He’s thrown haymakers at liberal Zionist Peter Beinart on CNN. He’s said President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu “have blood on their hands” over civilian deaths in Gaza. And he’s railed against J Street’s so-called “big tent” on Israel.
But in an unusual turn of events, former Harvard Law School professor and staunch Israel supporter Alan Dershowitz — who is used to the rough-and-tumble of the pro-Israel wars — got the silent treatment, so to speak, at Brooklyn College last week. And this at a campus that has seen its share of pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) activity.
Though the April 29 event focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no activists spoke out during the question-and-answer session or picketed outside. The response, according to student leaders, was much quieter than they expected.
Responding to the uncharacteristic quiet, Dershowitz, himself an alum of the undergraduate college, urged dovish or pro-Palestinian members of the audience to ask “disrespectful questions.”
“I’m not looking for softballs,” said Dershowitz, to no avail.
Dershowitz’s visit came one week after Pamela Geller’s appearance on campus created havoc. Geller, the activist whose anti-Islamic rhetoric apparently spurred two men to open fire outside a contest for caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a Dallas suburb Sunday night, was invited by one professor to speak about First Amendments rights. According to student reports, her visit escalated quickly into a shouting match between Geller and audience members.
“It was very ugly,” said one Jewish student who witnessed the incident. “It’s tragic that people have come to associate radicals like Geller with the pro-Israel camp,” said the student, who asked not to be named to avoid the politics of the situation.
In response, security was considerably amped up for the Dershowitz event, said Michelle Terebelo, president of the Israel club on campus and one of the organizers of the event.
“I was definitely surprised that there was no protesting,” said Terebelo. “It seems that the other side is only interested in coming to anti-Israel events, not pro-Israel ones.”
According to Terebelo, Dershowitz’s visit was a direct response to a “sponsoring war” that has developed on campus over the past few years. A fierce debate over whether a department’s sponsorship amounts to tacit endorsement began in 2013 after founding members of the BDS movement were invited to speak on campus; the event was sponsored by the political science department.
At the time, Dershowitz published a column in The Huffington Post criticizing the sponsorship as academically biased. The college now requires departments to sign a disclaimer that co-sponsorship does not mean endorsement.
Still, several outspoken critics of Israel, including Steven Salaita and Ben White, have since been sponsored to speak on campus by academic departments.
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“Dershowitz came to prove a point,” said Terebelo. “If departments are going to repeatedly sponsor critics of Israel and supporters of BDS, they need to sponsor at least one defender of Israel.”
At the event, Dershowitz pronounced the BDS campaign targeting Israel as “immoral” and “doomed to fail.”
The Dershowitz event was co-sponsored by several departments, including the political science department, though no department heads showed up, according to Terebelo.
“It’s rather audacious to co-sponsor an event and then not attend,” said Terebelo, who described the dearth of staff representation as a “slap in the face.” Department heads, including political science department chair Corey Robin, have attended Students for Justice in Palestine events in the past.
“Our goal with the event was to leave a positive aftertaste,” said Moshe Berman, vice president of the Israel club. “A conversation about Israel doesn’t have to be aggressive — it can be polite, respectful and educated.”