Clashing Views of Political Reality: Chomsky versus Dershowitz

2 Dec



            My friend and former collaborator, Howard Friel, has written an intriguing book contrasting the worldviews and polemical styles of two Jewish American intellectuals with world class reputations, Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz (Friel, Chomsky and Dershowitz: On Endless War and the End of Civil Liberties, Olive Branch Press, 2014). The book is much more than a comparison of two influential voices, one critical the other apologetic, with respect to the Israel/Palestine struggle and the subordination of private liberties to the purveyors of state-led security at home and abroad . Friel convincingly favors Chomsky’s approach both with respect to the substance of their fundamental disagreements and in relation to sharply contrasting styles of argument.


            Chomsky is depicted, accurately I believe, as someone consistently dedicated to evidenced based reasoning reinforced by an abiding respect for the relevance and authority of international law and morality. Chomsky has also been a tireless opponent of American imperialism and military intervention, and of oppressive regimes anywhere on the planet. He is also shown by Friel to be strongly supportive of endowing individuals whether citizens or not with maximal freedom from interference by the state. From such perspectives, the behavior of Israel and the United States are assessed by Chomsky to be betrayals of humane values and of the virtues of a constitutional democracy.


            In contrast, Dershowitz is presented, again accurately and on the basis of abundant documentation, as a dirty fighter with a readiness to twist the truth to serve his Zionist predilections, which include support for the post-9/11 drift toward authoritarian governance, and an outrageous willingness to play the anti-Semitic card even against someone of Chomsky’s extraordinary academic achievements in the field of linguistics and of global stature as the world’s leading public intellectual, who has an impeccable lifelong record of moral courage and fidelity to the truth. Dershowitz has devoted his destructive energies to derailing tenure appointments for critics of Israel and for using his leverage to badger publishers to refrain from taking on books, however meritorious, if they present either himself or Israel in what he views to be a negative light. 


            Friel illustrates the contrast between these talented and titanic antagonists by reference to the much publicized debate about Robert Faurisson, the French Holocaust denier. Chomsky signed a petition in 1979 that defended Faurisson’s freedom of expression, an act consistent with his overall long record of support for unrestricted academic freedom. Dershowitz abandons his own earlier allegiance to a similar approach, not only refusing to allow free speech to protect Faurisson, but lashing out to condemn Chomsky for his supposed show of support for Holocaust denial because he had the temerity to defend Faurisson’s right to say what he said. This is a typical tactic employed by Dershowitz, deliberately confusing a principled support for the right to hold and espouse ethically unacceptable views with an alleged identification and sympathy with the substance of the views being expressed. To contend that Chomsky is tacitly embracing Holocaust denial by supporting Faurisson was, as Friel conclusively shows, clearly defamatory, ignoring numerous occasions on which Chomsky has denounced the Nazi experience culminating in the Holocaust as a predominant historical instance of pure evil.  For Dershowitz to overlook such plain facts in relation to Chomsky on such an inflammatory matter is to show his true colors as a dirty fighter who has no inhibitions about smearing his opponents, however distinguished and honorable they happen to be, and no matter how clearly he must know better. Dershowitz must be assumed to realize that Chomsky’s entire life displays an abiding concern for the ethical treatment of ‘the other,’ and to allege that somehow Chomsky is himself flirting with Holocaust denial is the most irresponsible slander and ironically, an unforgiveable abuse by Dershowitz of the freedom of expression, which transgresses civility if not the law. Civil discourse and public reason in a democratic society depend on the overall willingness of individuals to show self-discipline, and avoid exploiting the opportunities for defamation that the law allows in commentary on so-called public figures.


            Dershowitz is primarily known, aside from his controversial notoriety as a trial lawyer in high profile criminal cases, as an unconditional defender of Israel against a wide range of responsible critics. He wrote a number of books and numerous articles with vicious attacks on such moral authority figures as Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, including his notorious tract The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace (2008). Even such mainstream and widely respected experts on world affairs as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer become targets of Dershowitz’s calumny because of their daring to write critically and persuasively about the destructive influence of the Israeli Lobby in relation to the prudent and rational pursuit of American national interests in the conduct of foreign policy in their book, The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007).


            At this point, I should acknowledge that I am far from being a neutral observer. I have been accused on several occasions of being an ‘anti-Semite’ and ‘bigot’ by Dershowitz, primarily in relation to my role as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, but even in response to my endorsing blurb of Gilad Atzmon’s seminal challenge directed at liberal Zionist and Jewish thought in The Wandering Who? (2011). Similar insults were directed by Dershowitz at my predecessor as Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, a distinguished jurist from South Africa and as unbiased and balanced a champion of human rights and international law as I have ever known. Attacking the critics of Israel, especially those possessing strong academic and ethical credentials, is a nasty illustration of what I have called ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, avoiding the substance of criticisms by denouncing the critics and their auspices with the intention of shifting the conversation. Such attacks are clearly intended to shut down criticism of Israel by subjecting to withering abuse anyone who dares to violate the Zionist taboo.


            Perhaps, the most important part of Friel’s engaging book is his depiction of Dershowitz’s advocacy of the ‘preventive state’ as overcoming an earlier essential postulate of liberal democracy, the presumption of innocence. In the preventive state that Dershowitz posits as necessary and hence desirable, we all become for the government legitimate objects of suspicion, and the higher goals of counter-terrorism. Such a line of analysis mandates the state to act preventively rather than reactively, and hence to employ the full coercive apparatus of the state to identify potential enemies of the state before they have the opportunity to act. For a more challenging rendition of this argument than offered by Dershowitz I strongly recommend reading Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008). This reinterpretation of the balance between security and freedom reverses the traditional emphasis of the rule of law upon reactive forms of security, its logic being used to rationalize torture, as well as preventive detention of individuals and preventive warfare against states, non-state actors, and even individuals, perceived to pose future threats. Such rationalizations undermine the unconditional criminalization of torture and completely upend the UN Charter effort to confine the role of force in international relations by limiting its legal invocation to situations of self-defense against a prior armed attack by a state. The launching of the disastrous war against Iraq in 2003 was a clear international example of the preventive state in action as are the kill lists compiled weekly for drone attacks on individuals resident in foreign countries. Another facet of such a posture is embodied in the indefinite detention of numerous individuals in Guantanamo for years without charges and absent credible incriminating evidence.


            Of course, rigid legalism is not the alternative to a rejection of the preventive state, but an exaggeration of the terrorist threat is tantamount to willing the end of political democracy as it has evolved over the centuries. We have seen that even a supposedly liberal president, Barack Obama, has endorsed an authoritarian approach in numerous areas of governance including reliance on drone warfare and support for virtually limitless global networks of surveillance. The treatment of such whistleblowers as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is also emblematic of the preventive state, directing public attention to the unlawful release of information while declining to acknowledge or remedy the crimes of state being exposed. Needless to say, Chomsky is acutely alert to these dangers, and has long stood for the maintenance, even the enhancement, of traditional liberties of the individual despite alleged security claims to the contrary.


            Friel has given us a brilliantly analyzed comparison of two vivid engaged and intelligent activists who personify the alternative scenarios available to the United States, the choice of which is of great consequence for the rest of the world. Only a determined advocate of unfreedom and injustice could fail to side with Chomsky in this debate about the political future of the planet. In this larger view, the Dershowitz defense of Israel against the most responsible of critics, is but an illustration of his broader alignment with repressive tendencies at home and abroad despite his feeble pretensions to the contrary.  Clearly Chomsky is the winner in this contest if fairly umpired, both in terms of coherence and acceptability of worldview, as well as the ethics of public discourse. Dershowitz, apparently propelled by the awkwardness of his convictions, seems always ready to adopt the Darth Vader tactics that Dick Cheney unabashedly favored, coyly acknowledging that it meant going to ‘the dark side.’


            Let me observe finally, and with due allowance made for my own stake in this effort to assess the comparative merits of style and substance on the part of these antagonistic titans, that Howard Friel has once again contributed a necessary book for all those dedicated to the pursuit of justice in relation to Israel/Palestine and more generally in international life.* A cardinal virtue of Friel’s approach is to recognize and explain the role of international law with respect to sustaining world peace and attaining global justice.  


* In this spirit I highly recommend Friel’s earlier expose of the Danish climate skeptic, Bjorn Lomborg, in his book The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (2010) and of the mighty New York Times in The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misrepresents U.S. Foreign Policy (2004), of which I was the proud co-author.

14 Responses to “Clashing Views of Political Reality: Chomsky versus Dershowitz”

  1. Gene Schulman December 2, 2013 at 12:54 am #


    Thanks for this review of Howard Friel’s new book on Chomsky and Dershowitz. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of it. Of course, your review itself is an education that deserves to be strewn widely among the doubters.

    Recently, you mentioned to me about the difficulty of maintaining this blog in the face of all the criticism about you. I was afraid you might cease writing about these issues, but am happy to see you are you continuing, as intelligently and as strongly as ever.

    I am glad you mentioned your endorsement of Gilad Atzmon’s “Wandering Who”. I will be attending a conference with him in Lausanne next week about his own new book. I am sure your name will come up in our conversation.

    Peace, Gene

    • Thomas M. Ricks December 2, 2013 at 6:59 am #

      Richard, You’ve done it again, pinpointing the errant if not quasi-criminal rhetoric of Dershowitz in as polite and measured way that you know best. I thoroughly enjoy your comments and astute observations on global matters including US foreign policies to Arab and Iranian peoples among many more. The contrast of Chomsky’s measured and relentless verbal combat for peace and social justice and the sullen and pettish wailing of Dershowitz is truly refreshing so many thanks for telling us about your views on Friel’s important book. Your observations are not only refreshing but also instructive for those of us who too wage a verbal war in defense of the defenseless and innocent in the Israel/Palestine struggle for social justice and peaceful resolutions. Thanks once again, Richard, and don’t relent, please. Your writings are our bread and butter that nourish us in these wars. Tom

      • Richard Falk December 2, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

        Thanks, Tom, for such an encouraging comment. I hope you are fine. We are living in London for the term, and liking it. I will try to keep writing for awhile longer but
        it is mounting challenge!

  2. Fabian Buschtrommel December 2, 2013 at 4:49 am #

    I think the mentioning of Gilad Atzmon is getting this article on the wrong track (and linking to his site instead of some more neutral reference makes it hard for me to link to this insightfull article), gilad atzmon could as well be a mossad agent since everybody who associates with him, risks to discredit himself. I dont say that because i object to his criticism of a certain concept of jewish identity or ethnic chauvinism and group narcissism or because i submit to invalid slander and denounciation that is directed toward atzmon and his supporters but because of his regular expression of antisemitic point of views that he does in his blog or on his social media activitys, because his cozy attitude towards his often shrill admirers that are not seldom real neonazis or militant hezbollah admirers and the likes. etc etc

    Gilad Atzmon came out with his book and tricked a lot of people into buying into his criticism of ethnic chauvinism and idenity politics, those people where willing to take the hits for edorsing him for THAT but did they really listen to him and what he writes elsewere? The Blurbs stick to the record of his defenders, but what for?
    Who is Gilad Atzmon reaching and sensitizing or educating but a cearly recognizeable israel-hate-mob?

    Now Gilad Atzmon is entangled into narcissist personal jihad against half of the prominent figures of the palestine solidarity movement and spews nothing but shrill polemics that have nothing to do with political criticism or informative journalism.
    Also he is getting a lot of otherwise decent activists or sympathisers on the wrong track.

    In the end for Atzmon, Chomsky is a zionist gatekeeper but in the global war for opinions, Chomsky is a MIRV when Gilad Atzmon is a baseballbat.

    If Chomskys views became popular believes, there would be no more war in israel and palestine, if Gilad Atzmons views became popular believes, there would be progroms.

    just my humble opinion, or maybe i am just a brainwashed hasbarazzi agent without knowing it and i am helping to supress the last knight of THE REAL TRUTH.

    • Richard Falk December 2, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

      I think that a close reading of Gilad would reveal his serious and constructive intentions, which are in part to mount a challenge to all manner of conventional wisdom. The notion that he is in any sense anti-Semitic is very far from my experience of his personal reality and his familial circumstances, but I understand that his rhetoric can sometimes contribute to such misunderstandings.

  3. Jeremy R. Hammond December 2, 2013 at 10:35 am #


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  4. truthaholics December 4, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    Reblogged this on | truthaholics.

  5. john francis lee December 9, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    Here’s good news for Jews … and more Jews for Dershowitz to slander …

    Swarthmore Hillel is an Open Hillel

    Unanimously adopted by Swarthmore Hillel Student Board, December 8, 2013

    Whereas Hillel International prohibits partnering with, hosting, or housing anyone who (a) denies the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders, (b) delegitimizes, demonizes, or applies a double standard to Israel, (c) supports boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;

    And whereas this policy has resulted in the barring of speakers from organizations such as Breaking the Silence and the Israeli Knesset from speaking at Hillels without censorship, and has resulted in Jewish Voice for Peace not being welcome under the Hillel umbrella;

    And whereas this policy runs counter to the values espoused by our namesake, Rabbi Hillel, who was famed for encouraging debate in contrast with Rabbi Shammai;

    And whereas Hillel, while purporting to support all Jewish Campus Life, presents a monolithic face pertaining to Zionism that does not accurately reflect the diverse opinions of young American Jews;

    And whereas Hillel’s statement that Israel is a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students does not allow space for others who perceive it as irrelevant to their Judaism;

    And whereas Hillel International’s Israel guidelines privilege only one perspective on Zionism, and make others unwelcome;

    And whereas the goals of fostering a diverse community and supporting all Jewish life on campus cannot be met when Hillel International’s guidelines are in place;

    Therefore be it resolved that Swarthmore Hillel declares itself to be an Open Hillel; an organization that supports Jewish life in all its forms; an organization that is a religious and cultural group whose purpose is not to advocate for one single political view, but rather to open up space that encourages dialogue within the diverse and pluralistic Jewish student body and the larger community at Swarthmore; an organization that will host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of the board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines; and an organization that will always strive to be in keeping with the values of open debate and discourse espoused by Rabbi Hillel.

    • Richard Falk December 9, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

      Very illuminating, and hopefully, the start of a trend!

      • Rako December 12, 2013 at 9:05 am #

        Richard Falk,

        From a legal perspective, can Hillel International succeed in demanding Swarthmore Hillel rename itself?

        Can it call itself Open Hillel?

      • Richard Falk December 13, 2013 at 12:39 am #

        Or maybe Global Hillel? In any event, Swarthmore has set a hopeful precedent that hopefully
        will spread to other chapters!

      • Rako December 13, 2013 at 11:38 am #

        Thanks Richard. The Hillel International president told Swarthmore that the name Hillel could not be used by those disagreeing with their policies. But it seems to me that the chapter can use the name Hillel even if they get kicked out of the international organization.

      • Gene Schulman December 13, 2013 at 11:42 am #

        Given what you have shown in these articles, who would want to use the tainted Hillel name?


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