Campus Profile: Alan Dershowitz

BY NAN RUBIN

**This profile is one in a small collection produced for PRA’s report Constructing Campus Conflict: Antisemitism and Islamophobia on U.S. College Campuses 2007-2011. Figures profiled played significant roles in campus controversies reviewed for that report. In the assessment of our authors, these figures’ campus appearances have done more to inflame existing divisions than to build towards positive alternatives. However, we imply no moral, ideological, or other equivalency. Individual profile authors decided what information was most useful for readers to evaluate their claims, rhetoric, and roles in campus controversies.

HISTORY AND BACKGROUND

Alan M. Dershowitz, a Brooklyn native, is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Dershowitz graduated from Brooklyn College and Yale Law School and joined the Harvard Law School faculty at age 25, one of the youngest faculty ever hired, after clerking for Judge David Bazelon and Justice Arthur Goldberg.

Dershowitz is a popular pundit and public intellectual who speaks on many topics, ranging from history, philosophy, psychology, and literature, to mathematics, theology, music and sports. He is a prolific writer, with hundreds of articles in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Nation, Commentary, Saturday Review, and The Harvard Law Review and Yale Law Journal, as well as syndicated columns in 50 daily newspapers and online for sites such as The Huffington Post.

He is author of 27 books, both fiction and nonfiction, with a worldwide audience in the millions. Nonfiction titles include: The Case For Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can be Resolved; Rights From Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights; The Case for Israel; Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking the Declaration of Independence; Why Terrorism Works; Shouting Fire; Letters to a Young Lawyer; Supreme Injustice and The Case For Moral Clarity: Israel, Hamas and Gaza. His novels include: The Advocate’s Devil and Just Revenge. Dershowitz is also the author of The Vanishing American Jew; Chutzpah (a #1 bestseller); and Reversal of Fortune (which was made into an Academy Award-winning film). Considered an outspoken liberal on many social issues, Dershowitz built his reputation defending pornography and the First Amendment, and as a criminal attorney representing unpopular and controversial figures. His high-profile clients have included Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, Claus von Billow, O.J. Simpson, Patty Hearst, Harry Reems, Leona Helmsley, Michael Milken, and Mike Tyson. He continues to represent indigent defendants and takes half of his cases pro bono.

DEFENDING ISRAEL

Dershowitz has written extensively about his experiences as a Jew and his opinions about antisemitism, Israel, and anti-Israel Jews have engendered a great deal of controversy. The Case for Israel, published in 2003, was a series of essays aimed at identifying and then refuting some of the strongest accusations and myths about Israel, such as “Israel is the ‘prime’ human rights violator in the world” and “Israel is the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Each chapter presents “The Accusation,” [insert verb or phrase to maintain parallelism—e.g. elaborating] a common criticism of Israel; “The Accusers,” listing quotes from critics supporting the accusation; “The Reality,” presenting a short statement contradicting the accusation; and “The Proof,” revealing Dershowitz’s own viewpoint. A documentary film based on the book—The Case for Israel—was released in 2008, featuring Dershowitz and other prominent pro-Israel representatives.

Overall, the book asserted both the practical and moral justification for the continued existence of Israel as the Jewish state and demonized opposition views, Edward Said’s and Noam Chomsky’s in particular. The historical rationale in the book was strongly rejected by a broad range of liberal to left scholars and critics, with the most serious challenge coming from Norman Finkelstein [see profile]. Finkelstein’s own 2005 book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History was a direct attack on Dershowitz, alluding to the 1992 book Chutzpah, in which Dershowitz shared thoughts about discrimination against Jews and his own Jewish identity.

After Beyond Chutzpah, Dershowitz responded by labeling Finkelstein “antisemitic,” a “pseudo-scholar and a propagandist,” and “a clown,” sued the publisher and apparently was behind a successful campaign that resulted in Finkelstein’s being denied tenure at DePaul University. The hostility between them continues.

Dershowitz continues to write about and identify “enemies of Israel,” naming many in his 2009 book The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace and singling out liberal Jews such as Michael Lerner, editor of widely-circulated liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, whom Dershowitz has “long criticized for spewing hatred against Israel.”

DEFENDING TORTURE

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Dershowitz began raising the issue of legally permitting the use of torture if certain legal rules were in place. In 2002 he published an essay in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Want to Torture? Get a Warrant” in which he argued that, although personally against the use of torture, he believed that authorities should be permitted to use non-lethal torture in emergency circumstances by means of special warrants. Circumstances should permit using torture on terrorism suspects if there is an “absolute need to obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it.” He revisited this position in more detail in Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age (2002) and brought it up again in Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (2003).

A more comprehensive argument was made in Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways (2006), in which he suggested that religious zealots who “believe that their mission has been ordained by God … may be more difficult to deter than those who base their calculations on earthly costs and benefits.” Unable to influence such irrational motives with deterrence, he argued that there are appropriate times when using torture—within a legal framework—is justifiable to “prevent future harms” by such global actors as terrorists. As such, even a democratic society such as the United States can construct a philosophy of “pre-emption” to justify torture when weighed against the greater public good of preventing violent and destructive actions.

This position on torture, tied as it is to fear of the violent actions of Muslim religious extremists, is consistent with Dershowitz’s hostility to enemies of Israel, but contradicts his reputation as a political progressive who is a strong defender of First Amendment free speech rights. Apart from the moral and legal questions Dershowitz raises in these essays, his torture-­is-acceptable position triggered strong debates from both sides, in particular from liberals and progressives who saw him as an important and influential legal scholar giving credibility to a reprehensible and illegal practice. It also reinforced his standing as an uncritical supporter of Israel.

RECENT ACTIVITIES

Dershowitz is a popular speaker on college campuses as a fierce defender of Israel and opponent of anti-Israel faculty and activists. Dershowitz’s current targets are the campus-based Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) campaigns, which call for actions to be taken against Israel to support ending the occupation of Palestinian territories. He strongly opposes the positions promoted by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions groups, which he feels are “aided by radical anti-Israel professors” and instead demands that a broader picture of the Middle East be presented where Israel is not the sole player and the “real” villains in the region are Hamas, Saudi Arabia, and other radical anti-Zionist entities.

Dershowitz maintains his own website, which features columns, essays, commentaries, reviews, book promotions, bibliographies, and similar materials. In addition, a wide range of other documents, interviews, critiques, articles, and videos from both supporters and critics are readily available.[1]

[1] Alan Dershowitz, http://www.alandershowitz.com