Life & Culture

Interview: Alan Dershowitz

‘Defending Israel is tougher than defending OJ Simpson’


Alan Dershowitz rose to worldwide prominence as the lawyer who acted for OJ Simpson, Mike Tyson, Mia Farrow and Claus von Bülow in high-profile court cases. But arguably his toughest job is one which has brought him little, if any, financial reward, and precious little respect from many of his peers. Dershowitz is one of Israel’s greatest defenders. It has been, he says, “a very bad career move”.

The 70-year-old professor of law at Harvard University was in London this week to talk on behalf of One Family, a charity dedicated to helping Israeli victims of terror, and their families. He spends much of his time working for Israeli causes and has seen his reputation as an academic come under attack as a result.

“Before I became a strong advocate for Israel I had the highest rating for a teacher by students at Harvard law school. I’m a very good teacher. People stand on line for my seminars. Since I started publicly supporting Israel, my student evaluation scores have gone down dramatically. Ninety per cent of students still give me the highest rating of five, but the 10 per cent that hate me because of my advocacy of Israel give me zero, so that brings down the average. If I was seeking tenure it would be devastating for my career. Universities have told me that they would love to give me an honorary doctorate but that the student protests would be too significant.”

Dershowitz, who despite his age still brims over with restless energy, is unbowed by the criticism. He says he became a lawyer to defend the underdog and fight for liberal causes. Israel, he feels, fits into both of these categories. “Until Israel became a pariah among the hard-left and around the world, I didn’t spend much of my time on it at all. I worked for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US. Today, there is no country in the world which has a better claim to the support of liberal progressives and civil rights campaigners than Israel. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about what happens in Darfur or Rwanda, where I was very critical of my friend Bill Clinton. I’m not a single-issue person, but I spend so much time on Israel because it is so unfairly condemned around the world.”

Particularly pernicious is, as he sees it, the now-commonly held perception that Israel is now a Middle East superpower — a David turned Goliath. “That’s a brilliant PR ploy. When you look at a map of the Middle East today, there is a crescent — and I use the term advisedly — of danger threatening Israel, starting with Iran, Iraq, then Syria, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas. This is not to mention the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Jordan is charging Israel with war crimes. I cannot believe the chutzpah of King Abdullah who routinely tortures dissidents and rules a country which has killed far more Palestinians than Israel ever has.”

Dershowitz sees an insidious antisemitism underpinning the anti-Israel rhetoric from the hard-left and the hard-right. He has campaigned tirelessly against the academic boycott of Israelis, in this country (where he joined forces with eminent British lawyer Anthony Julius to attack the practice as racist and possibly illegal) and in the US, where his work has yielded encouraging results. “In America, physics Nobel prize winner Steve Weinberg and I issued a statement saying that we had been given honorary doctorates by Israeli universities and that, for the purposes of the academic boycott, we regarded ourselves as Israeli. So far, 11,000 academics of every religious background and every political persuasion have joined our protest. Even anti-Zionists like Noam Chomsky have opposed the boycott. It is a collective punishment aimed only at Jewish Israelis.”

That the boycott gained considerable support in the UK does not surprise Dershowitz, who is worried at the rise of antisemitism here. “I never thought I would live to see the day that Britain had worse antisemitism than Poland, but this is the situation today. This is not just Muslim and far-right antisemitism. I’m talking about genteel dining room conversation — a contemptuous attitude towards Jewish values, particularly towards Jews who have sympathy for Israel. You can’t be both a Zionist and have any credibility on the left anymore. And Jewish anti-Zionists are even more ferocious than non-Jewish anti-Zionists because they are so desperate to prove their left credentials.”

Dershowitz emphasises that he is anything but a right-winger himself. He has at times criticised Israel, particularly for its use of cluster bombs in Lebanon. He is also reserving judgement on Israel’s deployment of white phosphorus in Gaza. And he does not oppose Palestinian statehood despite his view that the Palestinians have been their own worst enemies.

“I always say I’m pro-Palestininan and pro-Israeli. The Palestinians have a moderate case for a state even though they turned one down in 1938, they turned one down in 1947, and again in 2000. On a moral scale, the Kurds deserve a state more than the Palestinians. However I have never agreed with [Israeli] civilian settlements in the West Bank.”

For all his work on issues surrounding the Middle East, Dershowitz still practises criminal law. It is quite simply what he always wanted to do. “I never had an existential moment when I asked myself what I was going to do. I always wanted to be a lawyer and I knew exactly the kind of lawyer I wanted to be.”

He recalls an encounter with his Orthodox rabbi as a teenager. “I was a bad student in high school. The rabbi told me that I didn’t have such a good brain and I needed to figure out something where I could use my mouth a lot but not my brain. He said I could either be a lawyer or a Conservative rabbi.”

He may be one of the most famous lawyers in the world, but this does not always work in his favour when he is in court. “I turn down a lot of cases and I say to a lot of potential clients: ‘You don’t need

OJ’s lawyer.’ I have to make a decision about when I am going to add value to a case. Luckily, I don’t need cases to pay my bills.”

He claims that his career has always been about championing the underdog, despite the fact that many of his clients have been rich and prominent. “I have seen some of the most powerful people in the world cry because they are so scared. When the government comes after you with all of its power —– that’s scary. Anyway, more than half of my clients pay nothing at all. I charge my wealthy clients a lot and put 10 per cent in a fund which I use to pay the expenses of my poorer clients. When the government gangs up on the poor shnook in the street, someone has to stand up for him.”

So how does he decide to take a case on?

“I need to feel something. It could be the client, the cause, it could be the injustice of the case, it could be the sentence. Something has to get my juices going. Something has to motivate me strongly.”

Motivation is a big thing for Dershowitz. He admits that he would find it boring to devote his career to any single pursuit, be it as a lawyer, an academic, a novelist or political activist. He has seen himself played on screen by Ron Silver in the adaptation of his own book, Reversal of Fortune, about the notorious von Bülow case — when British socialite Claus von Bülow was accused of attempting to murder his wife by insulin injection.

He spends a lot of time working but says he is no workaholic. “I love to play. I love, opera, hiking and museums. The one thing I don’t do is sit. I have a tremendous amount of energy.”

This inability to contain himself in one sphere of activity is also reflected in his religious practice. He describes himself as a “post-denominational” Jew and is a member of the neighbourhood Orthodox synagogue where he grew up in Brooklyn, a Conservative Synagogue, a Reform synagogue and reconstructionist congregation. He also advises the Chabad movement.

He laughs: “You could say I have all my bases covered.”


September 1, 1938 in New York.

Brought up in Brooklyn by Orthodox Jewish parents Harry and Claire. Attended Yeshiva University High School and Yale law school, where he was editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal.

Was made a full professor of law in 1967 at Harvard at the age of 28, becoming the youngest person to achieve the distinction. Famous clients have included Patricia Hearst, Leona Helmsley, Jim Bakker, Mike Tyson, OJ Simpson and Claus von Bülow. His book on the von Bülow case, Reversal of Fortune, was made into a film in which Dershowitz was played by Ron Silver. His many published works include two novels.

Married to Carolyn Cohen with whom he has a daughter, Ella. He has two sons, Elon and Jamin, from his previous marriage.

Describes himself as “post-denominational”. Belongs to Orthodox, Reform and Conservative synagogues. “You could say, I have all my bases covered,” he says.

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