Alan Dershowitz: The Advocate and Scholar as Jew; the Jew as Advocate and Scholar

Article excerpt

In Monty Python, there is a segue after one segment, or shtik, (1) and before another, and it signifies a change in mood, topic, or attitude. So--"[a]nd now for something completely different" (2)--Professor Alan M. Dershowitz, his writings, his advocacy, and his Judaism. (3)

Before World War II and the creation of the State of Israel, there was a common stereotype of the Jew, based in part on Shakespeare's Shylock, (4) but also on adventure books like The Adventures of Robin Hood (5) and Ivanhoe, (6) and even on well-read classics like Dickens' Oliver Twist. (7) He (it was seldom if ever a she) was miserly, thin, big and pointy nosed, timid, cowardly, and just plain creepy. (8) He was almost always portrayed as a criminal who lived on the fringes of society and who fed off the fears and needs of the innocent, especially children. (9) Sometimes, he was portrayed as the wealthy banker or loan-maker, who stole from the diligent working class and interfered with the undertakings of the new industrial leaders. (10) In the most extreme characterization, the Jew was, of course, the scourge of good Christians, who killed the Savior and still used the blood of Christian children for ritual foods. (11)

Some of these biased characterizations of the Jew remain, but the modern stereotype is somewhat different. Today, the Jew is portrayed as an assertive, aggressive bully. He (and now she) is smart, and much too powerful. (12) He or she exercises power through money and influence. (13) And then, of course, there are now two conflicting, and somewhat inconsistent, additional sets of traits. (14) To many, Jews are liberals who think they are somehow better than the rest of us and who control the media, the banks, and even the government. (15) They are classic meddlers, who, through a network of civil liberties, diversity, and other do-good groups, are tearing away at our Christian roots. (16) To others, their support for the State of Israel has led our government from one Middle East crisis to another and has made them allies of the Far Right. (17) Their avarice has been a major cause of the lack of success of people of color. (18)

Okay, what does this have to do with Professor Alan Dershowitz? First, he is a clearly self-identified Jew. Professor Alan Dershowitz was born in Williamsburg, a section of Brooklyn, New York, and spent most of his childhood in Borough Park, Brooklyn. (19) Both sections were considered "Jewish," and Professor Dershowitz was raised as an observant Orthodox Jew; although, as he describes it, a "modern Orthodox" and not a "frumie" or "ultraorthodox." (20)

Over time, he has moved from a religious perspective to an activist Jewish perspective--"from passive observance of ritual to active participation in causes." (21) In addition, he acknowledges that his "Jewishness" is the source of his activism, his anger at injustice, his pride in his own and others accomplishments, and his principles. (22) It is also the basis of his hate of persecution and support for Zionism. (23) And specifically, the Bible and other religious writings have impacted his teaching and practice. (24)

Third, he sees as his mission to lecture, cajole, and support other Jews and the American Jewish identity. Professor Dershowitz has taught many Jewish students, served as faculty advisor to Jewish student associations, spoken to numerous Jewish groups, and written books about his Jewish identity. (25)

Dershowitz not only accepts some aspects of the modern stereotype of the American Jew, he revels in them. (26) It is acceptable to be smart, pushy, aggressive, and outspoken. (27) "Why are there so many Jewish lawyers? Why not?" (28)

Jews can be proud of their label as "the Chosen People," and both supportive of the State of Israel and of civil rights, protect religion in the private sphere and demand the separation of church and state, liberal in politics but still realistic in the implementation of that political agenda. …