In an angry, demagogic speech at Tel Aviv University’s graduation ceremony this week, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz stridently attacked Israeli academics who have dissented from their government’s positions and who have sought to rally outside pressure against the occupation of Palestine. He singled out professors Shlomo Sand, Anat Matar, and Rachel Giora by name, assailing them for giving support to the international BDS campaign and for “lend[ing] credibility to non-credible arguments.” (Dershowitz did not say what those arguments were or why they were not credible, however.)
“Academic freedom is not only the province of the Israeli hard left,” Dershowitz proclaimed. “Academic freedom also includes the right to agree with the government, to defend the government, and to work for the government. It includes the right to be patriotic.”
The Harvard law professor’s speech earned a harsh rebuke from a group of faculty members who said that his rhetoric “borders on incitement.” But if Dershowitz rankled his audience at all, they had a strange way of showing their displeasure. His most aggressive broadsides against academic dissenters were greeted by loud, sustained applause; the conclusion of his speech was rewarded with a standing ovation.
Before setting in on the academic evildoers, Dershowitz hailed Israeli universities for “support[ing] the mission of the IDF.” “The IDF has payed back Israel’s universities multi-fold,” he declared. Dershowitz did not mention any of the Israeli university system’s other accomplishments or highlight any other strengths. In his apparent view, institutions like Tel Aviv U are valuable primarily as research arms of the Israeli military-intelligence apparatus.
Then, without even a scintilla of evidence, Dershowitz luridly accused left-wing Israeli professors of forcing their politics on their students. “Any professor who punishes a student for not agreeing with his controversial opinion is guilty of academic harassment, which is a variant on what we all would agree is an academic violation, namely sexual harassment.” According to Dershowitz, Matar, Giora, and Sand were not only traitorous; they were the moral equals of sexual criminals. (Is that a pubic hair on your copy of “The Invention of the Jewish People?”)
Next, Dershowitz told the inspiring tale of a pro-Israel American student named Joel Pollack who supposedly found himself in a college course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led by an allegedly pro-Palestinian professor. According to Dershowitz, Pollack “simply went online and created a course of his own in parallel to the professor’s… By the end of the semester more students supported Joel’s perspective than the teacher’s perspective. This is competition in the marketplace of ideas and it can work!”
Dershowitz’s call for students to undermine professors they disagree with and report their classroom behavior to outside political watchdogs (with assistance from partisan operatives like himself) recalled the neocon former Trotskyist David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” a failed nationwide legislative initiative that would have mandated the hiring of one right-wing professor for each professor who assigned supposedly left-wing material and would have allowed students to sue their professors. (Dershowitz footnoted David Horowitz and Peter Collier’s “The Anti-Chomsky Reader” in his book-length attack on Jimmy Carter, “The Case Against Israel’s Enemies.”)
Omitted from Dershowitz’s story (which, according to Harvard Law School professor Duncan Kennedy, was largely false) was the fact that its hero, Pollack, was Dershowitz’s former research assistant. Currently, Pollack is campaigning as a Republican Tea Party candidate for the seat of incumbent Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky in Illinois on a neoconservative platform. And Dershowitz, his former mentor, has endorsed his candidacy.
Here is Pollack in all his Teabagger glory:
Dershowitz went on to suggest that Israel’s internal conflicts were rooted in ethnic pathologies, remarking, “to be Jewish is to be uncomfortable.” Then he told an old Jewish joke about a “downtown shul” that moves uptown with a new rabbi; in the end its members realize that persistent, vehement argument is a Jewish tradition. His stereotypical characterization of Judaism as a form of neurosis revealed his cultural limitations. Dershowitz was appealing to the only Jewish sensibility he has known: the Ashkenazi kind that finds its expression in everything from Borscht Belt humor and to the corridors of Israeli power. The culture of the Mizrahim who have been systematically marginalized by Israel’s Ashkenazi elite but who comprise a majority of Israel’s Jewish population falls entirely outside Dershowitz’s narrow range of experience. (During Tel Aviv U’s graduation ceremony, Israel’s swarthy elements were hardly acknowledged at all. Dershowitz’s stem-winder was followed by a recitation of poetry by Anton Chekhov, not exactly a Levantine native son.)
Dershowitz recalled his meeting the day before with Amoz Oz, the literary figurehead of Israel’s Ashkenazi elite who is still regarded by many as a leader of the “peace camp” despite his full-throated endorsement of every Israeli military campaign since the first invasion of Lebanon. According to Dershowitz, Oz told him that his Russian barber “hates Israel” because “everyone thinks they have the right to express an opinion on everything.” “Yes,” Dershowitz said with a wag of his finger, “welcome to Israel! Where everyone has a right to express their opinion!”
While Dershowitz spoke, the Palestinian Israeli activists Ameer Makhoul and Omar Said languished in prison cells after being detained without charges and accused by Israel’s internal security service of unspecified crimes against the state. “Security reasons” was the only reason the Shin Bet offered for imprisoning the activists. The Mizrahi Israeli peace activist Ezra Nawi had also been freshly imprisoned, sentenced to a month in jail and three years probation for placing his body between Israeli bulldozers and Palestinian homes.
On the other side of the Green Line, Palestinian medical students were recently refused entry to Jerusalem after they rejected a Shin Bet officer’s demand that they spy on fellow students at Al-Quds University. They were thus prevented from continuing their medical training. As usual, the Shin Bet offered “security reasons” as its explanation for denying the students their education.
Anat Matar, the Tel Aviv University professor denounced by Dershowitz, has been an outspoken advocate for the hundreds of Palestinian students who have been arrested and detained by Israel’s security services for simply refusing to do its bidding, or for belonging to student organizations the Israel government does not approve of. “When the flag of academic freedom is raised,” Matar has written, “the oppressor and not the oppressed is usually the one who flies it. What is that academic freedom that so interests the academic community in Israel? When, for example, has it shown concern for the state of academic freedom in the occupied territories?”
As Dershowitz concluded his speech, he reassured his hosts in Tel Aviv, “Israel will survive its dissenters, as will this great university.”
Yes, but as what?