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The Demonization of Dershowitz is an Attack on Democracy
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Op-Ed

The Demonization of Dershowitz is an Attack on Democracy

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate — and a columnist for National Review and the New York Post.

Alan Dershowitz at NEP Studios in New York, Feb. 3, 2016. (John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu)
Alan Dershowitz at NEP Studios in New York, Feb. 3, 2016. (John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu)

Alan Dershowitz has finally worn out his welcome in polite liberal society. The prolific author and emeritus professor at Harvard Law School has courted controversy and defended the seemingly indefensible in the name of abstract legal principles throughout his long career.

He might have been mocked for his brash style and attention seeking — he did write the book about “Chutzpah.” But despite defending pornographers and accused murderers like Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson, Dershowitz maintained his status as not only a respected legal analyst but also a member in good standing of the nation’s liberal Jewish establishment.

But from the moment he began expressing skepticism about the efforts to impeach President Donald Trump, tolerance for Dershowitz from his old cronies and the mainstream media has been running thin. It officially ran out when it was announced that he would be one of the lawyers defending Trump in the Senate impeachment trial that began this week.

Americans are currently more polarized along partisan lines than at any moment in living memory. They read, listen and watch different media and seem to have both lost their ability to listen to opposing views or to credit each other with even having good motives for what they advocate.

So the spectacle of someone such as Dershowitz — a lifelong Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton — arguing against impeachment is mind boggling to most people and especially many of his Jewish fans.

Jonathan S. Tobin

But even if you think Dershowitz has lost his marbles or believe the only reason he became a prominent skeptic of the charges against the president was to regain the spotlight, the abuse being thrown in Dershowitz’s direction is troubling. So, too, is the notion that standing up for Trump undermines the credibility of his advocacy for Israel.

That’s because there’s more to this question than whether Dershowitz is no longer invited to all the right cocktail parties or if he’s regularly welcomed, as he used to be on CNN, as opposed to Fox News. At stake here is the legitimacy of a quintessentially Jewish concept that values spirited argument and grants legitimacy to the views of the minority. A world in which a Dershowitz can be ostracized for defending Trump on the grounds of abstract concepts of law is one in which no one can play devil’s advocate without fear of being silenced or shunned. And that’s not a safe place for any Jew or democracy.

It was hard not to snicker when Dershowitz first publicly complained of being spurned by other upscale residents on Martha’s Vineyard, where he hosted President Bill Clinton at synagogue one year when Rosh Hashanah came early. But it is interesting that arguing that Trump shouldn’t be impeached has led to him being placed in cherem [excommunication]when helping, as most Americans seemed to think at the time, celebrities like von Bulow and Simpson get away with murdering their wives did not.

It’s true that Dershowitz’s representation of celebrity pedophile Jeffrey Epstein was particularly unpopular. He also deserves the presumption of innocence against the unsubstantiated charges made against him by one of Epstein’s accusers that he has adamantly denied.

But the anger at Dershowitz is symptomatic of a growing disdain for the concept that listening to opposing views is essential to democracy. The demand for “safe places” where sensitive souls can be shielded from hearing anything that might challenge their opinions is increasingly seen as more important than allowing free debate. The ideas of Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse, who influenced the New Left in the 1960s with his critiques of tolerance and called for taking away free speech for those with whom he disagreed, are suddenly back in fashion.

The fact that The New York Times thought it appropriate to give space in its opinion pages to a demand for the firing of Meghan McCain from her spot on “The View” talk show because conservatives shouldn’t be allowed to be heard illustrates how calls for silencing opponents have migrated from the academy to the mainstream. Many on the left value diversity in all things but opinion.

In defending Trump on constitutional grounds, Dershowitz is doing the same thing he did in all of his famous cases, including those that liberals once applauded. Being devil’s advocate is a quintessentially Jewish thing to do, and so it behooves even those Jews who are most upset about Trump to reject the impulse to deny him Jewish platforms for trying to thwart impeachment.

Regardless of whether Dershowitz seems like a sympathetic figure, promoting the notion that our politics is divided between the forces of light and those of darkness and believing the latter must be silenced or at least shunned, is doing as much if not more damage to the fabric of democracy than anything Trump has done. 

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a columnist for the New York Post.

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