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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Dershowitz response astonishing

Published: March 2, 2007
Section: Opinions

It was with equal parts astonishment and disappointment that I received an advance copy of Mr. Dershowitzs response to my article from about a month ago. Obviously, I disagree with the context of his accusations, but the tone and reasoning of his argument is very troubling. Reading his comments was the sad end of a personal journey of admiration that I had for the Professor. Starting in high school, I believed Dershowitz to be a great man of principle and reason, but this impression has continued to erode over the last five years to the point where I now recognize Dershowitz in the same light as many of his high-profile critics–a man who has betrayed his liberal and, more importantly, academic principles for a life of demagoguery and needless antagonism. With Dershowitzs letter to The Hoot this week, two things are now obvious: First, Carter was undeniably astute in his refusal to debate a professor who has forgotten the basic standards of constructive academic debate, and second, Dershowitz himself was left defeated by the Carter event as he witnessed a community that, for the most part, cared little for what he had to say.

I will keep the defense of my own work very short to avoid the creation of a debate over semantics or the continuation of the series of slurs. In his response, Dershowitz focused most of his criticism on what he claims to be lies and falsehoods on my part. However, all of the points he makes are undeniably subject to interpretation. Simply put, even as Dershowitz attempts to defame me, he is actually struggling to explain his own strange comments that offended and confused many of those who heard them. Dershowitz met a student body whose intelligence and independence he underestimated, and his reaction to student questioning and my article proved that he was surprised he was not greeted with the metaphorical rose petals of an intellectual ally. Dershowitz may relish antagonism, but the language in his response concerning the students of this school (close-minded students and faculty who walked out on my speech and the precious these cowards) indicates he was perturbed and surprised that 2/3 of the audience for a former President did not believe that the presence of the Harvard Law Professor to be all that important.

Beyond the rather questionable assertion that Mr. Dershowitz can infer my political beliefs and personality based on one article is my surprise that I was worth his time. (I guess when someone is denied the opportunity to publicly insult and badger an accomplished statesmen, a 20-year-old African and African-American Studies and History Major who challenged your ego is a second-best prize.) Since he seems to question the make up of my own moral and political background, I will give a brief description. I am a life-long liberal Democrat, member of both the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center since I was 16, and a relentless defender of both civil rights and civil liberties as defined by the constitution and the Bill of Rights. The walls in my room and my written work here at Brandeis (the school I love and praise) are devoted to those who have sacrificed and fought for the principles of political equality and other basic human rights throughout modern history.

Years ago, my personal heroes included the acclaimed civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz. As one of my high school teachers will attest, I frequently cited Dershowitzs books and publications that addressed such subjects as the First Amendment and the rights of the accused. But something dramatically changed after 9/11. The tone and message of the most recognizable defender of the Bill of Rights seemed to go in a direction that I found to be inconsistent. It was at this point that Dershowitz endorsed the use of so-called terror warrants, or the official legal permission to torture a suspected terrorist during the imagined ticking bomb scenario. This plan basically stated that if a suspect was caught and the authorities were certain that that person had knowledge of a bomb or some other related plan with a deadly result, torture would be allowed after getting a judges permission.

When I first saw this on television, I was not only surprised, but I was disappointed. I began to realize the growing hypocrisy of the man whose aggressive style and ideals I had once defended to my doubting colleagues. This hypocrisy soon became more and more pronounced as Dershowitz defended the Israeli governments bulldozing of Palestinian villages in the hopes of destroying terrorism. Now, I consider myself a moderate on the Israeli/Palestinian issue;

I believe that there are many terrorists who will abuse their status as refugees to kill Jews rather then build a coexisting state. I also believe that some of Israels and Ariel Sharons reaction to the second Infitata were in fact overkill, and that this reaction corroded Israels past moral superiority in the conflict. Whatever our personal stances on this difficult issue, Dershowitz abandoned his past allegiance to the causes and beliefs that he once shared with many people like myself. Instead, he began a personal campaign to build his own publicity and notoriety through controversy and relentless, if not completely unfair, antagonism. (Ask Finklestien, Chomsky, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter about how much fun it is to incur Dershowitzs ire).

My general complaints about Dershowitzs appearance and subsequent actions and comments are centered on his preconceived notions of our university (along with student activism in general) and his use of the Nazi or Hitler metaphor. It is sad that a man who once championed the message and intelligence of those representing the academic community has now resorted to bickering and almost sanctimonious denunciations of high-profile professors and even students like those at Brandeis. Dershowitzs approach shows a disdain for academia as a whole, as he has now forgone intelligent and factual debate for publicized rivalries that are more suited for the entertainment world than the hallowed ground of a college or university campus.

Dershowitzs comparisons of the themes and personalities of current political debates with those of Hitler and the Nazis is completely inappropriate. It is beneath a man of his accomplishments and background, and this hyperbolic metaphor should be reserved when actual fascists and politically domineering racists threaten the worlds stability. This method is wrong whether it is Dershowitz, Chavez, Castro, or anybody else comparing their ideological opponent to Hitler. Perhaps worse, it will prove to be completely counterproductive and dangerous in the future, as the constant use of these comparisons inoculates the public to a real threat if and when one arises.

In conclusion, while it is somewhat flattering to be in the same growing club as Chomsky, Finklestien, and Carter at the age of 20, it is nevertheless a bit disheartening. Alan Dershowitz has proved himself to be someone who has forgotten his original spirit and respect within academia. After five years of spreading nothing more then contempt and venom at anyone who dares to disagree with (or even worse ignore) his increasingly flawed message, he stands as merely an apparition of his former self. Last time, I wrote that I ignored the man from Harvard, but I now feel sorry for him. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to know that my own stubbornness and desire for attention had alienated an important and large group of people who once agreed with me.