Letter: Dershowitz: ‘Evidence’ of Israeli torture based on ‘self-serving claims’ of detainees

To the Editor:

In his guest column, Louis Frankenthaler accuses me of using euphemisms in describing interrogation techniques currently in use in Israel. That is a false charge. I have an extremely broad definition of torture that includes waterboarding and any other form of physical abuse or threat. The Supreme Court of Israel also has an extremely broad definition of torture and has outlawed interrogation methods that are currently employed in the United States and that were widely used in Great Britain during the campaign against terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Frankenthaler presents no evidence — other than the self-serving claims of Israeli detainees — that the Israeli authorities are violating the 1999 decision of the Israel Supreme Court banning all forms of torture. Obviously any Palestinian detainee who has provided information to Israel must claim that he was tortured, or else he will be killed by Palestinian authorities who routinely murder and torture collaborators. (Frankenthaler completely omits the widespread Palestinian practice of torturing collaborators to death.)

Although I personally oppose all forms of torture, I would wonder what Frankenthaler and your readers would have Israel do in a situation they recently faced. Just days before Yom Kippur, the Israeli authorities received credible information that a suicide bomber was in Tel Aviv and preparing to blow himself up in a crowded synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish year, a day when synagogues are packed with hundreds of congregants. The Israeli army raided a terrorist cell and, after losing one of its own soldiers, managed to capture the head of the cell, who knew precisely where the suicide bomber was staying. The head of the cell ultimately disclosed the location of the suicide bomber and he was found and disarmed. As the result of this action, hundreds of Israeli civilians were spared death and/or serious injury. Many Palestinians were also spared in what would have been the inevitable retaliatory attack by Israel if hundreds of its own civilians had been murdered at prayer. I don’t know what techniques of interrogation were used by the Israelis in this case. Nor does Frankenthaler.

What would most Americans want their government to do in such a situation? What would most Israelis? What would most Palestinians? These are complex and difficult questions, both morally and empirically. They should not be trivialized by the simple-minded analysis and hypocrisy that dominates so much of the debate today.

Does any honest person really doubt whether any leader of any democratic country would use some form of torture if they faced a situation like Israel’s before Yom Kippur? Former President Bill Clinton has clearly said he would. The only real question is whether they would do it openly with accountability, as Clinton and I both favor, or they would do it below the radar screen, as Senator McCain and others seem to favor. Democratic accountability would seem to favor the former.

Alan M. Dershowitz

Nov. 1

Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1962.

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