—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
14 August 2005

Fuming for Israel: the Case of Alan Dershowitz

4. The Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

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In chapters seven and thirty-one respectively, Dershowitz puts forth the following pair of not unrelated questions: 'Have the Jews Exploited the Holocaust?' and 'Are Critics of Israel Anti-Semitic?'

I should adumbrate my personal view that I don't believe that the Holocaust has been exploited, as the sheer scale of the Nazi crime is so great that whatever nugatory political capital could be wrung from it just doesn't compare to the monstrousness. What I do believe, however, is that the Nazi Holocaust, and, more broadly, the issue of Judeophobia is in danger of being cheapened almost to the point of rhetorical extinction by Israel's apologists. The immiserated millions who were fed into the jaws of the Third Reich's death machine frankly deserve a better memorial than to find their ghosts constantly juxtaposed with jingoistic defenses of a brutal, neocolonial state whose human rights violations rival that of the worst autocracies bordering it, and whose current prime minister is an acknowledged war criminal. The victims of Hitler were guiltless: Israel is not. And to keep bouncing one off the other is to contaminate the memory of such victims. There is no more certain route to the erosion of the Nazi Holocaust's moral gravitas than its constant invocation by the same well-known public figures who defend, or remain studiously silent about, a tyrannical Israel. (The names Abraham Foxman, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, and Gabriel Schoenfeld come to mind.)


So how does Dershowitz address the question 'Have the Jews Exploited the Holocaust?' Answer: by avoiding it completely. His self-defined accusation goes as follows: 'The Jews have exploited the Holocaust to gain sympathy for a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinians, who bear no responsibility for Hitler's genocide.'[1] Watch the sharp right turn taken at the comma. We will shortly be veering off the very course plotted by the author's own question and heading down a side-road in which the Palestinian people are to be made guilty by association with a single historical figure - the overtly pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem.

Hajj-Amin Al-Husseini's openly expressed sympathy with the Third Reich is no more in doubt than that of Yitzhak Shamir's.[2] But some pertinent questions arise here. How does the guilt of this one man disprove that the Holocaust has been used as a moral bulwark against criticism of Israeli war crimes and human rights abuses, or even bear on the topic? If Dershowitz truly believes in his own creed of a 'statute of limitations on grievances', why does the statute run out for the Arabs for unspecified (but knowingly cited) 'events that allegedly occurred more than a century ago [my italics]'[3] and then re-activate a few decades later for the Zionists when the Mufti's pro-Nazi rantings were at their apogee? Is there any evidence that the Palestinian population supported the Mufti or his pro-Nazi leanings? Certainly Dershowitz provides nothing to support the notion that 'the Palestinian leadership [had] the acquiescence of most of the Palestinian Arabs'.[4] In this respect, Dershowitz's analysis falls into what Said K. Aburish, writing on both the Mufti and Arafat, calls 'a familiar trap':
Western writers erroneously see the Palestinians and their leaders as one and the same and Arab writers are fearful that exposing this situation would reflect poorly on their own beliefs in Arab-Western cooperation. This is a major omission. ... [T]he Mufti of Palestine, Hajj Amin Al Husseini, and the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, very often exercised their positions of leadership without the consent or support of the Palestinian people. Except for the recent poll confirming Arafat, neither man was ever elected to office. Their claims to leadership lack the credibility of a true democratic process and the necessary elements for legitimacy.[5]
Yet the Mufti is exhumed by Dershowitz as the very personification of the demotic Palestinian: Hitlerite and genocidal. Thus are an entire people dismissed and blackened. (That Husseini was appointed to his position in 1921 - over persons more qualified - by the Jewish and distinctly pro-Zionist Herbert Samuel is not mentioned.) Applying this logic to Ariel Sharon, what does this tell us about the population who elected him twice? This, after all, is the man who is known to have massacred 69 civilians at the Jordanian village of Qibya in 1953; whose unprovoked attack on a Syrian outpost near Lake Kinneret in 1955 was condemned by the UN security council; who oversaw the killing of women and children during a commando raid on the al-Burg refugee camp and then 'explained to his own soldiers that all the women of the camps were whores that served the murderers';[6] who presided over the Phalange militia's notorious massacre in Beirut's Sabra-Shatilla camps of up to 2000 Palestinians in 1982;[7] who once told soldiers fighting the Arabs to 'tear off their balls'.[8] Are the Israelis somehow de-legitimized because of their electoral endorsement of such a creature? But of course, there's a back-up rationale: it's regularly adduced that the Israeli swing to the right is merely a response to Palestinian violence, so it's not surprising, for example, to find Dershowitz stating that Arafat 'helped elect a hawkish general as prime minister'.[9] So it seems that the evils of both the Palestinians and the Israelis are to be laid at the doorstep of the Palestinians.

So - again - let's examine the question. Is there any indication that the spectre of the Nazi Holocaust has been exploited by Israel? Mustering comprehensive evidence of a claim this sweeping is well outside the scope of an essay this brief. However, the opinion of one Zionist and one Israeli is worth quoting. Nahum Goldmann, onetime president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote these judicious words in 1981:
We will have to understand that Jewish suffering during the Holocaust will no longer server as a protection, and we certainly must refrain from using the argument of the Holocaust to justify whatever we may do. To use the Holocaust as an excuse for the bombing of Lebanon, for instance, as Menachem Begin does, is a kind of "Hillul Hashem", a banalization of the sacred tragedy of the Shoah, which must not be misused to justify politically doubtful and morally indefensible policies.[10]
The view of Israeli peace activist Uri Avenery is more pointed:
I will tell you something about the Holocaust. It would be nice to believe that people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it's the opposite, it makes them worse. It corrupts. There is something in suffering that creates a kind of egoism. Herzog was speaking at the site of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen but he spoke only about the Jews. How could he not mention that others - many others - had suffered there? Sick people, when they are in pain, cannot speak about anyone but themselves. And when such monstrous things have happened to your people, you feel nothing can be compared to it. You get a moral power-of-attorney, a permit to do anything you want - because nothing can compare with what has happened to us. This is a moral immunity which is very clearly felt in Israel. Everyone is convinced that the IDF is more humane than any other army. "Purity of arms" was the slogan of the Haganah army in early '48. But it was never true at all.[11]
If there is any accuracy to this dreadful vision - that Hitler's appalling ravages may have made some of the victims into abusers - then it ought to be incumbent upon Israelis to stop this moral rot before it devours the soul of their state. This, in my opinion, would be time far better spent than heeding hollow apologetics spouted from afar by those who will never have to suffer the consequences of their armchair jingoism. As for 'purity of arms', I have simply stopped counting the number of times Dershowitz has claimed that Israel's human rights record is 'among the best in the world, perhaps the best in the world'.[12] This glorious report card will be laid bare later.


And what of the charge that to criticise Israel is to be anti-Semitic? 'The reality', according to Dershowitz, is that 'I have never heard a mere critic of Israel called anti-Semitic [sic].'[13] Note the intriguing logic: if I don't see it, it isn't there. This is not so much denial as solipsism. Nevertheless, a few paragraphs later, we find Dershowitz throwing down the gauntlet: 'I hereby challenge anyone who claims that mere criticism of Israel is often labeled anti-Semitism to document that serious charge by providing actual quotations, in context, with the source of the statements identified.'[14] Oh, all right:
Those who peddle anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Israelism and those who advocate to dismember Israel and fatally weaken it so as to make it defenseless better think again. There will be no second Holocaust - NEVER AGAIN![15]
I found this one in the first place I looked. All I had to do was open the latest issue of Commentary, America's most prestigious bilge-pump for right-wing Palestine-bashing. The context of this stentorian declaration is a full-page advert taken out by an oganisation calling itself FLAME (Facts & Logic About the Middle East), run by a man named Gerardo Joffe. Since the author of the ad has made no attempt to be nuanced in his insinuations, I find myself with no subtext to unpack. But you will note how the spectre of the Holocaust is invoked.

Recently, Commentary writer Gabriel Schoenfeld wrote a book on The Return of Anti-Semitism. In it, we find the following passage:
Indeed, the anti-Semitic Left in the United States (although not, by and large in Europe) is largely a Jewish contingent ... Among the prominent exceptions is Alexander Cockburn, the prolific columnist for The Nation and the founder of a website called Counterpunch, who has likened Israeli military actions to Nazi blitzkriegs and consistently accuses the leaders of the Jewish state of "behaving like war criminals".[16]
In this entire volume Schoenfeld produces no proof other than these two unreferenced remarks for Cockburn's supposed Judeophobia. It seems, therefore, that on the basis of the strongest evidence Schoenfeld could muster, Cockburn is a 'mere critic of Israel'. And guess which slur is being hurled at him? (Consider the logic: is it the least likely explanation that these remarks might have been induced by the repeated rape of the West Bank with Merkava tanks and helicopter gunships? Is it so completely outlandish to simply admit that Prime Ministers Begin and Shamir were once the commanders of terrorist gangs, and that Ariel Sharon is plainly guilty of war crimes? No, apparently the first port of call must be the explanation of anti-Semitism, and the most compelling moral duty even in this context must be the projection of malice onto the accuser.)

In April 2002 Professor Sarah Shields at UNC Chapel Hill wrote an open letter about Israel to her father, who is a rabbi. It was an admirably introspective and touching document, explaining how, as a Jew, she felt that she had, by her silence, become complicit in the Israeli immiseration of the Palestinians - she sought her father's advice on what she could do. A recording of her reading the letter was played on Democracy Now, and host Amy Goodman turned to Professor Ruth Wisse of Harvard University for a reaction. In a voice quaking with rage, Professor Wisse fulminated that she had been brought onto the show under false pretenses, and then added the following:
There are certain kinds of falsity that I would not lend my name to, and responding to them or appearing in concert with them, appearing to lend legitimacy to certain statements is not something that I would have undertaken to do. That having been said, let me say that the wonderful Professor Shields could have made exactly the same appeal and done it much more dramatically for Hitler's Youth.[17]
As the Romans would say, res ipsa loquitur. There's a far better example than any of the above, however. And it's one that's much closer to home.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, in an incident not very well known in the United States, but commonly remembered in Ireland by all who listened to it, Alan Dershowitz distinguished himself by getting kicked off Eamon Dunphy's radio show[18] during a heated exchange in which he insinuated that Robert Fisk, a frequent critic of Israel, was anti-Semitic. Dershowitz's aggressive behaviour and refusal to allow Fisk to speak drew a flood of complaints from listeners following the show. Fisk has clear memories of it, recalling that 'he was shouting down the phone at me, that I was a dangerous man, that I was an anti-American - whatever that is - that to be anti-American was the same as to be anti-Semitic ...'.[19] Dershowitz's behaviour drew so much attention that excerpts from the conversation were reproduced that month in The Dubliner magazine. They're worth quoting in extenso:
What Fisk doesn't understand is that there is a difference between being upset about being under an occupation and justifying the killing of thousands of innocent civilians...there is good in the world, and there is evil in this world, and your absurd moral relativism, which explains and justifies virtually everything, leads us to a situation where there is nothing anybody can do, because there is always going to be someone who can justify the worst kind of evil by reference to some excuse...

...I think it's important for Mr. Dershowitz to realise that although I'm used to this sort of scrapping on American radio stations, in Europe, people expect people to be a little more polite. So do I. He has no right to refer to anti-Semitism, which is an actionable smear, and which you Eamon ought to dissociate yourself from...

I am simply arguing with you on the merits of your case...If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen...

I would dissociate myself and this programme from any allegations about Robert Fisk's integrity as a reporter...

I didn't talk about his integrity, I talked about his ideas...

You made reference to anti-Semitism...

You are scape-goating an entire people, it is cultural relativism at its worst, and if you can't engage in a serious argument with me, sir, then don't make the kind of allegations you are making.

[The Dubliner:]
Later in the interview, Fisk alleged that the first major act of terrorism in the Middle East was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem - by Zionists.

That's just random nonsense.

Professor Dershowitz, let's just try to conduct...

Dershowitz (to Dunphy):
Will you dissociate yourself from those remarks? Don't dissociate yourself from my comments unless you prepared to either dissociate yourself or associate yourself with his lies.

I think Eamon, this is getting clearly near to law courts. I think you should be very careful...

Well, please. I welcome a law challenge. I would love to challenge you in court. The truth is a defence...

I think Professor Dershowitz, you must have regard for the people in this country, who are very deeply attached to the United States and are very, very interested in this tragic story and want to hear; they are also aware of the Middle East, of the problems the Palestinian people in camps face, of the activities of Israelis, Mr. Sharon...they're aware of this full picture.

I understand that. But they don't seem to be aware that they're getting an extreme, maybe they're used to getting a one-sided presentation...


That's what you're saying...

No I'm not saying...

Well give somebody a chance to present the other side.

[The Dubliner:]
Eamon Dunphy said that the Israeli Ambassador had also been invited onto the show - a diplomatic embargo prevented him from joining the discussion.

In any debate of this kind, it has to remain civilised, and talking about people lying and talking about people being anti-Semitic, I think it would be true to say, I think probably Mr. Dershowitz's knowledge of Irish peoples' understanding and engagement with the Middle East is probably rather as dangerous, difficult and a little bit inaccurate as his history, is that he's pushing a line that is not going to be easy to buy...I think Mr. Dershowitz is on a learning curve when it comes to broadcasting debate.

Please stop being patronising toward me... You sir are a bigot and you have expressed bigoted views and your audience ought to know that. You're a scapegoater, you're trying to blame a small democratic nation for causing an international problem of the world, and the truth will out sir.[20]
Dershowitz was removed from the show shortly after this outburst. Years later, there he is in The Case for Israel, pretending he's never heard of a critic of Israel being called anti-Semitic, and loudly challenging anyone to prove it. It's all very amusing.

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1 Dershowitz, p. 53
2 LEHI's proposal to fight alongside Nazi Germany against the British was not merely a case of 'the enemy of my enemy'. A letter from the LEHI to the Reich dated 1940 was discovered in the German embassy in Ankara after World War II. Affirming the ideological consonance between the two entities, it read: 'The establishment of the historical Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, and bound by a treaty with the German Reich, would be in the interest of a maintained and strengthened future German position of power in the Near East.' (Quoted in Christopher Hitchens, 'Berlin's Mandate for Palestine', The Nation, August 1989)
3 Dershowitz, p. 5
4 Dershowitz, p. 54
5 Said K. Aburish, A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1997, p. 147 et seq.
6 Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War against the Palestinians, Verso, London & New York, 2003, p. 49
7 The massacre went on for days in full view of an Israeli observation post. At night, Sharon's troops would fire flares over the camps to assist the Phalange (who were trained and uniformed by Israel) in catching their quarry. Robert Fisk entered the camp the day after the slaughter. He gives the following description of what lay before him:
Down a laneway to our right, no more than 50 yards from the entrance, there lay a pile of corpses. There were more than a dozen of them, young men whose arms and legs had been wrapped around each other in an agony of death. All had been shot at point-blank range through the cheek. Some had vivid crimson of black scars down the left side of their throats. One had been castrated, his trousers torn open and a settlement of flies throbbing over his torn intestines. ... Another child lay on the roadway like a discarded doll, her white dress stained with mud and dust. She could have been no more than three years old. The back of her head had been blown away by a bullet fired into her brain. One of the women also held a tiny baby to her body. The bullet that had passed through her breast had killed the baby too. Someone had slit the woman's stomach, cutting sideways and upwards, perhaps trying to kill her unborn child. (Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (Third edition), Oxford University Press, Britain, 2001, p. 361 et seq.)
Elie Hobeika, the Phalange warlord who led the militia into the camps, died in a car bomb in Beirut in January 2002, two days after reiterating his promise (to visiting lawyers) to testify against Sharon, who was then the subject of an indictment in a Belgian court for the war crimes of Sabra-Shatilla.
8 Quoted in Masalha, p. 159; Chomsky, p. 129
9 Dershowitz, p. 120
10 Quoted in Chomsky, p. 98
11 Quoted in Fisk, Pity the Nation, p. 394
12 Dershowitz, p. 152
13 Dershowitz, p. 208
14 Dershowitz, p. 209
15 Commentary, April 2005. p. 21
16 Gabriel Schoenfeld, The Return of Anti-Semitism, Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2004, p. 130
17 Democracy Now, 16 April, 2002
18 Specifically, The Last Word, Today FM 100-102FM.
19 Democracy Now, 20 November, 2002; See also Fisk, 'Why does Malkovich want to kill me?' in Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair (Eds.), The Politics of Anti-Semitism, AK Press, California, 2003, p. 61
20 The Dubliner, Issue 8, October 2001. The ellipses do not appear to indicate textual omissions.