Prof. Alan Dershowitz Makes Philadelphia’s Case for Israel

— by Lori Lowenthal Marcus

Professor Alan Dershowitz came to the University of Pennsylvania on Thursday evening, February 2, 2012, to accomplish two goals: one, to continue in his role as American’s most outspoken, knowledgeable “celebrity” to “Make the Case for Israel” (the title of his 2003 book); and to tell Penn pro-Israel students, the Penn administration and the larger Philadelphia pro-Israel community, that they are model Israel advocates.  He accomplished both.

Last semester a few students conspired to create an organization on Penn’s campus with the goal of hosting a conference there to promote the boycotting of, divesting from and sanctioning of Israel (“BDS“).   Rather than create panic, however, their efforts forged an otherwise virtual impossibility: a community acting in almost complete unison to showcase Israel and educate those willing to be educated so they too would join the ranks of supporters, rather than vilifiers.  

More after the jump.
There were those in the Philadelphia community who wanted Penn not to support such a conference by granting it use of its facilities, but the school administration refused to go that route, while still very clearly disassociating itself from the BDS message and goals.   A virtual community-wide response was to support the efforts of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia which led the response off-campus, working with Penn Hillel on-campus, which created a myriad of events and initiatives to showcase Israel.  Together the Federation and Penn Hillel brought in Dershowitz as the event unifying the university and the community at large in solidarity with Israel.  It all came together exactly as the planners hoped.

In addition to the Dershowitz event, “We Are One With Israel: An Evening of Unity and Community Solidarity,” before a sold-out crowd of 900 at Penn’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday evening, there were several student-only initiatives, including raising money for an Israeli charity and promoting investment in Israel.  For one massive initiative, “Israel Across Penn,” Penn students hosted a series of Shabbat dinners for more than 800 other students.  The only requirement for attendance was to agree that the dinner conversation would center around Israel.

Students Josh Cooper and Shlomo Klapper were the organizers of the dinners.  Both from New Jersey, each steadfastly refused to say that the dinners or the Dershowitz event were to counter the BDS conference.  They insisted that the BDS supporters had a right to have a conference, but they both agreed the BDS event created a terrific opportunity by galvanizing the Jewish and pro-Israel community.  

“Their goal is to discredit the state of Israel, we have revealed a deep and strong connection to Israel,” Klapper said.

Cooper added, “There is a strong positive energy for Israel on this campus, but sometimes it’s dormant, so this really mobilized us.”

As student and community leaders gathered for a meal in Steinhardt Hall, the Penn Hillel building, and waited for a private chat with Dershowitz, Eric Schorr, a Columbia University student, rose and read an Ivy League Solidarity Statement, which was signed by pro-Israel leaders at all the other Ivy League schools.  “Boycotts are an obstacle to peace,” the statement reads, “BDS fails to recognize Israel’s prior offerings of peace that have been categorically rejected by Palestinian leadership, and merely seeks to vilify Israel.”  

Samara Gordon, a leader in the bi-partisan Penn Israel Political Action Committee said that more than sixty students from organizations across the Penn campus, including the Penn Democrats, the College Republicans, the National Society for Black Engineers, and the Japan Students Association, signed a statement of solidarity with the pro-Israel Penn leadership.  Gordon introduced Dershowitz to the dinner crowd, thanking him for consistently being the “go-to” person in support of Israel, and for being “awesome.”

In a short but upbeat pep talk to the select group Dershowitz made several points he reiterated to the larger crowd later: support for Israel is and must be a bi-partisan issue, all of the Penn community has presented a model of pro-Israel advocacy, the school was right not to prevent the BDS conference from taking place on the campus – so long as there is a single policy, it must be consistently applied – and just as important as it was to allow the conference on campus,  was it for the supporters to respond vigorously with the truth, by making their case for Israel.  

One student lamented the dearth of pro-Israel academics who speak out,  in contrast to the many anti-Israel professors who do.  Acknowledging the imbalance, Dershowitz explained that so many on the hard left have made it seem “politically incorrect” to support Israel.  But, as Dershowitz repeated several times, “I’m a liberal Democrat and I support Israel because of my liberal values.  I support Israel because I am a feminist, I support Israel because I am pro-gay rights, I support Israel because I steadfastly believe in human rights.”  

The dinner crowd joined the hundreds of others who filed into the Zellerbach auditorium at the Annenberg Center.  As the auditorium filled to capacity, the speeches and introduction of the introducers began.  Rabbi Mike Uram, the director of Penn Hillel, set the tone by sharing a little Torah learning with the audience.  

Uram remarked that one of the things Jews thank G-d for in the morning blessings, is for the understanding to discern day from night.  And, he said, that was exactly why everyone was gathered together, to have Professor Dershowitz as a role model helping everyone to “distinguish between those who seek a real, lasting peace and those who simply want to demonize the Israeli people,” he continued, “and between those who search for facts and those who search only for accusations.” 

David L. Cohen, Chairman of the Penn Board of Trustees, as well as a former trustee of the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Federation, read a statement from Penn President Amy Gutmann.  Gutmann had been subject to heated criticism for allowing the conference to go forward, and for being insufficiently forceful in distancing the university from the conference.  Gutmann’s statement again included a rejection of the message and the goals of BDS, and insisted that, “truth and reason will win the day,” and with a closer the crowd was eager to hear:  “thanks for doing it the right way, Shalom, Amy Gutmann.”

The President of the Philadelphia Federation, Sherrie Savett, welcomed everyone, and introduced the star of the evening, Professor Alan Dershowitz.

True to form, Dershowitz presented a potpourri of articulately delivered bombshells, many that were welcome to most, others that were anathema to some, but most with such aplomb and unassailable logic as to calm down, if not convince, even those who disagreed.

Consistent with his theme of supporting Israel because of his liberal values, Dershowitz stated that he abhors those supporting BDS against Israel because if they really cared about human rights, they would be employing “BDS against Syria, against Cuba, against Iran, against China, against Russia, against Hamas and Hezbollah.”  Because the BDS supporters are ignoring the true violators of human rights across the globe, it makes a mockery of their criticisms of Israel, “the one country in the Middle East with the highest respect for human rights.”  

Going further, Dershowitz slammed the professors who support BDS generally, and those supporting Penn BDS specifically. “Those professors who are supporting BDS in the name of human rights? Shame on you! Iran is murdering dissidents and you are complaining about Israel?  Shame on you – you are abusing the concept of human rights,” Dershowitz thundered, ” You are complicit with evil when you ignore other violators of human rights and focus on Israel – you have to justify yourselves!”  Dershowitz went further: “this anti-Israel campaign is one of the greatest human rights issues of this century, supplying a justification for the oldest hatred.”

Continuing his theme of support for liberal values and human rights dictating support for Israel, Dershowitz invoked one of the greatest icons of liberalism in American history, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who visited Israel during the first violent uprising, in 1988.  Upon his return, Justice Brennan remarked that, “Israel was the only country in the world that could teach the United States how to fight against terrorism with the same concern for human liberties.”  

Although there were several adults who asked questions during the Q and A following the talk, students asked the questions which elicited the most informative responses.

In a nod to current global concerns, Dershowitz was asked about recent news reports that Israel may soon respond to the nuclear threat from Iran.  For the second time that evening Dershowitz carefully explained that if Israel were to strike, it would be a reactive and not a pre-emptive strike.  

“Iran,” he explained, “has already committed acts of war against Israel,” citing the arming of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina.  “Israel is within its legal rights to respond with force to the Iranian threat.”

The final question was one that, while hostile, Dershowitz might have paid someone to ask.  Echoing the November 22, 2011 “Pinkwashing” New York Times op-ed  written by professor Sarah Schulman, a young woman asked “if a ‘Palestinian’ tells me Israel stole her land, what good is it for me to say that ‘Israel is good on gay rights’?”

Warming to the fight, Dershowitz unequivocally rejected the notion of ‘Palestinian’ land having been stolen.   He launched into a brief history lesson on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, absentee Arab ownership, purchases of the land by Jews, and concluded with by quoting an Arab leader who responded to the Peel Commission in 1937 which attempted to create a Jewish and another Arab State, “There is no such country as Palestine! Palestine is a term the Zionists invented!  We live in Southern Syria.”

The author of the “Pinkwashing” op-ed was one of the presenters at the Penn BDS conference.  And just as Dershowitz exposed her hypocrisy for ruing instead of praising Israel’s openness and freedom for gays by pretending it was merely a front for stealing land from the Arabs, a further irony was made apparent by actions taken by the Penn BDS organizers.  

According to the online agenda of the BDS conference, one of the sessions was devoted to Academic Freedom and addressed freedom of speech.  A reporter for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice was immediately rejected when she applied for a press pass to the conference, and a reporter from the other Philadelphia Jewish media outlet had his press credentials revoked because the organizers disliked an article he had written.

While Professor Dershowitz could not have known about it when he gave his talk here, the refusal to operate openly, and the denial of access to those with potentially opposing viewpoints by the conference organizers were entirely consistent with his point, that the BDS advocates were hypocrites masking their hatred of Israel with a thin veneer of concern for civil rights and freedoms.

The Anti-Israel Movement: BDS On Campus

This weekend, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, a conference will be held. The gathering, which the University is hosting, has been arranged by a group which is identified by the acronym BDS. BDS refers to the movement dedicated to punishing, vilifying and delegitimizing the State of Israel in three ways.

  • First, this group encourages “B”, boycotting Israeli products.
  • Second, the group advocates “D”, divesting from companies which do business in and with Israel.
  • And third is “S”, the efforts to convince governments around the world to impose sanctions against Israel.

[Read more…]

Heated Debate Between Dershowitz Ben-Ami

  • Dershowitz: J Street contributes to atmosphere of delegitimizing Israel
  • Ben-Ami: Dershowitz drives young, liberal Jews away from Israel

Sparks fly in an often contentious, always interesting evening of discussion centered on the question “Who Speaks For Israel?” featuring Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, recognized by many as America’s most articulate centrist defender of the State of Israel, and Jeremy Ben-Ami, founding president of J Street, the relatively new Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill that seeks to bring US pressure to bear on Israel to move the Middle East peace process forward.

More after the jump.
From the start of the discussion, neither Dershowitz nor Ben-Ami is timid in expressing criticism of the other. The evening is a marked contrast from an earlier debate the two participated in at New York’s 92nd Street Y, when moderator Elliot Spitzer tried to steer the conversation toward areas of agreement. In this exchange, Shalom TV President Mark S. Golub helps the speakers clarify the ways in which they support Israel from very different perspectives.

Although Ben-Ami begins the discussion by saying that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have contributed to a lack of peace in the Middle East, and “there is more than enough blame to go around; both sides have committed their fair share of errors,” the J Street leader refuses to say that he would tell college students that “Israel is not the problem.”

Citing J Street’s refusal to condemn the Goldstone Report, its secretly taking money from George Soros, and its criticizing Israel’s human rights record out of context, Dershowitz contends that J Street adds to current efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and permits college students to think of Israel as an apartheid or Nazi nation.

“All human rights is comparative,” insists Dershowitz. “Nobody is better than a C+ or B-. But no country in modern history has had a better human rights record faced with comparable threats than the nation of Israel. Not the United States, not Great Britain, not France. I will not let Israel be a scapegoat for divestment, for boycotts, for delegitimization, for demonization, for being singled out as human rights violators–and J Street contributes to that atmosphere.”

Dershowitz also accuses J Street of failing to cite the positives in Israel’s human rights record, pointing to the sterling record of Israel’s Supreme Court.

“Let’s look at Israel’s Supreme Court compared to the United States’ Supreme Court,” says Dershowitz. “I would trade the two supreme courts in thirty seconds. The Israeli Supreme Court is much more sensitive to civil rights than the US Supreme Court. You wouldn’t know that listening to J Street.”

Ben-Ami counters with a claim that Dershowitz is distorting J Street’s nuanced message and makes a point of saying he believes one of the travesties of the United Nations is its obsession with Israel’s human rights record vis-a-vis the rest of the world. Ben-Ami also blames Dershowitz for pushing young people away from Israel by labeling anyone who dares to disagree with Israel as being anti-Israel or a self-hating Jew.

“You, and [your] manner of advocacy, are part of the problem, which is why so many younger, liberal Jews are walking away from Israel. You are creating an atmosphere where it is very difficult for us to feel comfortable coming forward and discussing very difficult and very troubling issues.”

One of the most dramatic moments occurs when Dershowitz suddenly reveals large blowups of frames from a J Street video grouping him with Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh in the “Chorus of No” on the two-state solution, and in opposition to President Obama, General Petraeus, Secretary of State Clinton, and the “Chorus of Yes.”

“Jeremy knows I’ve been opposed to the settlements since when he was still in diapers,” says Dershowitz as he asks for an apology from Ben-Ami.

Ben-Ami responds by saying Dershowitz owes him an apology for saying that J Street had “gone over to the dark side” in a piece Dershowitz wrote for the Huffington Post. In the end, neither man apologizes to the other.

In a most telling interchange, Dershowitz declares, “I am J Street’s nightmare because I am a liberal, Democratic Jew who strongly opposes the settlements, who strongly favors a two-state solution, who supports Obama, who supports Hillary Clinton, who supports Petraeus; but who does not support J Street. You have to create the illusion that anyone who opposes J Street is a member of the right and the Sarah Palin/Rush Limbaugh group. You can’t explain me, Irwin Cotler, Elie Wiesel–who agree with your positions but who don’t agree with the fact that you always emphasize your criticism of Israel and not your support of Israel; that you have many members of your organization who are virulently anti-Israel.”

Ben-Ami: Name one! You always say we have many members of our group who are virulently anti-Israel. Name one.

Dershowitz: Students at Berkeley who refuse to include “pro-Israel” in their name.

Ben-Ami: That makes then virulently anti-Israel?

Dershowitz: Absolutely. Why would you not have pro-Israel in your name?

Ben-Ami: This is why we view the way in which you advocate for Israel as “the nightmare” for J Street. It is true. It is because people like you, and the way in which you advocate, act as a chilling factor for people to get involved with Israel in the first place.

The two men also disagree on Iran. Ben-Ami argues that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would diminish Iran’s strength and its desire to develop nuclear weapons. Dershowitz strongly disagrees and contends that Ben-Ami is positioning Israel to take the blame if Iran develops nuclear capability.

Dershowitz is especially critical of J Street’s failure to condemn the Goldstone Report even though Ben-Ami confirms that he does not believe its conclusions which charge Israel with purposely plotting to kill civilians in Gaza and contends there is no proof that Hamas used human shields or fired from civilian areas.

“You know why you didn’t criticize the Goldstone Report?” asks Dershowitz rhetorically. “Because too many of your members would have quit–because [J Street] members voted [in favor of] the Goldstone Report without reading it!”

Ben-Ami responds that Dershowitz distorts J Street’s position, pointing out that J Street criticized the report as biased and urged the US to oppose any acceptance of the Goldstone Report in the UN Security Council. Ben-Ami also claims that the suggestion that J Street facilitated a meeting between Goldstone and members of Congress is a media lie perpetrated by a biased Washington Times.

Explaining J Street’s lobbying philosophy, Ben Ami says, “We are American citizens and we have a right to influence American policy, especially in matters regarding Israel, because, as Jews, we have a stake in what happens in that country. We have a right to tell Israel the truth–that the path Israel is on is leading it off a cliff and is not securing the Israeli future as a Jewish and democratic home. And it is the most Zionist thing we can do.”

Dershowitz summarizes his position by saying, “Criticize Israel. But tell college students both sides of the equation. Don’t let them come away with the impression that Israel is a unique human rights violator. Put it in context–that’s all I ask you to do.”

The Dershowitz/Ben-Ami debate was sponsored by the Harold Hoffman Memorial Lecture, a free annual event open to the public at Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut. This year the event drew an overflow crowd of more than 1,100 people who were split in their support of Dershowitz and Ben-Ami.

The entire debate will begin airing for four weeks on Shalom TV as free Video On Demand, the Jewish network available on cable systems throughout the United States and in Canada. The program may also be viewed online by clicking here, or at http://www.shalomtv.com under “Watch Complete Programs.”