Thursday night, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz made his contribution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict debate brewing on campus this weekend.
Dershowitz addressed a full house at the Zellerbach Theater at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The audience included university members and people from the larger community alike, who often erupted in applause throughout the talk. An MSNBC moderator facilitated the discussion.
Dershowitz was invited to speak in anticipation of the National Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference, to be held this weekend on Penn’s campus. According to the conference’s website, BDS’ goal is to “boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) the State of Israel until it complies with its obligations under international and human rights law.”
Last night, Dershowitz made “the 80-percent case for Israel.” He advocated supporting Israel’s right to exist but expressed willingness to criticize Israeli policies with which he disagreed.
Dershowitz, who in 2007 delivered a lecture on global terrorism at Penn, is known for his work in criminal law, has published more than 20 books and has defended celebrities like Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson.
The event was presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and Penn Hillel.
“We feel that Alan Dershowitz is one of the biggest names in the Pro-Israel world and can do a good job of attracting a diverse group of students from across the Penn community,” said College sophomore Jeremy Salinger, a Penn Friends of Israel board member.
The Chair of the Penn Board of Trustees, David Cohen, introduced the event with a message on behalf of President Amy Gutmann. “We are unwavering in our support of Israel” he read. “We do not support the message or the goals of BDS.”
Early in the talk, Dershowitz congratulated the University for championing free speech. If Penn had banned BDS, he said, he would have been forced to defend them in the name of free speech, something he wouldn’t want to do.
With the ground set for free speech, however, Dershowitz didn’t hesitate to state his opinion. “We are going to win this encounter,” he said.
According to the BDS website, the movement draws its inspiration from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Dershowitz called the implication that Israel is a apartheid regime “absurd.”
He challenged Israel’s critics to name another country that, faced with comparable threats, had a better human rights record.
He said that Israel was the only liberal democracy and nation that recognizes women’s rights and the rights of the gay community in the Middle East. “Why are you singling out Israel?” Dershowitz asked.
At one point, Dershowitz said that Penn professors who support BDS are “complacent with evil.”
“BDS hypocrites [are] interested in de-legitimizing Israel,” he said, claiming that the movement is only interested in a one-state solution.
“[I hope] the Palestinians and Israelis will sit down and negotiate a reasonable two-state solution,” he said.
Penn for Palestine co-president and College sophomore Sarah Shihadah explained that the group decided to watch the live stream of the event instead of attending the event due to Dershowitz’s “hostile rhetoric” against BDS supporters.
“[We] hope the balance of the two events,” — Dershowitz’s talk and the BDS conference — “will stimulate honest academic discourse,” Shihadah said.
However, she felt Dershowitz “misrepresented and omitted some of the human-rights issues faced by Palestinians, such as the millions of Palestinians living under occupation and millions more in diaspora whose rights Israel fails to uphold as recognized by the United Nations.”
But at the talk, Dershowitz called the UN a “house of hypocrisy” to loud cheers and applause from the crowd.
Penn Hillel director Mike Uram expressed his own concerns over how the conflict is portrayed in the media. “When you read the New York Times, you’d think that Israel is only bombings and war,” he said. “You don’t read about seven million people who get up in the morning, eat breakfast and go to work.”
Penn’s Political Science and Philosophy, Politics and Economics departments, Penn Democrats and College Republicans were among the other sponsors of the event.