Commentary | Professor Dershowitz opts for the divisive

A recent speech feeds polarization in the Israel-Palestine conversation

On the evening of September 15, Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor and author of “The Case for Israel”, took to the podium of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue in Westmount following an adoring introduction that declared him a world hero. The much-praised and much-reviled public defender of the state of Israel received a standing ovation from the mostly elderly and Jewish audience prior to even uttering a single word of his speech, entitled “Defending Israel in the Court of Public Opinion.” Many in the audience may have hoped for some insight into attitudes towards Israel among the public, and among the emerging political parties in post-Mubarak Egypt. Perhaps, others were looking for a refreshing set of intelligent points in defence of Israel to pronounce at dinner parties. Instead, Professor Dershowitz defended his favoured country only against anti-Semitic opposition, ignoring the multiplicity of moderate and reasonable perspectives.

The lecture began with praise for Israel’s liberal court system and life-saving technological innovations in the biomedical and agrarian domains. Dershowitz then expressed how ungrateful and disproportionate he found the world’s preoccupation with Israel and its national security policy, attributing it to strictly to anti-Semitism. He went on to attack some of his opponents in the public sphere,  labelling Norman Finkelstein as a holocaust sceptic, accusing Noam Chomsky of equating the Israeli government with the Third Reich, and lambasting Jimmy Carter for his supposed closeness with the Arafat family . Yet, he failed to challenge any of their arguments with regard to the conflict. The rise in popularity of pro-Palestinian positions among Jewish youth was written off as a matter of fashion. The moderate positions of organizations like J Street were deemed an affront to Israeli solidarity. Dershowitz finally beseeched the audience to encourage its children to support Israel, invoking the Jewish cultural precept of transmitting values and customs from one generation to the next. Throughout the speech, he repeatedly professed his support for a two-state peace.

Dershowitz was right to admonish radical anti-Semitic positions against Israel, but, omitting all pro-Palestinian arguments, even the moderate ones, had the effect of dismissing and demonizing the entire spectrum of their campaigns. The professor failed to recognize that the terms pro-Palestinian and anti-Semitic are not necessarily synonymous, and the anti-imperialist sentiment so commonly invoked in opposition to Israel was completely ignored. As such, the speech failed to address the full variety of public opinions on the conflict, rather presenting it to the audience in simplistic and divisive terms.

Rejecting the growing opposition to Israel among Jewish youth was short-sighted. It may be the case that some perspectives are unbalanced, but the move away from a family-based ideological commitment to the Jewish state is one in the right direction – it is a move towards a more pragmatic and peace-minded discourse. What the court of public opinion needs from its respected intellectuals is reason, clarity, and insight. Unfortunately, Professor Dershowitz failed to deliver on his responsibility.

Corey Lesk is a U1 Earth System Science student. You can reach him at corey.lesk@mail.mcgill.ca.


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