Alan M. Dershowitz is a civil libertarian lawyer and is the
Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University. He is the author of
22 works of fiction and non-fiction including a #1 bestseller and one which was
made into an Academy Award-winning film. His recent book, The Case
for Israel, was a New York Times bestseller. More than a million of
his books have been sold worldwide.
The famed lawyer frequently lectures at colleges to make the
case for Israel. At the request of several student groups, in February he spoke
at Columbia University to address allegations of intimidation and bias at the
university. CAMERA On Campus managing editor Deborah Passner asked
Dershowitz his opinions about issues confronting college students and how they
can better defend Israel.
DP: What are the significant issues
surrounding the Middle East-related controversies at Columbia University?
AD: The most significant issue at Columbia
is academic freedom. Students should have the right to express views on Israel
without fear of retaliation or exclusion from classes by professors. The most
significant alleged violation at Columbia was when professor Joseph Massad
allegedly said to his student that unless she acknowledged Israeli barbarity
she could not remain in the classroom. That clearly violates the students
But on a broader level the issue is also one of an
atmosphere. When I do a comparison between Harvard and Columbia, the
differences are shocking. At Harvard, all sides of the issues are presented,
generally quite fairly. You hear very few complaints from students. They can
access information and arent presented a one-sided view, whereas at
Columbia, students credibly complain that the Middle East department is almost
completely one-sided and they hear only one narrative which is full of factual
inaccuracies and mistakes. When students try to correct them, theyre
silenced and there is an atmosphere not only of intimidation, but also of
DP: So you believe that the situation at
Columbia is more problematic than at most universities?
AD: Its hard to compare Columbia with
particular universities without being expert on every university. But,
certainly, Columbia seems to be the worst, at least among the prominent
universities with a significant Jewish student and faculty population. And its
department of Middle East studies is reputed to be the worst.
A striking example is that at Columbia, Edward Said was
regarded as a moderate. Edward Said broke with Yasir Arafat because he thought
Arafat was too soft on Israel when in the early 1990s he decided that it
was essential to at least pretend to recognize Israels right to exist as
a Jewish state and to adopt the two state solution. Edward Said never believed
in the two state solution. He himself not only encouraged and incited violence,
but he engaged in violence. He threw rocks along with his sons at Israeli
soldiers. He lied about his own background and biography.
Nevertheless, he was regarded as a moderate, whereas when I
came to speak at Columbia there were signs saying that I was not welcomed even
though I favor a two state solution and Im opposed to the occupation.
There was a sign that said "youre not welcomed here." I
couldnt even get a faculty member to introduce me, and my views are right
in the center. If Edward Said were to speak, probably a major university
official would introduce him.
DP: Who introduced you?
AD: A student. Since my speech, a
professor, a very courageous professor, George Fletcher at the law school has
now become much more involved and has challenged anybody in the Middle East
department to debate him on the issues. As far as I know, there has been no
response to that, because they do not want to debate. They have a captive
audience and they have essentially a monopoly so why expose their fallacious
views to the marketplace if they do not have to.
DP: Why do you think Harvard is able to
have a balanced department and Columbia is not?
AD: Well, I think, first of all, Harvard
doesnt have a department that is dominated by one perspective. And I
think that the kinds of people that are on the Columbia facultyparticularly
Joseph Massad, who does not have an excellent reputation for scholarship and is
largely known around the world for his ideological extremism would not pass an
ad hoc committee process like Harvards. And, we have professors at
Harvard who are prepared to speak out over a wide range of issues. We have
people representing a more conservative view toward Israel, centrists like me,
people on the left, people on the hard left.
DP: It seems that two of the people on
the committee created by Columbia to investigate complaints of intimidation
signed the divestiture petition. How do you think this is going to
affect the investigation?
AD: In addition to signing the divestiture
petition, they have expressed views that are extraordinarily anti-Israel. And
one of them apparently has said that part of the nature of the investigation is
to look into the source of the film "Columbia Unbecoming." I can
understand how a student would see this as a Macarthyite witch-hunt against the
students who were complaining rather than against the faculty members who were
accused. So I worry that the results of the committee will not have the
I have a letter in front of me from one of the most
prominent alumni, a major contributor, who says: "Im poised to
replace Columbia as the main beneficiary of my charitable remainder
trust." If President Bollinger thought that he would calm fears about the
one-sidedness by appointing a committee that includes two people who are part
of the problem, not part of the solution, he was misguided.
DP: I read, I think in the Harvard
Crimsom, that you pledged to create a second, independent committee with no
ties to Columbia if the universitys own committee reaches what you
consider a biased conclusion.
AD: Not so much a biased conclusion, but a
biased process. If the process is biased and/or the conclusion is biased, I
pledged to put together an independent committee of some of the worlds
most distinguished supporters of both academic freedom and free speech, who
will independently look into this and determine whether or not the
committees decision is warranted, and if not, to offer their own advice
DP: Whats the difference between
free speech and academic freedom?
AD: Free speech and academic freedom apply
to what a professor says outside of the classroom. Academic freedom does not
entitle the professor to limit discussion in class ideologically. However, if a
professor wanted to, he or she could say "I just do lectures, there are no
questions." Why anybody would take that course, I dont know, but a
professor has the right to do that. And a professor has the right to say,
"I will call on students based on alphabetical order, or based on who
raises their hands first," but a teacher cannot refuse to take questions
from a student based on content, and a teacher may not punish students for the
ideological content of their views. Nor can students be restricted from
attending a class, or registering for a class based on their ideological views.
These principals are part of the academic freedom and
freedom of speech of the students, and the university must always balance,
particularly in the setting of a classroom, the academic freedom and speech
rights of the student versus the academic freedom and free speech rights of a
DP: One complaint by students was that
Professor Hamid Dabashi canceled class to go to a pro-Palestinian rally. Do you
consider that free speech?
AD: I think thats very irresponsible
teaching. First of all, canceling classes in general for political reasons is
not something a teacher should be doing. Second, to show a bias that way is
irresponsible and unprofessional teaching. I think the teacher would have
strong feelings about it if a student missed class to go to a pro-Israel rally.
DP: And if a student does feel
intimidated by a professor, what course of action do you recommend for the
AD: Well, I think first of all universities
ought to make it clear that anything a professor says in the classroom is
public record, and therefore the students should be free to record anything
that goes on in the classroom. If students believe that there is intimidation
in the classroom, or that theres bias in the classroom, one important
protection is to legalize the recording of the classrooms so that there is a
record of this. I think there also should be a record of the proceedings of the
committee that has just been appointed. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and
you want to avoid he said-she said allegations. There are some dangers, of
course, in having all classes recorded, but I think on balance, the benefits
outweigh the dangers.
DP: I know that you have disputes with
anti-Israel propagandist Norman Finkelstein. Hes now speaking at a few
universities including University of Illinois and, I think, Carnegie Mellon
University. What should students do when these kinds of speakers talk on their
AD: First of all, they should know that
what Finkelstein says is almost always going to be a documented lie. They
should look at reviews done by his own mentor, Professor Peter Novick who said
that Finkelstein inserts sources, quotes and facts. Unfortunately the major
reviews are in German, but were having them translated. Professor Novick
of Chicago basically says nothing that Finkelstein says can be believed without
checking. You see that mostly what he says is inventions, made up quotes, made
up statements. Im in the process of preparing a little pamphlet about
Finkelstein which I want to see circulated all over campuses in the United
DP: What should students do with that
AD: Distribute it, widely, so that when a
person like Finkelstein comes on campus, students should know his background.
Students should know that he is a paranoid person who believes that the reason
that the major figure in the book Exodus is named Ari is because the
author intended it to be short for Aryan. Because, according to Finkelstein,
the state of Israel preferred Aryan blue-eyed blond people. He did not tell his
readers Ari is a biblical name which means lion and goes back as one of the
oldest Hebrew names known. Finkelstein takes advantage of the ignorance of
students. He thinks that Schindlers List is part of the
international Jewish conspiracy, intended to deflect attention from American
policy in Israel.
DP: Ive heard you say that many
students and professors privately admit to you that they oppose anti-Israel
activists. Why do you think many professors and students are reluctant to
publically defend Israel?
AD: Mostly professors. They dont want
Finkelstein going all over campuses of the world making up stories about them.
The whole Finkelstein-Noam Chomsky-Alex Cockburn attack team has succeeded in
intimidating many young professors around the country and around the world.
Because if you write a pro-Israel article or book, they will call you a
plagiarist. They will call you somebody who has not written your own book. They
will make up stories about you. They will make up quotes about you. I can deal
with that, but a young assistant professor without tenure cant. The hit
team claims that they already prevented and destroyed the reputations of two
DP: Do you have any recommendations for
students on how they can present a more balanced portrayal of Israel on their
AD: I think that they ought to form a
committee of knowledgeable students under a faculty advisor to debunk false
statements by professors. The response should appear on the committees
Web site and brochure ought to handed out. The teacher could be appropriately
leafleted and picketed. Free speech should become part of the ammunition of the
pro-Israel student groups.
DP: Although divestment campaigns have
lost some of their momentum, what can students do if there is a divestment
campaign on their campus?
AD: Theyre actually building up now.
Theyre not on campuses as much, but the Presbyterian Church, the Anglican
Church, and the city of Somerville. There have been many efforts to try to
divest from Israel. One has to try to keep up with that and fight it at every
turn. Students can fight it with facts. The anti-Israel side relies completely
on ignorance. And, the answer to ignorance is truth. And thats the key.
Get the facts out.