Alan Dershowitz, O.J. Simpson's lawyer and a man who spent the middle of the last decade spit-shining the idea of institutionalized American torture, would like us to have a moral debate.
Along with a student group, the Brooklyn College department of political science is co-sponsoring a panel discussion Feb. 7 about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of the State of Israel in response to its treatment of Palestinians. This has gotten Dershowitz's attention not simply because he happens to oppose the BDS movement, but for the far more compelling reason that Alan Dershowitz has not personally been invited to participate.
It does seem likely that the panel will end up being a one-sided affair. The two panelists, Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, may disagree about the scope, implementation, and details of BDS, but they'll doubtless support the idea. To an ardent Zionist like Dershowitz, it would be easy to see the event—even with a Q&A afterward—as less a discussion than a single argument delivered in tandem.
But Dershowitz, as is his wont, takes it about a dozen steps further:
I am not opposed to students sponsoring an event like this... What I'm opposed to is the political department sponsoring and endorsing the BDS. The BDS includes the blacklisting of Jewish professors from Israel, and that's illegal, immoral and racist. An academic department should not be taking sides in this debate.
Also as is his wont, Dershowitz makes his opposition look better through the sheer severity of his own argument. It's precisely because claims like "racist" and "blacklisting" can be casually appended to an event like this that points up the need for clarification. Most people don't know what the BDS is, and it's not something so famous that it had Dennis Boutsikaris portraying versions of it on Law & Order for a couple decades.
Even on its best days, the BDS movement cries out for clarification. Those who support it vary wildly in the degrees of their contributions or endorsement. America's United Methodist Church, for instance, opposes divestment, but affiliates with BDS to support native Palestinian industry and to encourage other countries to block imports of Israeli products made in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
Concrete calls for divestment from Israel or boycotts of all products vary in intensity or enforcement. Or they may be suggested but delayed and haltingly implemented. Picture last year's "epic live-tweeting" of a Park Slope co-op meeting, in which hummus had to be reconciled with fascism. (Hummus represents something of a prolonged ache. Solution: make your own damn hummus. It's easy.)
It's not totally clear what Dershowitz means by "blacklisting" of academics, but it seems reasonable to assume he refers to a BDS-related boycott of joint academic projects with Israeli universities. As the linked article notes, such a boycott has direct bearing on the Israel-Palestine conflict, as the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology developed a remote-controlled bulldozer used to level Palestinian homes to remove their tactical roof-having and standing-up abilities.
This topic can have significant nearby impacts for students at a place like Brooklyn College. Technion just won a bid in a joint project with Cornell to build a two-million square foot engineering and applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island. If you're related to Cornell alumni or just happen to visit the neighborhood, you might be concerned that funding close to home might be generating a weapon to be used abroad. It's a sentiment little different from student disgust with MIT during the Vietnam War.
As for Dershowitz's racism charge, well, whatever. Getting called "racist" for advocating a position critical of current Israeli policy is about as difficult as being called a "hipster" for owning an old camera, or a record player, or an oxblood jacket—or, presumably, going to Brooklyn College, even if you skip the panel discussions.
But that does not represent the whole of Dershowitz's objections to the college's lecture/discussion. He goes on:
This department would never invite me, for example, to speak and state my opposing point of view. So it's not about academic freedom; it's about the department taking one side.... The event shouldn't be cancelled, but the political science department should withdraw its support, or alternatively the political science department should invite me or someone else that represents an opposing point of view and give equal endorsement.
As always, Dershowitz has reached some interesting conclusions via the evidence, but perhaps this is the kind of tortured reasoning that occurs when you don't have grad students, interns or (alleged) plagiarism to prepare your remarks for you. It's odd that a politically involved Brooklyn College alumnus would presume he would never be invited by the poli-sci department to address them, despite a relationship with the college cordial enough that he donated his papers to their library.
It's odder still when Brooklyn College associate professor of political science Corey Robin notes that Dershowitz has delivered the college's Konefsky Lecture. It's a lecture decided on and invited by the political science department, which has included multiple political speakers before, and, more to the point, it is offered without counterpoint, entirely alone.
In fact, let's go briefly to another Dershowitz quote, this time from when he was busy elevating his carrying water for legalized torture to something like a Socratic ideal for the future of nations (please note the ironic career summary at the right, in which Dershowitz's torture apologia is glossed with a description of him as, "'the nation's most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer' and one of its 'most distinguished defenders of individual rights,'"):
Torture, like any other topic, deserves a vigorous debate in a democracy such as ours. Even if government officials decline to discuss such issues, academics and advocacy groups have a duty to raise them and submit them to the marketplace of ideas.
Alan Dershowitz is so committed to both an open two-sided dialogue and an open vigorous debate on torture that he gave a 2008 Brooklyn College lecture in which he discussed torture at length. Alone.
The Brooklyn College panel might be great; it might be a fiasco; it might be confused or embrace propositions we think morally wrong. What it's not, right now, is worthy of being tied to big-name, galvanic media-friendly words of outrage like "blackballing" and "racism," while dealing in tropes of academic censorship. But this is par for the course with Dershowitz, the law's most enduring concern troll. Hypocrisy in defense of claiming victimization or demonizing your opponent is no vice. It's not even an effort on par with skipping over a puddle. Dershowitz can worry about one's ability to speak freely before academia after likely burying Norman Finkelstein's academic career. He can publicly hound a respected jurist and UN commissioner until the man writes a bizarre op-ed retraction utterly disavowed by fellow members of his own commission, ignore the contradictions and declare himself on the side of the angels.
Dershowitz is a "teach the controversy" hack indistinguishable from even the poorest mush-mouthed goober running a roadside stucco-frame "Dinosaurs Walking With Man!" exhibit in the North Florida scrub oak. Like evangelicals who want to teach the controversy by forcing creationism into the science classroom while demanding the removal of controversial topics like "some people are literally alive and gay" from health class, his commitment to hearing both points of view depends on whether the point of view being advocated first is his. The Dersh stands alone when invited to campus to descant on the high moral duties of placing electrodes on a Baghdad cabbie's balls, but if Norman Finkelstein is in danger of getting a job somewhere or if the wrong kind of people are talking about Israel back at the ol' college, well, then those people are dangerous.
In the spirit of open debate, we're inviting Alan Dershowitz to participate in the comments.
UPDATE: Alan Dershowitz responds, via email:
I have no interest in responding to an ad hominem attack filled with lies. I am debating this issue on responsible websites such as Huffington Post if your readers are interested in learning what I really think, as distinguished from the distortions contained in your post.
Sent from my iPhone