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Alan Dershowitz Defends Israel at Polarized Columbia University

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Israelis and Palestinians may one day manage to resolve their differences — but it’s likely that their supporters at Columbia University will still be fighting each other. It sounds like a sad joke, but Alan Dershowitz is serious.

“The kind of hatred that one hears on campuses like Columbia, and especially Columbia, is a barrier to peace” and encourages terrorists, the famous Harvard law professor told hundreds of students at Columbia University’s student union Monday, comparing the progress being made in the Middle East with the polarized atmosphere at the Manhattan university.

Ever since the public screening a few months ago of “Columbia Unbecoming,” a documentary film in which pro-Israel students claim they have been harassed for their views by their Middle Eastern studies professors, the campus has been embroiled in a crisis that has captured national attention.

Columbia’s administration has responded to the charges by appointing five faculty members to a committee that is hearing testimony and is slated to report its findings by the end of the month.

But pro-Israel advocates and students say the committee members are not free of bias, noting that two of them have signed petitions calling for the university to divest from companies that do business with Israel.

Since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada over four years ago, U.S. college campuses have seen intense debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In many cases, the on-campus debate has spawned criticism of Israel that borders on anti-Semitism. It’s not uncommon to hear Zionism compared to the worst racist or fascist regimes.

Columbia, home of the late professor Edward Said, a former member of the Palestine National Council, has seen strong anti-Israel rhetoric.

Outside Columbia’s student union Monday, students associated with a campus Marxist group protested Dershowitz’s speech. They distributed leaflets that read, “Down with the Zionist witchhunt against MEALAC,” the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department accused of flagrant, endemic anti-Israel bias.

“Columbia University is today ground zero in a right-wing witchunt designed to intimidate and drive out any professor who does not toe the line of support to the State of Israel,” the pamphlet read.

Defending Israel has become Dershowitz’s latest mission. Two years ago he wrote “The Case for Israel,” which was intended as a handbook for pro-Israel student activists.

Speaking at Columbia put him at the heart of the most high-profile college debate on the conflict.

Columbia is still “an exception, but it’s the wave of the future unless something can be done,” Dershowitz told JTA.

“Columbia is Europe on the Hudson,” he said, a reference to Europe’s increasingly anti-Israel sentiment.

Dershowitz’s speech Monday was sponsored by the David Project, the Boston-based advocacy group that produced “Columbia Unbecoming.”

The group’s representatives tried unsuccessfully last week to find a professor to introduce Dershowitz. Excuses ranged from too little notice to the excessively political nature of Dershowitz’s message.

University President Lee Bollinger was invited, as were leading administrators and members of the investigative committee, but it appeared that they were not in the audience.

Dershowitz’s speech came as the documentary was screened publicly for the first time in Israel on Saturday at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.

Dershowitz lambasted the university for a culture of extremism that he said silences pro-Israel students. He also gave audience members some pro-Israel information they might not have learned in school.

He spoke of how Israeli soldiers exposed themselves to great risk by going house to house as they fought terrorists in the Jenin refugee camp.

An air raid would have been easier but would have caused more civilian casualties. In the end, 23 Israeli soldiers lost their lives in Jenin because of the attempt to reduce Palestinian casualties.

“Columbia University is failing in its mission to educate its students with nuance about the Middle East,” Dershowitz said.

Judging by the applause, most of the crowd appeared to support Dershowitz, but several students took issue with him. Some raised a sign accusing Dershowitz of supporting torture.

The attack was one of many distortions meant to discredit him, Dershowitz told JTA.

But he urged the audience to stump him with tough questions.

One student suggested that Dershowitz’s speech further divided the campus; Dershowitz replied with a challenge to debate a pro-Palestinian professor.

Give the committee a chance to provide an unbiased result, he said. If it doesn’t, he said, then an external committee of Nobel laureates should be appointed to investigate the matter.

In the meantime, pro-Israel students should be outspoken, Dershowitz said.

“Do not remain silent. Silence in the face of bigotry is a sin,” he said.

The quest for Israel’s survival is the most important human-rights struggle of the 21st century, Dershowitz said, urging the audience to join him in the battle.

“Everybody loves a Jewish victim,” he said, but the “world has a very hard time with a Jewish state which is strong and able to defend itself.”

For some audience members, that message struck a chord.

“After you listen to him speak, you sort of get some pangs of guilt that you’ve been apathetic about something that’s pretty important,” said Jonathan Levav, an Israeli assistant professor of marketing at Columbia who approached Dershowitz after the speech to ask how he might help Israel’s cause.

Levav says he and other Jewish or pro-Israel professors do not feel intimidated about speaking their minds. But they are caught up “on the treadmill of life” — and anyway aren’t sure how to respond to the accusations against Israel.

Professors’ tenure — and even their jobs — are at stake in MEALAC, Levav said.

Dershowitz framed the matter in broader terms.

“The academy is the future and the academy is the minds and the hearts and the souls of tomorrow’s leaders,” he said.

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