Dershowitz spars over how to defend Israel in US
“The important point is to fight back,” Harvard law professor told the dozens of students among 800 activists.
BOSTON – Two prominent pro- Israel legal scholars are urging students to reclaim the language of human rights as the most effective means of combating anti-Israel activism on campus.
“The important point is to fight back,” Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told the dozens of students among 800 activists at a Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) conference that concluded Monday. “Silence is never the response.”
He said that defenders of Israel need to make the case that if student groups want to use divestment and boycotts against countries, they should start with the worst human rights abusers – rather than Israel – and that pro-Israel students should lead the way. Dershowitz also said students supporting Israel should show that focusing on Israel takes away from pressing cases, including genocide, taking place around the world.
“Grab on to the very rhetoric of human rights and try to turn it not only against them but also in the direction of truth,” he stressed.
Similarly, McGill human rights lawyer and former Canadian attorney-general Irwin Cotler called on students to take the initiative and to make it clear that it is radical Islam at the core of the conflict in the Middle East.
“Israel finds itself in an ongoing way in the docket of the accused. And the time has come not simply to always answer as the defendant in the docket of the accused, but to take back the narrative,” he declared.
CAMERA’s two-day conference, the first of its size that the organization has held in a dozen years, focused on several fronts in the “War by Other Means” – CAMERA’s term for what it calls “the global campaign to delegitimize Israel.”
Nevertheless, speakers at the event, held at Boston University, returned repeatedly to changing the campus climate.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a Jewish Studies lecturer at University of California-Santa Cruz, suggested that Israel supporters focus on safeguarding students from anti-Semitic harassment as opposed to focusing solely on making Israel’s case.
“Strategies which focus on addressing the hostile environment that anti-Semitic behavior creates for Jewish students seem more promising right now, in part because in the current campus climate, defending the basic civil rights of Jewish students is more acceptable than defending the Jewish state,” Rossman-Benjamin said.
She added that “achieving protections for Jewish students, I believe, will almost certainly lead to the diminution of the demonization and delegitimization of Israel on campus.”
In his remarks opening CAMERA’s conference on Sunday, Dershowitz also took aim at the “pro- Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street, with whom he has frequently sparred publicly and which itself is highly focused on outreach to college students, as hurting efforts to defend Israel at universities.
Dershowitz enumerated several “lies” that he said campus detractors frequently used against Israel, including that it doesn’t want peace, that it is risking US soldiers’ lives in the Middle East and that it has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
“One of the lies that facilitates these lies on college campuses is that J Street is a pro-Israel organization,” he charged. “That has become a tragic, tragic lie on American campuses.”
He seized on the recent revelations that billionaire financier George Soros – whom Dershowitz described as unwilling to support pro-Israel organizations – as shedding doubt on the credibility of the organization’s claim to support Israel.
In response, J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami said that he was “gravely disappointed” with Dershowitz’s “spiral of halftruths and outright lies.”
“These ad hominem attacks hardly befit a professor at Harvard Law School, but the real tragedy here is that his nonsense distracts attention from the dire choices Israel now faces and turns off a whole new generation to pro- Israel activism.”
Dershowitz also had a heated encounter with another conference presenter, Melanie Phillips, later in the day.
The fierce critic of radical Islam and author of Londonistan outlined what she termed “a mass derangement, a complete departure from reason altogether over the issue of Israel.”
She said the trend goes beyond “conventional” explanations like anti-Semitism to being part of “a much wider repudiation of reason, particularly among people on the Left who consider themselves to be progressive,” including on issues such as global warming and the war in Iraq.
Dershowitz objected to her tying the issue of Israel to a set of stances associated with one part of the ideological spectrum, which he contended would alienate the very college students he and others hoped to reach.
“Don’t you think that the worst way to try to get young people to support Israel is to give them a litmus test on global warming?” he asked to applause. “You’re turning Israel into an extreme, rightwing- driven agenda issue, and that’s not Israel.”
Phillips countered, also to applause, that Dershowitz was in essence saying that “right-wing is a synonym for ‘don’t listen to her, don’t go there, she shouldn’t even be on the platform.’ I don’t think that’s an enlightened way to behave. I don’t think it’s helpful.”
She continued, “The suggestion that I can’t possibly influence young Jewish people to have a more sympathetic, helpful attitude towards Israel because they will be so upset by all these terrible right-wing things that I’m saying presupposes that no young person could possibly agree with me. I have to tell Professor Dershowitz, I’m sure he’ll be horrified to learn this, that a very large number of people do.”
In her prepared remarks, Phillips also attributed the “wild and frenzied obsession” of the particular hatred of Israel in Britain in part to the disintegration of its empire with nothing to replace its standing.
Referring to “the collapse of national British self-belief,” she described “the demoralization of Britain as a nation.”
“A demoralized nation, we know from history,” she concluded, “always turns upon the Jews.”