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Oy, Vey! Dershowitz Has a Lot of Chutzpah in Chutzpah

Chutzpah by Alan M. Dershowitz Little, Brown and Company 378 pages, $22.95

By John L. Larew

ALAN DERSHOWITZ WAS the only Harvard professor I had heard of before coming Harvard. I avidly read his syndicated column in the local paper. I was fascinated by his eloquent defenses of civil libertarianism and First Amendment absolutism. They fascinate me yet.

A few weeks after arriving at Harvard, went to a rally to hear Dershowitz denounce Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. As he stood at the lectern--jacket collar upturned, unkempt hair blowing in the wind--he spoke with venomous wit in loud, indignant tones. I rushed home afterwards to call my parents and tell them of my brush with greatness.

I mention all this to put my criticism of Dershowitz's latest book in the context of my respect for the author. Notwithstanding the narrow-sightedness, self-righteousness and infuriating egotism that pervade Chutzpah, a quasi-autobiographical reflection on being Jewish in America, it's hard for a principled liberal not to like Dershowitz. He is, after all (to use a completely inappropriate metaphor), our patron saint.

THE FLAGRANT SELF-PROMOTION in the book comes as no surprise to anyone acquainted with Dershowitz's talk-show hopping, but it is annoying nonetheless. Even in this age of "alibiography," I expected the book to reveal some of the foibles, frailty and folly that make humankind an interesting species. Chutzpah has none of that.

Dershowitz's half-hearted pretense of a revealing self-portrait tells the story of a man whose entire life is a long series of revelations about how right he was all along. It reminded me of a T-shirt slogan that reads, "Once I thought I was wrong, but it turned out to be a mistake."

(Evidently, this unblemished perfection is hereditary as well. Dershowitz describes a scene in which his 10-year-old son supposedly described a Star Trek episode in these words: "I know that, Dad, but at least the rest of it is logical--if you accept the basic futuristic premise. But that last episode wasn't even logical under the premise.")

Despite this, one is irresistably led to admire Dershowitz because he has a sturdy and true moral compass. As a public figure, he sticks up for ideals of human rights and civil liberties where others would let pragmatism prevail; as an attorney, he is famous for defending pariah clients such as Claus Von Bulow and Leona Helmsley and insisting on procedural regularity and the rights of the accused. But just like a compass needle starts to go awry in the neighborhood of a magnet, Dershowitz's moral compass often veers from course when the topic at hand is Israel or Judaism.

The ostensible argument of the book is that Jews should employ more chutzpah when it comes to standing up against anti-Semitism. ("Chutzpah" is an untranslatable Yiddish term describing qualities of assertiveness, demandingness and gall.) Dershowitz argues that Jews have too long allowed themselves to be trodden upon--to be treated as second-class citizens--because they are too concerned about making a favorable impression on their Gentile "hosts."

But there is another thread of argument running through the book: Dershowitz defends himself against the charge of inconsistency that I just leveled two paragraphs ago. Dershowitz insists that every position he takes is derived from righteous principles consistently applied--that he holds Israel and Jews to the same high standard as he does everything else. Dershowitz's opposition to capital punishment, he is proud to note, extends to Adolph Eichmann.

The real hypocrites, "Dersh" goes on to argue, are the anti-Semites who criticize Israel while turning a blind eye to atrocities in the Arab world and elsewhere. Here Dershowitz hits upon a thorny problem. The anti-Semitism he describes surely exists--his collection of anti-Semitic hate mail is evidence enough of that--and many do use criticism of Israel as a thin disguise for anti-Semitism.

Dershowitz's account of his own experiences with anti-Semitism recall the old saw, "Even paranoids can have enemies." To be sure, Dersh has enemies, but he is still paranoid.

DERSHOWITZ SEES an anti-Semite under ever rock and bush. Martin Luther? A direct precursor to Hitler who should be reviled by Christians. The Gospels of Matthew and John? Seminal anti-Semitic tracts.

True, Christian theology is occasionally tarnished by vile anti-Semitism, but then again, the Hebrew bible advises atrocious punishments for women who grab men's genitals and even commands Jews to commit genocide against the Amalekites. We should no more revile the apostles than the prophets. For Dershowitz, who sees everything through the lens of his paranoia, any whiff of anti-Semitism disqualifies all manner of good deeds.

Dershowitz reserves some of his bitterest venom for Jews who fail to join him in his crusade to confront. Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky? A "house Jew." Ditto for Rabbi Ben Zion Gold of Harvard Hillel. Anyone who fails to exhibit sufficient chutzpah (Dershowitz determines how much that is) is falling into the same rut that led to discrimination, pogroms and Auschwitz.

Dershowitz's moral myopia is further evidenced by his abiding animosity for "the a people."

"[T]he rebuilding of postwar Germany into one of the world's most affluent nations," Dersh writes, "is a moral disgrace. A minimal appropriate response...should have been a generation of poverty." Dershowitz even fondly recalls Henry Morganthau's proposal to partition and deindustrialize Germany and turn it into a pauper nation.

Leave aside for the moment the argument that the half of Germany that was partitioned and impoverished is the only place in Germany where anti-Semitism is openly voiced today. Instead, consider a German friend of my family, a small child during the Second World War who made his life's work educating German schoolchildren about the Holocaust. He remembers distinctly the first day he wasn't hungry; he was 11 years old. It is instructive to remember that if Alan Dershowitz had been calling the shots in 1945, my friend would probably have starved to death.

When West German President Richard von Weizsaecker was invited to speak at the 1986 Harvard Commencement, Dershowitz staged a one-man protest against the appearance. (The index entry reads "Dershowitz, Alan, protests Nazis honored at Harvard, 90-91.") Weizsaecker's crime? As an attorney, he defended his father, a high-ranking Nazi diplomat, in a war crimes trial. Representing an unpopular criminal defendant! Why of all the heinous, rotten, despicable acts!

But this is sweetness and light compared to Dershowitz's invective against Israel's critics. His own words are disturbing enough to merit being quoted at length:

"There is yet a third strain of the current virus of anti-Semitism, this one even more difficult to diagnose. Its danger lies in its subtlety, its pervasiveness, and its acceptability at all levels of our society...the singling out of Jewish institutions and especially Israel for special scrutiny..."

Granted, radical Third World types have an infuriating tendency to condemn Israel for abuses that pale before those committed in Arab states and most of the nations on Earth, for that matter. But that's no reason to tar those who believe that Israel should be held to a higher standard (it being completely dependent on the U.S. for its survival and all) with the brush of anti-Semitism.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I believe the U.S. should prop up Israel because it's our moral duty to stick up for threatened democracies. Israel's Jewishness is immaterial to us. To Dersh, it isn't, so he needs to spend an inordinate amount of mental energy convincing himself (and others) that there is no contradiction at all between supporting Israel the democracy and Israel the Jewish state.

Dersh wants to have his challah and eat it too: He wants Israel (and Jewry) to be respected for their moral tradition (as they should be), but he also wants to judge Israel's actions by the standards of the Third World, if need be, not by the standards of the Jewish tradition.

As long as Israel remains relatively observant of human rights and human decency, that poses only a small problem. But it is worth the price of the book to see the mental gymnastics that a brilliant civil libertarian will undertake to remain both a man of principle and a man of his roots.

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