Before an audience of over 100 people—many of them members of the Hillel community—Dershowitz reaffirmed his support for Obama despite mixed rhetoric from the White House on America’s approach to Israel-Palestine relations and the subsequent backlash from the American Jewish community, which voted overwhelmingly for the then-Illinois senator.
Taking a more critical stance, Joel B. Pollak ’99, who graduated from the Law School in 2009 and is running for Congress in the 9th district of Illinois, called upon the Jewish community to “hold the Obama administration and Congress accountable” for recent Middle East policy including a much-publicized speech in Cairo, a delayed show of support for protestors after the presidential elections in Iran, and sustained pressure on Israel to halt settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Pollak gained brief media attention last spring when he took Mass. Representative Barney Frank to task during a speech at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“It is a true test of our ability as citizens to engage in democracy,” Pollak said. “Many Jewish-Americans voted for Obama, and now they suspect they were victims of a bait and switch.”
Dershowitz, a vocal defender of Israel and a long-time supporter of a sovereign Palestinian state, responded that he would continue to support the president on policy stances he agreed with, and would otherwise prefer to work constructively within the Democratic Party. But Dershowitz has also spoken out vigorously against Democratic officials in the past, notably attacking former President Jimmy Carter’s portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama’s willingness to engage in dialogue with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries has been a positive aspect of the administration, Dershowitz said, and his credibility with liberals and young people makes him a stronger advocate for Israel as well.
“I think it’s much better for Israel to have a supporter in the White House like Obama, a critical supporter, than to have yet another old white conservative man who’s Republican,” he said. “That’s expected.”
Several students in the audience said they enjoyed the event, organized by Harvard Students for Israel, although it remained a discussion between two supporters of Israel rather than the debate as advertised.
“It was very honest, and didn’t seem like anyone had an agenda beyond bringing the facts forward,” said Arun A. Viswanath ’13, who studied in the West Bank before coming to Harvard. “Both have the same interest in mind.”
Ari R. Hoffman ’11 said he appreciated the passionate but cordial dialogue that stayed focused on the substantive issues of American policy in the Middle East.
“It was good to see such opposite ends of the political spectrum unite around the love of Israel,” he said.
—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.