Writing Dershowitz’s obituary

Even with a distinguished career in Academia, his musings on the peace process will form the bulk of his legacy.

Alan Dershowitz plans on retiring from Harvard Law School at the end of the academic year, having taught there since 1964 [AP]
Alan Dershowitz plans on retiring from Harvard Law School at the end of the academic year, having taught there since 1964 [AP]

After half a century of service at Harvard University, law professor Alan Dershowitz is preparing to retire.

A recent article in the Harvard Gazette quotes Dershowitz’s musings on his legacy outside academia:

“‘I hope people will at least analyze fairly what I’ve tried to do in those two areas where I’m most well-known: representing unpopular defendants in criminal cases and helping to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. I don’t expect that I will be represented fairly, but I’m going to do what I can do bring that about’, he said, mentioning his plan to rebut his obituary in advance in case news outlets don’t accurately reflect his life”.

In the interest of fairness and accuracy, let us review some of Dershowitz’s alleged contributions to conflict resolution in the Middle East. As it turns out, his “help” in this field also revolves around the practice of defending criminals.

Out-terrorising the terrorists

In a 2002 Jerusalem Post article titled “New response to Palestinian terrorism“, Dershowitz prescribed an “immediate unilateral cessation in [Israeli] retaliation against terrorist attacks… for a short period, say four or five days”.

After the period had passed, Israel “would institute the following new policy if Palestinian terrorism were to resume”:

“It will announce precisely what it will do in response to the next act of terrorism. For example, it could announce the first act of terrorism following the moratorium will result in the destruction of a small village which has been used as a base for terrorist operations. The residents would be given 24 hours to leave, and then troops will come in and bulldoze all of the buildings”.

Recommending a highly publicised “‘waiting list’ [of] targets” and an “automatic policy of destroying targets announced in advance”, Dershowitz endeavored to justify the above with the fact that the procedure would have been clearly outlined beforehand.

Other Dershowitzian interventions to provide legal veneers to illegal policies have of course included his campaign to legalise torture, which he proposed be limited to “nonlethal means, such as sterile needles, being inserted beneath the nails to cause excruciating pain”.

Despite the obvious cause-and-effect relationship that exists between the institutionalised violence of Zionism on the one hand and Palestinian terrorism on the other, meanwhile, Dershowitz contended that his four- or five-day moratorium on counterterrorist retaliation would “make it clear to the world that Israel is taking an important step in ending what has become a cycle of violence”.

‘Reasonable people’

At some point over the ensuing decade, references to the apparently cyclical nature of Israeli-Palestinian violence became impermissible, and Dershowitz issued the following complaint in an article for Haaretz during the IDF’s November 2012 assault on Gaza:

“Some in the media… insist on describing the recent events in Gaza as ‘a cycle of violence’, without distinguishing between the war crimes committed by Hamas and the lawful actions undertaken by Israel to protect its citizens against such war crimes”.

Comparing Hamas’ alleged dedication to “target[ing] Israeli civilians in their homes” with Israel’s alleged practice of “targeting only terrorists and Hamas military leaders”, Dershowitz declared: “Every rocket fired by Hamas from one of its own civilian areas at a non-military Israeli target is a double war crime that should be universally condemned by all reasonable people”. 

One wonders what “reasonable people” might say about a New York Times headline from the same day – “Israeli Airstrike Kills Three Generations of a Palestinian Family” – or about Dershowitz’s fanatical aside in Haaretz in defense of targeted killings:

“There are some who argue, quite absurdly, that all targeted assassination is unlawful, since it constitutes ‘extrajudicial killing'”.

Some “reasonable” folks might go as far as to question how persons incapable of concocting coherent arguments or presenting valid evidence in support of them end up professors of law at the nation’s leading academic institutions.

To illustrate his frustration with “cycle of violence” terminology, Dershowitz offered an analogy: “It would be as if the media described lawful police efforts to stop illegal drug-related murders as a ‘cycle of violence'”.

As I pointed out in an op-ed for Al Jazeera at the time, he refrained from citing any historical instances in which police had deterred drug-induced murder by pulverising apartment buildings.

The last word

The vastly disproportionate Israeli slaughter of civilians in Lebanon in July and August of 2006 also received disproportionate encouragement from Dershowitz, who in an essay for the Los Angeles Times devised a “continuum of civilianality” in order to effectively negate the civilian status of those perishing in the assault.

Walking us through various gradations of civilian-ness, Dershowitz warned:

“Hezbollah and Hamas militants… are difficult to distinguish from those ‘civilians’ who recruit, finance, harbour and facilitate their terrorism. Nor can women and children always be counted as civilians, as some organisations do”.

Reuters put total war deaths in Lebanon at “1,200 people… most of them civilians, according to the United Nations” but failed to break down the tally into more-civilian civilians and less-civilian civilians.

Dershowitz meanwhile concluded that “[e]very civilian death is a tragedy, but some are more tragic than others”.

As for deaths that will be decidedly less tragic, the retiring professor has already penned a takedown of his own obituary. In a review of Dershowitz’s latest memoir, Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law, the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam notes that the book “ends with his posthumous letter to the editor, complaining about being called a pro-Israel patsy and a celebrity lawyer in his obituary”.

Dershowitz has, Beam writes, “[found] fault with the as-yet unpublished, indeed unwritten obituaries that he assumes will herald his passing”. Beam also quotes “an interesting admission from Dershowitz, concerning his successful defense of a Jewish Defense League bomb-maker: ‘This was the first time I had used my legal talents to help free guilty murderers. It would not be the last'”.

Of course, no amount of talent or preemptive obituary rebuttals can redeem Dershowitz himself.

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 theLondon Review of Books blog Salon The Baffler Al Akhbar English and many other publications. 

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez

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