Dershowitz Rebuts Critics’ Plagiarism Charges

By Eric Marx

Published October 03, 2003, issue of October 03, 2003.
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Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz is firing back at critics accusing him of plagiarism in his recently released book, “The Case for Israel.”

“I’m coming out swinging,” Dershowitz said in an interview with the Forward, in which he responded to the charge made last week by Norman Finkelstein, a DePaul University professor who himself is no stranger to controversy.

Finkelstein, an outspoken critic of Zionism whose own book, “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” made waves when it came out in 2000, charged that Dershowitz had plagiarized more than 20 passages from the book “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine.” A 1984 work by Joan Peters, “From Time Immemorial” argues that there was no substantial Arab presence in Palestine before the 19th-century Jewish return to the country, claims that Dershowitz’s book does not make.

Finkelstein first made the charge on September 24 on a nationally syndicated radio show, “Democracy Now!” on which he and Dershowitz were invited to discuss their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The charge was repeated by Alexander Cockburn, a columnist for the left-wing magazine The Nation, and The Harvard Crimson published an article on the controversy in its September 29 issue.

The passages of Peters’s book cited by Finkelstein as evidence for his charges center on obscure diplomatic correspondence and commonly reported first-hand accounts by Mark Twain and Sir Robert Peel. Dershowitz cites the Peters book seven times, but quotes certain sources verbatim as they appeared in her book without attribution. Dershowitz acknowledges that he used Peters as a secondary source, but he said he looked to primary sources whenever possible because of his divergent views on the significance of Peters’s Arab demographic numbers.

Finkelstein told the Forward that references to the primary source might absolve Dershowitz of a plagiarism charge, but not when the borrowing was so extensive.

Dershowitz vigorously disputed the charge. “It’s not called plagiarism. It’s called scholarship,” he said. “Plagiarism is taking someone else’s words and claiming they’re your own. There are no borrowed words from anybody. There are no borrowed ideas from anybody because I fundamentally disagree with the conclusions of Peters’s book.”

Coming to Dershowitz’s defense is a former president of Dartmouth College and the University of Iowa, James Freedman, who issued a statement saying he found the citations in question to be in compliance with The Chicago Manual of Style. “This is simply not plagiarism under any definition of that word,” Freedman wrote.

Finkelstein retorted, “I’d like to know how you can lift two chapters and then claim that your conclusions are different and yet you used all her evidence?”

Such borrowing is fairly common, according to professional ethics experts. Scholars frequently borrow from each other; reference to the secondary source typically is not required if one is borrowing only a quotation from a primary source and not any ideas, said John Bader, assistant dean for academic advising at Johns Hopkins University. Bader serves as the co-chairman of the university’s ethics policy committee.

“It may be sloppy scholarship, but it’s not unethical,” said Bader of the dangers of over-relying on a single source. “Over-reliance on one source to draw conclusions of any kind or to find other resources is lazy. It’s not immoral. It’s bad scholarship.”

The plagiarism charge gained momentum, however, after The Nation’s Cockburn excerpted Finkelstein’s line-by-line comparison of the Dershowitz and Peters texts and urged Harvard University President Lawrence Summers to take action.

Dershowitz derided Cockburn’s article.

“Cockburn has been calling me names for years,” Dershowitz said. “He doesn’t like that I’m a Zionist, and he doesn’t like the fact that my books on the best-seller list.”

Dershowitz said his critics are afraid to debate him on the substance of his book.

“Their purpose is to send a message to young academics who are going to write pro-Israel books, saying ‘don’t do it because we’re going to attack your integrity,’” he said.

Yet Dershowitz may have tempted his critics by promising to give $10,000 to the Palestinian Authority if a fact in his book could be proved inaccurate. “It was a trap. It was an ambush,” he said of the radio show appearance in which Finkelstein first confronted him.

Dershowitz, however, insisted that he “wouldn’t do anything different.”

“I haven’t been caught,” he said. “I did the right thing and I’m proud to have enemies such as Norman Finkelstein and Alex Cockburn. It shows I’m doing something right.”

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