Last night at the City University of New York, Alan Dershowitz attacked the British physicist Stephen Hawking for cancelling a visit to Israel in protest of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Dershowitz called Hawking an “ignoramus” and suggested he’s anti-Semitic, then said he is just another “lemming” being pressured by the BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) movement, which he said was gaining ground around the world.
Dershowitz made these sober utterances in his third debate with liberal Zionist Peter Beinart over whether there’s a crisis for Zionism.
It was an interesting discussion. Below are some excerpts. I’ll focus on Dershowitz’s and Beinart’s central disagreement over what is fueling the movement against the Jewish state, even inside American Jewish life–anti-Semitism or Israel’s actions.
Dershowitz said that his job is to protect Israel. He doesn’t care what Jews do inside Jewish life; he is concerned with external threats, like Stephen Hawking:
If Jews choose to assimilate, that’s a question of free will, choice and freedom… But I defend Israel against its external enemies, external threats. My job is to protect Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people, along with many other people, from external threats so that Jews can obsess about their internal problems and drive themselves crazy. I want to get back to the point where we are divided and fight among each other and have these kinds of arguments– as long as the Stephen Hawkings of the world leave us alone and don’t try and destroy us.
Dershowitz was most compelling when he deconstructed the idea of Jewish values and opposed Beinart’s call for more religious education. He sounded a lot like Israel Shahak and Yossi Gurvitz, criticizing the Jewish religion:
Peter talks about Jewish values. I don’t know what that means, Jewish values. I’m as familiar with the Torah as Peter is. I can quote from all the wonderful parts of the Torah and the wonderful parts of the Talmud. But I also understand that for every wonderful part of the Torah and the Talmud, there’s at least one perhaps two godawful parts that also represent the worst of Jewish values….
[Peter] wants [Israel] to represent Peter’s Jewish values…. I like Peter’s Jewish values. I would much prefer that they [Israel] represent Peter’s Jewish values than Meir Kahane’s Jewish values because I like Peter’s Jewish values more than Meir Kahane’s, but I can’t tell you that Kahane’s are any less authentic.
To the red meat. Moderator Ethan Bronner of the New York Times asked the anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism question. Bronner, the former Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times who was so often indifferent to Palestinian conditions in his reporting, is Jewish, and he ventured that “Israel is the central project of the Jewish people of the world,” the one thing that nearly every Jew has some link to.
Bronner: If that’s true, is attacking Israel’s right to exist a form of anti-Semitism?
Dershowitz: Let me put it this way, I have never met anybody except perhaps Palestinians who really give one good goddamn about the Palestinian people. The love of the Palestinian people is largely a function of the hatred of the nation state of the Jewish people. People who don’t care about the Kurds, who don’t care about the Armenians, who don’t care about the Tibetans, who didn’t give a damn about the Cambodians, who didn’t say a word about the people of Rwanda and the people of Darfur, suddenly have discovered the Palestinian people. The deep hatred that people have of Israel– I’m not talking about criticism; I was very actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement, I remember how strongly we felt about white South Africa, it didn’t come close to the kind of hatred that many people feel today about Israel. Let me put it this way, Stephen Hawkings [sic] would not refuse to attend a conference in a country that was equally oppressing another country, say China and Tibet, or Russia and Chechnya– it’s all about the fact that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. You cannot understand the hatred of Israel if you eliminate the fact that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Is that anti-Semitism? You know– you name it, I’m describing it.
Dershowitz acknowledged that supporting Israel has become an embarrassment because of the shift in attitude on campus and in Europe, toward what he described as politically-correct anti-Semitism. This also explains Stephen Hawking’s defection.
Dershowitz: In 1967 Jews were able to beat their chest and say wow we’re proud to be Israel, look how tough Israelis are. It was a source of pride. Today it’s a source of embarrassment.
Bronner: Because of the occupation.
No. Because of their friends, because of Stephen Hawking. Because of the Brits. No, it’s not about the occupation. If the occupation ended tomorrow, you would find the same… He [Hawking] accepted the invitation two months ago. What happened– did the Israelis start the occupation in the last two months? He got a lot of pressure in 2 months. What we’re seeing is, Today if you go to dinner at a university dinner, and you speak up on behalf of Israel, in favor of Israel, it is an embarrassment. It is not an embarrassment because of what Israel is doing but because of what Israel is. And the BDS movement is growing and the BDS movement does not talk about the occupation. The occupation BDS talks about is the occupation of 1948, the occupation from the ocean to the sea. [sic]
Beinart took sharp issue with that analysis. He said that what is driving world opinion and many young Jews away from support for Israel is the condition of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Beinart: It’s definitely true that there are a lot of people who don’t want Israel to exist as a Jewish state, and there are many important people in the BDS movement who take that view. But if you don’t believe that their efforts are being fueled by people’s anger at what happens in the West Bank and Gaza, you’re just not connected to reality. And this is the problem with the Jewish community. We go to Israel all the time, and it’s wonderful. But where we don’t go– on Birthright, our synagogue trips– we don’t go to experience Palestinian life in the West Bank. And as a result, we are disproportionately ignorant. It’s actually the non-Jews who go and see those things. And when you go and see those things– I was there last week. Believe me, there’s an Israeli flag on my kid’s wall, I love Israel. It is deeply, deeply upsetting and deeply angering to see the way that people are forced to live because they lack [unintelligible]. It is that anger which is leading to the BDS anti-Zionists getting more and more support, and leading to those Jewish kids hearing from their friends…
Dershowitz: They’ve never seen the West Bank. They are just being politically correct. They are being lemmings, who are being led the way the ignoramus Stephen Hawking who doesn’t know anything about the Middle East was led, by pressure from his fellow academics. That’s what it’s about today. It’s an embarrassment.
Beinart and Dershowitz argued about how democratic Israel is. Dershowitz expressed some indifference about the matter. “Israel’s soul will take care of itself, so long as [its] body is kept intact,” he said, then quoted Scripture to make the point that he wants Israel to survive and be stronger than all its neighbors, more than he wants it to have peace.
Beinart: The message of [the Israeli documentary] The Gatekeepers is precisely that Israel’s ethical character and its physical security are intertwined. This was the bet that Israel’s founders made when they yoked Zionism to democracy, that ultimately if Israel surrendered its democratic character it would not be able to survive physically. Because in today’s age, any nondemocratic government is living on borrowed time. Any nondemocratic government has a huge legitimacy problem in today’s world, and that’s why you can’t distinguish so easily Israel’s democratic survival and its physical survival.
Dershowitz: I don’t disagree with that, but… the worst case scenario Israel is still among the top 5 or 10 percent of the countries in the world in terms of democratic values–
Beinart: Not on the West Bank–
Dershowitz: in terms of the judiciary, in terms of the rule of law, in terms of equality of women, equality of gays. Israel’s soul is not in grave turmoil today.
Beinart: Alan– Alan– Alan– have you been to–
Dershowitz: It could improve. It could get matter. Israel on the West Bank, the worst case scenario, Israel on the West Bank is more democratic than any Arab or Muslim state in the world today. And there is more democracy on the West Bank, more freedom of speech, more freedom to criticize, more freedom to get an education. I think Israel on the West Bank is a three or four on a scale of ten.
Beinart: You need to spend more time there.
Dershowitz: I spend a lot of time there.
Beinart. Go to Shuhada street [in Hebron], where Palestinians are literally not allowed to walk on that street even if they live on that street and tell me that Israel’s soul in Hebron is doing well.
Dershowitz. You don’t look at one place–
Beinart said that Palestinians’ inability to vote for the government that is determining their lives is the reason there is a global campaign to delegitimize Israel. If those Palestinians did have the vote, there would have been a “radically different outcome” in the last Israel election.
Dershowitz challenged Beinart: But Israelis chose that government, and it supports the occupation; what would you do to overrule them, impeach Netanyahu?
Beinart: We stand up as Americans and say this is bad for American national security. And we stand up as Jews and say that Our honor is on the line in the question of how Jews use power…. That’s what we do.
An excellent speech. Beinart concluded by addressing the power of the Israel lobby.
Beinart: Look Israel is not going to– the United States is Israel’s only important strategic partner in the world. If the U.S. president said that the relationship with the United States is going to change if you don’t support the ’67 parameters, believe me, the Israeli government would fall.
Dershowitz responded with Bill Kristol’s warning to another liberal Zionist on the Upper West Side a year or so back: he warned Beinart against sitting in comfort in New York and telling the Israelis how to behave.
Beinart: We have a right to decide what is best for the United States. I believe that America must always support Israel’s security interest… But we as Americans and Jews do not have to fund and support the settlement enterprise that is destroying Israel’s democratic character…. We can have a president who said that very loudly…