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.