Alan Dershowitz, famed Harvard Law Professor, is feeling besieged, bruised and battered. In his shrill campaign against Thursday evening’s BDS program presented by Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler at Brooklyn College, Dershowitz did not call for cancellation of the event, but was incensed that it was co-sponsored by the College’s Political Science Department. According to him, this was an egregious violation of students’ academic freedom. From his Huffington Post column:
[W]hen a department of a university officially co-sponsors and endorses an event advocating BDS against Israel, and refuses to co-sponsor and endorse an event opposing such BDS, that does constitute an official endorsement. Freedom of speech, and academic freedom require equal access to both sides of a controversy, not official sponsorship and endorsement of one side over the other. The heavy thumb of an academic department should not be placed on the scale, if the marketplace of ideas is to remain equally accessible to all sides of a controversy.
The BC Poli Sci Department hasn’t actually refused to sponsor an anti-BDS event, but Dershowitz thinks it would: “Based on my knowledge of the Brooklyn College political science department, they would never vote to sponsor and endorse an anti-BDS campaign.”
The effects of such bias on students can be enormous, says Dershowitz: “If I were a Brooklyn College student today and an opponent of BDS against Israel, I would not major in political science. I would worry that my chances of getting into a good law school or graduate program, would be put at risk.”
In a subsequent column, making basically the same arguments, Dershowitz further detailed the agony faced by students:
One political science student at Brooklyn College said she was afraid to criticize her department because “that’s going to put a target on my back.” Other students talked about a “chilling effect” that the department’s decision would have on them. And yet another student said that she had “an uncomfortable feeling” about raising her hand and arguing “with a professor who voted for it” and who tried to justify his vote in the classroom.
So according to Professor D, the problem is that departmental sponsorship of political events jeopardizes the academic freedom of students who will then feel “uncomfortable in class” and vulnerable to retaliation if they publicize views contrary to those “endorsed” by the department. In preparation for his column about the BC controversy, Glenn Greenwald emailed Dershowitz, resulting in a rather contentious exchange posted in full by Greenwald. Among other things, Dershowitz stated: “I would oppose a pro Israel event being sponsored by a department. . . I recently told someone who invited me to give a talk on Israel that the talk should not be sponsored by the school or a department.” When Greenwald asked for details about his request for no sponsorship by school or department for one of his speeches, Dershowitz mysteriously failed to respond.
Dershowitz, as a lawyer trained to anticipate contrary views, should have known better. He himself is a prolific lecturer, and has given political lectures sponsored by a university department, a sin he now considers so egregious that he has devoted several columns to exposing it. Just one year ago, Dershowitz was invited to speak against BDS at the University of Pennsylvania. That lecture was sponsored by both the University’s Political Science Department and its Philosophy, Economics and Politics Department. Greenwald updated his column with this glaring hypocrisy. And, unlike the BC situation, in which Dershowitz speculates that the Department would deny sponsorship of an anti-BDS lecture (I would speculate otherwise), Penn’s Poli Sci Department really did choose sides, refusing to sponsor the BDS conference held at the school at the very same time but explicitly sponsoring Dershowitz’s opposition speech. In response to this revelation, Dershowitz had no choice but to dig himself a deeper hole.
In an Open Zion column , among the grossly misleading and false statements he made was the following defense of his appearance at the Penn lecture:
When I agreed to give that talk, I was told that the event was being sponsored by Hillel alone. I was not and am not aware that it was also sponsored by a department. Had I been aware, I would have opposed such co-sponsorship, since I do not believe that academic departments should take official positions on issues of this kind.
Somehow he didn’t realize that his speech enjoyed the sponsorship of two university departments. Although he now considers such sponsorships to be a dangerous infringement of academic freedom that intimidates poor young students and influences them to change their majors, Dershowitz was so unconcerned about this clear red line that he did not inquire whether it had been crossed at Penn. Even worse than Dershowitz’s dubious claim of (self-imposed) ignorance of the multi-departmental sponsorship of his speech, he well knew that the President of the University and its Chairman of the Board of Trustees did endorse his appearance. The Chairman, David Cohen, introduced Dershowitz, reading a letter from President Amy Gutmann: “We are unwavering in our support of Israel” he read. “We do not support the message or the goals of BDS.”
Shouldn’t that have set off alarm bells to someone who feels that students are so aggrieved by one-sided lectures sponsored by a university or department? And what did Dershowitz do in response to Cohen’s introduction? Did he begin his speech decrying the official endorsement of his anti-BDS appearance, saying it would adversely affect Penn students who hold contrary views? Did he raise a protest to President Gutmann that her avowed support of Israel would make pro-Palestinian rights students “uncomfortable” on campus and in the classroom? Yeah, right.
Dershowitz’s Open Zion column was in response to another OZ column about the BC controversy penned by Amy Schiller . Dershowitz accused Schiller of lying on two points:
Amy Schiller, in her article, “NYC Politicos Rally Against Brooklyn College BDS Panel,” quotes an anonymous professor saying that the political science department sponsored “Alan Dershowitz’s 2008 Konefsky lecture where he defended torture, where there has been no one presenting the other side.” That short sentence contains two lies: 1) I gave the Konefksy lecture approximately 40 years ago in which I spoke about Professor Konefsky and the United States Supreme Court. It was an entirely academic lecture. 2) I have never defended torture. Indeed, I have repeatedly condemned it. What I have proposed is a method for making those who do engage in torture accountable to the law.
The first point is another classic Dershowitz half-truth deliberately designed to deceive. While indignantly declaring that his Konefsky lecture took place 40 years ago and was “academic” in nature, he has the audacity to conceal that he delivered a (non-Konefsky) lecture at BC in 2008 at which he presented without opposition his views on torture (for several minutes of a much longer lecture in which he presented his unopposed views on free speech and Jefferson). So Schiller’s unidentified source (I wonder why he was afraid to reveal his identity) was only wrong about the title of the lecture! Who is the liar here: Schiller’s source who mistakenly believed the 2008 lecture was the famed “Konefsky” but got the other details right; or Dershowitz, whose blanket denial clearly implied that he gave no such lecture at BC in 2008?
As to Schiller’s accusation that Dershowitz defended torture, his actual views are so complex and confusing that he can hardly accuse anyone who misinterprets them of lying. Dershowitz essentially argues that torture can work wonders in saving innocent lives, and offers a legal framework for the authorities to conduct such torture of suspects. The aspiring torturer should apply to a magistrate for a “torture warrant” and the torture should be performed by “sterilized needle under the nail.” (Note the careful attention to personal hygiene.) Still, Dershowitz claims, he’s opposed to the practice, despite the heavy price society would pay for forgoing this useful tool. “[Torture] may sound brutal,” he says, “but it does not compare in brutality with the prospect of thousands of preventable deaths at the hands of fellow terrorists.” To complicate matters even more, Dershowitz says he disagreed with the Israeli Supreme Court opinion unequivocally banning torture. Do you understand his position? Apparently Amy Schiller did not, and in Dersh’s view, she is a liar. Actually, in saying that Dershowitz “defended” torture, she most certainly was correct, as he did defend its value while opposing it on principle. If you’re not a Talmudic scholar, don’t even try to understand my (hopefully accurate) summary of Dershowitz’s position on torture.
OK, so maybe Dershowitz gave a 2012 department-sponsored speech at Penn without knowing it, and a 2008 university-sponsored speech at BC (but not the Konefsky!) about free speech, where he couldn’t help but throw in his opinion on torture. But are there more? Well, in 2010, Dershowitz received an honorary degree from Tel Aviv University (can’t get more institution-sponsored than that), and used the occasion to spout his views on Israel and the disgraceful academics who criticize it, as well as Israeli universities’ contribution to the development of new and improved methods of killing Palestinians and other Arabs (and perhaps Persians). Some very brief excerpts:
No country in the history of the world has ever contributed more to humankind and accomplished more for its people in so brief a period of time as Israel has done since its relatively recent rebirth in 1948. . . Israel’s research universities have contributed immeasurably to the defense of Israel by the development of technological advances that support the mission of the IDF. . . The Israeli military plays more than a critical role in defending the citizens of the Jewish state. It also plays an important social, scientific and psychological role in preparing its young citizens for the challenging task of being Israelis in a difficult world. . . Some of the same hard leftists who demand academic freedom for themselves and their ideological colleagues were among the leaders of those seeking to deny academic freedom to a distinguished law professor who had worked for the military advocate general and whose views they disagreed with.
Dershowitz also said: “The answer to bad ideas is not firing the teacher; but articulating better ideas which prevail in the marketplace.” Tell that to Norman Finkelstein.
It turns out that some of those “hard leftists” who were not invited by TAU to present their viewpoint were upset with the speech. A letter to the university president signed by 80 faculty members protested Dershowitz’s comments as an assault on academic freedom.
Then there’s the saga of the BDS campaign at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 2009. While the Administration was considering whether to divest from companies doing business in Israel in accordance with the sentiment of students and faculty, did the Harvard Professor stand by on the sidelines and allowed the debate to proceed without interference? Of course not. He threatened to organize a boycott of contributions to the school: “I call on all decent people — supporters and critics of Israel alike — to make no further contributions to a school that now promotes discrimination and is complicit in evil.” In the end, College President Ralph Hexter caved in a public act of contrition, writing an obsequious open letter to the great moral arbiter from Cambridge, assuring him that the sale of a “problematic” mutual fund had nothing to do with Israel. So much for the “marketplace of ideas” Dershowitz trumpets ad nauseam. The “market” should be receptive to his ideas, but he will do his best to financially punish those who express ideas he does not like.
Most recently, Dershowitz authored yet another article in which he claims he has been attacked by the “dogs of defamation” for his pro-Israel advocacy. Item 1: Norman Finkelstein’s allegation of plagiarism, claiming that Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel quoted without citation from Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial. Space does not permit me to rebut in detail Dershowitz’s claim of innocence, but judge for yourself. Dershowitz quoted verbatim Joan Peters’s very strange version of a Mark Twain quote, including an 87-page ellipsis, and repeated each of Peters’s dumb transcription errors. Yet Dershowitz cited Twain only, claiming that he got the quote himself, and not from Peters. Frank Menetrez wrote in greater detail about this affair if anyone is interested.
Dershowitz next complains about the “lie” that he is pro-torture, discussed above. Finally, he gets to the most recent calumny against him, where “the dogs” charge him with hypocrisy on the BC affair because of his own recent history at UPenn. Once again he disavows any contemporaneous knowledge of departmental sponsorship of his anti-BDS diatribe, and fails to mention the praise heaped on him by Penn’s Chairman and President.
Dershowitz reveals the motives behind this cabal of defamers. It is not to hurt him, because he himself is invincible. It is to set an example to younger academics, to threaten them that if they are as outspoken in favor of Israel as Dersh, they will be similarly attacked and the attacks could have more serious repercussions because of their vulnerable position:
The message is clear: If you support Israel, we will attack you like we attack Dershowitz, but you will be hurt much more that Dershowitz would. We will damage your reputation, hurt your student evaluations and decrease your chances for tenure.
How ironic that the man who played such a large role in ruining Norman Finkelstein’s academic career is now so concerned about hypothetical academic hit men who are sharpening their knives on him in a dress rehearsal for a similar jihad against young, honest pro-Israel scholars.
Moreover, Dershowitz’s overall complaint of defamation is a classic example of projection. Dershowitz is accusing others of committing the same offenses he has committed for decades. He has been on the front line of a concerted effort to demonize those who dare criticize Israel beyond the very narrow boundaries of legitimate criticism that he can tolerate. And his own attacks on others has not exactly been moderate and measured. Goldstone is a “moser,” there is a “special place in hell” for Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is “one of the most evil men in the world,” Professors Mearsheimer and Walt plagiarized their scholarship on the Israel lobby from David Duke, Norman Finkelstein suggested that Dershowitz be killed; the list is endless.
People often comment that Dershowitz is a clown who does not deserve the time and effort to discredit him. I could not disagree more. He remains a highly influential public figure on matters pertaining to Israel and Palestine, commanding an audience at the White House and filling lecture halls regularly. Give the devil his due. He has great rhetorical skills, thinks quickly on his feet, and in my opinion can on occasion out-debate far worthier opponents. He remains a rock star of pro-Israel advocacy. His brazen hypocrisy and serial dishonesty should be challenged regularly.