Alan Dershowitz
Alan Dershowitz Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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A few days ago, Alan Dershowitz was awarded an honorary doctorate by Tel Aviv University, at which I teach. In a rousing speech, Dershowitz expressed his anger at Israeli Professors who support a Western boycott against Israeli Universities, a position that I, like Dershowitz, find morally dubious. Nevertheless he proudly argued that it would be both non-democratic and against the Jewish spirit of plugta, incisive argumentation, to curtail these professors’ freedom of speech, thus supporting the principled stance of Professor Joseph Klafter, president of Tel Aviv University, who has stated that he will by no means compromise either freedom of speech or academic freedom.

It is of great importance to differentiate between those who delegitimize Israel and spread hatred against it, and those liberal critics of Israel who fully support not only its right to exist (which should be a matter of course – it is a country recognized by international law since 1948), but take into account that Israel, by no means, is solely responsible for the lack of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. J Street in the U.S. and JCall in Europe are both clearly pro-Israel, but have expressed their concern that Israel’s continued construction activity in settlements and in East Jerusalem is on the way to making the two-state solution impossible.

Dershowitz has lately been involved in an incisive argument with J Street and JCall. I believe that an intensive dialogue between Israeli liberals and Jewish liberals in the U.S. is of great importance. Hence, I want to try to clarify the points of contention between Dershowitz, J Street and JCall. I first want to formulate what seem to me the core values of a liberal position on Israel:

Is Israel’s settlement activity essential to its security?

The majority of liberals, including many retired Israeli generals, think that the settlements do not increase Israeli security. Their only result is that many Israeli troops are committed to the defense of these settlements and increase friction with Palestinians. In the age of rockets, Israel’s security doesn’t hinge on a few square kilometers, but on its geopolitical standing and technological superiority.

Should Israel’s defense of human rights be an overriding value?

Liberals believe that it is an overriding value that Israel should be a country that upholds and protects human rights. Hence, they argue, Israel forfeit sovereignty over the West Bank and the Arab parts of West Jerusalem, even if they are they contain sites of great historical and religious importance to Judaism. Otherwise, as Ehud Barak has pointed out repeatedly, Israel will have to choose between being a binational democracy and becoming an apartheid state.

On these two issues Dershowitz’s point of view has been clear and consistent along the years. He has been an advocate for peace and for the two-state solution, and his stance on human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press has been uncompromising. I was glad to read his interview with Akiva Eldar in Haaretz lately, in which he took a strong stance for freedom of the press in Israel and called Haaretz a beacon of light in the Middle East, because its unfailing commitment to these ideals.

Here we come to the point of contention between Dershowitz and groups like J Street and JCall:

Is being pro-Israel consistent with criticizing Israeli policies?

Does being pro-Israel mean that as a Diaspora Jew you are required to support the policies of Israeli governments even if they contradict the values upheld in the first two points? Or can you be pro-Israel and an outspoken critic of its government’s policy, because you think that this policy harms Israel in the short or long term?

Dershowitz has claimed that the reason many liberal Diaspora Jews, including staunch supporters of Israel, criticize Israel is that, “They want to disassociate themselves because otherwise they won't be invited to dinner parties.” I believe that such a generalized statement is unfair and inexact. Many of these Jews like Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut have supported Israel staunchly for decades, but have argued that Israel’s settlement policy has catastrophic consequences.

Why should taking such a position - which has recently been reiterated powerfully by opposition leader Tzipi Livni - be taken as a sign of weakness rather than a principled criticism of a state whose best interest one has in mind? Many of us are more worried than ever because, while Israel is certainly not solely responsible for the continuing conflict with the Palestinians, its settlement policy is gradually making the two-state solution, which is the only way of safeguarding Israel as a democratic state of the Jewish people, impossible. This is the background of the emergence of J Street and JCall, and not self-serving embarrassment.

Dershowitz’s call that the pro-Israel community speak with one voice about Israel’s security, while understandable, is opposed to the spirit of plugta that he evoked in his acceptance speech at Tel Aviv University. J Street and JCall can legitimately support the position of Israel’s opposition, and that of one of the coalition partners, the Labor Party. If Diaspora Jews who want to be helpful to Israel sincerely believe that Israel’s policies must change for the sake of Israel’s future, they are required to voice their views which are an expression of caring and friendship.