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Middle East Issues

Alan Dershowitz on Free Speech, Academic Freedom and Intimidation

In an exclusive interview, the Harvard law professor and civil libertarian examines the Columbia University case.

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 student’s academic freedom.

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 aren’t 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, they’re silenced and there is an atmosphere not only of intimidation, but also of one-sidedness.

DP: So you believe that the situation at Columbia is more problematic than at most universities?

AD: It’s 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 1990’s he decided that it was essential to at least pretend to recognize Israel’s 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 I’m opposed to the occupation. There was a sign that said "you’re not welcomed here." I couldn’t 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 doesn’t 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 Harvard’s. 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 intended credibility.

I have a letter in front of me from one of the most prominent alumni, a major contributor, who says: "I’m 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 university’s 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 world’s most distinguished supporters of both academic freedom and free speech, who will independently look into this and determine whether or not the committee’s decision is warranted, and if not, to offer their own advice and judgement.

DP: What’s 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 don’t 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 professor.

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 that’s 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 student?

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 there’s 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. He’s 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 campus?

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 we’re 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. I’m in the process of preparing a little pamphlet about Finkelstein which I want to see circulated all over campuses in the United States.

DP: What should students do with that information?

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 Schindler’s List is part of the international Jewish conspiracy, intended to deflect attention from American policy in Israel.

DP: I’ve 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 don’t 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 can’t. The hit team claims that they already prevented and destroyed the reputations of two pro-Israel writers.

DP: Do you have any recommendations for students on how they can present a more balanced portrayal of Israel on their campus?

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 committee’s 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: They’re actually building up now. They’re 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 that’s the key. Get the facts out.

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