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Alan Dershowitz, Defender of Academic Freedom - Heal Thyself!

02/06/2013 12:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2013

Alan Dershowitz is at the center of a controversy at Brooklyn College about a panel discussion Thursday featuring two supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation -- the Palestinian activist and scholar Omar Barghouti and the American philosopher, Judith Butler.

Dershowitz has written that he does not oppose the student-organized event itself (though he did describe it as an impending "propaganda hate orgy".) Instead, the world-renowned attorney says he opposes the decision of Brooklyn College's political science department to "endorse" and "co-sponsor" the event. In an email exchange with Glenn Greenwald, Dershowitz insisted that no academic department should be allowed to co-sponsor or endorse "one sided political events that are not academic in nature ." Dershowitz argued that "any other approach denies academic freedom to students who disagree with the official political line of the department ." To make the point as clear as he could, Dershowitz also said that he would "oppose a pro-Israel event being sponsored by a department." It's worth noting that while the political science department at BC did agree to sponsor the event, it declined to endorse it. In other words, despite Dershowitz's conflation, the clear implication is that sponsorship does not imply endorsement.

In any event, Dershowitz has directly contravened his own principle. Last year, in response to a BDS event at the University of Pennsylvania, groups identifying themselves as "pro-Israel" organized an event titled, "Why Israel Matters to You, Me and Penn: A Conversation with Alan Dershowitz." Though the Penn political science department refused to sponsor the BDS event, it did co-host Dershowitz's lecture. According to the plain meaning of Dershowitz' own standard, therefore, any political science student at the University of Pennsylvania who disagrees with Dershowitz about Israel is at odds with the "official political line of that department" and is being denied her or his "academic freedom," thereby running the "risk" of "being downgraded or otherwise discriminated against for deviating from the "party line." Elsewhere Dershowitz has argued that he would "not major in political science at Brooklyn College for fear that my support for Israel and my opposition to BDS might prejudice me in the eyes of professors whose department has endorsed BDS, thus discriminating against my viewpoint in the marketplace of ideas." Leaving aside the apparently erroneous claim that BC's political science department did endorse BDS, Dershowitz must believe, according to his own standards that anyone who disagrees with his views on Israel should not major in political science at Penn because its political science professors have discriminated against those who disagree with Dershowitz in the marketplace of ideas .

This apparent double standard calls to mind Dershowitz's long-running war with the former De Paul political science professor Norman Finkelstein. While their feud is too involved to fully consider here, the key flashpoint in the so-called Dershowitz-Finkelstein affair is deeply revealing about the "principles" that Dershowitz is so insistent upon.

In 2003, Dershowitz wrote a widely read book, The Case for Israel. Two years later, Finkelstein, a long-time critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians (though a critic of BDS), wrote Beyond Chutzpah, essentially a book-length rejoinder to The Case for Israel. In it, Finkelstein revealed the Harvard don's book to be riddled with factual errors. Finkelstein showed in detail, for example, that Dershowitz frequently misused the writings of the revisionist Israeli historian Benny Morris to present a sanitized view of Israel's conduct toward Palestinians, especially during the conflict that accompanied the founding of Israel. Most sensationally, Finkelstein documented Dershowitz's (unacknowledged) use of a long-since discredited work on the Israel/Palestine conflict, Joan Peters' From Time Immemorial (Finkelstein's earlier scholarship was pivotal in exposing the fraudulent nature of Peters' book, so he was intimately familiar with its contents). Dershowitz has acknowledged that Peters' work is flawed and claimed that he only used it very selectively. He has also said that he checked all of the original source material that Peters relied upon.

According to Frank Menetrez, who exhaustively reviewed the contretemps between Dershowitz and Finkelstein, this cannot be so, because Dershowitz repeatedly made errors identical to those that appeared in Peters' book some two decades earlier without citing her in those instances. Specifically, Peters relied extensively on a memoir by Mark Twain of his travels in Palestine in the late 19th century, The Innocents Abroad. Peters frequently mangled quotes by Twain to "prove" that very few Arabs lived in Palestine when Twain traveled there.

Finkelstein had earlier accused Dershowitz of plagiarism, in fact, because Dershowitz mis-cited Twain in precisely the manner Peters had, though the plagiarism charge itself was dropped from Beyond Chutzpah. Menetrez investigated one lengthy passage from Twain that both Peters and Dershowitz quoted. In quoting that passage, according to Menetrez, Peters made twenty errors, some egregious. In one instance, for example, two sentences in Peters' version of the Twain passage appear consecutively at the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the following paragraph. But in the original Twain, the two sentences are separated by 87 pages.

And here's the thing -- in every single instance in the passage in question, Dershowitz misquoted Twain in the identical fashion that Peters had. What are the odds that this was sheer coincidence? To Menetrez, the conclusion was obvious and irrefutable, as it had been to Finkelstein -- Dershowitz had plagiarized Peters (a Harvard investigation subsequently cleared Dershowitz of the charge, though Menetrez says they refused to divulge whether they investigated the identical errors claim). More broadly, Finkelstein's book demonstrated that Dershowitz had shown a consistent willingness either to misuse reputable sources or to rely upon a badly and demonstrably tainted one in order to provide a one-sided view of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dershowitz responded to this dissection of his work by trying to stop its publication. When the University of California press was preparing to publish Beyond Chutzpah, the great advocate of academic freedom appealed directly to then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop the press from doing so. According to the historian Jon Wiener, Dershowitz next retained counsel to

"send threatening letters to the counsel to the university regents, to the university provost, to seventeen directors of the press and to nineteen members of the press's faculty editorial committee. A typical letter, from Dershowitz's attorney Rory Millson of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, describes "the press's decision to publish this book" as "wholly illegitimate" and "part of a conspiracy to defame" Dershowitz. It concludes, "The only way to extricate yourself is immediately to terminate all professional contact with this full-time malicious defamer."

Dershowitz subsequently insisted that he never intended to stop the book from being published, because he wanted its scurrilous ideas to be exposed to the light of day. But it's hard to square this professed wish with the paper trail his attorneys created.

Having failed to stop the publication of Beyond Chutzpah, Dershowitz took the extraordinary step, in 2006, of trying to intervene directly in Finkelstein's tenure case at De Paul. According to Menetrez, Dershowitz provided detailed and unsolicited materials to the chair of De Paul's political science department, as well as a "larger packet of materials to a large but unknown number of members of DePaul's faculty and administration, including every professor at the law school."

Disturbingly, Menetrez found, the materials included obvious and egregious misrepresentations of statements by Finkelstein, likely to prejudice those evaluating Finkelstein's tenure case. Though Finkelstein's department voted to approve tenure, he was ultimately denied by a larger university committee .

Just this week, Dershowitz claimed that the BC political science department's decision to co-sponsor a BDS event was "reminiscent" of the "Soviet Union." This is a particularly amazing parallel to draw in light of the fact that the department is facing a barrage of threats from government officials to cut the school's funding because of the department's and university's supposedly biased and unfair promotion of the event. This raises the question: what sounds to you like a better parallel with the Soviet monolith, government officials threatening an academic institution because they disapprove of the ideological content of an event being held there, or a department agreeing to sponsor that event as part of a general policy to encourage student endeavors?

While trumpeting himself as a defender of academic freedom, Dershowitz's actual record calls that self-approbation into doubt. A true defender of academic freedom could certainly resort to strong, even harsh language to denounce those whose views he finds abhorrent. But Dershowitz's history demonstrates a willingness to go far beyond words in order to influence the "marketplace of ideas."