As the first national Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions conference approaches at the University of Pennsylvania, several participants have faced false and sadly predictable smears. Ali Abunimah, a renowned Palestinian writer and solidarity activist who will deliver the conference's keynote address, was recently accused by Emily Schrader, an activist with the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, of "incitement to violence against Israelis." Wayne Firestone, the president of the pro-Israel student group Hillel, accused the Penn BDS conference of advocating "warfare" and fomenting "hatred." The allegations leveled by Schrader and Firestone could not be further from the truth. Not one participant in the Penn BDS conference has "incited" violence against Israelis or anyone else. Instead, BDS advocates have raised their voices in support of an expressly non-violent movement that takes its inspiration from the American civil rights struggle against Jim Crow bigotry and the international campaign against South Africa's apartheid regime.
To counter the Penn BDS event, local pro-Israel groups including Hillel and the Philadelphia Jewish Federation have summoned the famed trial lawyer and Harvard University professor of law Alan Dershowitz to campus to keynote a Feb. 2 event: "Why Israel Matters to You, Me, and Penn: A conversation with Alan Dershowitz." Penn's Political Science department – which has pointedly refused to co-sponsor the BDS conference — will co-host Dershowitz's lecture, where the professor has vowed to explain why he considers BDS to be one of the most "immoral, illegal and despicable concepts around academia today."
The support Dershowitz received from the university and from pro-Israel groups that claim to abhor violence is ironic in light of Dershowitz's record. Indeed, Dershowitz is an open advocate of torture who has urged Israel to destroy entire Palestinian villages, attack civilians and bulldoze their homes. Despite Dershowitz's professed concern for political dissidents living under autocratic regimes, he has called for personal retaliation against Israeli academics who speak out in favor of BDS. Meanwhile, Dershowitz routinely smears high-profile critics of Israel's 45-year-long occupation as evil anti-Semites — and worse.
In March 2002, during the height of the Second Intifada, Dershowitz published an article in The Jerusalem Post proposing a "new response to Palestinian terrorism." According to Dershowitz, even the ironfisted tactics of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were not harsh enough. He urged Israel to adopt an explicit policy of collective punishment — a practice banned by international law. Dershowitz advised Israeli forces to arrange for "the destruction of a small village which has been used as a base for terrorist operations. The residents would be given 24 hours to leave, and then troops will come in and bulldoze all of the buildings."
No less disturbing is Dershowitz's recommendation that the United States adopt an official policy allowing federal law enforcement officials to torture criminal suspects. As long as an FBI agent received a "torture warrant," according to Dershowitz's rules, he was free to do as he pleased to the body of anyone in his custody. Dershowitz even offered torturers proposals for inflicting maximum pain. Among the methods he advised was "the sterilized needle being shoved under the fingernails," an idea the journalist and former US intelligence analyst James Bamford described as "chillingly Nazi-like."
On other occasions, Dershowitz called the pre-1967 border in Israel, "Auschwitz borders," accused students who politely questioned pro-Israel orthodoxy of supporting Hitler, and attempted to spin the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan — a Christian Arab who moved to the U.S. at age 12 — as "the beginning of Islamic terrorism in the United States." If members of Penn's Political Science department believe Dershowitz's penchant for extreme rhetoric will not be on full display when he appears on campus this week, they are deluding themselves.
Among the most troubling episodes in Dershowitz's long record of assailing those he disagrees with was his assault on the character of Judge Richard Goldstone, an eminent South African jurist and practicing Jew who produced the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (the so-called "Goldstone Report"). During an interview on Israeli Army Radio in 2010, Dershowitz declared that Goldstone was an "evil man" " and "absolutely" a moser, using a Hebrew term referring to those who snitch to gentiles about Jewish communal transgressions. As Dershowitz must have known, deploying such a term in Israel's politically charged climate risked serious consequences: After Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by the Jewish extremist Yigal Amir in 1995, Amir justified the murder by citing some rabbis' designation of Rabin as a moser.
Though Dershowitz professes concern for the fate of political dissidents around the world, he used his speech at Tel Aviv University's 2010 graduation ceremony to hector three faculty members — Rachel Giora, Anat Matar, and Shlomo Sand — who had issued support to the BDS movement. Suggesting without evidence that the three academics were "impos[ing] their ideology on students," Dershowitz urged "patriotic" students and faculty members to "stand up to propagandizing professors … in appropriate forums outside of the classroom where different rules govern" — a troubling statementcondemned by outraged Tel Aviv University faculty members as "bordering on incitement."
At the time of Dershowitz's speech, the Israeli Knesset was considering legislation to mete out financial penalties to Israeli citizens for speaking out in favor of BDS — an attack on free speech denounced by Amnesty International. Since then, that and many more anti-democratic proposals have become law. After a left-wing Israeli professor was wounded by a far-right extremist's pipe bomb attack, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that "an ill wind of extremism" was settling in over the country. Rather than using his influence to defend Israel's beleaguered democratic forces, Dershowitz demonized them in language that recalled the worst of McCarthy-era demagogy.
Those participating in the Penn BDS conference promote non-violence as the best means to guarantee full democracy, human rights and respect for international law in Israel-Palestine. The atmosphere of the conference will doubtlessly reflect these ideals. Unfortunately, local opponents of BDS have chosen to set a starkly different tone. With a stamp of approval from Penn's Political Science department, Philadelphia's pro-Israel community is uniting behind a promoter of maximalist violence, torture, and censorious smears. Before inviting Dershowitz, perhaps they should have consulted some ancient wisdom. "Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise," the Book of Proverbs reads, "but he who walks with fools will harm himself."