'Plagiarized!' 'Total Nonsense ...'

The Nation, October 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

'Plagiarized!' 'Total Nonsense ...'


Cambridge, Mass.

* Alexander Cockburn's politically motivated claim that I "plagiarized" from Joan Peters is total nonsense ["Beat the Devil," Oct. 13]. Let's begin with what is undisputed: Every word written by others appears with quotation marks, is cited to their original or secondary sources and is quoted accurately. This means that they are not plagiarized. James Freedman, the former president of Dartmouth and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has concluded, after reviewing the relevant material, that what I did was "simply not plagiarism, under any reasonable definition of that word."

Cockburn's claim is that some of the quotes should not have been cited to their original sources but rather to a secondary source, where he believes I stumbled upon them. Even if he were correct that I found all these quotations in Peters's book, the preferred method of citation is to the original source, as the Chicago Manual of Style emphasizes: "With all reuse of others' materials, it is important to identify the original as the source. This ... helps avoid any accusation of plagiarism ... To cite a source from a secondary source ('quoted in ...') is generally to be discouraged ...."

It is especially cynical that Cockburn would have me cite the quotes to Peters, since Norman Finkelstein--his source--has alleged that Peters herself originally found these and other quotes in earlier books. Should I have cited those books? That is why citing the original source is preferred.

I came across the quoted material in several secondary sources. They appear frequently in discussions of nineteenth-century Palestine. The Mark Twain quote, highlighted by Cockburn, appears in many books about the subject. I came across it in 1970 while preparing a debate about Israel for The Advocates. Cockburn also points out that I quote some of the same material from the Peel Report that Peters quotes, but he fails to mention that I also use many quotes from the report that do not appear in Peters's book. I read the entire report and decided which parts to quote. I rely heavily on the Peel Report, devoting an entire chapter (Six) to its findings. They are quoted directly, with proper attribution.

Cockburn refers to Finkelstein's "devastating chart," which compares several quotes from my books with quotes from Peters's book. By juxtaposing these quotes, he makes it appear that I am borrowing words from her. But these are all quotes--properly cited in my book--from third parties. Of course they are similar, or the same. One does not change a quote. And since I did find some of the quotes in Peters's book, as she found them in others, it should come as no surprise that the ellipses are sometimes similar or the same.

It is important to recall that my book is a brief for Israel. It does not purport to be a work of original demographic research, as Peters's does. A few pages are devoted to summarizing the demographic history, and these pages rely heavily on quotes from others to make my points. I found most of my quotes in secondary sources. When I was able to locate the primary source, I quoted it. When I was unable, I cited the secondary source. Contrary to Cockburn's implication that I cited Peters once, I cited her eight times in the first eighty-nine pages (Ch. 2, fn 31, 35; Ch. 5, fn 8; Ch. 12, fn 34, 37, 38, 44, 47). Of my more than 500 references, fewer than a dozen were found in Peters and cited to original sources. Although we use a few of the same sources--and we each use many sources not used by the other--I come to different conclusions from Peters about important issues. As I made clear in my book, "I do not in any way rely on" Peters's conclusions or demographic data for my arguments. Peters's basic conclusion is that only a small number of Palestinians lived in what later became Israel. She provides specific figures, which have been disputed. My very different conclusion is that:

   There have been two competing mythologies about Palestine
   circa 1880. … 

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