Dershowitz Contradicts Himself on the Power of the Israel Lobby

I was reading Alan Dershowitz’s autobiography, Chutzpah, the other night when I came to some lines on page 16 that I found shocking:

My generaton of Jews was too young to fight against Nazism or for Israeli independence, too American to make aliyah (emigrate to Israel), too comfortable to put our bodies on the line for anything Jewish. Instead, we observed, contributed… We became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy. [my emphasis]

I say shocking because when Walt and Mearsheimer published their bombshell paper on the power of the Israel lobby in March, the Harvard Law Professor was their leading attacker. He said the scholars had “destroyed their professional reputations” (a disgraceful statement that Zbig Brzezinski would appear to include when he talks in Foreign Policy of “self-demeaning” attacks by critics of Walt and Mearsheimer) and three weeks after their paper was published, rushed a response onto Harvard’s Kennedy School website, saying that speed was “essential” “because of the attention the original paper has received.”

In fairness to Dershowitz, a good part of his rebuttal focuses on what he regards as bad research methods by Walt and Mearsheimer and their allegedly false view of Israeli history, which leads him to question their motives and imply that they are antisemitic. “I challenge Mearsheimer and Walt to look me in the eye and tell me that because I am a proud Jew and a critical supporter of Israel, I am disloyal to my country,” the rebuttal ends throbbingly.

But in criticism of Dershowitz, a lot of his rebuttal rejects the idea of a vaunted Israel lobby. “The so-called lobby,” he calls it, and asks, contemptuously, “Who belongs to ‘the Lobby?’” He says that “there are many lobbies that support diverse approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict,” and generally, “thousands of other groups that maintain powerful lobbies in Washington.” Yes, AIPAC “to its credit, has been an influential lobby.” But he presents AIPAC as the Israel lobby. Everyone else who supports Israel in government and the press and thinktanks does so because they all independently believe that Israel and the U.S. share interests.

Oh, and also: “the most powerful lobby is AARP.” But I guess it’s not “perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy”.

I’ve two responses to Dershowitz’s hypocrisy. The first is that he’s an advocate, and a great one, a verbal swordsman. He intimidates people (I remember talking to a pro-Palestinian professor of the Classics not long ago who begged me not to use his name, lest Dersh go after him), but he’s not reflective. The guy was a high school and college debating star in Brooklyn; he’s still that, rushing a thrown-together argument to the public within days of Walt and Mearsheimer’s 18-months-long-prepared article, so he can do his flamenco in their spotlight. I have that disconnect with Dersh one has with many lawyers: The contradiction in his statements makes me wonder what he really thinks when he’s not making a heated righteous argument. (Apropos of that lack of subtlety, I’d note that elsewhere in his book, he states that two uncles of his did emigrate to Israel. Yet he says his generation was too American to do so. It’s not thought-through.)

Was he really trying to get people to the truth about the Israel lobby, an important issue? Or was he venting his anger?

That’s my second point about Dershowitz; I think anger fed his attack on Walt and Mearsheimer. Read Chutzpah (I’m on page 100 or so now) and you see how much his views were shaped by the antisemitic discrimination he experienced on leaving the Brooklyn nest in the late 50s. Notwithstanding his great grades at Yale Law School, Dershowitz was rejected by white-shoe law firms in New York again and again, including Cravath and Paul, Weiss (the latter wouldn’t accommodate his Sabbath-observance). Despite his subsequent achievements, in 1991, when he wrote the book, he was still extremely angry at all the Harvard deans and presidents who thru the 20th century rationalized discrimination against Jews. Again and again he calls these liberal leaders “bigoted.” “A pack of dishonest bigots unworthy of respect or emulation… awful men whose names are memorialized [on buildings]…” Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell “should be honored by no one other than the Ku Klux Klan.” He insists that President Derek Bok (soon-to-be-interim President again) sees Dershowitz as a “shtetl Yid” whose “breath smells of herring.”

Later in the book he says that Shaw, Mencken, Henry Adams, Dreiser, and T.S. Eliot suffered “a disease of the soul”: antisemitism, which can only be explained by the study of “abnormal psychology.”

This is high-school rhetoric. It’s the same moral vehemence that would erase all Jefferson’s or Washington’s achievements because they owned slaves. Grownups who study history should be a little more sophisticated. Think about it, how should people who dismissed Palestinian human rights be regarded a generation on?