LOS ANGELES (Aug. 30)
Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz is a sought-after speaker, but Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, N.Y., may have scored a first by uninviting the veteran human rights advocate and prolific author.
Dershowitz was to deliver the keynote address and accept a Citizen of the Year award at the temple’s festive dinner on Sept. 6 — until dinner chairman Alan Burstein received some unsettling news.
Dershowitz, it appeared, had agreed to serve as counsel to a British law firm appealing the conviction of terrorist Abdel Basset al-Megrahi. The Libyan intelligence officer was found guilty by a panel of Scottish judges of murdering 270 people in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988.
The terrorist attack hit Syracuse particularly hard, since aboard the doomed plane were 35 students from Syracuse University. Honorees and participants of the temple dinner include the chancellor of Syracuse University, his wife and faculty members who still bear the emotional scars of the tragedy.
Under the circumstances, it would have been the height of insensitivity to ask the university leaders to share the dais with a man perceived to be an ally of the convicted terrorist, said Burstein, who is also a lawyer.
The Harvard professor responded with characteristic vigor during a phone interview, describing the temple’s reversal as a “21st century version of legal McCarthyism.”
He noted that there was widespread doubt among Western intelligence agencies and even some of the families of the British victims that al-Megrahi was the actual perpetrator.
“It is at least as likely that the bombing was carried out not by a Libyan agent but by someone connected with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command,” Dershowitz said.
He added that his role was limited to objectively evaluating the validity of the eyewitness testimony that helped convict al-Megrahi.
“There could be no greater assault on the memory of the murdered victims than the conviction of the wrong man and the failure to prosecute the right man,” Dershowitz said. “It is preposterous to criticize any lawyer for seeking the truth. I have been doing that all my life and will continue to do so as long as God gives me the strength.”
Dershowitz said he had received several letters of support from temple members criticizing the decision to uninvite him. Burstein said only two couples among 500 guests had canceled their reservations.
During a number of phone interviews, the two principals agreed that if Dershowitz had been aware of the special loss by the Syracuse community — and Burstein of Dershowitz’s very limited role in the appeal — the unfortunate incident might have been avoided.
Al-Megrahi, 49, has been sentenced to life in prison. His appeal will be heard on Oct. 15 by a panel of five Scottish judges sitting at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.