No bags were checked, no chants were shouted outside Booth Auditorium at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Law on Wednesday afternoon. Inside, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz sat on a table, talking to his wife and daughter, waiting as the hall filled with students and others who had come to see him.
The 79-year-old author and prominent Israel supporter was there to address “The Liberal Case for Israel,” a talk that had been first scheduled, then unscheduled, then rescheduled again amid a flurry of debate over university protocol. Originally invited by the Chabad Jewish Student Center and the pro-Israel student group Tikvah, Dershowitz needed a formal invitation from the law school because a new policy requires eight weeks notice for large events unless they are sponsored by a university department.
In the end, a mostly supportive crowd of over 300 people showed up on Oct. 11, along with some who disagreed with Dershowitz’s views on Israel and a sprinkling of hecklers.
“Protests have been very reasonable,” Dershowitz said in an interview before the talk. “Well within the First Amendment.”
He said he’d spoken to a few protesters outside the auditorium and had invited them in. “I got them seats and said, ‘Please ask questions,’” he told J.
And ask questions they did — which Dershowitz answered. Making room for reasonable debate and criticism was a major theme of his talk, which covered some of the same subjects as his 2003 book “The Case for Israel.”
But he also did not mince words when he discussed certain groups critical of Israel that he considers to be anti-Semitic, one in particular that has been in the headlines for other reasons.
“Black Lives Matter is a bigoted, anti-Semitic organization,” he told the crowd.
Not everyone in the audience agreed with Dershowitz’s views, asking serious questions about militarization, settlements and Israeli rule in the West Bank. Dershowitz was happy to engage with the critics, as long as the questions were within what he considered reasonable debate — which did not include, for example, criticizing Israel’s human rights record, which he said compares favorably to the rest of the world.
Dershowitz spoke of his background as an American liberal who supports Israel, something that used to be normal in the 1960s, he said, when “every liberal supported Israel.”
He moved on to discuss what he called the failure of the Palestinians to accept several offers for peace. He held up a postcard that the pro-Palestinian group If Americans Knew had distributed in the lobby, showing how Palestinian land had shrunk from 1947 to the present.
“These are intelligent leaflets, they should be read by everybody,” he said, a somewhat surprising comment considering how much the views of the group are in opposition to his own.
He said the maps were correct, but that the Palestinians were largely responsible for their lack of statehood. He said he supported the two-state solution but reiterated his often-made point that because the Palestinian leadership has rejected numerous deals, military occupation has become inevitable.
“They have rejected statehood over and over and over again,” he said.
He added that it’s permissible to be critical of Israel’s policies up to a point, but not to accuse it of genocide, as some oppositional groups have done. “That’s a blood libel,” he said.
Audience reaction to the talk was overwhelmingly positive. And when the audience tried to drown out negative comments, Dershowitz intervened. “Heckling is permissible, booing is permissible,” he told the crowd.
But he had strong words to say about public universities like U.C. Berkeley.
“Your departments at this university are practicing bigotry,” he said, referring to academic departments that have hosted speakers from one side of the Israel debate but not others, something he called a “classic First Amendment violation.” He also blasted intersectionality as a tactic for putting all disadvantaged groups in the same bucket and stifling debate. He charged that many progressive groups are anti-Semitic, and he urged liberal Jews to leave these organizations and form their own.
“In the end, if they won’t change, you must quit and start your own organization,” he said.
That sentiment appealed to student Jordan Moossazadeh, a computer science major. He said he liked the way Dershowitz said “there’s no justification for bigotry” and then didn’t shut down his interlocutors, but engaged them.
“Ideally this is how it should always be,” he said approvingly.
Dershowitz was clearly happy to be making his case at UC Berkeley. And the crowd was happy to see the law professor, giving him — mostly — a standing ovation at the end.
In response to a question about Israel’s turn to the right on domestic policy, Dershowitz urged people to think about how they have been reacting to U.S. policy shifts under President Donald Trump. “I don’t abandon America” in these moments of discord, he said. “I just work harder.”