Protesters greeted Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz LAW ’62 at the Law School on Thursday night, where he engaged a packed audience on issues ranging from torture to his humanitarian efforts.
As he walked up the steps to the Law School before the event began, Dershowitz confronted about 10 members of the Middle East Crisis Committee, whose picket signs and protest slogans accused him of endorsing torture. During his lecture, which drew a crowd that nearly filled the Levinson Auditorium to capacity, Dershowitz argued in favor of free speech and analyzed the prevalence of anti-Semitism.
In a tense question and answer session after the lecture, Dershowitz responded to pointed questions from members of the audience.
Much of the controversy surrounding Dershowitz began January 2002, when he wrote an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle that outlined his view that governments engaging in torture should do so within the confines of the law.
At the Thursday event, the Middle East Crisis Committee protesters distributed flyers listing quotes from Dershowitz and held up signs claiming that he is an advocate of “war crimes” and a “Mouthpiece for a Brutal Government.” The Committee, founded 25 years ago in New Haven, merged with Connecticut Palestine Right to Return Coalition in 2006.
Stanley Heller ’69, chairman of the Committee, said Dershowitz “defends torture and Israeli war crimes, and he is a disgrace to the legal profession.”
Before speaking in the auditorium, Dershowitz emerged from the Law School and asked the protestors to give him five minutes to explain his position, according to individuals present at the protest before the lecture began.
“Professor Dershowitz was very eloquent when he addressed them,” said Ilana Yurkiewicz ’10, who saw the events unfold. “I don’t know if it was the best idea to acknowledge the protestors before his lecture.”
Members of the Yale Police Department were stationed in front and inside of the Law School throughout the evening. One YPD officer remained by the main doors of the lecture hall during Dershowitz’s speech.
Yale law professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 introduced Dershowitz before the lecture. Amar proposed that audience members follow “rules of engagement” when asking questions.
“He’s not going to be speaking at us,” Amar said. “He wants to speak with us.”
Dershowitz began his lecture by commenting on his affection for Yale and his upcoming book, “Finding Jefferson.”
His new book explores Thomas Jefferson’s advocacy of free speech. Dershowitz said he agrees with Jefferson that free speech ought to be preserved. But free speech comes with a price, he said.
“Free speech can be very dangerous,” Dershowitz said. “I support it despite the fact that it is dangerous.”
During his speech, Dershowitz referred to his interaction the protestors outside of the Law School multiple times and said he wanted to outline his views on torture to the audience as well.
“I proposed that in order to contain torture … there would have to be a so called torture warrant,” Dershowitz said. “[It] was in an attempt to constrain and limit torture.”
After considering torture, Dershowitz listed some of the dangers of free speech, such as religious extremism. Despite these dangers, Dershowitz said, the repression of free speech is a worse alternative. Even though free speech allows “incendiary ideas,” such is the price of preventing government censorship of ideas, he said.
The questions audience members posed to Dershowitz after the lecture ranged in topic from Israeli policies to torture. One questioner, Harvard Ph.D. student Odette Lineau, asked about an Israeli law that prevents Israeli citizens from bringing their spouses into the country if the spouse is from Palestine.
Dershowitz derided the question, saying there were more important issues that merited debate. He said Lineau’s efforts would be better spent on humanitarian projects.
“Why are you wasting one minute on this problem when you can be devoting that minute to saving victims of real genocide?” Dershowitz said.
Lineau responded that, even though she respects Dershowitz, his answer constituted “an unusually personal attack.”
When asked why he was not working on projects related to Darfur, Dershowitz responded that he had focused on many humanitarian issues, in addition to topics related to Israel.
“I stay up, and I work very late nights,” Dershowitz said. “I have spent more time on Rwanda and Darfur than you have or anyone else in this auditorium.”
The audience applauded Dershowitz after his responses to some other questions, and the audience even broke into cheers when he explained that many other countries besides Israel receive large amounts of aid from the United States.
The question and answer session resembled a debate, with Dershowitz asking his questioners to follow up on his responses. In an interview with the News after the event, Dershowitz said, “I like contentious debate; I like feisty discussions.”
Reactions from others in attendance were, on the whole, positive.
“He’s a phenomenal lecturer,” Elizabeth Broomfield ’08 said. “I was really impressed at how open-minded he is.”
Other attendees said Dershowitz was a pragmatic but brash speaker.
“He’s insane and domineering, but brilliant,” said Sam Gensburg ’11.
Dershowitz answered questions from audience members individually after finishing his remarks and was escorted out of the Law School by police.
Dershowitz told the News that, although the talk went well, he was disappointed that questions from the audience were not directly related to his lecture.
“[There were] groups out there that came with an agenda,” he said. “Why is there this obsessive focus on Israel to the exclusion of much more important human rights issues around the world?”
Dershowitz said that groups that focused on Israel drew attention away from important human rights issues.
The Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism — which hosted the event — was founded this month to bring scholars from around the world to speak about and research anti-Semitism.