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A Muslim legal group filed a disciplinary complaint with a local bar organization against Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz yesterday, claiming he overstepped professional boundaries in an op-ed he wrote last year.
The Muslim Legal Defense and Education Fund (MLDEF) said Dershowitz went too far in an opinion piece on terrorism in Israel published in March in the Jerusalem Post.
In the article, Dershowitz proposed that whenever Palestinian terrorism resumes after a moratorium, Israel should retaliate with military action against a Palestinian village after giving residents 24 hours’ notice.
In a complaint filed with the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, the MLDEF said Dershowitz’s proposal would violate an article of the Geneva Convention that innocent people cannot be punished for a crime they did not commit.
Because the U.S. ratified the treaty, it is federal law. As a lawyer, a MLDEF spokesperson said, Dershowitz is bound to obey this law and cannot encourage others to break it.
“As attorneys we swore to uphold each law in the United States whether we agree or not,” said Sareer A. Fazili, a member of the board of directors of MLDEF. “Dershowitz called for collective punishment. I find it amazing—a whole village cannot be considered a co-conspirator. Simple due process is violated when you attempt to punish more people than are allegedly guilty.”
Dershowitz said he was outraged at what he called MLDEF’s attempt to censor his right to free speech.
“No bar is going to discipline a lawyer for expressing his views on the Middle East,” said Dershowitz yesterday. “In America, you don’t have to defend your right to speak. Maybe that’s the way it’s done in Egypt or Iran, but that’s not the way it’s done in America.”
John C. Mirick, chair of the Board of Bar Overseers, said that all complaints about ethical conduct are directed to the Office of Bar Counsel for investigation. That office then recommends either dismissal or further action.
All proceedings are confidential. Officials in the Office of Bar Counsel did not return repeated phone calls.
Dershowitz said he has no intention of backing down and does not need to defend himself. He does not believe the bar will take action against him, he said.
“The bar association is not going to accept this complaint,” he said. “It will end up in the circular file where it belongs and they [MLDEF] know that.”
The last time a lawyer attempted to have Dershowitz censured, that lawyer was disciplined himself, he said.
“The only thing is whether they discipline the group for filing a frivolous complaint,” he said.
Fazili said that MLDEF does not want its complaint to be viewed as a conflict between Muslims and Jews.
“If any attorney had said this, we would have taken the same action,” he said. “This far transcends religion. It has to do with the way it was said and what it called for.”
But Dershowitz said the debate essentially concerns the First Amendment. “It’s a dispute between those who would censor and those who would exercise free speech,” he said.
Dershowitz said he was also curious why the MLDEF has not sought to discipline pro-Palestinian lawyers who advocate murdering civilians.
Last March, Justice for Palestine, a pro-Palestinian group at Harvard Law School, protested outside of Dershowitz’s classroom in reponse to the op-ed.
“We said that a law professor should not openly advocate crimes,” said Sam Foster Halabi, a second-year law student and President of Justice for Palestine. “As I read this action, it has nothing to do with Dershowitz’s private opinion, it has to do with the fact that we have a lawyer advocating collective punishment.”
However, pro-Israel students also expressed support for Dershowitz.
“That the MLDEF would take this as an opportunity to oust one of the country’s premier academics rather than to address the real issues of the Palestinian intifada is disheartening though not surprising,” said Eric R. Trager ’05, a member of Harvard Students for Israel.
Throughout his career, Dershowitz has been known as a free speech advocate. Yesterday he spoke out in favor of controversial poet Tom Paulin.
“He wants to kill Jews and they’re complaining that I said to knock down a few buildings that harbor terrorists,” Dershowitz said. “It’s hypocrisy run rampant.”
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