Norman Finkelstein is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University. Jim Paul spoke with him in New York in November 1985.
What sparked your investigation of the Peters book?
I was nearing the end of my doctoral research at Princeton on the theory of Zionism when the book appeared. The publisher claimed that it was going to recast the entire debate on the origins of the Middle Eastern crisis. I couldn’t resist that blurb. On first reading, I found it difficult to follow the central argument, but its importance seemed undeniable. Peters claimed to have proven that Palestine was empty on the eve of Zionist colonization, that the so-called Palestinian refugees were actually recent immigrants from surrounding countries and from other parts of Palestine.
Given the credentials of the many authorities who’d lent their names to Peters’ findings, including Philip Hauser [former director of the US census], I decided to reread the book, this time paying close attention to the way in which the demographic argument was constructed. The matter of population movements within Palestine relied not at all on documentary evidence but rather on a demographic study. The charts were included in the back of the book. I spent several days scrutinizing the evidence. Late one night I discovered that behind the virtually impenetrable prose and chaotic arrangement of data, Peters had concocted a hoax. The demographic study was a fake.
I immediately brought my findings to the attention of 20 or so publications and to several individuals who I thought would find my discovery of some interest. Only Noam Chomsky responded. He said that there was probably a lot more to this hoax and that it would be worthwhile if I pursued my study of the book. I devoted some two months in the New York Public Library to systematically going through all Peters’ documentation for her central demographic thesis. To my utter amazement, I discovered that every single piece of evidence in support of the central thesis of the book was falsified. Every single one. Subsequently I discovered that extensive passages of the book were plagiarized from some rather ludicrous right-wing Zionist propaganda tracts.
What did you do next?
I pursued the matter with Commentary magazine, because they have a reputation for a very open letters column. First the editor claimed that they could not print my letter because their reviewer, Daniel Pipes, who gave the book an ecstatic review, was not qualified to respond to it. I found that rather odd. Why did he review the book if he was not qualified to answer a critique of its core argument? Secondly, she insisted my gripe was not with the reviewer, but with the author. Needless to say, nothing ever came of this exchange.
In September 1984, In These Times published a truncated version of my findings. Except for that, and my communication in the Middle East Journal which appeared only two weeks ago, I couldn’t get even a single letter in print anywhere in the US. By way of contrast, I had no difficulty getting my findings published in all the major British periodicals.
What do you attribute this to?
The major factor was that too many individuals of prominence had linked their fortunes with Peters’ enterprise. To expose it would cast a very stark light on what passes for intellectual discourse in the US. A lesser factor is that I had acknowledged Noam Chomsky’s help and Alexander Cockburn had printed some of my findings in his Nation column. My research was therefore “tainted.” Even worse, the “experts” not only got it wrong again, but this time had been caught endorsing a threadbare hoax.
Why do you think these many prominent people lent their names to this enterprise? Do you suppose they had read the book?
The demographic study is impenetrable unless you’re a fanatic. I was really concerned about the conclusions of that study, and it had all the pretenses of being scientific, so I fanatically went at it. It’s unlikely that most of the individuals — if they did read the book — understood it. But if they read the book with any care, they had to have suspicions. For instance, many quotes are rendered one way in the text, and another way in the footnote — the same quote! So there’s one group of people who didn’t read the book, or didn’t read it carefully. There’s a second group who probably read it, but didn’t understand it. All they really cared about was Peters’ conclusion: that the Palestinian people are a fiction. The true believers found this thesis irresistible.
A number of very knowledgeable people, like John Campbell, acclaimed Peters’ research. Campbell described it as “Herculean.” Now, anyone with even a modest knowledge of modern Middle East history had to know that the book’s bibliography was a joke. None of the standard monographs or major studies of the Palestinian people were mentioned in the body of the text or the footnotes. She doesn’t make use of Yehoshua Porath’s standard two-volume history of the Palestinian people in the entire book. Rather, she makes almost exclusive use of Jacob de Haas’ 1934 history of Palestine and books by Samuel Katz, Ernst Frankenstein and Joseph Schechtman — which have the combined scholarly weight of a classic comic book. Every three months John Campbell reviews a raft of books for Foreign Affairs on the modern Middle East. How could he not have recognized this for what it was? The same goes for Ronald Sanders, who just completed a 750-page book on the origins of the Balfour Declaration. Every single British reviewer noted that Peters got the Balfour Declaration all wrong. Yet Sanders, who wrote the first major US review, a laudatory one, in The New Republic, apparently didn’t notice.
Many individuals in Middle East studies were in a position to notice that something was wrong about this book and raise questions about it. Why was it a graduate student, a professor of English literature and a professor of linguistics who uncovered this hoax?
A number of people knew early on that the book was dreadful; I don’t think many people knew it was a hoax. A number who are reasonably honest didn’t pursue the matter because they thought that because Joan Peters has no standing in academia, the book would just come and go like a thousand other books and there’s no point in trashing it. Why give her free publicity?
Most people, I think, were either fearful for themselves and their careers or of the consequences such an expose would have for “the cause.” The scope of the fraud, the number of prominent persons and institutions involved, is really spectacular. Joan Peters is a nobody. But a major publishing house, Harper and Row, put out From Time Immemorial and continued to promote it long after they knew it was a hoax. Elie Wiesel, Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman and a score of other distinguished personalities had cover blurbs. The most eminent names in Orientalism — Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedourie — were listed in the acknowledgements as having abetted the enterprise. Every major journal of opinion in the US lent its name to the book inside of a month.
Consider the case of the New York Review of Books. Its reviews carry weight in the academic community. After months of prodding, Robert Silvers finally commissioned a review from Yehoshua Porath, the most prominent Israeli scholar on Palestinian nationalism. He submitted a review in March of this year. It was reportedly as critical as anything I had written. Yet it has never appeared. I think the reason is obvious: It would have severely compromised the credibility of many of Israel’s outstanding apologists in the US. Then there’s the social fallout. I suppose it’s not easy to be honest on the Middle East and still be welcome in the literary world’s wine and cheese party circuit.
Why did the people who lent their names to this enterprise continue to allow their names to be associated with it?
I think many felt that to back out now would be a concession to the enemy. It’s important to keep in mind that the whole discussion in the US was completely insulated. While the book was being utterly trashed in England, in the US it picked up the National Jewish Book Award, and went into two or three more printings, and a paperback edition.
What is the position of the publisher?
His view was “I know nothing about demographics,” which I found rather amusing since what I had written had nothing to do with demographics. It required simply a basic knowledge of arithmetic and a capacity to read. I, too, know nothing about demography and, for sure, Peters knows less.
What has been the role of Joan Peters herself in all of this?
My guess is that she is simply fronting for the book. No one I’ve talked to believes she wrote it. Certain aspects of the hoax are rather vulgar?the mangling of well-known documents and the like. But the manipulation of the data in the demographic study is quite sophisticated. A former president of the World Jewish Congress volunteered the opinion that the book was written in “a Jerusalem office.”
Is Peters able to authenticate her years of research — where it was conducted and with whom?
Peters hasn’t authenticated anything, but she doesn’t have to. That’s the biggest scandal of all. No one — not her publisher, not the academic community, no one — has asked, let alone demanded, that she authenticate anything. She goes merrily along, giving interviews, speaking on talk shows, and one printing after another of the book is sold.
Have any US publications finally picked up on the Peters fraud?
The Nation finally ran a solid and eloquent expose by Edward Said. The Village Voice picked up on the Nation article. Paul Berman wrote that Edward Said was the lone voice this past 19 months in exposing the hoax. But Berman knows very well this wasn’t the problem. We weren’t silent. They were deaf. Only when matters looked to be getting out of hand — the British reviews, a hard-hitting expose in the Israeli journal Koteret Rashit, the Nation piece — did these guardians of the truth suddenly perk up. That’s the other side of this scandal. A total non-entity comes along and claims to have discovered something incredible: that the Palestinian people are a fiction. A prestigious publishing house lends its name to this absurdity, as do dozens of distinguished scholars, personalities and periodicals. And when a monograph exhaustively documenting the hoax is prepared, every effort is made to suppress its findings.
Let me close on a happier note, by acknowledging the assistance of those whose honesty and integrity in this matter was beyond reproach: Noam Chomsky, who gave unstintingly of his time; Alex Cockburn, who followed the scandal in his Nation column; James Weinstein, who published my initial findings in In These Times; Bill Farrell, whose own important research appeared in the Journal of Palestine Studies; Yosef Grodzinsky, who wrote the story in Koteret Rashit; and, of course, Edward Said, who authored the article which I hope will bring an end to this very sorry but very revealing episode.