the air raids were ‘unfathomable and senseless,’ demanding an immediate IDF cessation of fire…” (Righteous Victims 537) Before this, at “the end of July, with negotiations [between Israel and the PLO] still deadlocked, the IDF stepped up its attacks. The Mossad [Israel’s foreign intelligence service], using Phalangist contacts, began to send Arab agents with car bombs into Beirut to terrorize the Palestinians into submission and the Lebanese into increasing the pressure on them to depart. Dozens of people were killed” (Righteous Victims 535). Again, only by ignoring the readily available evidence in his own principal source can Dershowitz maintain his argument about Israel’s military and human rights record.

I have quoted The birth and Righteous Victims this extensively in order to make a point: Dershowitz uses Morris’s work in a tendentious and wholly unreliable manner. Dershowitz truncates quotations misleadingly; speculates without ground or reason; ignores readily available evidence, even on pages he cites elsewhere; ignores inconvenient facts; applies a demonstrable double standard to similar atrocities depending on the ethnoreligious identity of the perpetrators; and in one case omits several lines of quoted text without inserting an ellipsis. It should be obvious that quoting in this manner one can prove virtually anything. This behavior is particularly disturbing given that Case is intended for “someone who is interested but not an expert”, and even more so if we recall nearly 20% of Dershowitz’s relevant citations are to Righteous Victims.

Phony and Tendentious

Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, published in 1984, contends that the vast majority of refugees from the 1948 War arrived in Palestine after modern Zionist immigration began in the 1880s, and that this migration of Arabs into Palestine occurred primarily because of the economic opportunities created by Jewish settlement there. Ipso facto, the Palestinians are Arab latecomers to Palestine, and have no political entitlement to any land west of the Jordan River.

Several people have demonstrated beyond any doubt that this book is based on falsified and even invented evidence - notably Norman Finkelstein in multiple books and journals, Ian and David Gilmour in The London Review of Books, Yehoshua Porath in The New York Review of Books, Bill Farrell in The Journal of Palestine Studies, Albert Hourani in the London Observer, Anthony Lewis in the New York Times, and Paul Blair in Capitalism Magazine. “I think it’s a sheer forgery…. In Israel, at least, the book was almost universally dismissed as sheer rubbish except maybe as a propaganda weapon,” said Porath, then a historian at Hebrew University. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, then a professor of religion at Dartmouth University and vice president of the World Jewish Congress said he believes Peters “cooked the statistics…. The scholarship is phony and tendentious. I do not believe that she has read the Arabic sources that she quotes” (New York Times, November 28, 1985). “The whole book is written like this”, concluded Oxford Orientalist Hourani, “facts are selected or misunderstood, tortuous and flimsy arguments are expressed in violent and repetitive language. This is a ludicrous and worthless book…” The Gilmours concluded “Peters’s treatment of the [Hope Simpson] report shows that her handling of such evidence cannot be trusted even when she seems to be quoting it.” From Time Immemorial “is not history. As a guide to what has happened in Palestine in the last hundred years Ms. Peters is about as trustworthy as her Medieval ‘source’ Makrizi…. [T]his [is a] strident, pretentious and preposterous book…” (Makrizi died in 1442, but Peters cites him to establish facts about the 1860s.) Blair concluded his twenty-three thousand word review of From Time Immemorial by calling it a:

work of propaganda, with all the bad connotations that term carries. Peters’ case rests upon distortion and fabrication. Time and again, she misconstrues sources in a tendentious manner. She cribs uncritically from partisan works…and draws hard conclusions from tenuous evidence. She speculates wildly and without ground. She exaggerates figures and selects numbers to suit her thesis. She adduces evidence that in no way supports her claims, sometimes even omitting “inconvenient” portions of the citation. She invents contradictions in sources she wishes to discredit by quoting them out of context…. She ignores sources that cast doubt on her conclusions, even when she herself uses those sources for other purposes. She makes baseless insinuations and misleading claims.

Blair’s goal was “to check the claims of Peters’ detractors, yet even then I [Blair] discovered distortions they did not mention. There is no reason to assume, then, that the absence of criticism vindicates the parts of Peters’ book that have not been mentioned. Given her untrustworthiness, one should credit none of her claims without verifying them independently.” Porath makes a similar point: “Readers of her book should be warned not to accept its factual claims without checking their sources.”

Dershowitz cites From Time Immemorial fourteen times. In a September 24, 2003 debate on the Democracy Now! radio show, Dershowitz said he is aware of the above-mentioned criticism - specifically Finkelstein’s, which cites all others mentioned aside from Blair - but does not “regard the Peters book in any way as a fraud…” He went on to explain that if “Peters had made up a quote that hadn’t existed…and then somebody borrowed the quote without going to check [it]…obviously that would be a serious charge. I’ve done nothing like that.”

Recall the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS) report which “concluded that the majority of the Arab refugees [from the 1948 War] were not expelled and 68 percent of them ‘left without seeing an Israeli soldier’ ” (84). In Dershowitz’s note 12.33 we learn this study is entitled River Without Bridges and was published in 1969 (it was actually published in 1968).[9] The publication date ought to give warning - why was IPS investigating the 1948 exodus immediately after the 1967 exodus from the West Bank? It would be extremely difficult to verify claims, testimonials, etc. under such circumstances.

The full title of this IPS study is River Without Bridges: A Study of the Exodus of the 1967 Palestinian Arab Refugees, and, of course, it is about the 1967 exodus, as is evident from its title. This distortion of Peters’ has been mentioned several times by several different people in several different journals, notably the Gilmours, Lewis, and Blair.

Now recall Dershowitz’s contention that “the former prime minister of Syria, Khalid al-Azm, placed the entire blame for the refugee problem on the Arabs” (84). Leave aside that Morris devotes a half-page note specifically to discussing and dismissing al-Azm’s contentions (The birth 312, note 12). Hertzberg specifically said he believes Peters has no knowledge of the Arabic sources she quotes. Porath provides yet another reason not to quote Peters, that “her command of both Arabic and Hebrew is far below the standards required of anyone who is engaged in original research in Palestinian history.” Furthermore:

I do not know why Mrs. Peters overlooked this important document [the Haganah’s Plan Dalet, while she discussed the creation of the refugee problem]. That the plan existed, of course, is not in itself evidence that it was carried out. Neither, however, is the admission of the Syrian leader Khalid al-Azm that the Arab countries urged the Palestinian Arabs to leave their villages until after the victory of the Arab armies final proof that the Palestinian Arabs in practice heeded that call and consequently left.

Dershowitz cites Peters outside of chapter twelve, as well. In chapter two, citing Peters and others, he repeats the thoroughly discredited argument that before the First Aliyah’s immigrants arrived in Palestine the population “was small and shrinking. An 1857 communique from the British consul in Jerusalem reported that ‘the country [Palestine] is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is that of a body of population.’… Four years later, it was reported that ‘depopulation is even now advancing.’” Furthermore:

Other historians, demographers, and travelers described the Arab population as “decreasing,” and the land as “thinly populated,” “unoccupied,” “uninhabited,” and “almost abandoned now.” The Plain of Sharon, which the Jews of the First Aliyah later cultivated, was described by Reverend Samuel Manning in 1874 as “a land without inhabitants” that “might support an immense population.” (26-27)

Dershowitz does exactly what Peters did to justify this dubious claim: “In order to deal with the population of Palestine prior to 1893…she relies on population estimates made by Europeans (travelers, journalists, diplomats, geographers, and political figures), rather than on readily available Ottoman census material for the same period, which, though perhaps less than complete, is far more reliable.” Ferrell continues, arguing the “only way to know the size of a population is to count it. It has been clearly demonstrated by demographers that no other method is accurate. In Palestine, only the Ottoman authorities were in a position to count the population.” Ottoman “census figures show small but steady growth in the population of Palestine.”

Quoting demographer Justin McCarthy’s “The Population of Ottoman Syria and Iraq, 1878-1914” (Haifa University, 1981), Farrell concludes: “No journalist, consul, or traveler, however astute, could have known enough of any large geographic area to be able to estimate population accurately.” Furthermore, this “should not be surprising. Imagine a foreigner who lived in New York City for one year and was asked to count the population of the United States, though he had no access to census materials or figures based upon the census. The result would be sheer speculation.” As Dershowitz cites exactly the same sources, and almost exactly the same passages from those sources as Peters does when making this same argument, Farrell’s refutation stands for both.

Porath also dismisses the notion that the population of Palestine was “small and shrinking”:

If the Arabs had indeed been as few as Mrs. Peters claims, one wonders why the letters, official reports, diaries, and essays of the early Zionist settlers…were filled with references to the Arabs surrounding them everywhere in Palestine…. Similarly, she has overlooked two of the most important articles by Jewish writers dealing with the Arab problem, which even around the turn of the [20th] century troubled the Jewish immigrants to Palestine. The first was written in 1891 by Ahad Ha’am…the second…in 1907 by Y. Epstein…. Anyone who believes Mrs. Peters’s book would have to conclude that these distinguished writers, a philosopher and an educator with close experience of life in Palestine, had simply invented the existence of the many Arabs there.

Dershowitz continues, arguing that “[a]ccording to some disputed accounts…even as early as the mid-1890s, there may have been a plurality of Jews in parts of Palestine that became the heartland of the Jewish area under the U.N. partition” (27). These “disputed accounts” are those of French geographer Vital Cuinet.

In an exchange of letters in the NY Review, Porath makes clear that “even a superficial glance at Cuinet’s figures should make any serious historian recoil from using them. While the official Ottoman figures for the Muslims are underestimated for the reasons I earlier explained, Cuinet’s are much more so.” Cuinet conveniently found very few Greek Orthodox Christians, substantial numbers of Syrian Orthodox Christians, and, “most absurdly”, he claimed that:

precisely five thousand Maronites,…10 percent of the population of the district, were living in the district of Nablus. But as everyone knows Maronites were to be found in the Middle East only in Mount Lebanon…. Cuinet’s mistakes were deliberately made in order to prove that Palestine, as much as Lebanon and Syria, should be put under French protection. His attitude is well known and requires that his material be used with great caution.

Farrell reports that Cuinet “often had access to Ottoman figures, which he arbitrarily divided or multiplied…[and] as all European observers, he cannot be considered an objective source.” “Cuinet’s numbers are ridiculously inaccurate”, he concludes.

Dershowitz’s use of From Time Immemorial undermines his various arguments. The fact that he cites this “ludicrous and worthless” “work of propaganda” at all further undermines his credibility. Dershowitz cites passages repeatedly exposed as duplicitous - not “disputed” but outrightly falsified by Peters. He cites al-Azm’s Arabic memoirs to establish facts even as the leading experts discount that very passage as inconsequential; a prominent rabbi, scholar and vice president of the World Jewish Congress argues that Peters has not read the Arabic sources from which she quotes; and a highly respected Israeli historian argues that Peters’ command of Arabic “is far below the standards required of anyone who is engaged in original research…” Dershowitz adopts Peters’ discredited argument that Palestine’s population was “small and shrinking” without adducing any new evidence. Finally, he cites Cuinet, whose work Farrell dismisses as “ridiculously inaccurate” and Porath argues deliberately made mistakes in order to further the interests of French imperialism.

Throughout Dershowitz ignores the enormous (and damning) body of evidence indicating Peters is nothing but an incorrigible and untrustworthy liar. At least in the case of River Without Bridges, the baseless nature of Peters’ claims cannot possibly be open to debate.

Closing Statements

Considering one of Dershowitz’s central contentions is that history is wildly distorted in order to demonize Israel, this level of dishonesty is shocking. Not only is this contention of his undermined by his lack of objectivity, but at this point the systematic nature of his distortions ought to be evident: exaggeration, dishonesty, selectivity, denial and falsification, all in the service of Dershowitz’s arguments, are part and parcel of at least the first half of Case.

There are many more pervasive and systemic flaws in this book. Crucially, Dershowitz’s grasp of basic aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict is astonishingly uninformed. He claims Hizbullah is a Palestinian organization (72, 234) - it is, of course, Lebanese. He treats the recent Israeli-Palestinian meetings at Camp David and Taba as one event (8-9, 105, 109-10, 118) that occurred entirely in 2000 (97) - they occurred separately and in 2000 and 2001, respectively. He claims Yasser Arafat ended the Taba talks (97, 105, 118, 179, 206-7, 228, 232) despite every news organization in the world reporting Ehud Barak ended them (e.g. the Guardian, January 29, 2001, “Barak halts talks until election”). He states twice that someone named “Lord Carrington” drafted UN Security Council Resolution 242 (205) - the man’s name was Lord Caradon. He conflates the first and second Intifadas (107), and claims the Palestinian Authority did things before it existed (98, 103, 107-8).

Space does not permit an extensive review of the book’s latter half, but two examples should be sufficiently illustrative.

“A baby with its arms blown off”

On page 258 Dershowitz reports casualty numbers for the 1970-71 Jordanian Civil War. Leave aside that he cites an online high school teacher’s guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (258, note 21).[10] This teacher’s guide reports, amongst many other things Dershowitz ignores, that when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Ronald Reagan - hardly known for his anti-Israel or pacifist views - “decided to appeal personally to Begin to stop the fighting and abide by the (US-brokered) cease-fire…. Despite our [American] appeals for restraint, the Israelis on August 12 opened a new and even more brutal attack on civilian neighborhoods in Beirut that sickened me [Reagan] and many others in the White House. This provoked me into an angry demand for an end to the bloodletting…(in a call to Begin) I used the word ‘Holocaust’ deliberately and said the symbol of his country was becoming ‘a picture of a seven month old baby with its arms blown off.’” Dershowitz again ignores inconvenient facts in order to maintain his argument about Israel’s military record, even when those facts appear in sources he cites elsewhere.

“I’ll Fucking Break You”

In chapter nineteen, Dershowitz argues Israel does not torture Palestinians. Indeed, the “issue of torture, perhaps better than any other, illustrates the hypocritical double standard applied against Israel” (135). Literally the only evidence Dershowitz adduces is that on “September 6, 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court decided that not only is torture absolutely prohibited but even the types of physical pressure currently being used by the United States…are prohibited by Israeli law, even in cases in which the pressure is used not to elicit a confession but rather to elicit information that could prevent an imminent terrorist attack” (134-35). This is utterly and completely false; leave aside the obvious point that legal prohibition of an act is not proof that the given act never occurs.

The High Court of Justice ruling (HCJ 5100/94) states that Israel’s General Security Service (GSS) is not authorized “to employ physical means that infringe [on] a suspect’s liberty [and dignity]…unless these means are inherent to the very essence of an interrogation…” Indeed, the “investigator who employs these methods exceeds his authority.” However:

His potential criminal liability shall be examined in the context of the “necessity defense.” Provided the conditions of the [necessity] defense are met by the circumstances of the case, the investigator may find refuge under its [the necessity defense’s] wings. Just as the existence of the “necessity defense” does not bestow authority, the lack of authority does not negate the applicability of the necessity defense or of other defenses from criminal liability. (para. 38, my emphasis)

The necessity defense is Israel’s Penal Law section 34(1), which states a “person will not bear criminal liability for committing any act immediately necessary for the purpose of saving the life, liberty, body or property, of either himself or his fellow person…” (para. 33). HCJ 5100/94 states that the GSS is not authorized by legislative statute to employ “physical means during interrogations” (para. 37). It is, however, free to use these means - which are clearly tantamount to torture (see below) - and then claim these methods were required in order to save “life, liberty, body or property”. Interrogators may then be found to have acted legally under the provisions of the necessity defense. The ruling did not declare torture or anything else “absolutely prohibited”. It is unfathomable that Harvard Law’s Felix Frankfurter professor was unable to understand this wholly uncomplicated ruling.

Dershowitz continues, arguing that even before this ruling Israel’s security services had never tortured suspects, but used “somewhat less extreme tactics” than those being used by the United States on suspected al-Qaeda operatives. When the world condemned Israel’s practices as torture, it failed to notice “they were nonlethal and did not involve the infliction of sustained pain” (137-38). In the ensuing note we learn that someone “died following shaking, but an independent investigation attributed his death to an unknown preexisting medical condition” (253, note 19.9). Dershowitz again cites HCJ 5100/94, which says the attribution of this death to a “preexisting medical condition” was made by the GSS itself (para. 9) and says nothing about any investigation, let alone an “independent” one.

Furthermore, are these tactics - specifically “shaking” - something less than torture? Take the case of Muna ‘Obeid, reported by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel:

Then “Martin” [the GSS interrogator] assaulted me - he grabbed my shirt on both sides and started pulling and pushing me backwards and forwards forcefully. The force of the shaking would send me flying towards the wall which was behind me, and my head would bang against the wall. He yelled at me: “whore, bitch, I’ll fucking break you…” The female soldier present was very frightened by what she saw; she covered her face with her hands and hid it between her knees… (The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Flawed Defense 37)

This seems potentially lethal and appears to “involve the infliction of sustained pain”. The HCJ ruling itself states, “[a]ccording to an expert opinion submitted in HCJ 5584/95 and HCJ 5100/95, the shaking method is likely to cause serious brain damage, harm the spinal cord, cause the suspect to lose consciousness, vomit and urinate uncontrollably and suffer serious headaches” (para. 9). Taking into account that Muna ‘Obeid was a thirty-year-old female Israeli citizen when interrogated, one can imagine what happens to the thousands of young males brought into GSS interrogation wings from the occupied territories. If, as Dershowitz contends, the “issue of torture, perhaps better than any other, illustrates the hypocritical double standard applied against Israel” then there is no case to be made for the existence of this double standard whatsoever.

Closing Arguments

The Case for Israel lacks objectivity, to say the least. Dershowitz treats evidence in much the same way Joan Peters does in From Time Immemorial, and the results are similar. Like Peters, Dershowitz selects facts to suit his theses. He employs distortion and fabrication while contending elsewhere that he knows the evidence he presents is distorted and falsified. He misconstrues sources in a tendentious manner. He draws hard conclusions from tenuous evidence. He adduces evidence that in no way supports his claims, even omitting “inconvenient” portions of quotations without inserting ellipses. He quotes sources completely out of context. He ignores sources casting doubt on his conclusions, even when he uses those sources elsewhere. He makes baseless insinuations and misleading claims.

All of this to prove that virtually the entire world applies a “hypocritical double standard against Israel” by falsifying history. The result is a duplicitous labyrinth of confusion, falsification, hyperbole, oversimplification, reductionism, misunderstanding, and absurd personal attacks. And this is intended for “someone who is interested but not an expert.”

These defects apply to the entire book, from the preface to the endnotes, and to its central and peripheral arguments alike. Like Peters, Dershowitz seems more concerned with scoring a definitive polemical triumph than with honesty. Given the systematic nature of Dershowitz’s distortions and falsifications, The Case for Israel should not be treated as an honest work of scholarship. Furthermore, in several instances Dershowitz must know his contentions are false, leading one to believe a great many of his mistakes and distortions were made willfully. For these reasons, “someone who is interested but not an expert” would do well to read something else.

Feroze Sidhwa is a 23-year-old American graduate of Johns Hopkins University, and just spent eight months in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

1. David Mamet, Floyd Abrams, Mario Cuomo, Phyllis Chesler, Elie Wiesel, Edward Koch, and Henry Lewis Gates, respectively, all from
2. Dershowitz begins each chapter quoting Israel’s “accusers”, and many of his notes refer the reader elsewhere in Case or make a statement without a citation. “Relevant citations” are the notes other than those just mentioned.
3. See Morris’s article in Crimes of War, W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
4. Furthermore, no basis exists for the assertion of “considerable dispute” surrounding the events of Deir Yassin. That the people who committed the massacre do not freely admit their guilt does not warrant such a statement, unless we allow for “considerable dispute” over every wrongdoing in mankind’s history.
5. There were three Arab massacres of Jews during the 1948 War, of which only Kfar Etzion was carried out by (or at least in the presence of) regular troops. The other two were a massacre of Jewish refinery workers immediately following an IZL bomb attack on workers gathered outside the refinery, and the ambush of a medical convoy four days after Deir Yassin (Righteous Victims 198, 209).
6. In a January 14, 2004 article in the Guardian, Morris, writing about his newly updated edition of The birth, wrote “[n]o doubt, Arab fright and flight was leavened by reports of real and imagined Jewish atrocities – and there were many real ones, as the recently released documentation shows. Pillage was almost de rigueur, rape was not infrequent, the execution of prisoners of war was fairly routine during the months before May 1948 (the country was under British administration and the Haganah had no PoW camps), and small- and medium-scale massacres of Arabs occurred during April, May, July and October to November. Altogether, there were some two dozen cases.” In Ha’aretz Magazine (January 9, 2004), Morris said “[a]ll told, if we take all the massacres and all the executions of 1948, we come to about 800 [Arabs] who were killed.” This is the equivalent of more than 180,000 deaths in the United States today. Morris explains this is “peanuts…chicken feed”, an indicator of his “one-sidedness…against Israel.”
7. This is the equivalent of nine thousand deaths in London today, and in less than 48 hours.
8. This is not to say that the urban laborers’ numbers were insignificant, but that they were far less significant than the massive rural population.
9. Notes 12.33 and 12.34 appear to be mistakenly inverted; i.e., what appears in 12.33 should be in 12.34, and vice versa. Regardless, River Without Bridges is the study Peters cites in the passage Dershowitz quotes.
10. I am indebted to Dr. Norman Finkelstein for generously providing me with this source.

Related Links:

  • The Case Against Alan Dershowitz: The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel vs. Alan Dershowitz