It was the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when a Harvard student knocked on Alan Dershowitz’s door and asked the esteemed law professor for forgiveness.
For not speaking up for Israel, the Jewish student explained. He knows he should be more supportive of Israel, but doing so might prevent him from getting dates, Dershowitz said the student told him.
The idea that support for Israel could place a student outside the social pale infuriated Dershowitz and inspired him to generate more support for Israel among college students.
In his newest book, “The Case For Israel,” Dershowitz outlines the most frequent accusations against the Jewish state — such as charges that Israeli is a colonialist country that displaced and practiced genocide against indigenous Palestinians — and then dissects them with the crisp intelligence that has made him such a successful defense lawyer.
In fact, Dershowitz believes, when all countries’ behavior are judged by the same ethical standards, Israel merits praise.
With college campuses now fertile ground for pro-Palestinian agitation, Dershowitz has embarked on a tour of campuses throughout North America and England.
A civil libertarian famed for defending such high-profile clients as Patty Hearst, O.J. Simpson and Michael Milkin, Dershowitz feels he’s well-qualified to promote Israel’s rights on the college scene — where self-styled “progressives” criticize the Middle East’s lone democracy but remain silent about or even justify authoritarian and repressive Arab regimes.
“I do it because I’m a liberal,” Dershowitz said. “By liberal standards, you have to support Israel.”
Dershowitz’s efforts come as pro-Israel activists on campus complain of hostile attitudes toward Israel among faculty members. They despair that many faculty members lend their backing to the Palestinian cause, while those who sympathize with Israel remain silent.
“The faculty issue continues to be a dogging issue,” said Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group for 26 Jewish organizations.
“What you’re trying to reverse is something that started in the 1970s with Arab petro-dollars being recycled and turned into academic chairs in universities around the country,” Firestone said, which fostered a pro-Arab ideology among faculty.
In addition, in the post-Vietnam era it has become fashionable on college campuses to support the perceived underdog in international conflicts — especially when the stronger party is allied with the United States.
The solution is not simple.
Even if Jewish groups invested in creating academic chairs on Israel, there’s not “an abundant pool of trained academics who could even fill” them, Firestone said.
It’s “going to take time to hopefully train people from different disciplines,” he said.
Many pro-Israel faculty consider it a breach of professionalism to speak out on political issues.
Norman Stillman, the Schusterman/Josey chair of Judaic history at the University of Oklahoma said most “try not to bring our political views blatantly into either the classroom or to the campus, because in a sense that would vitiate our bona fides as academics who study the area.”
Tamar Rudavsky, professor of philosophy and director of the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, said, “Why don’t we all do the Dershowitz thing and jump onto the Israel bandwagon?”
“I think there are lots of ways to accomplish that goal,” she said, “and some of our faculty choose less obvious — but maybe ultimately more successful — ways to accomplish what we think is the ultimate goal of a university education: to look at issues from both sides critically.”
But Edward Beck, a faculty member at Penn State University, said pro-Israel faculty are “really afraid to come out of the foxholes.”
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a group Beck created to “educate, network and empower faculty people to advocate for Israel,” has recruited only 550 activists from among the 33,000 faculty members he has solicited. In part, he blames the “established Jewish community.”
“Pro-Israel faculty are very ambivalent right now, but they haven’t felt nurtured and supported and surrounded to step forward. They’re in a hostile environment,” Beck said.
Firestone said many pro-Israel faculty members prefer to stay above the political fray.
Dershowitz said that precisely by taking political positions, pro-Israel professors could serve as role models for students to become involved in public affairs. The problem, he said, is that a campaign of academic McCarthyism stymies open dialogue.
While there’s a “silent plurality of pro-Israel faculty in universities around the country,” Dershowitz said, there’s a “systematic attack to intimidate” them.
His own efforts have brought more personal attacks and threats of discipline or termination than any case he has taken on, he says.
As a tenured professor who has taught at Harvard for 40 years, he’s not worried. But “what young faculty member wants to endure what I’ve had to endure?” he aks.
Each time he speaks up for Israel, Dershowitz said, he gets a batch of “whisper” phone calls from pro-Israel faculty thanking him for his public stance, he told JTA in a recent interview at Ohio State University.
Dershowitz visited Ohio State in late October to launch a Chabad-sponsored program to train Jewish students as “ambassadors” for Israel.
Students seemed to welcome Dershowitz’s effort.
For Melissa Rosenfield, 20, an Ohio State senior and newly minted “Ambassador for Israel,” the training program was vindication.
Rosenfield recalled how, when she was a freshman taking a 600-person sociology seminar, her professor told the class that Jews provoke the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rosenfield privately asked the professor to change his comments, but he refused.
When she earned a D+ in his course — a full grade lower than she expected — she said the professor told her she was a troublemaker.
If such a situation occurred today, Rosenfield said, she would tell the professor: “Let me educate the class, let me tell the class what’s up, because I know what’s up.”
After attending a private “Ambassadors for Israel” class with Dershowitz, Rosenfield said she feels newly connected to the Jewish state and armed with intelligent arguments.
In the training session at the Ohio State Chabad house, Dershowitz quizzed the students on Israel’s democratic merits: On which Israeli Supreme Court case do feminists and fervently Orthodox rabbis come down on the same side? On a case that would block broadcasts of Israel’s Playboy channel, Dershowitz told the crowd.
Israel makes mistakes, he told the students, “but in general has been on the right side of history.”
He also warned that “Israel-baiting doesn’t come free” — it paves the way for harming Israelis.
Later that night, at the entrance to the student union where Dershowitz addressed hundreds of students and community members, protestors passed out leaflets calling him a bigot.
Inside, Dershowitz sought to take the case for Israel one step further — to make support for the Jewish state not just acceptable on campus, but downright cool.
“Date a Zionist!” he urged students.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.