Review

Chutzpah

  • Chutzpah by Alan M. Dershowitz. Boston: Little &, Brown, 1991.Clothbound, 378 pages; ISBN; 0-316-18137-4.

Reviewed by John Cobden

"I admit that my wife is outspoken," the genial Jewish comedian Sam Levenson used to say, "but by whom?" Levenson no doubt was unacquainted with Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard University law professor, columnist and man-about-politics.: He has definitely never been at a loss for words, on every conceivable subject. Yet, as we see from the title and the numerous other words from Yiddish and Hebrew with which the book bristles -- many of them shockingly "insensitive" to non-Jews -- this one is not going to be a very congenial read.

Chutzpah, according to Leo Rosten's Joy's of Yiddish (1968], is from Hebrew and means insolence, audacity, gall, effrontery: "A Chutzpahnik may be defined as the man who shouts 'Help!' 'Help!' while beating you up." As we'll see, that may not be too wide off the mark as to what Dershowitz and company are up to. Example: the author's immediate and insistent use of the insulting epithet goy, which is roughly on a par with certain now-banned English slang for other races.

As Rosten uneasily observes, "some Jews use goy in a pejorative sense," which seems to fit most of Dershowitz's applications; so his decision to descend into this sort of calculatedly abrasive vocabulary certainly sets a bizarre tone for one trumpeted as a great civil libertarian who is demanding more sensitivity toward Jewish and "minority" concerns. Moreover, it seems an oddly Orwellian doublespeak from the principal architect of the sinister and one-sided "anti-hate" (or better, anti-White laws now being hammered into place across the country.

Why this book, now? Unless one naively accepts that books are unalloyed pearls of wisdom dropped into our laps by a benign Providence; skepticism about the real motives for their writing and publishing is always in order. Dershowitz makes pompous allusions to the Jewish "literary and oral tradition that goes back thousands of years," to "documenting my journey as a Jew," and the like, but he probably has more mundane fish to fry.

Readers of Dershowitz's newspaper column will recognize much recycled material, cobbled together in a sometimes rambling and always topical style that probably will not have an extended "shelf life." Aside from their long-term saleability, however, several of Dershowitz's themes are of current import and show us what he and other chutzpahniks are really concerned with: "anti-Semitism," Holocaust Revisionism, and the rise of populist political rebels, such as Pat Buchanan and David Duke, who are less than reverential to the primacy of Jewish and Israeli concerns in modern America.

On the whole, Chutzpah will be a familiar litany to connoisseurs of dual-loyalist special pleading. Certain key terms are hammered insistently, with the first "Holocaust" in the second paragraph and the first "anti-Semitism" in the sixth. >From there on, the cumulative effect of these dismal epithets begins almost to resemble the chanting of Oriental mantras, or the chattering of commercial trademarked jargon in advertising jingles. Such heavily loaded proprietary terms and others, such as "bigotry," "prejudice," and "hatred," are worked into the context of every subject subsequently discussed. I am not convinced that even so alert a writer as Dershowitz is entirely aware of how compulsively he belabors this woeful cant, and of what impression the average intelligent reader must take away.

Dershowitz offers some of his deepest ruminating on what he calls his "Holocaust mentality":

... The Holocaust remains the most formative event in my experience. I cannot escape-nor do I try-its continuing influences on my life ... The Holocaust changed the nature of Judaism and of Jews forever... It changed the way every compassionate person views justice and injustice. It should challenge the faith of every thinking being ... [It] makes it possible to contemplate, without welcoming, the destruction of the human species ...

With that turgid commitment to the legend, it is not surprising that he lashes out in acrimony at the proliferating international scholarship suggesting that attempted extermination of Jewry ever happened.

* * * * *

Dershowitz deplores the lack of an adequate "Jewish revenge movement" after the war. Maintaining that the Nuremberg trials did not prosecute significant numbers, he is seemingly oblivious to the historically unprecedented spectacle of the "Nazi war crimes" trials that continue to wear on a half-century after the war. Such an extreme notion of "Jewish revenge" leads him, perhaps inevitably to the ultimate in venom: lending his endorsement implicitly, to the genocidal Morgenthau Plan for the impoverishment and deindustrialization of Germany as what should have been done: "They should have suffered - as a people - after the Holocaust."

So much for the objectivity credentials of an American intellectual icon who feels compelled, apparently for the first time in a major establishment-produced book, to attempt a refutation of some themes of Holocaust Revisionism. We may be quite certain that such a clear departure from the previous "silent treatment" in major media indicates growing alarm and intent to quench a persistent brush-fire before it gets any larger.

If that is the plan, however, it will have to be far better addressed than it is. Either from his own obvious unfamiliarity with the subject and evident reliance on often outdated file material supplied from elsewhere, or from his inability to quickly dispose of truly important issues with the ad hominem insults and quick snippets of casuistry that he favors, Dershowitz's foray into anti-Revisionism is decidedly inadequate.

A case in point is his handling of a "Holocaust" dubiety by columnist Patrick Buchanan. While pondering the likelihood of the Treblinka camp's supposed diesel-powered gas chambers, Buchanan had noted a 1988 incident in which 97 children who were trapped deep underground in a Washington, DC., tunnel while two locomotives billowed exhaust fumes into the car emerged unscathed after 45 minutes.

Dershowitz tilts at this modest item of Revisionism by quipping that he had challenged Buchanan to test his hypothesis by locking himself in an airtight chamber in which diesel exhaust is pumped," and by echoing a Jewish writer in the New Republic magazine who opined that "much of the material on which Buchanan bases his columns (about the Holocaust] is sent to him by pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic cranks." Clearly, this is not major-league historical analysis, whatever Dershowitz's academic affiliations. He will have to do better, or deal with other subjects, to avoid further embarrassing that portion of the Holocaust lobby that pretends to an objective historical method.

His discussion of the deplorable John Demjanjuk case, in which the Ukrainian-born, retired Ohio auto worker was deported to Israel and sentenced to hang as no less than "Ivan the Terrible, Butcher of Treblinka," shows the "flip-side" of the Dershowitz mentality: Israel, right or wrong.

Dershowitz won his spurs as a hair-trigger civil libertarian and defender of the underdog (plus a few over-dogs, like Claus von B low and hotel "queen" Leona Helmsley) whose ability to pounce upon and impeach trial evidence of the slightest doubtfulness is legendary. Yet in Chutzpah he vigorously defends every aspect of the Israeli proceeding, including the reliability of eyewitness testimony 40 and 50 years after the fact and. the controversial SS identification card that supposedly placed Demjanjuk at a training site for "death camp" guards. Although the card had been supplied to the Israelis by the Soviet secret police and was denounced as a forgery by Demjanjuk's lawyers, for Dershowitz there is no problem: Guilty as charged. Nor, as we know, is Dershowitz perturbed by the fact that nowhere on the card does there appear a reference to a stationing at Treblinka: he has mused, in one of his newspaper columns, that perhaps Demjanjuk's "killing fields," were not at Treblinka after all!

Elsewhere in the book, Dershowitz jokes about the KGB's skill at retouching photos and fabricating documents when persecuting Russian Jews as spies, but then quickly adds that "skepticism about one source of evidence does not translate into criticism of the noble enterprise of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice." However, a new wrinkle emerged in August 1991, when Demjanjuk's lawyers secured "surprise evidence" from Soviet archives indicating that the so-called "Ivan" was actually a man named Ivan Marczenko. The Israelis may well feel themselves forced to reopen the case. If so, one wonders whether Dershowitz will be critical of the new evidence, or whether he will acknowledge his, OSI's, and Israel's mistakes in justly evaluating the Soviet and survivor evidence.

* * * * *

Dershowitz purveys his own extreme take on the interests of the "organized Jewish community," as he calls it:

  • The Jonathan Pollard spy case: Dershowitz thinks Pollard was treated unfairly, possibly with bigotry, in getting a life sentence for spying for "an ally," Israel, and should now be freed;
  • Limits on Jewish enrollments at elite universities: there shouldn't be any (Jews constitute 2.5 per cent of the U.S. population [according to Dershowitz], but represent more than ten times that proportion at Harvard and similar schools); affirmative-action quotas for non-Whites are desirable as well, and thus room for them must be made by reducing "WASP" enrollment;
  • Limits on Jewish immigration: There should be no curbs on "the ongoing relocation of world Jewry to the United States and Israel ...," because "no Jew should ever be compelled to go anywhere, just as they should never be excluded from anywhere."

(Remember, the title is Chutzpah!)

Without a doubt, however, his ruling obsessions -- "the Holocaust," Israel, and the ever-menacing specter of "anti-Semitism-are overriding. He picks a fight, for instance, with a Jew who is unwilling to claim a "special indulgence" for his people stemming from their sufferings at Auschwitz. Not surprisingly, Dershowitz's notion is that "The world owes Jews, and the Jewish state, which was built on the ashes of Auschwitz, a special understanding ... The Holocaust persuaded the world -- Jews as well as non-Jews -- of the necessity for a Jewish state." Given these assumptions, it is easier to understand what a yawning abyss the possible undoing of the "Holocaust" legend presents to fanatical partisans such as Dershowitz.

In the end, though, many of Dershowitz's readers will be left with a nagging sense of something seriously awry, something which shines through the author's red welter of angry hyperbole, His notable professional and financial success at levels far above those of all but a few Americans, is frequently and boastfully paraded by the author, against the incongruous backdrop of dark-age specters of persecution and bigotry which menace Dershowitz and his people, even in America.

I keep thinking back to the highly insightful words of another Jewish writer, Howard F. Stein, writing in The Journal of Psychohistory (Fall, 1978) on "Judaism and the Group Fantasy of Martyrdom." Following up on this peculiarly modern phenomenon, the victim-as-victor, for The Journal of Historical Review (Winter, 1980), Dr. Stein writes with clear insight in his article, "The Holocaust and the Myth of the Past as History":

For the Jews, the term "Holocaust" does not simply denote a single catastrophic era in history, but is a grim metaphor for the meaning of Jewish history. The word "Holocaust" lies at the heart of the Jewish experience of time itself. One is either anxiously awaiting persecution, experiencing persecution, recovering from it, or living in a period that is a temporary reprieve from it.

According to an oft-quoted Yiddish phrase, It's "tough to be a Jew" ("schwer tsoo zine a Yid"). No doubt, but just possibly, Mr. Dershowitz might find that a bit less chutzpah and a bit more psychological self-examination would make things easier for everyone.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1992 (Vol. 12, No. 1), pages 109-114.