Fiery Dershowitz lashes out at Israel critics in Berkeley speech

Alan Dershowitz has won plenty of high-profile cases, but with some juries, he knows he hasn’t got a chance.

When it comes to making the case for Israel, dealing with 15 percent of America’s college population is “like putting a dollar in a soda machine and the dollar won’t come out and the soda won’t come out,” he said.

“There’s no arguing. It’s not rational.”

In a Thursday, April 29, speech at U.C. Berkeley, the attorney, author and prominent Israeli activist claimed another 10 or 15 percent of America’s college students support the Jewish state, leaving 70 percent “with open minds and, unfortunately, empty minds when it comes to Israel.”

Because of an undisclosed medical condition that left him unable to board an airplane, Dershowitz appeared via satellite on a movie screen before a highly pro-Israel crowd of 1,000 to 1,200 at Zellerbach Hall.

While roughly 60 protesters chanted, waved placards and sold Palestinian olive oil outside the theater, no one interrupted the $25-a-ticket event within, co-sponsored by Berkeley Hillel and the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Dershowitz, the author of “The Case for Israel,” delivered a forcefully pro-Israel speech, casting the battle for Israel’s creation in 1948 as “a clear conflict between good and evil,” and “Holocaust survivors trying to build a homeland … and, on the other side, Holocaust perpetrators. People forget the Egyptian army consisted in large part of former Nazis who had been given asylum.”

Israel’s battle, he believes, is still one of good versus evil.

“If a space alien came down from a distant planet and landed at the U.N. General Assembly … when he had to report back to the distant galaxy from which he came, he’d send a strange report,” said Dershowitz to laughs.

“This world has great countries that love peace, such as Syria, which serves on the Security Council, and Libya, which serves as chair of the commission on human rights. But there’s one evil nation condemned more than all the other countries combined.”

Dershowitz went on to blast Israel’s critics as “bigots” and “hypocrites,” accusing them of singling out the Jewish state for scorn and ignoring the everyday atrocities of nations such as China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

The Harvard Law School professor held up Israel’s supreme court and army as models for the rest of the world to emulate. He lumped blame for ongoing Palestinian statelessness on Arab leaders, with special vitriol reserved for Yasser Arafat, whom he singled out as a tyrant who has blown Palestinian opportunities and robbed his people. Dershowitz cast himself as a “Jew for Palestine,” noting he has been in favor of a two-state solution for decades.

Dershowitz spoke with dizzying rapidity throughout the evening, but was never faster or more forceful in his condemnation of what he sees as a well-orchestrated smear campaign against Israel advocacy on campus.

Any author who writes a pro-Israel piece can expect to be crucified by well-known anti-Israel intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, he said.

“They will not succeed in discrediting me, but they send a message to young assistant professors that if you write a book or an article that is pro-Israel, we will savage you, we will call you a liar and a fraud. Dershowitz may be able to survive those charges, but you won’t. When tenure review comes up, those kinds of issues will be out there,” he said.

Dershowitz believes the ultimate goal of anti-Israel activists, especially those pushing divestment petitions, is to influence current students — and tomorrow’s leaders — to become “so knee-jerk anti-Israel they’ll resemble what the typical French leader is today.”

He noted with exasperation that after university speaking engagements, he often receives calls from professors who say they do not feel comfortable supporting Israel publicly.

“Some say they can’t speak up, they’re not experts in this. But they’ll sign petitions for gay rights, environmental rights, abortion rights. Others will say they can’t speak up because they are experts and their impartiality will be questioned,” he said.

“If you add it all up, between the experts and non-experts, there’s no one left to speak up!”

A longtime liberal, Dershowitz avoided making overtly political statements, but he implied that Jews do not owe their votes to President Bush because of his Israel advocacy. Ideally, he noted, Israel should be a nonpartisan issue.

Many audience members were surprised to discover Dershowitz would not be attending the event in person, but he was given the rock star-like treatment by a crowd that seemed to agree with his every assertion.

At one point, however, the crowd tittered when the scene behind Dershowitz switched from the nighttime skyline of Boston to a blue screen with the words “Scene: Boston night” in the left corner. Within 10 seconds, the skyline was back.

“I would have preferred to have seen him in person, but it’s really about the words, not the person. I think it’s a very important message, and it’s good for people to be able to coherently phrase the message that he brought,” said audience member Joe Fendel of Berkeley.

“I wish people who were not as familiar [with Mideast history] would hear this message, and I’m worried that might not happen.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.