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Dershowitz vs. Departments

Constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz spoke on campus Wednesday and criticized departments for hosting one-sided lectures. PHOTO/ Lila Hassan
Constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz spoke on campus Wednesday and criticized departments for hosting one-sided lectures. PHOTO/ Lila Hassan

By Jericho Tran

Published: May 5, 2015

Author, civil rights lawyer, and political commentator Alan Dershowitz spoke at an eventWednesday evening in the Woody Tanger Auditorium on academics and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and criticized campus departments that sponsored controversial events that he said were one-sided.

“I don’t think college departments should sponsor controversial speakers,” Dershowitz said at the event.

The Brooklyn College Israel Club hosted the event, entitled “Israel-Palestine: The Case for Nuance.” The Brooklyn College Department of Political Science, along with the Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College, three other academic departments, and other groups all sponsored the event.

“I believe that it was important to bring someone who is well educated on the matter and who can speak to the students,” Moshe Berman, the Israel Club’s vice president, said. “As a Brooklyn College alumnus, [Dershowitz] is very qualified to address the students.”

During his event, Dershowitz conveyed his overall belief in the unification of Israel and Palestine. “I think that because it is so obvious that it would be better for everybody. In the end, I think it will succeed,” he said.

“The first thing I find interesting about the Pro-Israel speakers that we do bring is that there is a lot less bashing of the other group,” Israel Club president Michelle Terebelo said. “A lot of times there’s empathy for the Palestinian narrative.”

Dershowitz, who graduated from Brooklyn College with honors in the political science department in 1959, thanked the departments that sponsored his event, but criticized how they handled previous controversial events.

After the recent appearances at campus of speakers with views that criticize Israel—Ben White, Omar Barghouti, and Steven Salaita—Dershowitz challenged BC’s academic departments to sponsor him giving a speech at Brooklyn College in order to defend Israel.

“I objected to the fact that several Brooklyn College departments sponsored anti-Israel events,” Dershowitz said in an interview with The Excelsior after the event.  “Any department should not sponsor controversial speakers unless they are prepared to sponsor both sides.”

As recently as November, for example, the political science department, with the Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine, sponsored Salaita to come to campus to talk about when his former college, the University of Illinois, fired him for tweeting about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many people criticized Salaita for his tweets and said they should be considered hate speech.

Some, like Dershowitz, questioned the political science department for co-sponsoring an event they believed to be one-sided. In an interview with The Excelsior in November, Professor Corey Robin, the chair of the political science department, said that the department co-sponsors “all student and academic events” for which they receive a request.

Dershowitz, however, remained adamant that professors and departments should not sponsor controversial events. “In the classroom, there cannot be an ideological agenda,” he said.

Instead, the Harvard professor encouraged BC clubs to use their funds to host these controversial speakers themselves.

According to Dershowitz, after he went back and forth with the Brooklyn College academic departments and the Israel Club, he agreed to speak on campus with the caveat that the political science department treat him fairly and equally. When asked about this “caveat,” the political science department referred back to its co-sponsorship policy.

Students look on during Dershowitz's Q&A session. PHOTO/ Lila Hassan
Students look on during Dershowitz’s Q&A session. PHOTO/ Lila Hassan

Not every department agreed to sponsor Dershowitz’s event. According to Terebelo, the secondary education department voted against sponsoring it. The secondary education department did comment when asked why.

Dershowitz said he felt that he did receive a degree of equality because a number of departments agreed to sponsor the event. “I think it was harder for them to turn me down, not only as a Brooklyn college [alumnus], but as a graduate of the political science department,” he said.

After he graduated from Brooklyn College, Dershowitz earned a law degree at Yale and proceeded to spend his entire teaching career at Harvard Law School, where he specialized in constitutional and criminal law.

About four Brooklyn College security guards secured a small line that formed outside the Brooklyn College Library half an hour before the event, where students who did not make reservations waited to go inside.

“I’m expecting good discussion. I don’t know too much on Dershowitz regarding the subject matter,” said the Israel Club secretary Ruby Welkovich before the event. “I’m just hoping to learn more [and that] the audience will listen with an open mind.”

After security checked attendees’ bags at the front door, they gave each member of the audience a green card and a small pencil, with which they were advised to write down their questions for Dershowitz.

Since Dershowitz had other events to attend that night, the event, originally scheduled to be three hours long, ended up being an hour long Q&A session where he addressed the questions that students wrote down, including questions about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, to which he expressed his views that BDS would not be successful.

While Dershowitz said that he was treated with “extreme respect” during his event, he also stated that Brooklyn College has not progressed in terms of inviting speakers and allowing them to express their opinions.

“I think Brooklyn [College] is better than most, but I think that the widespread problem around the United States is that it puts the comfort of students often ahead of [controversy],” he said.

Although she believed that the event was a success, Terebelo expressed her desire to hold future events in bigger rooms to accommodate more members of the Brooklyn College community.

“I was hoping for civil discourse, which is what we got,” Welkovich said. “I was really happy that [Dershowitz] talked about the political views of Israel and how a lot of people on the left wing side of politics…tend to be anti-Israel, and that there’s really a lot of cases that are Pro-Israel.”

Last month, a federal judge tossed out a woman’s claims that a billionaire financier—who pleaded guilty to sex offenses involving underage girls—forced her to serve as a sex slave for Dershowitz, as well Prince Andrew, the British Duke of York, and other famous men.

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