Alan Dershowitz’s problematic liberalism should be countered

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Kathleen Gao/Staff

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There’s a free speech crisis in this country. Adam Serwer at the Atlantic sums it up nicely:

“Republican legislators have proposed ‘Blue Lives Matter’ bills that essentially criminalize peaceful protest; bills that all but outlaw protest itself; and bills that offer some protections to drivers who strike protesters with automobiles. GOP lawmakers have used the state to restrict speech, such as barring doctors from raising abortion or guns with patients, opposition to the construction of Muslim religious buildings, and attempts to stifle anti-Israel activism.”

Oh, and Alan Dershowitz almost had to delay a lecture at UC Berkeley by a few a weeks. He had trouble finding a department interested in sponsoring his appearance. Dershowitz threatened to sue the campus on Fox & Friends. Berkeley Law eventually invited him to speak. He is due to appear Oct. 11.

The lecture is titled “The Liberal Case for Israel,” which is not a bad heading for what is likely to be a cynical pitch to a left-leaning student body. “Liberal” is an elastic term. It means different things to different people. On our campus, say you’re a liberal and lots of students will think you’re tolerant and nice. But you can be pretty nasty and also accurately call yourself a liberal. Over the course of history, a heterogeneous array of luminaries has laid claim to the label: from William Gladstone to George McGovern; from F.A. Hayek to John Rawls; from Bill Maher to Ben Affleck.

Dershowitz’s brand of liberalism is particularly odd and unpleasant. He believes Black Lives Matter is “an anti-Semitic group” that is “endangering the fairness of our legal system.” He supports the legalization of torture and responded to claims that the Israel Defense Forces violate humanitarian principles by arguing that the word “civilian” is becoming “increasingly meaningless.” Pointing to Barack Obama’s deteriorating relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, Dershowitz has accused the former president of disliking “tough Jews”. In March, Dershowitz ran into Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago where the two hashed out strategy to move the “travel” ban forward. Just a month before, when Democrats looked ready to elect America’s first Muslim Congressman to lead the Democratic National Committee, Dershowitz threatened to leave the party. I really wish he had.

Today, the legal scholar claims he values free speech on college campuses. But while Dershowitz’s peculiar version of liberalism moves him to defend far right speakers, like Milo Yiannopoulos, it makes exceptions for left-leaning individuals. In 2007, Dershowitz lobbied faculty and administrators at DePaul University to deny Norman Finkelstein tenure; Finkelstein is a strident critic of the Harvard professor and Israel. In 2013, Dershowitz unsuccessfully pressured Brooklyn College’s political science department to withdraw its sponsorship of an event featuring Omar Barghouti and UC Berkeley’s own Judith Butler. He disagrees with their views on Israel. Relatedly, last year Dershowitz backed an anti-BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) order signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Simon McCormack of the ACLU describes that order as a threat to free expression.

There’s not much value in dwelling on the Harvard professor’s exasperating habits of mind. His lecture topic is actually interesting and relevant; scholars and commentators should absolutely debate whether or not Israel is best described as liberal even as its government disenfranchises millions of people. One can imagine listening to a thought-provoking case in favor of the proposition.

Callie Maidhof wrote an intriguing meditation on the logic of liberalism west of the Jordan River at the New Inquiry. She depicts Israel as “an extremely warm, family-centered country, most of which is no longer willing to take to the streets for almost anything at all”— and also a place where latent bigotry towards Arabs is alarmingly commonplace, baked into the institutions of the state, and ready to burst forth at any moment. This duality should seem familiar to Americans. As conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recounts in his memoir, liberalism and racism sometimes exist side-by-side:  

“At least southerners were upfront about their bigotry; you knew exactly where they were coming from. … Not so the paternalistic big-city whites who offered you a helpful hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place … they struck without warning.”

In a world more amenable to the free and open exchange of ideas, the law school would have taken the initiative to invite someone with a less rosy view of Israel to campus to engage in a dialogue with Dershowitz. Together they could have unsettled some of our basic assumptions about the country and about liberalism itself.

Instead, we’ll get a biased, moralistic, and probably boring monologue from a publicity hound. Oh well. That’s the price of freedom.

Michael Youhana is a student at Berkeley Law.

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  • SamXie

    if you look locally, at least, you see the threat to free speech is coming from those who call themselves “progressive”. Just a few miles from here, an Oakland bakery is regularly picketed because of its glorification of a confessed, convicted terrorist. Reem Assil, the owner of the Oakland bakery responded to lawful and protected free expression by suing the protesters- and has been repeatedly denied temporary restraining orders by the court because she seeks not only an end to the protests, but for the protesters to stop discussing the matter in the media. It a classic sweeping attempt to stop not only all criticism, but all discussion as well. And if Reem Assil weren’t a Palestinian activist, the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberities Union would have been all over this.

  • zzz

    It’s not that hard to look at the Finkelstein/Dershowitz episode and say to yourself “two idiots.”

  • zzz

    It’s not that hard to look at the Finkelstein/Dershowitz episode and say to yourself “two idiots.”

  • roccolore

    Liberals are the fascists who have no problem inviting Jew-haters and terror apologists.

  • Man with Axe

    This piece isn’t really about Dershowitz. It is about how terrible Israel is. People who defend Israel are bad. People who attack Israel are good. This article, like the BDS movement, is part of the world-wide pro-Palestinian effort to destroy Israel. If you hate Israel, you will accept the logic of these arguments against Dershowitz. Otherwise, you won’t.

    • California Defender

      Well, there are plenty of people who dislike both Israel and Palestine.

      That being said, Dershowitz is a smart guy with arguments grounded in logic. The Palestinians and their leftist-university-students-searching-for-any-cause-to-make-spurious-friends faction has no counter to him.

      • mpspry

        Worthless and endless approach to equate pro-BDS as anti-Israel or anti-BDS pro-Palestine.
        BDS, Oslo, UN or any other agreement hammered out these past fifty years were chances for
        peace if both sides had not had greater interests than peace. Only what Israel wants really matters since they are the only ones with the power that keeps it all in their hands. Palestinian wants are academic so long as Hamas and Fatah stay split but even together they would have no power to effect change, facing Israel with US backing.

        These arguments carried on in the media, including comments, are irrelevant to the past fifty
        years of the imbalance of what’s on the ground. We enjoy the debate outside the tent where
        inside reality sets in. What we get is just passing wind.

        • California Defender

          Both sides have no interest in peace because this isn’t a conflict between states. It’s a conflict between religions. Remove Islam and Judaism from the equation and I could mediate a peace deal in 30 minutes over pancakes at IHOP.

  • whatever

    Funny, I’d say it’s Youhana’s liberalism that is problematic, but then I am old enough to remember actual liberal liberals not the fascist liberals that crawl around my alma mater these days writing for the Daily Cal getting their degrees from the school.

    • Sparticle

      i dont agree wiith the use of the word “problematic” in the title but how is the content of the article a representation of how is youhana’s liberalism being problematic?

      • whatever

        Youhana likes shutting down speech he dislikes. That’s about as problematic a form of liberalism as ever existed. Exponentially considering he is getting a law degree.

        • BerCaley

          You have an interesting definition of “shutting down” for an article that ends with “Instead, we’ll get a biased, moralistic, and probably boring monologue from a publicity hound. Oh well. That’s the price of freedom.” Sounds more like you want a safe space where criticism isn’t allowed.

  • X Ray

    Personally, I’m suspecting a brain tumor. Or Dennis Miller disease. This is not the dude who once was.

  • Nunya Beeswax

    There should be a 15-year moratorium on the use of the word “problematic.” It’s nearly as empty of meaning as the word “liberal.”

    • Nunya Beeswax

      Also, Mr Youhana ought to know–as a putatively educated person–that the defense of others’ right to speak is a cornerstone of classic Western liberalism.

      • Jim Curran

        So then, do you prefer free speech or do you want moratoriums on words? You’re very confused, despite the smartypants attitude.

        • Nunya Beeswax

          My call for a moratorium was hyperbole. I’m sorry that was unclear. People are free to call this, that, or the other thing problematic if they wish, but it’s become one of those lexical memes that actually communicates very little beyond the speaker’s disapproval.

  • Killer Marmot

    It’s a pity Youhana didn’t try countering some of Dershowitz’s positions, rather than offering this peevish and empty put-down.

    • Jim Curran

      Pretty good piece, I thought. Anyone wishing to see Dershowitz getting a proper hammering need only go to YouTube and watch Noel Chomsky dish it out like candy at a kid’s birthday party.

      • Rollie

        Who’s Noel Chomsky?

        • s randall

          Noam Chomsky, famous for Chomsky grammar types and of course his political views.

          • Rollie

            I wondered if “Noel” was Noam’s long-lost lovechild, or a BillyCarter-esque little brother, but evidently you meant the old lefty himself.

          • whatever

            Noël Chomsky is one of Noam’s alter egos. Noelle Chomsky another one.

          • lspanker

            Naomi is another one of his personas, the one “she” channels when she travels into SF en femme to perform in the lip-synching contest at her favorite drag bar…

          • Jim Curran

            Don’t give up your day job.

          • s randall

            This is pure BS. Jim Curran makes a typo and people start making stuff up.

          • whatever

            Whatever you do, don’t google Nim Chimpsky!

          • California Defender

            Great, now I’ll always picture him wearing fishnet stockings and a pushup bra.

            Thanks for that horrific image.

          • whatever

            Don’t forget the lipstick!

        • Jim Curran

          Ah, grammar Nazis. How ironic :)

          • Rollie

            Ah, cheapened use of the term “Nazis” in a student newspaper, to describe something completely un-related. How un-ironic.

          • Jim Curran

            Totally related, and “Grammar Nazis” is a well-known term which is evidently apt given the sniping at my earlier typo. (With apologies to Nymph Chimpsky!) You don’t have to like it! http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Grammar%20Nazi

      • Killer Marmot

        It wasn’t a pretty good piece. It was mostly a slagging, with little solid in the way of explaining or rebutting Dershowitz’s views.

        • BerCaley

          I’d say that mentioning Dershowitz’ hypocrisy in lobbying Brooklyn College to disinvite Judith Butler and DePaul University to deny Norman Finkelstein tenure is a good rebuttal of this blowhard.

          • zzz

            With that sort of behavior he shows himself to be a typical modern liberal.

          • BerCaley

            Dershowitz is not a liberal and titling his talk The Liberal Case of Israel doesn’t make him a liberal; it makes him a troll.

          • zzz

            disinviting speakers seems to be quite the liberal antic these days.

          • BerCaley

            So when the Berkeley Patriot disinvited Milo they became liberal? When Dershowitz tries to get Brooklyn College to disinvite Butler he becomes liberal? Seems like a more conservative antic these days.

            Dude, I’m liberal and y’all can toss that word at me all day long.

      • zzz

        Chomsky and Dershowitz are two sides of the same idiotic coin. Picking a side in these nutty fringer episodes… I have chosen to not have a choice.

        • Jim Curran

          What nonsense! If only you’d chosen not to reply!

          • zzz

            Not a fan of the band rush then?