Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz is best known for his legal prowess, but he is also the author of two dozen nonfiction works and three novels, the latest of which is The Trials of Zion. Set in Israel, the book’s plot tells the story of three lawyers who defend an alleged Arab terrorist while simultaneously trying to discover who set off a bomb that killed the American president and Israeli and Palestinian leaders at a peace-signing ceremony in Jerusalem.
Dershowitz recently spoke to The Jewish Press about his new book, the Sholom Rubashkin trial, and President Obama’s policy toward Israel.
The Jewish Press: Why did you write this book?
Dershowitz: I think that Israel needs to be portrayed in the 21st century in fiction the way it was portrayed years ago by Leon Uris in Exodus. Fiction really matters; people read novels and form opinions based on them. I think Israel’s image in the world has been suffering lately, and I wanted to write a reality-based novel indicating how difficult it is to deal with terrorism and to make peace in the face of terrorism.
But this book is not entirely pro-Israel.
I had to make it nuanced. I didn’t want it to be something that could be dismissed as pro-Israel propaganda. I wanted it to subtly convey the history of Israel, how difficult it’s been to make peace, and the various elements that seem to be opposed to peace. Remember, when Leon Uris was writing, everybody in the world loved Israel. It was very easy to write a completely pro-Israel book. Today that wouldn’t work. It has to be more nuanced.
You’ve supported the creation of a Palestinian state since the 1970s. Yet, in some circles today you’re considered a right-winger because of your outspoken support for Israel.
It’s so interesting that Noam Chomsky is considered centrist and I’m considered a right-winger even though I have been critical of the settlements since 1973, I’ve favored the two-state solution since 1970 – even before Israel did – and I’m very active in the peace process. I haven’t changed. It shows you how the world has changed.
Intermarriage is generally thought of as one of the worst sins a Jew can commit. And yet, in your novel, you portray positively a budding romance between a young Arab man and a young Jewish woman. Why?
I don’t think I portray it in a positive light. I think I portray it realistically. I portray it the way I see it among my students. I’m trying to be descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m not suggesting it’s a good thing. I don’t support it.
But I see it all around me. The other night I spoke at a Chabad Shabbat dinner at Harvard, and a lot of the students came with non-Jewish girlfriends and spouses. Many of them will eventually convert to Judaism but we’re going through a very challenging period now with intermarriage. I can’t ignore that in my writing.
In the book, you seem to imply that followers of religious leaders such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe are somehow irrational or not using their critical faculties. Is that what you believe?
No, I certainly don’t believe that. I’m the faculty adviser at Chabad at Harvard and I’m a tremendous admirer of Chabad. They do phenomenal work. I don’t believe that at all. You can’t put in my mouth everything that every character spouts.
The point I made about Lubavitch is that a lot of these actors in Hollywood immediately jump on the Lubavitch bandwagon without understanding a thing about Judaism or Lubavitch. I was thinking of a particular person I know in Hollywood, a fairly well known actor, who has just given up his critical faculties…. Tomorrow he’ll be abandoning that and going to some ashram in India. It’s not real for some people. That’s my point.
You have been critical of the 27-year sentence Sholom Rubashkin recently received. Do you see him as a victim of anti-Semitism or as someone who simply was unlucky to have a stern judge presiding over his trial?
I don’t know enough about the case to know whether he’s completely innocent, but I can tell you this: The sentence was utterly disproportionate. You cannot explain that sentence based on the facts of the case. I don’t care how harsh a judge she is. She’s never sentenced anybody like this for a comparable crime.
So I don’t know whether it was anti-Semitism or anti-Easternism or anti-New Yorkism or anti-outsiderism, but it was anti-something. And it can’t be explained on principles of justice. The sentence was way, way out of proportion to anything that was proved in the case.
You have publicly stated that the Jewish community’s hostility toward President Obama is undeserved and unwise.
I do think that. Look, I’m critical of a lot of the policies of the Obama administration, particularly as it relates to foreign policy and most particularly as it relates to Iran. But I think it’s a terrible mistake to regard him as an unredeemable enemy. People point to those who were close to him like the Reverend Wright. People forget that one of the persons who’s closest to him in the world is my dear friend Charles Ogletree, who is an African-American professor at the law school and a fervent Zionist who goes to Israel as often as he can, who has taught in Israel, loves Israel, and is a deep supporter of Israel.
Many of my other African-American friends who are very close to Obama are also very strong supporters of Israel – Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for example. So it’s not a one-sided picture; it’s much more complex. And the most important point is he’s the president of the United States. He’s going to be the president for two more years and maybe six more years, and it would be a terrible mistake to turn him into an enemy. We have to try our best to make him a friend.
Many Jews who become successful try to downplay or hide their Jewishness. You don’t. The fact that you named one of your books Chutzpah amply demonstrates this point. What makes you different?
I’m very proud to be a Jew. I want everybody to know I’m Jewish, and I want to be assertively Jewish. When I came to Harvard, people told me I was too Jewish for Harvard and that I’d never get tenure. I said, “That’s fine. If they don’t want to give a Jewish Jew tenure, that wouldn’t be a good place for me to be.”
I’m not going to hide my Jewishness in any way, and am always contemptuous of people who change their names and change their noses. I don’t think that’s happening as much today, but it certainly happened in my day.
I’m proudly and assertively Jewish and I’ll always be that way. For me it’s very important. I tell Jewish jokes in my classes, I quote Rambam as often as I quote Blackstone, I wrote a book about the book of Bereishit. I’m very proud of my Jewish heritage, education and knowledge. I never hide it at all.
That’s what happens when you grow up in Boro Park. We lived on 48th Street between 15th and 16th Avenues, and I grew up with the Klass family [founders of The Jewish Press]. Mrs. [Irene] Klass was a friend of my mother’s.