Celebrity Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, the prolific author and veteran battler for human rights, is a much-sought-after speaker, but Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, N.Y., may have scored a first by withdrawing an invitation to him.
Dershowitz was to have delivered the keynote address and accepted a Citizen of the Year award at the temple's festive dinner Sept. 6, but that was before dinner chairman Alan Burstein received some unsettling news.
The Harvard professor had agreed to serve as counsel to a British law firm that is appealing the conviction of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi. The Libyan intelligence officer has been 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 act hit the city of Syracuse particularly hard, because aboard the doomed plane were 35 students from Syracuse University. Slated as honorees and participants at the temple dinner were 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, Burstein said.
Dershowitz responded with characteristic vigor, telling The Jewish Journal, "This is 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 said his own role was limited to objectively evaluating the validity of the eyewitness testimony that helped convict al-Megrahi.
"It is preposterous to criticize any lawyer for seeking the truth," Dershowitz said. "I have been doing that all my life and will continue to do so as long as God gives me the strength."
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 the very limited role of Dershowitz in the appeal, the unhappy incident might have been avoided.
Dershowitz is to appear at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance on Sept. 20 to discuss his new book, "Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000," with a panel of legal experts.
"I invite anyone with doubts about my role in the Lockerbie case to come and ask questions," Dershowitz said.