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Alan Dershowitz Speaks

May 8, 2009 | by

A wide-ranging interview on the pressing issues facing the Jewish people today.

As is the case with most men of principle, especially lawyers, Alan Dershowitz cannot avoid controversy or criticism.

He's been called America's "most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer," "the best-known criminal lawyer in the world" and "the top lawyer of last resort," having taken up the causes of defendants as diverse as Claus von Bulow, O.J. Simpson and Jonathan Pollard.

In recent years, the most passionate causes of this distinguished defender of individual rights have been on behalf of the Jewish people -- where Mr. Dershowitz is our "most public Jewish defender," "Israel's single most visible advocate" and "the Jewish state's lead attorney in the court of public opinion."

A graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale Law School, Mr. Dershowitz, 69, joined the Harvard Law School faculty at age 25 after clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. He has published widely in op-ed columns and is author of more than two dozen books with an international audience, including "Chutzpah: The Case For Israel," "Blasphemy: How the Religious Right Is Hijacking The Declaration of Independence," "Preemption: A Knife that Cuts Both Ways" and, most recently, "Finding Jefferson - A Lost Letter, A Remarkable Discovery, And The First Amendment In An Age Of Terrorism."

In 1983, the Anti-Defamation League presented him with the William O. Douglas First Amendment Award for his "compassionate eloquent leadership and persistent advocacy in the struggle for civil and human rights."

In presenting the award, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said, "If there had been a few people like Alan Dershowitz during the 1930s and 1940s, the history of European Jewry might have been different."

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Dershowitz talked about the difficulties in confronting Holocaust deniers (like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and minimizers, anti-Semites, anti-Zionists, hecklers, Jewish values, international views of Israel and the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

Over the past few years, he's had much to say about all of them. Some might call his views biased, predictable or unnecessarily confrontational -- but it is difficult to deny their essential logic and moral clarity.

"I will give $10,000 to the PLO if you can find a historical fact in my book that you can prove to be false."

That was particularly the case with Norman Finkelstein, a Princeton-educated political scientist whose book, "The Holocaust Industry," argued that Israel has exploited Jewish suffering to justify its expansionist policies.

Mr. Dershowitz was accused of inappropriate meddling by actively campaigning against Mr. Finkelstein's candidacy for tenure at DePaul University, a Catholic school in Chicago. In August 2006, Mr. Finkelstein struck back, suggesting that Mr. Dershowitz be targeted "for assassination" because of his views on Israel and comparing him to a Nazi propagandist.

Mr. Dershowitz described Mr. Finkelstein as a "Holocaust-justice denier" and noted he had been embraced by Ernst Zundel, the notorious neo-Nazi who has been convicted of Holocaust denial in both Canada and Germany.

Mr. Zundel had said that Mr. Finkelstein is "exceedingly useful to the Revisionist cause. We would not be making vast inroads in Europe with our outreach program were it not for his [book]." Mr. Finkelstein has also been called the "Jewish David Irving" -- a reference to the well-known Holocaust denier and admirer of Hitler.

Mr. Dershowitz further pointed out that Mr. Finkelstein had been fired by several universities at which he had previously worked for abusing students who disagreed with his views. Mr. Finkelstein called Mr. Dershowitz's book, "The Case for Israel," "a hoax." (Replied Mr. Dershowitz: "I will give $10,000 to the PLO if you can find a historical fact in my book that you can prove to be false.")

In June of 2007, after considerable public debate, Mr. Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul. He resigned from the university as part of a settlement.

At a conference last year, Mr. Dershowitz said that he was opposed to criminalizing or censoring Holocaust denial speech for both practical and philosophical reasons: Not only is it wrong in principle -- censorship shows a lack of faith in the marketplace of ideas and the power of truth --- but it is counter-productive, and especially ineffective in the age of the Internet.

The most dangerous revisionists, he said, are not those who deny the Holocaust outright, but those who minimize it. "We must respond to all forms of bigotry in the marketplace of ideas, and not rely on the voracious appetite of the state's censor to do our work for us."

The worst offenders are academics with substantial scholarly credentials -- like Noam Chomsky, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has received many honorary degrees from universities around the world, and who has written that he "sees no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers or even denial of the Holocaust."

Mr. Dershowitz minces no words about Mr. Chomsky, attacking what he calls Mr. Chomsky's "zealous anti-Zionism and his flirtations with neo-Nazi revisionism and Holocaust denial." He chastised him most heatedly for his efforts to compel universities to divest from corporations that have ties to Israel, challenging him in well-publicized face-to-face formal debates at Harvard and elsewhere.

"Chomsky is not a denier. He gets in bed with deniers -- he has supported and defended Faurisson and others." (Roger Faurisson is a French history professor who argued that the gas chambers used by Nazis to exterminate Jews at Auschwitz did not exist; he was subsequently convicted of defamation for this statement, fined and given a prison sentence.)

"Finkelstein is much more a denier," Mr. Dershowitz said, "because he denies the legitimacy of victims; he says that virtually everybody who claims to be a survivor is lying -- so that comes awfully close to it. You can bring defamation actions if he'd ever specify individuals -- but he never does that. He just says that, 'Two-thirds of the people I meet in the street who claim to be survivors weren't born or were living in the Riviera.' He makes all those kinds of put-downs. 'Only my parents,' he's said, 'were survivors.'"

Mr. Dershowitz, too, has been active on college campuses, where he sees Holocaust denial and minimization increasing. "When a denier speaks on a college or university campus," he said last December in a podcast for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, "I see that as an opportunity to educate students instead of trying to ban the speaker."

The Institute for Historical Review, which places ads in college newspapers seeking to refute the Holocaust, presents a different challenge. When the IHR's chief spokesman, Bradley Smith, invited him to debate the issue, Mr. Dershowitz responded that he would do so -- but only as part of a series that would include the questions of whether slavery existed in the United States or Elvis Presley were still alive or the Earth is flat.

"We have the responsibility to stop it. We have the resources to stop it. We have the ability to stop it. And if we fail to respond to hate speech, it's our fault."

"That is the company of crackpot 'ideas' into which Holocaust denial comfortably fits. [Mr. Smith] knows he cannot win, but he would like to be able to say that Alan Dershowitz regards the issue as worthy of debate.

"It's appalling how irresponsible most American academics have been in the face of this well-organized campaign to turn our current generation of college students and our future leaders against Israel and against Jewish interests and values. We have the responsibility to stop it. We have the resources to stop it. We have the ability to stop it. And if we fail to respond to hate speech, it's our fault."

Pro-Israel speakers such as Binyamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky have been heavily heckled recently on Canadian campuses. How does Mr. Dershowitz handle protesters?

"I like having hecklers, because I don't try to win them over. I try to use them as a way of illustrating to the people in the middle what we're dealing with -- people who don't want to have rational debate, rational discourse. I try to use them to my advantage."

Mr. Dershowitz has written that when he was growing up, anti-Semitism determined where American Jews could work, live and go to school, and with whom they could socialize - but that none of that is true today.

"I sure hope that [Jean-Paul] Sartre was not right that the anti-Semite makes the Jew. Anti-Semitism is not a central phenomenon in the life of Americans."

The National Catholic Reporter recently published an article blaming Israel for Holocaust denial in the Middle East. When such claims seem to be spreading, how would Mr. Dershowitz respond?

"The worst abuses are those you can't control -- like when they give opinions. It's futile to try to ban them legally. What you have to do is constantly respond to it, always enter the marketplace, never ignore it. The absurdity that Israel is responsible for Holocaust denial? That's like saying the woman is responsible for rape -- blaming the victim."

Ahmadinejad is a different story. In 2005, the Iranian leader said that "Israel must be wiped off the face of the map" and "the way to peace in the Middle East is the destruction of Israel." A year later he declared that "the real cure for the conflict is elimination of the Zionist regime," which "is heading toward annihilation."

Ahmadinejad was the sponsor of a much-ballyhooed conference in Tehran in December of 2006 billed as a "Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision." Attended by delegates from 30 countries, the gathering featured an exhibit of photographs of dead Jews labeled "Myth" and "Typhus Victims," and of smiling Holocaust survivors under the heading of "Truth."

Mr. Dershowitz has called Ahmadinejad "the Hitler of the 21st century -- a dictator who denies one Holocaust in order to bring about another Holocaust."

Mr. Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler, once Canada's minister of justice and attorney general and a leading international human rights lawyer, are in the forefront of an effort to bring Ahmadinejad to trial for inciting genocide. Mr. Dershowitz has called him "the Hitler of the 21st century -- a dictator who denies one Holocaust in order to bring about another Holocaust."

But the only way to prosecute Ahmadinejad is through the International Criminal Court -- to which neither Iran nor Israel are signatories and to which the United Nations would have to refer the matter as part of international sanctions. Such a trial is not very likely to happen.

The next best way to confront Ahmadinejad, says Mr. Dershowitz, is through sanctions -- "unilateral, organizational, multi-lateral, exposure - and putting together an incitement-to-genocide dossier, bringing him to trial in the court of public opinion if we can't get a [legal] forum to bring him to trial. Also, trying to get indictments against the leaders of Iran for Argentina, for the specific crimes of killing hundreds of women and children and civilians in the two explosions that they're responsible for."

To date, there have been indictments issued, he says, but only against middle-ranking officials.
Mr. Dershowitz also notes a concerted effort at a number of elite universities to dehumanize and demonize Israel.

"When I speak on college campuses, and I speak on many, I always get calls the next day, almost in a whispered voice, 'Thank you for speaking up.' And I ask, 'Why don't you speak up?' 'Well, you know, we don't want to be unpopular with students. We don't want to get into controversial areas. We don't want to be politically incorrect.'

"I never wanted to write the book 'The Case for Israel.' [But] I had to, even though nobody has to write 'The Case for Canada' or 'The Case for France' or 'The Case for England,' because the case against Israel was being so prominently featured on American university campuses, and it was based on such ignorance that I had to get the liberal case for Israel out there based on facts. And when I did that, it was seen immediately as an enormous threat to the hard left presence on campuses."

Mr. Dershowitz recalls the birth of Israel "very vividly." Sixty years later, he is as appalled as most American Jews that Israel appears to be vilified by the international community, but cautions against unwarranted paranoia.

How best to react?

"First of all, we must continue to maintain American support. And there is more grass-roots support around the world than people sometimes think. For example, in Europe, where a lot of the elite media hate Israel, a lot of average people don't. And the fact is that most of the European leaders, from Merkel, to Brown, to Sirkozy, are not anti-Israel. So I think it's more complicated and nuanced [than what some people say]. I think there is still a good deal of good will toward Israel among average people on college campuses. I think the radicals often burn their own bridges. And what I do with the radicals is make sure to point them out as anti-American, rather than focusing only on the Israeli issue."

Mr. Dershowitz was quick to respond to "The Israel Lobby," the book by two noted professors (Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago) that claimed that American foreign policy is largely (and detrimentally) controlled by Jewish interests.

"This study is so filled with distortions, so empty of originality or new evidence, so tendentious in its tone, so lacking in nuance and balance, so unscholarly in its approach, so riddled with obvious factual errors that could easily have been checked [but obviously were not], and so dependent on biased, extremist and anti-American sources, as to raise the question of motive: What would motivate two well-recognized academics to depart so grossly from their usual standards of academic writing and research."

"We need young Jews to see the strengths, the positive aspects of Judaism."

Mr. Dershowitz also has taken on Jimmy Carter, whose book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" he described as an "a-historical, one-sided brief against Israel," which "incredibly asserts that the initial violence in the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict occurred when 'Jewish militants' attacked Arabs in 1939. ... There is no mention of the long history of Palestinian terrorism before the occupation, or of the Munich massacre and others inspired by Yasser Arafat. ... This is a tragedy because the Carter Center, which has done much good in the world, could have been a force for peace if Jimmy Carter were as generous in spirit to the Israelis as he is to the Palestinians."

Although he has suggested that people spend two hours a week undertaking a constructive advocacy activity on Israel's behalf, Mr. Dershowitz sees Judaism being increasingly endangered from within, particularly through assimilation.

"I think we need young Jews to see the strengths, the positive aspects of Judaism, not only as a religion but as a culture, a civilization, as part of one's way of life."

What about making aliyah?

"It's very hard for many Americans, because life's good here. Life's good in Israel, too, though. I mean, people don't realize how good it is. The economic situation is very positive. Daily life is very good. What I've been urging people to do -- what I'm probably going to do myself -- is make a commitment to spend several months a year there - chatzi aliyah - to have a clear commitment to partially living in Israel is more realistic today for many Americans than to making a complete move."

For most Americans and Israelis concerned with civil liberties and international human rights, Alan Dershowitz is a man for all seasons.

His passion reaches its fullest eloquence when he is in the Holy Land. In March of this year, he went to Sderot to "stand in solidarity" with the townspeople there, "part of a long line of heroes," he said, "who have resisted evil and have been on the forefront of the battle against genocidal murderers.

"You are being attacked for only one reason - because Hamas [like] the Hitlers and the Hamans before them [know] that they could take advantage of Israel's higher sense of morality. ... Their main goal is to deliberately kill as many Israeli citizens; civilians, men, women, children as they possibly can. ... When they kill a Jewish civilian, they claim victory. When Israel inadvertently kills a Palestinian civilian in an effort to get at the terrorists, they [the Arabs] claim victory.

"These murderers must be stopped before their rockets hit - God forbid - a kindergarten, a school bus, a schoolyard, a hospital. They must not be allowed to continue to play Russian roulette with the lives of Jewish children. They are committing war crimes, and they are trying to commit genocidal crimes against humanity. And yet it is Israel that is condemned by the United Nations. Those who condemn Israel are complicitous in evil."

The war on Sderot, and against all Israel, said Alan Dershowitz, is a conflict "between good and evil; between those who love life and those who peddle death."

This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times.


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