As Gratz gears up for its Annual Gala, President Paul Finkelman reminisces about this year’s guest speaker, Professor Alan Dershowitz.
On May 24, Gratz College will bring Alan Dershowitz to Philadelphia, where he will speak, schmooze and receive an honorary degree. When I announced Alan, an attorney and scholar, would be the speaker at our annual gala, some people were ecstatic. Others were nervous. Others, well, were less than happy.
He’s controversial, they said. He supported Obama. He supports Trump. He defended O.J. Simpson, the former football star who was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her male companion.
He also defended Patty Hearst and Mike Tyson, the porn star Harry Reems, the corrupt Televangelist Jim Bakker, and Leona Helmsley, the real estate mogul who would not pay her taxes. He was portrayed in the movie about the Klaus Von Bulow trial and also managed to get a cameo role as a judge. He has defended pornographers, radicals and some fairly notorious criminals.
Yes, he’s controversial. I think it is safe to say that almost everyone can find something about Alan that they do not like.
But he also embodies the American ideal that anyone accused of a crime is entitled to a strong defense, and is innocent until proven guilty. Alan says he learned from his father it is “the Jew’s job to defend the underdog.” His clients may not have always been poor or unknown (although some were) but were “guilty, guilty, guilty” to the public mind. And yet he defended them – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. They were controversial defendants with a controversial lawyer.
Alan was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, and at age 28 the youngest full professor in the history of Harvard Law School. He is the author of more than 30 books, a vibrant social critic, and a regular commentator of both CNN and Fox News. He has spent a lifetime taking controversial positions on politics, pornography, gun control and most of all the rights of the accused.
Alan has also been one of the most powerful voices in the American Jewish community for the last half century. He has been a vocal and vigorous watchdog in the struggle to fight anti-Semitism. He defended members of the Jewish Defense League when almost no one was there to support them. He once sued the Archbishop of Warsaw over his callous remarks about the Holocaust and his support for building a convent at Auschwitz. A few years later, Pope John Paul II closed the convent.
Alan is an articulate defender of Israel’s right to exist as a nation and an indefatigable opponent of the BDS (Boycott Divest, Sanctions) movement, which targets Israel for its policies, while ignoring similar and often much worse policies by other countries. Similarly, he has been a tireless opponent of other movements that often merge opposition to particular Israeli policies with overt and veiled anti-Semitic language and propaganda. He has debated issues involving Israel, but not everyone is willing to face him. Former President Carter refused to even appear on the same stage with Dershowitz at Brandeis University.
Alan embodies the values of Gratz. He is a prolific and great scholar who is fearless in his conclusions and willing to endure attacks from the right and the left for what he considers the demands of the rule of law in a democratic society. He has had a lifelong commitment to civil liberties, civil rights and fundamental justice, and a deep respect for the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam – the obligation to repair the world. He is a staunch advocate of peace and a vigorous supporter of firearms regulations. Long before Justice Stevens suggested it, Alan advocated repealing the Second Amendment. In the wake of the recent events in Florida and elsewhere, his voice is all the more valuable in the struggle to repair the world.
I have known Alan for a decade and a half. He has been a kind friend and ally and an intellectually vigorous colleague. I don’t always agree with Alan, but I always learn from him. When I told him I had accepted the Gratz presidency he congratulated me, and then said “my uncle went there back in the ‘30s.” He then offered his support. On May 24, he will do that by accepting our diploma.
Our Annual Gala, “Beyond Chutzpah,” begins at 6 p.m. on May 24 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. For more information about tickets or sponsorship, click here.