The Tragedy of Alan Deshowitz


America the 1960’s was so much more straightforward where the ethnic boundaries lay within the struggle for civil rights and equality. The ‘White’ community in this instance had no vested interest in changing the status quo, but many joined the fight through a sense of justice and morality. A very substantial proportion of ‘White’ liberal activists were American Jews, and they provided crucial financial and political support. The NAACP’s first President Arthur Spingarn was Jewish, as were all his successors until the 1970’s. In those days the mainstream leadership of both the Black and Jewish communities did not have obviously opposing agendas. There were few progressives (Jewish or otherwise) who could see any contradiction between being active in civil rights in America, while supporting the Zionist enterprise in Israel. Martin Luther King would stoutly stand by his Jewish backers in defending Zionism, going so far as to use the familiar libel that Zionism’s critics were motivated by anti Semitism. Today the scenario has greatly changed, with the disintegration of that Sixties coalition, and a radical realignment of racial politics. A well documented schism has opened up between Blacks and Jews, which may be partly attributable to class (an obvious disparity exists between affluent Jews and mainly working class Blacks). Another explanation can lie with the changes in racial dynamics and the rise of ‘victim culture’. When Blacks, Jews, Latinos and even members of the White Christian majority all want to assert their ‘victim’ status, there is far less cohesiveness in the fight for ‘equality’. This struggle has now degenerated to a fight with regard to the division of the spoils among the competing ethnic groups. Such a conflict can only be a zero sum game, where a victory in either material entitlement or the perceived moral high ground for one faction is automatically a blow for another. Consequently minorities are often opposed to each other, and reports of Black-Jewish-Latino friction escalating to violence are more and more familiar. However, relatively new to this picture is the importation of the Muslim-Jewish conflict into the domestic American situation.

Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war the leadership of the American Jewish organisations have found a common identity in preserving the memory of the Nazi genocide and support for Israel. Aside from occasional Black Muslim radicals, the only real opposition to this was from marginal individuals on the extreme Right. Although there has been a sizeable population of Arabs in America for some time, in the past they were mainly affluent, conservative and Christian. Recent immigration trends have caused America’s Arab population to become poorer, more Muslim and less passive with regard to America’s uncompromisingly pro Israel foreign policy. African Americans have also less reason to support Israel, with many identifying with the Palestinian plight (Jesse Jackson once remarked that Palestinians were the ‘niggers of the Middle East’) and questioning why Israel was apartheid era South Africa’s most persistent ally. American Arabs and Muslims have arguably now replaced Blacks as the most vulnerable and most reviled of minorities. Even the conventional terms of abuse for African Americans have been modified to apply to Americans of Middle Eastern ancestry e.g. ‘sand-nigger’ and ‘dune-coon’. The old threat of a fifth column ethnic group that led to the internment of Japanese-Americans is now firmly resurrected. Never a favourite of Hollywood and the news media (especially when a vocal minority espouse extreme and anti-Semitic views), after the 9-11 atrocities Arabs and Muslims are now a particularly unpopular and easy target for the visceral hostility of some quarters in the US. Simultaneously, some Jewish leaders are questioning whether to continue participating in an anti racist coalition that includes many who have no love of Israel or Zionism. Possibly a more appropriate alliance partner would be the conservative Right who have no constituency among Blacks or Arabs, and whose beliefs are more compatible with the policies of the Israeli government. Although some Jews remain in the progressive tradition, others in the Daniel Pipes mould have coupled an extremely chauvinistic position on the Middle East with a conservative stand on domestic issues. Another influential grouping is of pro Zionist Democrats who occupy the ever less tenable position of actively supporting ‘liberal’ policies at home, while being uncritical supporters of Israel repressive actions in the Middle East.

Alan Dershowitz falls squarely into the last category. A professor of Harvard Law School since the age of 28, he is known chiefly for his notorious celebrity clients such as Claus Von Bulow and OJ Simpson. Despite his past activism as a civil libertarian (‘a judicial St. Jude’ is how Time described him), and his benign, slightly dishevelled appearance (something akin to a paunchy Woody Allen), the radical policies he now sanctions are nearer David Duke than Ralph Nader. The ongoing Palestinian intifada and the polarisation of opinion that has accompanied it, has provoked an ugly tribalism in him that spawned a flood of lectures, articles and books (the latest being ‘Why Terrorism Works’), dehumanising Palestinians and criticising the Israeli government for being too soft in their repression. This former civil libertarian now supports torture, and urges the Israeli government to destroy Palestinian villages in response to terror attacks. However, Dershowitz’s writings and interviews do not focus on terrorism in general (defined here as the use of violence against civilians for political purposes). It is not even primarily about terrorism against America. What truly infuriates Dershowitz is not terrorism per se, but terrorism against people of Jewish background–particularly those who are based in Israel.

In his new book and in interviews, Dershowitz details the numerous atrocities committed by Palestinians against Israelis, but fails to mention that the civilian and military Jewish casualties throughout Israel’s entire history are equal or less than the Arab casualties of Sharon’s Lebanon invasion alone. He also conveniently sidesteps the issue of how it was Zionist terrorism that drove the British out of Palestine, and later expelled three quarters of the native population from their own land (the ludicrous Israeli account that Palestinians fled their farms and houses of their own accord is not supported by serious scholarship). Obviously support for the ‘good terrorism’ that created Israel, cannot be reconciled with the ‘bad terrorism’ of the natives who want their territory back. When quizzed on this contradiction on British television, he suggested that Menachem Begin was punished for his terrorist activities by the fact that it took him so long to become Israeli Prime Minister–this from a man who endorses the torture of Arab suspects; and who supported Nathan Lewin after his suggestion that the relatives of Palestinian terrorists should be executed by Israel! The blatant discrimination of this position is enlightening on how Dershowitz views the value of Muslim and Christian Semites (like Jews, Arabs are a Semitic people and both share a common ancestry), vis a vis the lives of Semites of the Jewish faith. Despite his narcissistic self image as a champion of the poor and oppressed (see his portrayal in the movie of his book ‘Reversal of Fortune’), he effectively endorses for Arabs the status of Blacks in the old American South, where the stronger group may lynch and suffer no penalty, and the underclass face violent punishment on the basis of a suspicion alone.

Inevitably, The New Republic has lavished publicity on Dershowitz and praises him for dismissing ‘silly dogma’ that Israel’s policy of collective punishment against ‘the innocent who are in a good position to control the guilty’ is somehow immoral. Regrettably, The New Republic does not think it worth mentioning that this tactic is illegal under international law, and was much employed by the Nazis. Furthermore, both Dershowitz and his TNR admirers seem oblivious to the fact that this logic gives credibility to Palestinian extremists who attack Israeli civilians indiscriminately. After all if it is right to punish Palestinians who ‘cheer on or otherwise support (Palestinian) terrorism’, are not the civilians who voted for the Israeli government’s policy occupation and apartheid in the West Bank also ‘sufficiently culpable’ and subsequently liable for punishment? If consistency is to be maintained, the Palestinians are surely allowed to respond in kind against Israeli ‘targeted’ assassinations (which have also killed scores of innocent bystanders); theft of land, water, and other resources (the internal organs of slain Palestinian children being a particularly grisly example); daily curfews; and the economic and social strangulation inflicted through the closure of entire communities. Furthermore, The New Republic applauds Dershowitz for ridiculing any explanation of the motivations of terrorism as ‘appeasement’, quoting approvingly that ‘we don’t address the root causes of a bad marriage that may have led a man to murder his wife–we hunt down the murderer and punish him’. Quite apart from the fact that his formidable skills as a lawyer have actively prevented wealthy wife killers from facing punishment, he fails to apply his own scenario to all sides. Consider for example if a man breaks down your door, brutalises and humiliates your family, and then confiscates your house while declaring you should serve him as cheap labour. Is it right that you should collaborate with him or should a recognised authority arrest the perpetrator and bring him to justice? As this is what Israel’s 35 year occupation has done to the Palestinians, will Mr Dershowitz and the TNR kindly add their voices to those demanding the immediate arrest of Sharon, Peres etc? Once this unsavoury double act is sharing a cell with Milosevic in the Hague, perhaps a confession can be extracted from them with the assistance of torture. This in turn can help facilitate a guilty verdict from a military court and hasten the demolition of their homes and the execution of their relatives as a deterrent to others.

What is more, Dershowitz’s (and the New Republic’s) definition of ‘terrorism’ is predictably self serving. By not recognising as ‘terrorism’ most politically orientated violence used against civilians by states (Arab and Islamic states obviously excepted), America and her proxies are let off the hook. ‘You can always call your enemy a terrorist’ he says in a interview, scoffing at Muslim critics of Israel and America’s human rights records, but he is as guilty himself. This is fine when Dershowitz is preaching to the converted, but the wider public will be right to be sceptical. After all, if everyone accepts that members of the French resistance who engaged in military action against the occupying German army were fighting for ‘liberation’, than Palestinian guerrilla attacks on the occupying Israel Defence Force (IDF) must be judged likewise. Additionally, during the British rule of Palestine former Israeli Prime Ministers Begin and Shamir were leaders of the terror groups Irgun and the Stern Gang respectively. Current incumbent Ariel Sharon has never stopped being a terrorist, with a record that stretches over 5 decades and claimed thousands of victims (for a full history see the Counterpunch article ‘The Crimes of Ariel Sharon’). Naturally, Dershowitz denies the Israeli government is involved in terror itself, and in a interview describes Israel’s targeted assassinations as ‘the opposite of terrorism..very precise and very specific’. Sadly, he does not seem unduly concerned about the scores of bystanders killed in these attacks, many of them children. Interestingly enough though, he plays down ANC violence in the struggle against apartheid – ‘The government of South Africa was using terrorism against innocent civilians and the ANC was using counterterrorism’ he states in the same interview. This is not a wise argument to utilise, as in virtually every way the repression of the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza is worse than that employed by the pre democracy Pretoria government. As Edward Said observed: ‘even under apartheid, F16 jets were never used to bomb African homelands as they are now sent against Palestinian towns and villages’.

Professor Dershowitz also has a great deal to say about the immorality of the Palestinians when compared to the Israelis. He declares that the Palestinians invented international terrorism in 1968 (the inhabitants of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden and Manchuria might take issue with this); and how ‘Palestinians think they’re the only group that has the right to use terrorism’ (presumably the PKK, ETA, the IRA, and the Tamil Tigers are also on Arafat’s pay roll). He tells ‘’ that ‘the Jews who were subject to the holocaust didn’t try to terrorise German babies or children …..they had a higher moral standard’. Leaving aside the question of whether someone who makes a living keeping prisons free from wealthy killers is an appropriate authority on ethics, this comparison is spurious. The Nazis (mad as they were) were not reckless enough to build settlements of their own civilians on the territory surrounded by the hostile natives that actually lived there before being driven off it. Likewise, the ‘civilian’ status of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is also highly suspect, built as they are by the armoured bulldozers of the IDF on the confiscated and ethnically cleansed territory of its Arab owners. If these highly fortified citadels, populated by gun toting fanatics (often American immigrants), are strategic military installations, than the responsibility for attacks on their residents must lie with the occupying power that built them. Correspondingly, how was it that in 1948 three quarters of all the Palestinians were frightened enough to be driven off the land they had lived on for over a thousand years? A 1948 letter to the New York Times signed by Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and other notables has this to say on the notorious Deir Yassin massacre: ‘terrorist bands attacked this peaceful village, which was not a military objective in the fighting, killed most of its inhabitants – 240 men, women and children – and kept a few of them alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem’. Eye witness accounts of this crime report dozens of children slaughtered in front of their mothers and 25 pregnant women bayoneted in the stomach. In the Occupied Territories today, an investigation by Physicians for Human Rights USA concluded that ‘the pattern of injuries seen in many victims did not reflect the IDF use of firearms in life-threatening situations but rather indicated targeting solely for the purpose of wounding or killing’. Last year, ‘Harper’s’ journalist Chris Hedges reported witnessing IDF soldiers enticing Palestinian children into a trap to ‘murder them for sport’. Is this the higher standard that Dershowitz is talking about?

So finally, what options are available to the Palestinians in their opposition to Israeli occupation? Dershowitz generously accepts that they should be allowed the right to ‘passive protest’. What he does not mention, is that civil disobedience is hardly a new idea to Palestinian leaders, and was attempted in the 1980’s during the original Palestinian ‘intifada’. Although it initially caused consternation amongst Israeli ministers, the IDF and Shin Bet eventually quashed this through characteristic brutality, (including the now familiar targeted culling of Palestinian leaders) while the US turned its usual blind eye. Furthermore, Dershowitz contradicts his position on the runaway success of Palestinian terror. He claims to believe the Palestinians would have had a state by now had they engaged in civil disobedience rather than violence; but if terrorism has brought them so many benefits, why do they live in the miserable, stateless existence they have today?

Those who are long term observers of the disparity between the American response to Israel’s violations of international law to that of its neighbours, will not be surprised at the double standards of either the US or Dershowitz. As Hanan Ashrawi memorably said: ‘Iraq (16 flouted resolutions) may be outside the law, but Israel (29 flouted resolutions) is above it’. In short, Dershowitz’s only valid point is that terrorism against civilians is morally repugnant, but this particular nugget of reasoning is the intellectual equivalent of pointing out that the sky is blue. No rational, moral person could disagree with that, anymore than they could agree with Dershowitz’s remedies or analysis. In reality, the main difference between Israel and the Palestinian terrorists is scale and what is considered tolerable by the West i.e. Israel has a license and funding from America for its military occupation, but the Palestinians are not permitted the privilege to fight back. Other US client states (such as Turkey and pre 9-11 Saudi Arabia) also enjoy immunity from any serious repercussions despite their bloody histories of brutality, oppression, and breaking standards on basic human rights. China in Tibet and Russia in Chechnya have additionally operated with impunity due to their size and military / political clout on the World stage (though unlike Israel or Turkey, they are not massively subsidised by the American taxpayer). Such immoral hypocrisy although reprehensible, has long been the staple of American foreign policy and indeed the hegemonic powers throughout history. What is alarming today is not the clamour of mainstream voices such as Dershowitz to import Israel’s aggressive chauvinism wholesale to America’s domestic agenda, but the fact that there is a large and growing audience willing to listen to him. To return to the sixties parallel, the civil rights leadership in those days would tell White America that if they were not part of the solution to bigotry and injustice, then they were part of the problem. What a tragedy that a former civil libertarian has chosen to be such a big problem.

Further Reading:

The Iron Wall–Avi Shlaim Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict–Norman Finkelstein Pity the Nation–Robert Fisk The Fateful Triangle–Noam Chomsky

For an orthodox Zionist narrative of the Israeli–Arab conflict see ‘Empires of Sand‘ by Inari Karsh, or any edition of The New Republic. DON ATAPATTU lives in Manchester, England. He can be reached at: