I walked into Yeshiva University’s Weissberg Commons last night not knowing what to expect. Several hundred seats were assembled and a stream of students, faculty members, and outside guests poured into the room and eagerly awaited the guest of honor, Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz.
When he arrived, all heads turned and watched the procession that followed. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the moderator and a rabbi who recently gave an opening benediction at the Republican National Convention, accompanied him to the stage, where he was greeted by tens of faculty members who embraced him like a long lost friend because, as he later admitted, at YU he feels “at home.”
Early in the conversation, Dershowitz stated that “Jewish justice and Israeli justice understand proportionality.” And as long as the system is proportional, “we can operate a just standard of human accountability.” But the question I had—which went unanswered—was this: What defines proportionality in Israeli law? Throughout the evening, there was little if any mention of the innocent Palestinians killed in the recent Gaza conflict. And I found that sorely lacking.
Toward the end of the event, Dershowitz criticized Palestinian sympathizers by saying, “When people vote for leaders, they need to bear some of the responsibility for their vote.” The statement was met with significant applause from the audience. But, while I understand that we can legally hold a country responsible for its democratic choices, we can’t use that to morally excuse the deaths of innocents. Many of those suffering didn’t choose Hamas, and many more didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when they did.
Back in high school, I took a course called the David Project, which aimed at teaching students how to perform a courthouse-style argument in defense of Israel. I remember watching several videos of Dershowitz debating other notable pundits on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rarely did he mention Palestinian innocents, and I watched as he pointed to one historical event after another and convincingly proved the Israeli government’s correctness in even the stickiest of legal situations. His oratory was incredible, and I still admire him for it.
But fast-forward a few years to where I stand today, far more aware and sensitive to all of the players in the region, and I find myself struggling to maintain the same Manichean approach to Israel advocacy as I once did. That there are millions of displaced Palestinians is something that many in my generation can no longer brush aside, though Dershowitz and others rarely talk about it because there is no system of law with which to understand it. Despite the best of technical legal arguments, there is still something essentially human missing from today’s mainstream Israel advocacy.
Commenting on his defense of O.J. Simpson and other alleged murderers, Dershowitz told last night’s audience that he will “fight as hard as I can for every single client, no matter if they are innocent or guilty.” And from his standpoint as a lawyer within the American legal system, this philosophy is understandable. A good lawyer must approach a case with the intent to protect his client—and him alone. But the practices that we apply to our legal system shouldn’t determine how we approach our Zionism. Every government has its flaws and makes mistakes, and we are morally obligated to acknowledge them, not only to protect our “client.”
The Zionism for which my generation wishes to advocate must be understood in the greater context of our modern morality, and our defense of Israel can’t be viewed through a rigid legal lens. And yes, that means that we can no longer disregard the loss of innocent life on both sides of the conflict, no matter how supposedly legal it may seem.
For years, I have admired Dershowitz’s work and I continue to look up to him as one of America’s great legal scholars. The work he’s done in the field of criminal justice is immense, and the moral liberalism for which he stands is the same as mine. But when it comes to his legalistic approach to Zionism and sense of proportionality, I’m afraid my generation of Jews just can’t relate.