Dershowitz petition lacks validity

October 8, 2015


A circulating petition paints Alan Dershowitz as a representative of “ideals which run counter to the philosophy of our university.” The petition claims that not only does he trivialize sexual assault and plagiarize the work of others but he also might actually be a rapist himself. Weird that a celebrated defense attorney, legal scholar and policy advocate hid this from his clients, Harvard University and the entire political media. Even weirder that a coalition of five student groups at Hopkins would be the ones to break the news. Their research methods aren’t even a secret since the original complaint lodged with the MSE Symposium just days ago claimed to have found these ‘facts’ after “a quick Google search.” Now the petition declares that these ‘facts’ are “not a matter of opinion, and cannot be debated.” What a turnaround!

It is not surprising that the petitioners limited their research to “a quick Google search” because anyone who had bothered to do the requisite research would have found something far more disturbing than any of these ‘facts.’ Signees and authors of the petition might not recognize it, but the actual fact of the matter is that the protest receives its force and support from an anti-Semitic crusade against prominent Jewish and pro-Israel advocates. Given the apparent spuriousness of the allegations, anti-Semitism is the reason they persist. It is the reason people like Dershowitz are targeted. And it is the reason that petitions like the one now making the rounds — superficially legitimate but upon examination nothing more than specious camouflage — are so dangerous.

Firstly, the petition takes issue with Dershowitz’s occupational practice. As a criminal defense attorney Dershowitz axiomatically dedicates his life to defending criminals. Enshrined in our Constitution — as it is enshrined in the Constitutions of 152 other countries — is the right to legal counsel. He has made his living providing the best possible counsel to his clients because that is what the legal system demands. The petition claims that by doing this he somehow “trivializes sexual assault.” While it is true that Dershowitz has defended people who are morally repugnant, that some of those people are rapists and that his counsel is effective because he pursues all possible avenues for his clients, these truths do not suddenly render the legal system’s basic tenets subservient to sensitivity. In the case which canonized the right to legal counsel, Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court said: “Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law.” This is evident from the petition.

Secondly, the petition accuses him of plagiarizing his book The Case For Israel. Amusingly it claims that no one has defended Dershowitz except himself and his colleagues at Harvard University and that “multiple independent parties” corroborate the plagiarism. This confuses some foundational principles of academic freedom. The petitioners appear not to know that academics receive independence from both their colleagues and their institution and that those at Harvard do not speak for anyone but themselves. The book in question was originally criticized for plagiarism by Norman Finkelstein as part of a long-standing feud between the two authors. In Finkelstein’s subsequent book Beyond Chutzpah, he was barred by his publisher from both including the claim that Dershowitz did not write The Case For Israel and simply using the word “plagiarize” to refer to the improper citation Finkelstein originally pointed out. Here the publisher was responding to the independent review by former Harvard president Derek Bok — who the petitioners will probably say was somehow in Dershowitz’s pocket — which found no evidence of plagiarism. Asked to produce evidence corroborating the accusation, Finkelstein demurred and published his book in the modified form. Wading into this ongoing high-profile feud between the two opposing authors, the petition quickly declares something eminently uncertain as true.

Thirdly, the petition levels its final allegation, that Dershowitz committed statutory rape, only once. In 2008 Jeffrey Epstein, one of Dershowitz’s clients, pled guilty to a state charge of “solicitation of prostitution involving a minor.” Victims filed a civil lawsuit against federal prosecutors for deciding to keep the case at the state level without consulting them. As part of that lawsuit, one victim accused Dershowitz of engaging in sexual conduct with her when she was underage. The petition ignores three things: Firstly Dershowitz denied the allegation and made specific reference to the spatiotemporal circumstances which make the allegation’s truth impossible; Secondly Dershowitz declared his willingness to waive the statute of limitations and invited the accuser to file criminal charges against him because he was certain of his own innocence; Thirdly Judge Kenneth Marra wasted little time striking the allegation from the record. An isolated, unsubstantiated allegation does not typically garner this type of reaction from college students. Compare Dershowitz’s impending appearance at Johns Hopkins to Bill Clinton’s appearances at institutions like Michigan, Portland State, Middlebury, Harvard, NYU, Walden and Howard, since Clinton was also accused of sexual assault in 1998 by Juanita Broaddrick. One would be hard-pressed to find any instances of protest at those schools much less the type seen here. What’s going on?

The petitioners make their argument under the color of a legitimate concern for sexual assault victims. Even though their premises rest on false information, the skeleton of the argument, that purveyors of rape culture should not be given welcome on a college campus, seems plausible. This editorial is neither a cry for ‘free speech’ nor is it a defense of Dershowitz’s politics. It is instead an argument that the engine driving the Dershowitz protest train — perhaps the sources used in the petition, perhaps the petitioners themselves or perhaps a combination — is fueled by anti-Semitism.

Figuring this out requires as much effort as the petitioners took to source their allegations. Go ahead and comb through a website like The Electronic Intifada (EI) which according to “a quick Google search” has published a whopping 185 articles on Dershowitz, each of them negative. It does not boggle the mind that an anti-Israel website like EI or anti-Israel polemicists like Finkelstein would have a vested interest in discrediting Dershowitz given his status as a prominent pro-Israel advocate. What does boggle the mind is the willingness of the petitioners to endorse the screeds of an unconscionably biased outlet’s hack jobs or a rival academic’s slander in order to prevent Dershowitz from coming to campus. Their eagerness to see Dershowitz as an enemy of their cause unwittingly gives life to the latent anti-Semitism that inspires these attacks on those who support the Jewish state. It is too bad that the coalition of Hopkins Feminists, the Sexual Assault Response Unit, the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance, Voice For Choice and the Black Student Union have given anti-Semitism a disguise, a megaphone and an audience.

Theodore Kupfer is a junior philosophy major from Austin, Texas.

Editor's Note: This article formerly did not disclose the author's role on the MSE Symposium. He is a member of the organization's Programming committee.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.