October 15, 2013
Q&A with Alan Dershowitz
No one can accuse the ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz of understatement, but the subtitle of his new autobiography, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law” (Crown, $28), is a bit misleading. It’s true that Dershowitz’s claim to fame began with his work on a long list of famous cases, but Dershowitz is really an activist, a gadfly and a public intellectual on a global scale. His interest and engagement goes far beyond the courtroom as evidenced by the blurbs on the back cover, which make the point with rollicking good humor. Most blurbs offer enthusiastic endorsements of an author and his book. But the back cover of “Taking the Stand” consists of the pairing of opposites: “I don’t read Dershowitz,” says Jimmy Carter, while Barack Obama thanks him “for your friendship and counsel.” And Noam Chomsky complains that “Dershowitz is not very bright [and] he’s strongly opposed to civil liberties,” while Henry Louis Gates calls him “a subtle and compelling theorist of civil liberties.” Alan Dershowitz spoke with the Jewish Journal by phone about “Taking the Stand” in advance of his Nov. 3 appearance at American Jewish University.
Jonathan Kirsch: Whose idea was it to use the point-counterpoint approach on the back cover of “Taking the Stand”?
Alan Dershowitz: That was my idea. Because I am controversial and I thrive on that fact. People either love me or hate me. I am proud of the fact that the people who hate me also hate Israel, hate civil liberties and hate the position I espouse, which is the liberal case for Israel. This is part of a long-term policy. For years, I have been putting my hate mail on the door of my office so my students can see what it means to be a controversial lawyer.
JK: You write that you were told in school that you ought to be a counterman in a deli; you grew up in a Brooklyn home that was “barren of books, records and art” and your academic performance in high school was “abysmal.” How did you achieve your current stature as a Harvard law professor, a sought-after courtroom attorney and best-selling author, among various other accomplishments?
AD: I used all the things that were negative and tried to pick a career in which they became a positive. I was always feisty and provocative. That wasn’t good in the yeshivah I went to, but it was good in the courtroom, the classroom and television. I tried to turn my weaknesses into strengths.
JK: You write in your book that your son, Elon, “can instantly tell whether someone knows ‘the Dersh Character’ [as he appears in the media] or ‘the real Alan.’ ” Who is the real Alan?
AD: The real Alan is someone who never argues with his friends and his families. Last night, there was a dinner celebrating my 50 years at Harvard. The nicest thing that was said is that I never said an unkind word about my students or the people who work for me. I take out my anger on leaders. In my private life, I am a pushover. My wife wins every argument with me. How I appear on TV is very different from I how I really am in person.
JK: Does it please you or concern you that you have been pilloried both from the right and the left?
AD: It pleases me. I am very comfortable with my enemies. They are people of the extreme left and the extreme right, well known for their intolerance. The thing that’s interesting is that you get real ignoramuses like Andrew Sullivan, who calls me a greater Israel advocate, but I’ve been opposed to the greater Israel concept since 1973. Ask [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas whether I am against the two-state solution; I’ve met with him on several occasions, and he doesn’t think I am in favor of a greater Israel approach. Thank God Israel has to make peace with Abbas and not with Andrew Sullivan.
JK: Perhaps the most remarkable story you tell in “Taking the Stand” is about how you protected your son from more than one peril by threatening or even using physical violence. It’s quite the most remarkable story in your book and shows a very different Alan Dershowitz than the man we know from the media. Do you believe that the resort to violence or the threat of violence is ever justified?
AD: Sure, it is when you have to protect your own children. You have to protect your family; you have to protect your children. I hadn’t hit anybody in many years, but it was unthinking. I just punched him, and I would do it again. I am not a pacifist. I believe that Israel did the right thing when they attacked Egypt preemptively in 1967. Violence would have been perfectly appropriate in 1935, when Germany started to violate the Versailles Treaty. Imagine how many lives would have been saved if France and Great Britain had attacked Germany. We waited too long to go to war. To everything, there is a season, and, tragically, there are times when it is appropriate to attack.
JK: The Forward has called you “the Jewish state’s lead attorney in the court of public opinion.” I fear that Israel is not faring well in that court. Do you see a way for Israel to balance its security issues and its stature in world public opinion when it comes to Gaza and the West Bank?
AD: It’s very hard. The reason is this: One of the greatest accomplishments that Zionism ever achieved is bringing a million Jews from the Soviet Union. I am proud to have been part of that process. That’s what has resulted in Israel turning dramatically to the right. The good sometimes produces negative results. People like me and other liberals haven’t done a good job of convincing Soviet Jews to have a more accommodating attitude toward the Palestinians. It would strengthen their hand with Iran; it would help them build alliances in Europe and the Middle East. There couldn’t be a better time for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. Yes, they would have to give up land and some of the settlements, but those are not security issues. I am in favor of making peace, and I know that Binyamin Netanyahu shares many of those views. He would like to be like Nixon in China, and this may be a season in which the climate is right for peace.
JK: You write that your celebrity is “largely derivative,” because it is based on “the famous and infamous clients I have represented over the years.” Isn’t it true that you are a celebrity in your own right? After all, you concede in your book that “my commitment to full disclosure requires that I not hide behind the distorting shield of feigned humility.” On that point, I think your audience has the impression that you enjoy the spotlight. Is that an accurate perception?
AD: I hate feigned humility, and I am not a falsely modest person. I was in the White House, having a conversation with President Obama and a few people on his national security staff, [and] he asked me what [was] the hardest thing about writing an autobiography. I answered: “To balance the need to be truthful with the need to be humble.” He said: “Alan Dershowitz, humble?” So I am frank in staying that “Taking the Stand” is the best legal autobiography ever written, the most substantive, the most serious autobiography of a lawyer ever written. I stand behind that!
JK: You tell a hilarious story about how Prime Minister Netanyahu invited you into his private office and told you he had a question he had always wanted to ask. His question was: “So, did O.J. do it?” Does it trouble you that your work on the O.J. Simpson case casts such a long shadow? Is there something else that you would prefer to be remembered for?
AD: I want my tombstone to say: “He asked hard questions and he never accepted simple answers.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek synagogue in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1; at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 14; Wilshire Boulevard Temple and at Sinai Temple on Nov. 21.