His life testimony
When Alan Dershowitz was a young man attending Brooklyn College, he almost got arrested for a crime during a trip to Washington, DC.
“The king of Saudi Arabia was a state visitor and green Saudi flags draped the important monuments,” he recounts in his memoir Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law. “When I saw the flag of that slave-owning dictator on the Lincoln Memorial, I tore it down and was immediately taken into custody.”
The act was symbolic of a lifetime spent defending the civil rights of individuals in the US, primarily inside the courtroom.
The memoir relates Dershowitz’s life, but it also represents a milestone for him, as he explains in an interview.
“I am turning 75 years old, retiring from Harvard after 50 years of teaching, and I decided it was time to put together my whole life,” he tells the Magazine. “This is the first time to put it all together to relate my adult life to my childhood, and what role my Jewishness played and what price my defense of Israel has cost me in my career and reputation, and I thought those were worth exploring in a coherent and holistic way.”
The eminent American attorney is quick to explain that this isn’t the end of his writing career. He has authored some 30 books on diverse subjects, from Israel to Thomas Jefferson to the Bible. He is still interested in writing more on what he describes as the radical Left’s hijacking of human rights – a subject on which he touches in this latest volume.
Taking the Stand is primarily a history of numerous legal cases and people Dershowitz has encountered, such as property baron and “queen of mean” Leona Helmsley, and actor/director Woody Allen. He asserts in the book that “great issues find their way into courts.” But he also wants to show the role that Judaism and his Jewish upbringing have had in his life.
“It plays a complicated role. Complicated.
The way it does for Israelis, too,” he says in the interview. “I am not a theological Jew. I don’t accept the underlying theological premises of the Orthodox Jewish religion. I was brought up as an Orthodox Jew and was a good Orthodox Jew and never ate unkosher food until my late 20s…. I love the civilization that I am part of. When I teach law, I don’t stop with [William] Blackstone and England, I go back to Genesis and Rambam [Maimonides]. I use all the sources I have available to me, which include my Jewish sources. I am a Jew in every sense of that word, and I even go to shul because I love the tradition.”
Dershowitz is fascinated by the developments in the Israeli justice system. He argues that in Israel, the imposition of a state religion through the lack of civil marriage and other factors creates a love-hate relationship with faith.
“It imposes on you what you can and can’t do on Shabbat, or what food you can buy; it decides who can divorce you; it builds alienation. Separation is the best thing to happen to religion. Ben-Gurion said it, and I own the letter where he writes that the state must recognize everyone’s thought and differences, but he gave too much to the Orthodox. That was a tragedy for Israel.”
DERSHOWITZ PIONEERED a form of teaching that combines lecturing to his class and having his students work on real cases at the same time.
“I was the first in the US to have a prominent practice, to combine three careers – as a litigator who litigates all over the world, as a teacher and writer. I think of myself as a teacher…. I have always believed that you can’t be a good theoretician unless you have a practical side, and vice versa.”
He also draws on his experience growing up poor in New York: “I am a street kid from Brooklyn. People said I had street smarts.
You learn inductively, not just deductively. It makes for a fuller person and life.”
He says this enables him to speak to juries the way he might have spoken as a young man in the hardscrabble neighborhood, highlighting that it is important “to communicate and understand what the average person thinks.”
The author describes having a complicated relationship with Israel. Although an outspoken defender of the state against its critics, he has also been critical of Israeli practices such as administrative detention, when a suspect is held for lengthy periods without being charged with a crime. He is also a steadfast opponent of the settlements in the West Bank. Yet he notes, “We can ask more of Israel, but not uniquely against Israel.
Don’t make Israel sacrifice its national security.”
His relationship with the Jewish state began at a young age.
“When I was coming of age, every Jew could hold his head up and support Israel: ‘I am a Jew, look what Israel did in 1967.’ Israel was a source of great pride,” he says.
“Today in Europe and other places, being a supporter is costly. It has affected my career.
People think I am a conservative for supporting Israel. They use terrible words like ‘Zio-fascist,’ even though I supported the two-state solution since 1970 and opposed settlements since 1973.”
However, he contrasts the critique of Israel with the way some view the Holocaust.
Israel, he says, is “in a tough neighborhood,” which requires making decisions that would not always earn an “A-plus in high morality. The Jews of the Shoah got an A-plus in high morality. It is important to combine morality with the ability to survive and thrive. The prayer says, ‘Hashem, God, will give the Jews strength, and only then will peace be achieved.’ I believe in peace through strength.”
Dershowitz takes his greatest pride in defending constitutional rights in the US. For instance, he is critical of current US law that permits charging people with giving support to terror through forms of what should be free speech, such as online forums.
“I think the line must be clear: You cannot be accused of supporting terror merely by speaking, and you should be able to say what you like,” he says.
Similarly he describes meeting with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, whom he describes as “earnest and deeply devoted to the principle of maximum transparency.”
One of his main messages is that there is a great deal of nuance; not every issue is a Right or Left issue. While Assange’s actions may be seen to harm American diplomacy, he says, that doesn’t mean they are not part of free speech, which in the long run helps democracy thrive.
He hopes his latest book will be treated as both a serious account of legal cases and an “inspiration to people in the US and Israel to lead productive lives and help the less fortunate.”