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BOOK REVIEW

Dershowitz makes the 'Case'

("The Case for Israel"; By Alan Dershowitz; John S. Wiley & Sons, 264 pp., $19.95.)

No one writes books making the case for France or Mexico or Australia, justifying these nations' existence to a skeptical audience. Which is why, 53 years after the founding of the state of Israel, there's something bizarre about the need for Alan Dershowitz to write "The Case for Israel."

Supporters of Israel will like this book. Enemies won't. But there is another class of people who should read it and try to learn from it: those who set forth strong opinions about the Levant without knowing very much.

For instance, a friend (now deceased) who won a Pulitzer Prize once told me that he would support Israel the day it gave Arabs and communists the right to vote, and to serve in the Knesset. Israeli Arabs have always had the franchise in Israel, and something close to 10 percent of the Knesset is composed of Arabs and communists.

Last April, another friend, with years of experience at the BBC, asserted that Israel was a theocracy. Even discounting the British penchant for rhetoric, this was a startling claim -- especially coming days after Israeli elections in which the big story was the strong showing of the Shinui Party, whose explicitly secular platform seeks to diminish the influence of the rabbis on Israeli politics.

Why do so many smart people say silly things about Israel? In the case of my newshound friends, it's clearly not anti-Semitism but, I suspect, the zeitgeist itself, which regards Zionism as a vestige of Western nationalism, a bothersome, tribal relic that should be superceded by a new ethos of universalism. No matter: The result is that Israel is now a moral resort for the chattering classes (Saul Bellow's phrase), a vacationland of escapist rhetoric and irresponsible political commentary.

Enter Dershowitz, who goes after Israel's enemies (and "the abysmally ignorant") with the punch and thrust of courtroom debate: "The Jewish nation of Israel stands accused in the dock of international justice. The charges include being a criminal state, the prime violator of human rights, the mirror image of Nazism, and the most intransigent barrier to peace in the Middle East."

In chapters with such titles as "Is There Moral Equivalence between Palestinian Terrorists and Israeli Responses?" and "Has Israel Denied the Palestinians Statehood?" Dershowitz discusses key flashpoints with a mix of broadside, polemic, and fact. He attacks figures such as Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said, activists urging universities to divest Israeli stocks from their endowments, and United Nations conferences such as the one last year at Durban, South Africa, on racism, which descended into a swirl of accusations against Israel.

To many, it seems that you can't criticize Israel without being called anti-Semitic. Nonsense, replies Dershowitz, himself a critic of many Israeli policies, especially ones concerning the West Bank settlements. "So long as criticism is comparative, contextual, and fair, it should be encouraged, not disparaged," he says. Still, when does criticism of Israel become anti-Semitic?

To Dershowitz, a "good working definition of anti-Semitism is taking a trait or an action that is widespread, if not universal, and blaming the Jews for it." He tells a story about A. Lawrence Lowell, the Harvard president of the 1920s, who justified quotas against Jews because "Jews cheat." When an alumnus countered that non-Jews also cheat, Dershowitz recounts, Lowell replied, "You're changing the subject. I'm talking about Jews."

In contrast to those who compare Israel to the Nazis or to Bantustan, South Africa, writes Dershowitz, "no nation in history faced with comparable challenges has ever adhered to a higher standard of human rights, been more sensitive to the safety of innocent civilians, tried harder to operate under the rule of law, or been willing to take more risks for peace."

The reason for the statelessness of the Palestinians, and their harsh life under occupation, is not Israeli intransigence, he writes, but their unwillingness to reject terrorism. A Palestinian flag could be now flying over Jerusalem, had the Palestinian leadership accepted Israel's right to exist and approved Ehud Barak's plan at Camp David, he says. A free press, an independent judiciary, a parliamentary democracy -- this is the face of Israel that Dershowitz presents, not a jackboot regime of apartheid, fascism, and brutality.

It should be possible to discuss the Middle East -- and to criticize Israel -- without the distortions by which Zionist Theodor Herzl, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are transmogrified into Cecil Rhodes, Adolf Hitler, and Nelson Mandela. An obvious point, but then, as George Orwell wrote, the first duty of intelligent men is to restate the obvious. In "The Case for Israel," Dershowitz has restated some obvious truths about Israel -- truths its friends need to convey, its enemies need to confront, and the chattering classes need to learn before they venture forth with pronouncements about Israel that are simple, easy -- and wrong.

Jonathan Dorfman writes frequently about politics and religion.

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