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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

some notes on dershowitz, chapter 1

starting today, i will sporadically blog about alan dershowitz's (i will sometimes use "D" for short, and "dershy" or "dershy the clown" for derogation) book "the case for israel".

many zionists who i've debated with in the past year have used the book either to back up a particular point, or to recommend as the best pro-israel book to read in order to gain an understanding of the case for zionism.

well, i've read most of it, and i find it really unimpressive. the argumentation has many flaws: there is crucial reliance on very questionable "facts"; there is a lot of bad reasoning; there is a lot of wandering off topic, so that the claim that dershowitz pretends he is refuting is actually never addressed; there are cases where he concedes the point that he claims to be refuting; most of all, there is a high degree of selectivity in presenting his opponents' case against israel. dershowitz will generally not present arguments *for* the position that he sets himself up *against*, so from the perspective of someone who is familiar with the case against israel, D's argument is completely besides the point, and from the perspective of someone trying to gain an understanding of the conflict or to move the debate forward, the book is just dishonest.

the book apparently takes the form of a legal brief, a format i'm not familiar with, but seems to be an elaboration of the familiar "myths and facts" format. besides the introduction and the conclusion, the book contains thirty-two chapters. each chapter consists of:

- an "accusation", stated in D's words.

- a section called "the accusers", consisting of one to three quotes from individuals, which apparently are supposed to document the accusation.

- a brief presentation of what D considers "the reality".

- and "the proof" for the reality.

as set up, these parts are supposed to be tightly connected, so that he argument in "the proof" is supposed to be an argument against "the accusation". but as i've said, D often wanders off point or concedes the "accusation" and ends up giving a "proof" for something else entirely. i raise this point because the book is usually promoted as a refutation of 32 accusations, one per chapter, so it's important to note that it is not even an attempt to do so.

anyway, straight to chapter 1.

the accusation: "israel is a colonial, imperialist, settler state, comparable to apartheid south africa".

this chapter is a case of D's "proof" not arguing against "the accusation". the chapter discusses the history of the jewish presence in palestine and the nature of the first aliyah. the "accusation" that D seems to be refuting is something like "the jewish presence in israel dates back to the 1880s, when a group of jews, acting consciously in the service of the european powers, began to colonize palestine on behalf of those states".

D does a fine job of refuting this accusation, by delving into the long history of jews in palestine, including a steady presence since the days of the crusades, and by discussing the adverse circumstances in eastern europe that led many jews to flee their countries and escape to many places around the world, including palestine. all that's left unclear is the little matter of who makes this accusation - i've certainly never heard it.

what i have heard is a pretty solid analysis of israel as a colonial, imperialist settler state. those who are truly interested in this issue can examine the writings of edward said, especially his book the question of palestine, where he discusses zionism in the context of european colonial ideologies, and of noam chomsky, especially the fateful triangle, where he discusses the relationship between the state of israel and the world's leading imperialist power, the united states of america.

D doesn't mention either of these authors or books in this chapter, although he heaps scorn on them in other places in the book, like the introduction, where he calls them elitists for having criticisms of the two-state settlement. nor does he mention theodor herzl's book der judenstaat, uncontroversially the most important document of the zionist movement, which explicitly advocates colonialism and imperialism, not to mention genocide. and it pretty much ignores the entire history of zionism, from the early days of the jewish colonization society and appeals to the european powers, through the yishuv's dependence on the british government, to the present-day clienthood relationship between israel and the US. nowhere in chapter 1 does D even attempt to take this analysis on.

chapters 2 and 3 deal with related issues: the accusation that the early jewish immigrants forced palestinians off their land (which dershowitz concedes is true), and the accusation that the second wave of jewish immigration was part of a plot for jews to take over all of palestine (which he doesn't really argue against). i'll leave these for another time.

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