BOSTON — Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz only showed up at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum for about an hour-and-a-half, but during that time he managed to stir up about as much controversy as the other three days of the conference combined.
Outside historic Faneuil Hall, where the JCPA convened to honor Dershowitz, his appearance drew a small but confrontational pro-Palestinian protest. And inside, among the JCPA delegates, Dershowitz appeared to single-handedly strangle a plenum resolution that had backing from a broad coalition of powerful Jewish organizations.
The event was planned to bestow the Albert D. Chernin Award on Dershowitz, but it was the talk he gave afterward that jump-started the controversy.
With stinging rhetoric he questioned the evangelical Christian support for Israel, and then weighed in on the controversy over same-sex unions. “Marriage is a religious sacrament,” Dershowitz said, and recommended that the government stop issuing marriage licenses, and instead offer only civil unions.
The words that caused the greatest waves, though, were on a less obviously touchy issue — the fight over academic freedom on university campuses.
“There is a far-right-wing effort underway to allow for governmental monitoring of Middle Eastern studies at American universities,” Dershowitz said, referring to a bill currently before the Senate. “I would strongly urge you to oppose all such efforts to allow government oversight of university curriculum.”
As it turned out, there was a resolution up for debate at the plenum that very night proposing that the Jewish community support the bill Dershowitz was criticizing. Furious whispers filled the room and Richard Foltin, legal counsel for the American Jewish Committee, jumped to the microphone.
Foltin, whose organization co-sponsored the proposed resolution, questioned the characterization of his organization and the other cosponsors as “far-right-wing” groups, and then argued for the necessity of government oversight of Middle Eastern departments, many of which have become strongly anti-Israel.
Dershowitz then withdrew the right-wing label, and said he wished there was time to discuss the matter fully. When another JCPA delegate pointed out that now was the time to explore the issue, given the resolution on the table, Dershowitz drew back and said he did not realize that there was a concrete proposal being discussed by the JCPA.
“It is not fair for me to be influencing a debate on the basis of a 30-second sound byte,” Dershowitz said in an uncharacteristic show of humility. “May I move for my comments to be removed from the record?”
The tension after this exchange was enhanced as the delegates walked outside to find a crowd of protestors with Palestinian flags, yelling “genocide mongers” and, “Did you enjoy your bigot fest?”
A number of the delegates had clearly never faced such anti-Israel vitriol before and there were a few heated discussions. But the broader aftershocks from Dershowitz’s appearance were felt during a session later in the night, when the AJCommittee’s resolution came up for a vote. Foltin clearly had prepared for the debate, distributing a one-page argument for the resolution to each delegate, and he was the first to speak in its defense, saying, “there is nothing in this bill that would compromise curricula.”
But Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, drew on a few of the arguments made by Dershowitz and said, “We haven’t worked through this, and don’t know the full lay of the land.”
This sentiment carried the room, and soon afterward the delegates voted to send the resolution to a task force for further study, making it the only full resolution not to pass.
In the wake of this defeat, Foltin said he had known before the plenum that the resolution would be controversial and he was not convinced that Dershowitz’s comments had determined the outcome. But, he recognized, “Dershowitz’s remarks set the table for the debate.”