Alan Dershowitz (right), the guest of honor during Gratz’s annual gala in May, participates in a Q&A session with Gratz President Dr. Paul Finkelman.
Gratz Honoree Alan Dershowitz Reflects on Jewish Identity and the Role of Jewish Institutions
More than 200 guests attended this year’s fundraising gala in May, titled Beyond Chutzpah and featuring a Q&A between Gratz President Dr. Paul Finkelman and famed scholar and attorney Alan Dershowitz.
Dershowitz was charming; he was provocative; he was controversial. But he was also unflinchingly honest.
He responded to questions about Israel, the BDS Movement, the U.S Jerusalem embassy, the role Judaism has played in his life, the NFL’s “take a knee” protests, the First Amendment, and the future of civil rights in America. He even fielded questions about his alleged friendship with President Donald Trump.
“He’s not my friend,” Dershowitz said during the Q&A. “I didn’t vote for him. He’s not my friend.”
In front of an audience gathered inside Philadelphia’s historic Congregation Rodeph Shalom and including alumni from Gratz classes dating back to the 1940s, current students and teens from Gratz’s Jewish Community High School, Gratz conferred on Dershowitz an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
Afterward, Dershowitz sat down with Gratz Today to reflect on his experience. Read on for his answers.
Q: You have said that you have personal connections to Gratz. Can you elaborate?
A: My uncle who taught my bar mitzvah went there in the 1940s and always talked positively about it. My uncle was a Hebrew school teacher and principal. He always talked extremely fondly about the education he received at Gratz.
Q: What were the highlights of the evening for you? Did anything surprise you?
A: I have critics on the right who think I’m not supportive enough of Trump. I have critics on the left who don’t like me because of Israel. I wasn’t surprised to learn that both types of people were in the audience.
Q: Why is it important to have a venue for conversations like the one you had?
A: I am a civil libertarian, and that means people all over the political spectrum disagree with me. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement is a good example. People who won’t listen to me get furious about the BDS movement, but when they boycott me they’re practicing BDS.
This boycotting mindset operates on college campuses and challenges freedom of speech when students or professors on the hard left refuse to allow dissenting views to be expressed. That poses a very significant danger.
There have to be places for people to listen to views that aren’t their own. Gratz is one of those places. In a free democracy like America we have to welcome difficult conversations.
Q: What role do you think Jewish institutions like Gratz can play in the world?
A: So much of what Gratz stands for is important today. It’s the perfect place to bring people together. It’s not religiously Jewish, but it’s oriented toward Jewish culture. It can take a leading role in bridging the gaps in our world today. Gratz is open to Jews and non-Jews, to anyone who is interested in learning the Hebrew language or learning more about Judaism or interfaith dialogue.
Q: How has your Jewish identity shaped your life and career?
A: In every possible way. I was so lucky to be brought up in Brooklyn in a family that was Modern Orthodox. I was brought up very much in the tradition of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, of representing the underdog. I cannot imagine what my career, my life, my experiences would be like if I didn’t grow up where I did, and how I did.
My values are Jewish. I argue Jewishly. I’m very Talmudic in the way I look at things. My values of helping the downtrodden and speaking up for dissenters come from Jewish values. There is nothing about me that isn’t Jewish. Even my worst enemies are Jewish. My G-d—and I have doubts about whether he exists—is the Jewish G-d. Even my agnosticism is Jewish.
Q: What advice would you give to Jewish students today? How can they help heal the world?
A: Actively identify with your Jewish heritage. Jewish students ought to be proud of their heritage and never allow others to make them choose. They should reject false choices and create whatever combination of “isms,” that work for them.
The American Jewish identity is changing dramatically and the survival of Judaism requires adaptation. I would advise young Jews to be ready for a fight. Get tough. Develop a thick skin because you will get pushback. Before you can heal the world, you have to understand it and diagnose it. Healing is a nice concept, but it has to be preceded by understanding.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: I wish Gratz another couple hundred years of success. ■