Brooklyn, Steering, and Palestinian Chicken: An Interview with Alan Dershowitz
Alan Dershowitz is a prominent jurist and political critic who has taught at Harvard Law School for over forty years and is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law there. He has published numerous books on, among other issues, American constitutional law, civil liberties, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Newsweek has described Dershowitz as, “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer and one of its most distinguished defenders of individual rights.” Perhaps most importantly, he has been the subject of at least one cartoon in the New Yorker. Recently, Dershowitz spoke with The Current about a variety of issues surrounding Israel and the American Jewish community. The discussion is reproduced below, with minor edits made for clarity.
The Current: You grew up in Borough Park, right?
Alan Dershowitz: I was born in Williamsburg and my family moved to Borough Park when I was about three or four. So I grew up in Borough Park, where I stayed until I finished college—I even lived at home when I went to Brooklyn College, which was only a couple of miles away from my house.
Current: And what was the Jewish life there like?
AD: It was a very vibrant, Modern Orthodox postwar community. There were lots of survivors who moved into the neighborhood in the mid-’40s. A lot of our teachers in yeshiva were survivors. Of course, as with other Jewish communities, we never talked about the Shoah. It was just there, hanging. My family was Modern Orthodox. They had been founders of both the Young Israel movement, which was at the time Modern Orthodox (today it’s more traditional), and also my grandfathers helped to found the orthodox yeshiva, which in those days was a “Torah Umadda [literal translation: Torah and science]” yeshiva—today it’s more Torah, less madda.
Current: Was the community there diverse in its religious background, or—
AD: —Not at all, not at all diverse. Everybody was almost identical. The range was—everybody in the community was shomer shabbos [sabbath observant], everybody in the community was kosher. The difference was whether you put your yarmulke in your pocket when you get on the train, or did you keep your little cap on when you get on the train. That was about the range of diversity. Nobody wore their tzitzis showing, nobody—our interests were baseball, girls, jokes. Our aspirations were to be ordinary Americans, to blend into the mainstream while preserving our religious traditions.
Current: So when you went off to Brooklyn College were you guys at all conscious of being in the shadow, following in the footsteps, of the intellectuals who come from City College and Brooklyn College?
AD: Sure. But we were pretty arrogant. We didn’t think they were any smarter than we were. We, too, were young intellectuals. We were very much involved in the intellectual fervor of the day—anti-McCarthyism, anti-racism, Zionism—so we thought of ourselves as serious intellectuals very much in the tradition of those who had come before us. In fact, in many ways we thought we were better, because we founded the first Orthodox house-plan in Brooklyn College, and we won the athletic championship, even though we were shomer shabbos, and, you know, I was the president of the student council. We thought we could do everything!
Our motto was, if Jackie Robinson could play second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, there’s nothing we couldn’t accomplish. This was an era of great economic and other kinds of expansion. Everyone looked to the future with tremendous optimism. There was very little unemployment, everybody had a job, everybody was lower-middle class. We thought we were very well off, and nobody had a car, so it didn’t matter! Nobody went out to restaurants. Everybody got hand-me-down clothes. But we thought we were very well off. It was a very happy time to grow up. There were no real wars going on—the Korean War was in the background, the Berlin crisis was in the background, but it didn’t affect our daily lives.
Current: It was also the era of Israel’s founding…
AD: We were very much supportive of that. Our little club, our athletic club, we called “the Palmachs,” and we all knew the Palmach fighting song—I can still sing it today: “Mi-Metulla ad ha-Negev.” But there was no controversy about Zionism in those days. The only controversy was that some of our rabbis thought Ben-Gurion was too secular, and that Israel should have been based on the standards of the Mizrahi movement (Mizrahi was a religious Zionist movement). But beyond that, there wasn’t an enormous amount of controversy. There weren’t divisions within the Jewish community, particularly, that we grew up in. Everybody was supportive of Israel. Everyone was supportive of liberal policies. We were all liberal democrats. We all loved Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson. We were suspicious of John Kennedy, because of his father. But there was a real consensus, and it was a united community.
Current: So liberalism and Zionism were seen as completely compatible?
AD: More than compatible! Zionism was a form of liberalism. It was a national liberation movement! If you weren’t a Zionist, your liberalism was suspect. Everybody was a Zionist! The only people who weren’t Zionists were people who supported Saudi Arabia, the oil interests, conservative republicans. All the liberal democrats—Hubert Humphrey was a great Zionist, Lyndon Johnson was a great Zionist. We thought Harry Truman was a great Zionist. It never even occurred to anybody that there could be an inconsistency between liberalism and Zionism. All the labor unions were Zionist. It was just taken for granted that if you were a liberal, you’d be a Zionist.
Current: When did you start seeing a shift away from that consensus?
AD: Well, I can tell you the exact date, and the exact time, and the exact reason. It was when an anti-Semite who was a great hero to the left, named Garrigan, who was an anti-Semitic priest in the early-to-mid-’70s, started to call Israel a “criminal state” and started to get some support from the left. And then, of course, by 1975, when the UN declared Zionism to be a form of racism, that clearly sent up the flag. And some people on the left—the extreme left, the Noam Chomsky left—began to peel off. So it was the middle ‘70s, shortly after the Yom Kippur war, that it all began in earnest. I debated Chomsky for the first time in the early ‘70s, wrote my first scathing attack on the hard left in 1977 or ‘78 in the American Lawyer magazine. So it was that period in the ‘70s when it began to become clear that the hard left was automatically in lockstep, turning against Israel and Zionism.
Current: And now today it seems that the momentum is moving towards that hard left. How did we come from the ‘40s and ‘50s, where there was such great optimism to today, where, especially on college campuses and amongst some intellectuals, there is a great pessimism about Israel and the Zionist project?
AD: Well, first of all, I don’t think there is “pessimism.” I don’t think that’s the right characterization. I think it’s more of a struggle. It’s more difficult. But I don’t think there’s pessimism. Israel is stronger today than it was when I was a young man—when I was a young man, Israel’s existence was in constant danger. In 1967, we were all terrified about the prospects of another Holocaust. But today, I think, Israel…our military standing in the world is very high, its level of support, at least from a security perspective, by the United States, is fairly high.
I don’t think the campus is ever representative of mainstream thinking; the campus always tends to attract extremes. So I certainly wouldn’t characterize my views as pessimistic. I would describe them as welcoming the challenge that was seen, and it’s a growing challenge. It’s much harder to defend Israel on college campuses today than when I was growing up. Your generation—I don’t know how old you are, but you sound young—is facing much greater intellectual challenges, political challenges, than our generation.
Current: Moving off campus, then, we wonder if Israel is becoming more of a wedge issue, politically, in the United States?
AD: No, I think the answer to that is “not yet.” I think we’ve managed, and I think AIPAC deserves a lot of credit for this, and other organizations, to keep Israel a bipartisan political issue. We’ve picked up a lot of support from the right, and that’s a double-edged sword, obviously. The support we have from Evangelical Christians—
Current: —Why is that double-edged sword so obvious?
AD: It’s a double-edged support because it risks turning Israel into a right-left wedge issue. I think, thanks to centrist democrats, that hasn’t happened. Look, we had some terrible losses recently. Our greatest ally, probably the greatest Zionist supporter in recent years in the United States, was Ted Kennedy. I was very close to Ted Kennedy. I can tell you, in the thirty years that I was close to him, he never said no to me on any issue relating to Zionism, to Israel, to soviet Jews, anything regarding the Jewish community. The Jewish community has never had a better friend than Ted Kennedy, and his loss is a tremendous loss, because he was a man of enormous influence. He could make a phone call and things would happen. Another friend was Joe Biden. He was always somebody who could be counted on. Now that he’s vice president, he’s playing a more neutral role (I think the same thing’s true with Hillary Clinton), but both of them are genuinely supportive of Israel’s security while critical of some of its policies. Look, Israel’s policies, as well, have moved a bit to the right. So it’s a complicated process.
Current: When that happens, when Israel’s—
AD: —Well, Israel’s policies began to move to the right when, for the first time in Israel’s history, Labor wasn’t elected, and that was the election of Menachem Begin [in 1977]. Although, by today’s standards, Menachem Begin in Israel would be regarded as a centrist, as would Sharon. So we’re seeing a general right-wing move in Israeli politics. We’re seeing it, in part, because of the immigration of so many people from the former Soviet Union who tend to be a little bit more conservative, having experienced the horrors of Communism. It’s understandable, and it’s part of the democratic process.
The same thing, by the way, is happening in America! There’s no question in my mind that America is moving toward the right. And Canada is moving toward the right. And many of the European countries are moving to the right. So it’s a general seismic shift in the universe. And it’s always pointed out in Israel, but it’s rarely pointed out in other parts of the world.
Current: So where does that leave old, stalwart liberals like you?
AD: Well, it leaves me very strongly supporting Israel’s security while being critical of some of its policies. Look, I’ve been critical of Israel’s settlement policies since before Begin got elected. I wrote my first piece attacking the first civilian settlements in Elon Moreh in 1973! I supported, in a television debate with Noam Chomsky, the two-state solution “Land for Peace” in 1970, well before Israeli governments of any political sway did that.
So although I consider myself a strong supporter of Israel, as I am a strong supporter of America, I’m critical of many of America’s policies and I’m critical of many of Israel’s policies. My own belief is that Israel should have a settlement freeze at this point, and push the Palestinians into negotiating to test their commitment, whether it exists or not, to a two-state solution.
I’ve made those views publicly known, and nobody has ever questioned my support for Israel. That’s where I think people like Peter Beinart are dead wrong. And others who say that older folks like me are lock-stock supporters of everything Israel does, and that’s what’s alienating college students. It’s total nonsense! I get very large audiences at colleges, and it’s largely because people know my own views toward Israel are skeptical and critical of some of its policies—not so much its security policies, but its policies with regard to settlements.
Current: A lot of the conversation today has evolved around some legal maneuverings that both sides seem to be undertaking. Here at Columbia we have a “steering” case where we have a professor under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for allegedly steering an Orthodox Jewish student away from a Middle East Studies course—
AD: —I have to tell you, I’m quite supportive of that professor. She has to have the best interests of students in mind. If she honestly believed that Professor Joseph Massad would not be fair to the student, she had an obligation to say that. It’s Professor Massad who is the villain, if in fact the allegations against him are true, rather than the professor who did the steering. So I think it’s a misfocused investigation in some ways. I think she should be praised and supported for telling the truth.
Current: But this investigation was instigated by a pro-Israel group, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East…
AD: That doesn’t mean they were right, just because they’re a pro-Israel group. They have to think hard about their strategy. They have to know the difference between who our friends are and who our enemies are.
Current: We wonder, then, if such legal maneuverings maybe have the danger of closing off the debate, if, by restricting academic freedom, we don’t get people in the sort of dialogue that will be crucial in having a constructive discussion.
AD: I don’t think we should cut off the debate, I think that the investigation should be of Professor Massad, and other professors who make it unpleasant or uncomfortable for a student to feel like a first-class citizen in their classroom. We have professors like that all over the country, and that’s an appropriate inquiry. I think [the steering investigation] is misdirected.
Current: The legal maneuvering that we’re experiencing here at Columbia is indicative of a larger shift that we’re seeing in the discussion, with the emergence of “lawfare”: the Palestinians using the United Nations statehood bid as a legal tactic, eight students at UC Irvine being convicted of disturbing Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech on campus. What do you feel about the overall movement away from the greater discussion and towards the legal discussion?
AD: I don’t generally like it. I think it’s much better for these things to be debated in the court of public opinion, where all side have the opportunity to express their views, but I am completely supportive of the criminal conviction of the students who tried to prevent Michael Oren from speaking. That would have happened at any great university. You can’t simply allow students or anyone else to set the agenda for what can be debated or what can’t be debated. The Irvine students were very clear: they said that Michael Oren had no right to speak, and that anybody supporting Israel has no right to speak. I thought the university at Irvine took it less seriously than it should have, and it gave the students a slap on the wrist and a red badge of courage, made them heroes. And, therefore, I thought it was absolutely not only appropriate but mandatory that the prosecuting authorities bring charges against these students. These students should be known in their careers as suppressors of free speech, and students who are intolerant of the free speech of others.
I want to see this thing debated, but using the law to promote free speech is a very good use of the law. I want to support that, but I don’t support some of the other efforts…when Jewish students argue, as they sometimes do, that speakers shouldn’t be funded or allowed to speak on campus, I think that’s always a mistake. I think we need more speech rather than less speech. I also think that Israel’s enemies often make a terrible case when they come on campus and use phrases like “Israel is worse than the Nazis.” Let them say that! They destroy their own credibility when they say that. No rational, sane, honest person could believe anything like that.
Current: One last question: what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?
AD: Well, I met Woody Allen while he was filming Manhattan. He was given to me as a 40th-birthday present by friends. He agreed to have lunch with me, and we became, I wouldn’t say friends, but we became acquaintances from that time on. Since I was there while he was filming Manhattan, I think Manhattan has always been my favorite. And if you want to ask me what my favorite Larry David episode is…it’s “Palestinian Chicken.” And let me tell you this: I recently sent a copy of “Palestinian Chicken,” that Larry David gave me, to Prime Minister Netanyahu—with the suggestion that he invite Abbas over to watch it together. And maybe if they both get a good laugh, they can begin a negotiating process.
Current: Do you know if that happened?
AD: I don’t know, but I know that Netanyahu has received the DVD, and he was looking forward to watching it. So it may be that Larry David will not only win Emmys, but he may even qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize, if his episode could bring together Netanyahu and Abbas, and bring Abbas to the negotiating table.
\\SAM SCHUBE is a senior in Columbia College and Senior Editor of The Current. DAVID FINE is a junior in Columbia College and Editor in Chief of The Current. Sam can be reached at [email protected] and David can be reached at [email protected]