Dershowitz fights academic freedom at Brooklyn College

Alan Dershowitz’s call to boycott a Political Science department should be dismissed by anyone concerned with justice.

Well-known anti-Palestinian professor Alan Dershowitz has called for a boycott of Brooklyn College's Political Science department due to its co-sponsoring a panel discussion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement [AP]

It comes as little surprise that Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, Brooklyn College alumnus and raving apologist for Israeli crimes, has appointed himself commanding general in the assault on the college’s Political Science department for co-sponsoring a February 7 panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

As the BDS website notes, the non-violent movement was launched by sectors of Palestinian civil society as a means of pressuring Israel “until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights”. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti and philosopher Judith Butler are scheduled presenters.

Among the opening salvoes of Dershowitz’s war was a January 30 Huffington Post article entitled “Brooklyn College Political Science Department’s Israel Problem“, in which his familiarity with the subject matter was underscored by his use of an incorrect acronym for the BDS movement – DBS – no less than 12 times. The error has since been rectified; the article’s more profound defects have not.

Arsenal of illogic

In the introductory paragraph, Dershowitz rails against “[t]he international campaign to delegitimate Israel by subjecting the Jewish state – and the Jewish State alone – to divestment, boycotts and sanctions”. No attention is paid to the possibility that Israel’s singling out in this case is perhaps a result of the fact that most other states in this world are not presently engaged in anachronistic colonial exploits, ethnic cleansing and apartheid.

Unleashing his arsenal of illogic against the argument that departmental co-sponsorship of the BDS panel is consistent with the ideal of academic freedom, Dershowitz decrees that the event instead violates the academic freedom of persons opposed to the BDS movement, demanding:

Would the political science department of Brooklyn College sponsor and endorse an anti-divestment evening? Would they sponsor and endorse me, a graduate of that department, to present my perspective to their students?

Of course, Dershowitz’s line of reasoning might appear slightly more convincing were he to refrain from excising relevant bits of personal history. As Brooklyn College Political Science professor and author Corey Robin remarked in a recent email to me:

Over the years, our department has co-sponsored many public talks and events, with a range of speakers, including one Alan Dershowitz… [W]hen Professor Dershowitz was our department’s Konefsky Lecturer, he was not, to my knowledge, required – nor did he request – to share the stage with someone offering an opposing view.

This information automatically debunks Dershowitz’s suggestion that the department in question “represent[s] only its hard left faculty” and that co-sponsorship constitutes “an official endorsement” of BDS.

Illegality and immorality

Dershowitz alleges that the BDS campaign “advocates the blacklisting of Jewish Israeli academics, which is probably illegal and certainly immoral”. He then goes on to quote an anonymous Brooklyn College faculty member as follows: “[B]oycotting academics is the opposite of free speech. It symbolises the silencing on [sic] people based on their race and religion.”

Keeping in mind that “Israeli” is neither a race nor a religion, let us review the interpretation of this particular BDS transgression provided by Gawker’s pseudonymous politics blogger Mobutu Sese Seko:

It’s not totally clear what Dershowitz means by “blacklisting” of academics, but it seems reasonable to assume he refers to a BDS-related boycott of joint academic projects with Israeli universities. As the linked article notes, such a boycott has direct bearing on the Israel-Palestine conflict, as the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology developed a remote-controlled bulldozer used to level Palestinian homes to remove their tactical roof-having and standing-up abilities.

To be sure, the complicity of Israeli institutions of higher learning in the occupation of Palestinian land and suppression of human rights effectively eliminates anti-Semitism as the motive for the academic boycott.

“We won’t know if [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] is a ticking-bomb terrorist unless he provides us information, and he’s not likely to provide information unless we use certain extreme measures.

– Alan Dershowitz, 2003

As for Dershowitz’s hysteria over things that are “probably illegal and certainly immoral”, it is worth recalling his advocacy on behalf of phenomena quite a bit worthier of such descriptions. These include Israel’s policy of “targeted killings” as well as its habitual massacres of Arab civilian populations, which our legal scholar has determined are a natural result of the creeping lack of Arab “civilianality”.

Chicken-and-egg torture

Torture – another pet topic – has according to Dershowitz been condemned to illegality by archaic international laws and agreements unequipped to deal with the current era of terrorism.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002, Dershowitz presented his modernising proposal for legalised torture, according to which “no torture would be permitted without a ‘torture warrant’ being issued by a judge”. Torturous activity would be limited to “nonlethal means, such as sterile needles, being inserted beneath the nails to cause excruciating pain without endangering life”.

When asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 2003 whether the capture of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed constituted “one of those moments” necessitating torture techniques, Dershowitz responded:

This is not the ticking-bomb terrorist case, at least so far as we know. Of course, the difficult question is the chicken-egg question: We won’t know if he is a ticking-bomb terrorist unless he provides us information, and he’s not likely to provide information unless we use certain extreme measures.

In other words: when in doubt, bust out the needles.

Aside from the chicken-and-egg scenario, other Dershowitz-sponsored pedagogical tools include the “‘Shoe on the Other Foot’ Test“, the subject of the second installment of his Huffington Post tirade, in which he brainstorms irrelevant analogies ostensibly intended to illustrate Brooklyn College’s hypocrisy in invoking academic freedom in the context of the BDS panel:

What would these [college] administrators say if the department of philosophy were to officially endorse the right to life and oppose a woman’s right to choose abortion?.. What if the department of religion were to officially condemn homosexuality?

Disguising censorship as academic freedom

Throughout his career, Dershowitz has adhered to a formula for debate that is based on projection and inverting reality. He surfaced in the midst of Israel’s latest slaughter of civilians in Gaza to declare that the IDF was “targeting only terrorists and Hamas military leaders”; now he is promoting censorship under the guise of academic freedom while accusing those promoting academic freedom of censorship.

His Huffington Post dispatches are replete with incisive analyses of his own modus operandi, projected onto others:

‘Free speech for me but not for thee’ has always been the hallmark of extremists on both the left and right. These extremists believe they know the truth and that there is no reason for supporting, endorsing or even tolerating opposing viewpoints.

Repeatedly reiterating his commitment to the sanctity of the “marketplace of ideas”, Dershowitz threatens Brooklyn College with a descent into service as a “propaganda centre… reminiscent of ‘political science’ departments in the former Soviet Union that ‘encouraged’ their students to follow the official party line”. He incites students to boycott the college’s Political Science department by ludicrously implying that failure to support BDS will affect grades and advanced educational opportunities.

As long as Harvard refuses to pull its own Soviet Union and enact a Great Purge, Dershowitz enjoys a substantial perch from which to pursue his ultimate goal, aptly summed up by Brooklyn College Philosophy professor Samir Chopra as “an end to all discussion, to be replaced by the rote recitation and memorisation of a party line written up by him”.

The man should be boycotted, divested from and sanctioned by anyone concerned with justice, human rights, and substantive discussion and debate. 

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications.