Ten years ago, the late Rabbi David Hoffman convened an unusual meeting at his Reform synagogue in Green Point, Cape Town. His guest was Uri Davis, an anti-Israel activist and author of the hitherto obscure "Israel: An Apartheid State."
Davis had been brought to South Africa by Cosatu to join its protests against Israel in the run-up to the UN's disgraceful World Conference Against Racism in Durban. Rabbi Hoffman's invitation caused great controversy within the South African Jewish community, which was struggling to deal with the tide of anti-Israel hostility and outright antisemitism flooding the country. One Orthodox rabbi even used his Sabbath morning sermon to denounce Hoffman.
But Hoffman knew what he was doing, and that Davis's false claims wouldn't survive open, honest debate. Five hundred people showed up at the Green Point synagogue. They listened patiently to what Davis had to say. And then they responded with questions and criticisms that he simply could not answer. He grew bright red with rage as he shouted his angry retorts.
A few of those in attendance--like cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro--were upset that people refused to accept Davis's criticisms of Israel. In truth, Davis had simply lost the debate. Honest debate is the foundation of a free, open, and successful society. People with opposing views must be able to express them, to test them against standards of reason and truth, and to choose among them on that basis.
Rabbi Hoffman understood that in a new democracy like South Africa, debating Uri Davis openly was a more effective way of defeating his arguments than demonizing him or trying to exclude him. Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, who addressed audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town this week, has exemplified the ideal of open debate for his entire career.
Though he is a staunch defender of Israel, for example, Palestinian students at Harvard once asked him to represent them in a dispute with the administration over their right to raise their flag on campus. He won--and then stood by their flag in a counter-demonstration.
The chorus of ill-informed critics who attacked Alan Dershowitz in the Cape Times on 25 March 2011 declared that he was "not welcome" in South Africa (see here). That phrase--"not welcome"--was written by the newspaper's editors in the headline. The authors subsequently embraced it, with co-author Zackie Achmat proudly posting it on his website and Twitter account.
The last time Dershowitz was "not welcome" in South Africa was during the apartheid era, when the regime denied him a visa unless it could approve his remarks beforehand. That is the company these critics have joined!
In their article, the authors quote Dershowitz out of context, and borrow heavily--without attribution, i.e. plagiarising--from the obsessive writings of failed academic Norman Finkelstein, the anti-Israel activist who toured South Africa two years ago.
They make false accusations about Dershowitz's views and his record: that he advocates military occupation, the collective punishment of Palestinian civilians, and the use of torture in interrogations.
On each of these charges, the exact opposite is true. Dershowitz has long been an opponent of Israeli settlements; has encouraged Israel to adhere to international law; and has sought to limit the use of torture everywhere.
In their vitriolic attack, the authors neglect to mention Dershowitz's distinguished record as an advocate for civil liberties and racial equality. They also distort his commitment to free speech. They should have seized the opportunity of Dershowitz's visit to debate him. Instead, they tried to shut him down.
They ought to know better: especially Dennis Davis, who hosts debates on South African television. He'll debate pseudo-scholar Finkelstein, and welcome Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled, but not Harvard Law professor Dershowitz?
In a subsequent letter to the paper (30 March 2011), responding to Dershowitz's reply to the article, Davis claims he obtained a letter written by Dershowitz to then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger regarding the publication of Finkelstein's book-length attack on Dershowitz.
Big deal! That letter is freely available on the Internet, part of a controversy that was settled years ago. Did Davis bother, as a judge should, to read Dershowitz's statement on the matter--also freely available--and hear both sides?
Davis et al. make the absurd claim that Dershowitz opposes international law, simply because he has stood up for Israel's right to defend itself.
Yet Israel's enemies try to twist international law to make its self-defense illegitimate. That is why Dershowitz contests the Goldstone Report, exposing its flaws and the myths about Richard Goldstone's judicial record, which has been used to give the report undue legitimacy.
The authors also attempt to defend Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who lends his voice and stature to an international campaign to demonize Israel, and even accuses Jews of fighting against God. For all of Tutu's merits, on this issue he is prejudiced.
Dershowitz has always believed in the peace process, human rights and vigorous, healthy debate. Instead of demonizing Dershowitz with false--and plagiarised--accusations, the authors of the article ought to have followed Rabbi Hoffman's example and welcomed a debate.
An attempted boycott--of a great international legal scholar, no less--is the pathetic refuge of those who know they cannot win on the merits. How sad--not for Israel, but for the democratic culture South Africa still needs to nurture.
Joel Pollak holds an MA in Jewish Studies from the University of Cape Town. He practices law in the United States and studied under Dershowitz at Harvard Law School.
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