Chomsky on the Peters-Finkelstein affair

More Chomsky, again from Understanding Power (footnotes also reproduced):

Here’s a story which is really tragic… There was this best-seller a few years ago [in 1984], it went through about ten printings, by a woman named Joan Peters… called From Time Immemorial.1 It was a big scholarly-looking book with lots of footnotes, which purported to show that the Palestinians were all recent immigrants [i.e. to the Jewish-settled areas of the former Palestine, during the British mandate years of 1920 to 1948]. And it was very popular — it got literally hundreds of rave reviews, and no negative reviews: the Washington Post, the New York Times, everybody was just raving about it.2 Here was this book which proved that there were really no Palestinians! Of course, the implicit message was, if Israel kicks them all out there’s no moral issue, because they’re just recent immigrants who came in because the Jews had built up the country. And there was all kinds of demographic analysis in it, and a big professor of demography at the University of Chicago [Philip M. Hauser] authenticated it.3 That was the big intellectual hit for that year: Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, everybody was talking about it as the greatest thing since chocolate cake.4

Well, one graduate student at Princeton, a guy named Norman Finkelstein, started reading through the book. He was interested in the history of Zionism, and as he read the book he was kind of surprised by some of the things it said. He’s a very careful student, and he started checking the references — and it turned out that the whole thing was a hoax… Well, Finkelstein wrote up a short paper of just preliminary findings, it was about twenty-five pages or so, and he sent it around to I think thirty people who were interested in the topic, scholars in the field and so on, saying: “Here’s what I’ve found in this book, do you think it’s worth pursuing?”

Well, he got back one answer, from me. I told him, yeah, I think it’s an interesting topic, but I warned him, if you follow this, you’re going to get in trouble—because you’re going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they’re going to destroy you. So I said: if you want to do it, go ahead, but be aware of what you’re getting into. It’s an important issue, it makes a big difference whether you eliminate the moral basis for driving out a population—it’s preparing the basis for some real horrors—so a lot of people’s lives could be at stake. But your life is at stake too, I told him, because if you pursue this, your career is going to be ruined.

Well, he didn’t believe me… He went ahead and wrote up an article, and he started submitting it to journals. Nothing: they didn’t even bother responding. I finally managed to place a piece of it in In These Times, a tiny left-wing journal published in Illinois, where some of you may have seen it.5 Otherwise nothing, no response. Meanwhile his professors — this is Princeton University, supposed to be a serious place — stopped talking to him: they wouldn’t make appointments with him, they wouldn’t read his papers, he basically had to quit the program.

By this time, he was getting kind of desperate, and he asked me what to do. I gave him what I thought was good advice, but what turned out to be bad advice: I suggested that he shift over to a different department, where I knew some people and figured he’d at least be treated decently. That turned out to be wrong. He switched over, and when he got to the point of writing his thesis he literally could not get the faculty to read it, he couldn’t get them to come to his thesis defense. Finally, out of embarrassment, they granted him a Ph.D. — he’s very smart, incidentally — but they will not even write a letter for him saying that he was a student at Princeton University. I mean, sometimes you have students for whom it’s hard to write good letters of recommendation, because you really didn’t think they were very good — but you can write something, there are ways of doing these things. This guy was good, but he literally cannot get a letter.

He’s now living in a little apartment somewhere in New York City, and he’s a part-time social worker working with teenage drop-outs. Very promising scholar — if he’d done what he was told, he would have gone on and right now he’d be a professor somewhere at some big university. Instead he’s working part-time with disturbed teenaged kids for a couple thousand dollars a year.6 That’s a lot better than a death squad, it’s true — it’s a whole lot better than a death squad. But those are the techniques of control that are around.

But let me just go on with the Joan Peters story. Finkelstein’s very persistent: he took a summer off and sat in the New York Public Library, where he went through every single reference in the book — and he found a record of fraud that you cannot believe. Well, the New York intellectual community is a pretty small place, and pretty soon everybody knew about this, everybody knew the book was a fraud and it was going to be exposed sooner or later…

Meanwhile, Finkelstein was being called in by big professors in the field who were telling him, “Look, call off your crusade; you drop this and we’ll take care of you, we’ll make sure you get a job,” all this kind of stuff. But he kept doing it — he kept on and on. Every time there was a favorable review, he’d write a letter to the editor which wouldn’t get printed; he was doing whatever he could do. We approached the publishers and asked them if they were going to respond to any of this, and they said no — and they were right. Why should they respond? They had the whole system buttoned up, there was never going to be a critical word about this in the United States. But then they made a technical error: they allowed the book to appear in England, where you can’t control the intellectual community quite as easily.

Well, as soon as I heard that the book was going to come out in England, I immediately sent copies of Finkelstein’s work to a number of British scholars and journalists who are interested in the Middle East — and they were ready. As soon as the book appeared, it was just demolished, it was blown out of the water. Every major journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review, the Observer, everybody had a review saying, this doesn’t even reach the level of nonsense, of idiocy. A lot of the criticism used Finkelstein’s work without any acknowledgment, I should say — but about the kindest word anybody said about the book was “ludicrous,” or “preposterous.”7

Well, people here read British reviews — if you’re in the American intellectual community, you read the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review, so it began to get a little embarrassing. You started getting back-tracking: people started saying, “Well, look, I didn’t really say the book was good, I just said it’s an interesting topic,” things like that. At that point, the New York Review swung into action, and they did what they always do in these circumstances. See, there’s like a routine that you go through — if a book gets blown out of the water in England in places people here will see, or if a book gets praised in England, you have to react. And if it’s a book on Israel, there’s a standard way of doing it: you get an Israeli scholar to review it. That’s called covering your ass — because whatever an Israeli scholar says, you’re pretty safe: no one can accuse the journal of anti-Semitism, none of the usual stuff works.

So after the Peters book got blown out of the water in England, the New York Review assigned it to a good person actually, in fact Israel’s leading specialist on Palestinian nationalism [Yehoshua Porath], someone who knows a lot about the subject. And he wrote a review, which they then didn’t publish — it went on for almost a year without the thing being published; nobody knows exactly what was going on, but you can guess that there must have been a lot of pressure not to publish it. Eventually it was even written up in the New York Times that this review wasn’t getting published, so finally some version of it did appear.8 It was critical, it said the book is nonsense and so on, but it cut corners, the guy didn’t say what he knew.9

…Anyhow, by that point the American intellectual community realized that the Peters book was an embarrassment, and it sort of disappeared — nobody talks about it anymore. I mean, you still find it at newsstands in the airport and so on, but the best and the brightest know that they are not supposed to talk about it anymore: because it was exposed and they were exposed.

Well, the point is, what happened to Finkelstein is the kind of thing that can happen when you’re an honest critic — and we could go on and on with other cases like that. [Editors’ Note: Finkelstein has since published several books with independent presses.]

  1. For Peters’s book, see Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine, New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Scarcely eight months after its publication, the book went into its seventh printing, and Joan Peters reportedly had 250 speaking engagements scheduled for the upcoming year. []
  2. Some of the reviewers’ blurbs reprinted in the paperback edition of the Peters book include:

    • “This book is a historical event in itself.” (Barbara Tuchman)
    • “A superlative book… To understand what is happening in the Middle East, one must begin with its past, which Miss Peters traces to the present with unmatched skill.” (Theodore H. White)
    • “Every political issue claiming the attention of a world public has its ‘experts’  news managers, anchor men, ax grinders, and anglers. The great merit of this book is to demonstrate that, on the Palestinian issue, these experts speak from utter ignorance. Millions of people the world over, smothered by false history and propaganda, will be grateful for this clear account of the origins of the Palestinians.” (Saul Bellow)
    • Joan Peters’ book provides necessary demographic and historic perspectives which have been inexplicably and substantially ignored until now, but without which misconceptions and policy distortions are inevitable. The reader will be most impressed with the thoroughness and prodigious input this work entails, as I was.” (Philip M. Hauser, Director Emeritus, Population Research Center, The University of Chicago; former Acting Director of U.S. Census)
    • “Joan Peters strikes a heavy blow against the broad consensus about ‘the Palestinians’ and the assumption that Palestinian rights are at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict… From Time Immemorial supplies abundant justification for reversing the moral and legal presumptions that have cast Israel in the role of defendant before the court of world opinion.” (William V. O’Brien, Georgetown University)
    • “The massive research Ms. Peters did… would have daunted Hercules. In the course of it she turned up a great deal of interesting material from Ottoman records, the reports of Western consular officers and observant travelers and other sources.” (New York Times Book Review)
    • “A remarkable document in itself…The refugees are not the problem but the excuse.” (Washington Post Book World)
    • “Everything in this book reads like hard news… One woman walks in and scoops them all… The great service provided here by Mrs. Peters — if only attention is paid — is to lay a groundwork for peace by clearing away the farrago of lies.” (National Review)
    • “This book, if read, will change the mind of our generation. If understood, it could also affect the history of the future.” (New Republic)
    • “The reader comes away not only rethinking the Middle East refugee problem, but also the extent to which propaganda can be swallowed whole for lack of information.” (Los Angeles Times)
    • From Time Immemorial is impressive, informative, absorbing. All those who are interested in the Arab-Israeli questions will benefit from Joan Peters’s insight and analysis.” (Elie Wiesel)
    • From Time Immemorial will surely change the way we think about that still fiercely contested land once called Palestine. For Joan Peters has dug beneath a half-century’s accumulation of propaganda and brought into the light the historical truth about the Middle East. With a wealth of authoritative evidence, she exposes the tangle of lies and false claims by which the Arabs have tried to justify their unending violence. Everyone who hopes for peace in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs will want to read this book — will have to read this book.” (Lucy Dawidowicz)


  3. On professor Hauser, see footnotes 19 and 25 of this chapter. []
  4. For Tuchman’s and others’ jubilation about the Peters book, see footnotes 19 and 25 of this chapter. []
  5. The original article by Finkelstein appeared in In These Times, September 11, 1984. An updated version is published as chapter 2 of Norman G. Finkelstein, Image And Reality Of The Israel-Palestine Conflict, London: Verso, 1995. See also, Norman G. Finkelstein, “Disinformation and the Palestine Question: The Not-So-Strange Case of Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial,” and Edward Said, “Conspiracy of Praise,” both in Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens, eds., Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, London: Verso, 1988, chs. 1 and 2. []
  6. After several years, Finkelstein was able to obtain work teaching classes in political theory and international relations at New York University and then at City University of New York. He published four books between 1995 and 2000 — see Norman G. Finkelstein, Image And Reality Of The Israel-Palestine Conflict, London: Verso, 1995; Norman G. Finkelstein, The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996; Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998; Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, London: Verso, 2000. []
  7. For British reviews of the Peters book, see for example, Albert Hourani [Oxford University historian], “An ancient war,” Observer (London), March 3,1985, p. 27. An excerpt: “The whole book is written like this: facts are selected or misunderstood, tortuous and flimsy arguments are expressed in violent and repetitive language. This is a ludicrous and worthless book, and the only mildly interesting question it raises is why it comes with praise from two well-known American writers.” Ian Gilmour and David Gilmour, “Pseudo-Travellers,” London Review of Books, February 7, 1985, pp. 8f. An indication of this review’s sustained decimation: “Peters’s censorship of Zionist sources that do not suit her case is as effective as her censorship of Arab sources. In this, at least, she is impartial… Peters cites the historian Makrizi to back one of her statements about mid-19th century population movement, but, since Makrizi died in 1442, he is less than authoritative on what happened in 1860… Instead of bolstering Peters’s case, the Hope Simpson report destroys it. Ms. Peters’s treatment of the report shows that her handling of such evidence cannot be trusted even when she seems to be quoting it… Part of the author’s technique is at times to give a misleading “quotation” in the text and then bury the correct quotation in one of the 1,792 footnotes at the end of the book… Peters thus uses the Ottoman census when it suits her and disregards it when it does not… The author prefers the words that were not used to those that were… Even when the author uses a more modern piece of evidence, it is distorted out of all recognition… [W]hat can one say of a historian who takes a group of 37 refugees in 1967 and translates them into “the majority of the Arab refugees in 1948”? It is disappointing that after “seven years” of research, the author has not discovered facts about the Middle East conflict which have been widely known for a long time… [T]his book is not history. As a guide to what has happened in Palestine in the last hundred years Ms. Peters is about as trustworthy as her Medieval ‘source’ Makrizi. The prominent Zionist academics thanked in the preface for their encouragement, their ‘data and statistics,’ their ‘checking and re-checking,’ seem to have some explaining to do. In accepting the claims of this strident, pretentious and preposterous book, Miss Tuchman and Mr. Bellow among others have shown a deplorable lack of judgment.” []
  8. For the article that refers to the unpublished Porath review, see Colin Campbell, “Dispute Flares Over Book On Claims To Palestine,” New York Times, November 28,1985, p. C16. An excerpt: “The whole ‘Palestinian’ issue, Miss Peters claims, is a ‘big lie’ that has caused ‘bewildering, squeamish reactions’ of ‘doubt and guilt’ among Israel’s supporters. Yehoshua Porath, an Israeli historian of the Palestinian Arabs who teaches at Hebrew University, was asked in a telephone interview from Jerusalem about the book. ‘I think it’s a sheer forgery,’ he replied. ‘In Israel, at least, the book was almost universally dismissed as sheer rubbish except maybe as a propaganda weapon,’ the historian said. Mr. Porath described his politics as centrist. He has written an essay on the book for The New York Review of Books that will be published soon. [Barbara Tuchman], in an angry letter to Sir Ian [Gilmour, who dismissed the book as fraudulent in the British press,] that was printed last month in The Nation, traced part of the hostility against the book to Britain’s “growing anti-Semitism.” Ms. Tuchman said later that she regarded some of the book’s American critics as “committed P.L.O. supporters” who were guilty of ‘the worst kind” of anti-Semitism…’ Mrs. Tuchman said she had not kept up with recent scholarship but she retained a vivid sense from research she did 30 years ago that Jewish labor had reclaimed a desolate Palestine, just as Miss Peters argued. The notion of ‘the Palestinians’ was ‘a fairy tale,’ Mrs. Tuchman said. Mr. Hauser, the Chicago demographer [who recommended the book’s methods], recalled that Miss Peters, a family friend, had asked him to check some calculations and he had done so. He said he had “no competence” in Middle Eastern history. Saul Bellow declined to comment. Mr. Wiesel, Mr. Duke, Mr. White and several others [who all had praised the book] said they had not followed the controversy.”

    Norman Finkelstein notes that this article appeared in response to escalating accusations of censorship, leveled mainly by the British press. It was run by the New York Times in its Thanksgiving Day (non-) issue, on the Theater page, without even a listing in the index.

    Several weeks later, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis then devoted a column to publicizing the hoax. See Anthony Lewis, “There Were No Indians,” New York Times, January 13, 1986, p. A15. []

  9. For Porath’s article, see Yehoshua Porath, “Mrs. Peters’s Palestine,” New York Review of Books, January 16, 1986, p. 36. See also, Norman G. Finkelstein, Image And Reality Of The Israel-Palestine Conflict, London: Verso, 1995, ch. 2. []


  1. Anonymous says

    Chomsky may be right about everything he says. But I wonder if the sort of covert operations he describes (e.g. in your previous Chomsky post are actually a good thing. The world has been doing pretty well over the past few decades–few wars, fast economic growth, global inequality decreasing, etc. Arguably US hegemony contributes to this. I wouldn’t be surprised if the US is the closest thing humanity has ever had to a benevolent singleton. To improve geopolitical outcomes on the margin, a good strategy might be to make the CIA more of an EA organization (give them benevolent, egalitarian, long-time horizon values, and the wisdom and rationality to pursue those values in a way that’s actually effective). One way to accomplish this: encourage thoughtful, competent EAs to get jobs at the CIA and try to move up the ranks.

    • L says

      This is precisely the position that Chomsky spends most of his time writing against.

      I’m sure many high-ranking CIA employees are in fact thoughtful, competent “EAs” — in the loose sense of quantitatively-minded, wanting-to-do-good-ers. That’s not enough.

  2. Joel Thorne says

    Norman Finkelstein might have benefited from a few classes of Professor Bernard Lewis at Princeton. Professor Lewis has made the point that Arabs, until fairly recently, vehemently rejected the terms “palestine” and “palestinian” as Western inventions under British rule. It was Jews who, in effect, were originally “palestinians” in the British Mandate, named “palestine”

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