Home inFocus Making the Case for Israel on Campus

Making the Case for Israel on Campus

An interview with Professor Alan Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz Winter 2008

On November 25, inFOCUS editor Jonathan Schanzer interviewed Professor Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. A graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale Law School, Dershowitz joined the Harvard faculty at the age of 25 after clerking for Judge David Bazelon and Justice Arthur Goldberg. Throughout his distinguished career, he has published 27 books, including What Israel Means to Me (2006), and The Case For Israel (2003).

iF: Please provide your interpretation of the anti-Israel sentiment on campus today.

AD: The anti-Israel sentiment on campus is widely misunderstood and misdiagnosed. The vast majority of university students in the U.S. are not anti-Israel and not pro-Israel. They are uninformed, and if informed, neutral and leaning toward pro-

The reason we perceive the sentiment on campus as anti-Israel is that extremists throughout the world hate Israel—extremists on the left and extremists on the right. Israel is the Jew among nations, and the Jew is always caught between the black and the red. On college campuses, extremists of the left have louder voices and have more influence among the faculty—not the faculty of professional schools, but the faculty of arts and sciences. And that serves as a megaphone for anti-Israel attitudes on campuses.

When I speak on campuses, I sense a much more positive attitude towards Israel among serious students, future leaders, than I think many have projected. In other words, this is a winnable fight. We haven’t lost, and I think there has been too much dark pessimism.

To be a little self-serving, the success of my book, The Case for Israel, which was a campus best seller, was evidence of the fact that if efforts are made in the right direction, they can have a big impact. Now, I’m an old guy, writing from the perspective of a 70- year-old Jewish guy from Cambridge. If younger people—people who are closer in age to the students—would write books, they would have more of an impact. What we need is more multimedia approaches—websites, Facebook pages, Youtube, and other kinds of direct approaches.

We should not give up on college campuses because I think we have a tabula rasa, a blank slate, among many college students. This is often drowned out by the loud voices of the extreme anti-Israel left.

iF: What about the influence of radical professors in the field of Middle East Studies?

AD: This is a serious problem because we’ve seen it on so many campuses across the country. Middle East departments have become propaganda departments. Probably the worst in the country is Columbia University, which is a bankrupt department set up by Edward Said. Nobody takes it seriously as a neutral academic enterprise. It doesn’t serve educational purposes.

Fortunately, very few people take Middle East studies courses unless they are committed one way or the other. So it becomes a kind of propaganda, counter-propaganda vehicle.

The failure of Middle East Studies departments is not so much that they present an anti-Israel perspective (which they do), but that they have failed as academic departments. The answer is not to create pro-Israel departments, but to create real academic departments where scholarship trumps propaganda.

iF: Please describe your conflict with Norman Finkelstein.

AD: Norman Finkelstein is not an academic. He’s a man who publishes screeds, and in one case, an article calling for my assassination. He commissioned a cartoon showing me masturbating in ecstatic joy to dead Lebanese civilians during the Israeli-Lebanese conflict. That’s not scholarship.

Nobody takes Finkelstein seriously as an academic or scholar unless they have already been convinced. Very few people read his books. They just support his negative views towards Jews, towards Israel, towards Holocaust survivors, etcetera.

He was exposed for what he is, a pseudo-scholar and a propagandist that was denied tenure by DePaul University. He is now an itinerant lecturer being paid large sums of money by pro-Arab groups to come and speak on university campuses. He’s mostly seen as a clown. People come to see how far he is willing to go, what insults he is willing to level. He really has no impact. I don’t think he ever changed a single mind, and largely should be ignored.

iF: What are your thoughts about the Arab money pouring into American universities?

AD: Arab money has enormous impact. Take the Carter Center, which is bought, paid for, and owned by Arab money. The Carter Center never criticizes Saudi Arabia, and refuses to call what’s going on in Darfur “genocide.” It’s a disgrace that a fine school like Emory University would allow its name to be polluted by the Carter Center.

I’ve offered to come to Emory and speak at the Carter Center for free, without even expenses. I’m probably one of the three or four most sought after speakers on college and university campuses. Here I am, offering to go free to the Carter Center, pay my own way, and simply have an opportunity, either to debate Jimmy Carter or just to speak at the Carter Center—and they refuse to allow it. It’s not an academic center. It’s a propaganda center. Emory University has significant numbers of Jewish students and faculty, and generally a pro-Israel faculty and student body, but the Carter Center is a disgrace and has no appropriate role on a university campus.

What we need are objective, neutral academics—scholarly places where the truth is taught. Arab money has, of course, paid for lots of professorships, lots of centers, but always comes with strings attached. And that’s why great universities don’t have centers paid for by foreign money, and no university should.

iF: What should be done to reform this problem?

AD: Well, all one has to do is look at Harvard and Yale, which are models. Both have extraordinarily good departments. There is no real conflict in either of the two schools. Arab students, Muslim students, Jewish students, Israeli students work together on common projects, and share holidays together—Jewish and Muslim holidays. They have debates and events in which all sides are presented. The faculty presents the widest array—right-wing, pro-Israel attitudes, reflected by Ruth Wisse, to more centrist pro-Israel perspectives reflected by me and others, to some left wing anti-Israel perspectives. Debate is going on, and classes are not regarded as skewed.

Harvard has been a great success, and so has Yale. Many other college campuses are models of how the Middle East conflict should be taught. It’s a few universities that are not—University of California Irvine, Columbia University, Emory’s special problem with the Carter Center, and some other places—that receive a lot of attention and appropriately so.

It’s far worse in Canada and far, far worse in England. It’s also worse in other countries, like France and Germany. It is ironic that England is the worst. The effect has been devastating on the universities. Despite their continuing high status and undeserved reputation, many knowledgeable academics now believe that Cambridge and Oxford have become second-rate universities. We have tremendous numbers of English people applying to Harvard and Yale because they do not want to go to Oxford and Cambridge and get a second- or third-rate education. The graduate and professional schools at Oxford and Cambridge have generally become captive to the extreme Left and the unions, and it has devastated their schools.

Had there been a British-run, anti-Israel academic boycott, the British would be hurt far more than Israel because Israel’s scholars are much more highly regarded, in general, than British scholars. The end result would have been, had it been carried out, a boycott of British scholars, not a boycott of Israeli scholars, because academics around the world would benefit far more from collaborating with Israeli scholars than with British scholars.

iF: There are many radical Israeli scholars now, some more radical than the professors here in America. What explains that?

AD: One thing that explains why you have so much anti-Israel radicalism on Israeli campuses is it’s almost all by fifth-rate Israeli professors. The career model is very simple. If you are a failure in Israel and can’t get a decent job at a decent Israeli university, the way to get a job at third-rate or fourth-rate European or American university is to be virulently anti-Israel. Just hiring another pro-Israel professor from Israel—what’s the big deal? But if you are an Israeli who is virulently anti-Israel, then you’re interesting. Fifth-rate Israeli professors take that tack and become interesting oddities. If you look at the really radical Israeli professors—the Neve Gordons, the Avi Shlaims—they’re fifth-raters. They have no academic credentials.

iF: What are your views on Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby?

AD: Well, Walt and Mearsheimer are first-rate academics, which was so devastating about why they chose to write this book.

My own view is that Walt has been pulled around by Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer is a bigot. He’s virulently anti-Israel, and he’s veered over toward bigotry against the Jewish people. That’s not true of Walt. Their public statements are very different. Mearsheimer has become a kind of rock star among anti-Israel fanatics, and he’ll say anything to appeal to his audience.

The book is a piece of junk, and every review indicates that. It has been ripped to shreds by every reviewer, including their colleagues at the Kennedy School. But it presents a thesis that a lot of people welcome and want to accept.

The great failings of the book are its omissions. It never talks, or rarely talks about the Saudi lobby. That’s an interesting comparison, the Saudi lobby versus the Israel lobby. Saudi Arabia has no support among grassroots people in the U.S., and yet it has enormous influence on the American government. Israel has enormous support among grassroots Americans and probably has less influence—certainly in the executive branch—than Saudi Arabia does. So, it would be very interesting to do a comparison. But they don’t do that because it doesn’t serve their ends.

iF: Any other omissions?

AD: They talk about how Israel and the Israel lobby supposedly drove the U.S. into the Iraq war. But they never mention the fact that the prime minister of Israel personally went to Bush and told him that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to occupy Iraq. That isn’t mentioned in the book because it would undercut their thesis that the Israel lobby, which purports to speak for the Israeli government, drove us to war.

iF: What are your thoughts about Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s disciple of Edward Said?

AD: He’s not a disciple of Edward Said. Edward Said was a serious intellectual who had a political agenda. Khalidi has no objective academic credibility. He is a polemicist, an extremist, and a radical. He was opposed to the Camp David II and Taba peace talks. He advised the Palestinians against accepting a Palestinian state. His views have been very extreme. He really doesn’t accept the two-state solution. He was critical of virtually all Palestinian steps toward peace making and, although he’s careful how he says it, he’s an apologist for terrorism.

The worst thing is that Khalidi will not tolerate dissent within the department. He presides over a department in which students are punished for expressing views contrary to the views of the anti-Israel faculty. He’s been just an awful presence at Columbia University in terms of academic freedom and academic credibility.

iF: What should the role of alumni and trustees be in shaping solutions to these problems?

AD: The university consists of the students, faculty, administration, alumni, the board, and donors. They are all part of the university community, and all have a role to play. None of them should have a veto, but all of them should have checks and balances on the others. Alumni and members of the board of trustees should not be embarrassed about providing input on the curriculum, or a range of other issues.

I would generally advise to stay away from decisions involving faculty hiring. That should be left largely to academics. But when it comes to the larger mission of the university, the alumni, students, applicants for admission, and employees all play a role.

iF: Would you say the same for watchdog groups, as well?

AD: Absolutely. Watchdog groups are part of the system of checks and balances. Now, we don’t want to return to McCarthyism. But remember that McCarthyism was generated by state power. McCarthyism was not outside people trying to have input in the university. McCarthyism was the government trying to censor what would be taught at university campuses.

I know because I was the president of the student government at Brooklyn College during the time that McCarthyism was still a problem on college campuses. I fought very hard against McCarthyism on the Brooklyn College campus.

iF: Thank you for your time, Professor Dershowitz.

AD: Thank you.