Dershowitz in 2009
Alan Morton Dershowitz
September 1, 1938
|Occupation||Former Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School|
Alan Morton Dershowitz (//; born September 1, 1938) is an American lawyer and academic. He is a scholar of United States constitutional law and criminal law who has been described as a "noted civil libertarian". He began his teaching career at Harvard Law School where, in 1967, at the age of 28, he became the youngest full professor of law in its history. He held the Felix Frankfurter professorship there from 1993 until his retirement in December 2013, and has been a regular media contributor, political commentator, and legal analyst. He is also a prominent voice on the Arab–Israeli conflict and has written a number of books on the subject.
Dershowitz has been involved in a number of high-profile legal cases. As a criminal appellate lawyer, he won 13 of the 15 murder and attempted murder cases which he had handled, and has represented a series of celebrity clients, including Mike Tyson, Patty Hearst, and Jim Bakker. His most notable cases included the successful appeal of Claus von Bülow's 1982 conviction for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny, and the 1995 O. J. Simpson murder trial, in which he served on the legal "Dream Team", alongside Johnnie Cochran and F. Lee Bailey, as an appellate adviser.
Dershowitz is the author of a number of books about politics and the law, including Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case (1985), the basis of the 1990 film; Chutzpah (1991); Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O.J. Simpson Case (1996); The Case for Israel (2003); Rights From Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights (2004); and The Case for Peace (2005). His two most recent works were both published in 2018: The Case Against Impeaching Trump and The Case Against BDS: Why Singling Out Israel for Boycott is Anti-Semitic.
Dershowitz was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on September 1, 1938, the son of Claire (née Ringel) and Harry Dershowitz, an Orthodox Jewish couple. He was raised in Borough Park. His father was a founder and president of the Young Israel Synagogue in the 1960s, served on the board of directors of the Etz Chaim School in Borough Park, and in retirement was co-owner of the Manhattan-based Merit Sales Company. According to Dershowitz, Harry had a strong sense of justice and talked about how it was "the Jew's job to defend the underdog".
Dershowitz attended Yeshiva University High School, an independent boys' prep school owned by Yeshiva University, in Manhattan, New York City, where he played on the basketball team. He was a rebellious student, often criticized by his teachers. The school's career placement center told him he had talent and was capable of becoming an advertising executive, funeral director, or salesman. He later said his teachers told him to do something that "requires a big mouth and no brain ... so I became a lawyer". After graduating from high school, he attended Brooklyn College and received his A.B. in 1959, majoring in Political Science. Next, he attended Yale Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, and graduated first in his class with a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) in 1962. He was a member of a Conservative minyan at Harvard Hillel but is a secular Jew.
After being admitted to the bar, Dershowitz served as a clerk for David L. Bazelon, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He said that, "Bazelon was my best and worst boss at once ... He worked me to the bone; he didn't hesitate to call at 2 a.m. He taught me everything—how to be a civil libertarian, a Jewish activist, a mensch. He was halfway between a slave master and a father figure." During the 1963–1964 term, he served as law clerk for the Supreme Court Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg. He told Tom Van Riper of Forbes that getting a Supreme Court clerkship was probably his second big break. His first was at age 14 or 15, when a camp counselor told him he was smart but that his mind operated a little differently. He joined the faculty of Harvard Law School as an assistant professor in 1964, and was made a full professor in 1967 at the age of 28, at that time the youngest full professor of law in the school's history. He was appointed Felix Frankfurter professor of law in 1993.
Much of his legal career has focused on criminal law. His clients have included high-profile figures Patty Hearst, Harry Reems, Leona Helmsley, Jim Bakker, Mike Tyson, Michael Milken, O.J. Simpson and Kirtanananda Swami. Dershowitz reportedly was one of Nelson Mandela's lawyers. He sees himself as a "lawyer of last resort"—someone to turn to when the defendant has few other legal options—and takes those cases that are what he calls "the most challenging, the most difficult and precedent-setting cases". As of 2011[update] he was advising Julian Assange's legal team.
In 1976, Dershowitz handled the successful appeal of Harry Reems, who had been convicted of distribution of obscenity resulting from his acting in the pornographic movie Deep Throat. In public debates, Dershowitz commonly argues against censorship of pornography on First Amendment grounds, and maintains that consumption of pornography is not harmful.
In one of his first high-profile cases, Dershowitz represented Claus von Bülow, a British socialite, at his appeal for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny von Bülow, who went into a coma in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1980 (and later died in 2008). He ultimately succeeded in having the conviction overturned, and von Bülow was acquitted in a retrial. Dershowitz told the story of the case in his book, Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow case (1985), which was turned into a movie in 1990. Dershowitz was played by actor Ron Silver, and Dershowitz himself had a cameo role as a judge.
Dershowitz, in his book Taking the Stand, recounts that von Bülow had a dinner party after he was found not guilty at his trial. Dershowitz told him that he would not attend if it was a "victory party", and von Bülow assured him that it was only a dinner for "several interesting friends". Norman Mailer attended the dinner where, among other things, Dershowitz explained why the evidence pointed to von Bülow's innocence. As Dershowitz recounted, Mailer grabbed his wife's arm and said: "Let's get out of here. I think this guy is innocent. I thought we were going to be having dinner with a man who actually tried to kill his wife. This is boring."
In 1989, Dershowitz filed a defamation suit against Cardinal Józef Glemp, then Archbishop of Warsaw, on behalf of Rabbi Avi Weiss. Glemp had accused Weiss and six other New York Jews of attacking nuns at a much-disputed convent on the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Glemp's statement about Weiss, made in July 1989, was coupled with suggestions that Jews control the world's news media. Dershowitz's account of the lawsuit appears in his book Chutzpah (1991).
Dershowitz sued The Boston Globe in 1990 over a remark reporter Mike Barnicle attributed to him, in which Dershowitz allegedly said he preferred Asian women because they are deferential to men. Dershowitz reportedly received a $75,000 out-of-court settlement, and the newspaper's ombudsman questioned Barnicle's credibility, according to The Boston Phoenix.
In the O. J. Simpson murder case, Dershowitz acted as an appellate adviser to O. J. Simpson's defense team during the trial, and later wrote a book about it, Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O. J. Simpson Case (1996). He wrote: "the Simpson case will not be remembered in the next century. It will not rank as one of the trials of the century. It will not rank with the Nuremberg trials, the Rosenberg trial, Sacco and Vanzetti. It is on par with Leopold and Loeb and the Lindbergh case, all involving celebrities. It is also not one of the most important cases of my own career. I would rank it somewhere in the middle in terms of interest and importance." The case has been described as the most publicized criminal trial in American history.
Dershowitz was a member of the legal defense team for Jeffrey Epstein, who was investigated following accusations that he had repeatedly solicited sex from minors. Epstein's legal team investigated some of his accusers and provided both the police and the State attorney's office with a dossier containing information about plaintiffs' behavior, which had been obtained from their personal MySpace pages, including allegations of alcohol and drug use. On June 30, 2008, after Epstein pleaded guilty to a state charge (one of two) of procuring for prostitution a girl below age 18, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Epstein served almost 13 months before being released for a year of probation on house arrest until August 2010.
In May 2018, Dershowitz joined Harvey Weinstein's legal team as a consultant for Weinstein's lawyer Benjamin Brafman. Dershowitz advised the team on obtaining documents from The Weinstein Company related to the sexual abuse allegations against Weinstein.
Dershowitz has said he is a member of the Democratic Party. However, in 2016, he stated that he would cancel his party membership if Keith Ellison was appointed party chair; Tom Perez was appointed instead. Dershowitz endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential election, and later endorsed the party nominee, Barack Obama.
Dershowitz also campaigned against the election of Donald Trump during the United States presidential election of 2016 and has been critical of many of his actions, including his travel ban, his rescission of protections for "Dreamers" and his failure to single out white nationalists for their provocations during protests in Charlottesville.
In January 2018 he said that Democrats attacking Trump's mental fitness was a "very dangerous" line of attack and says there is "no case" for allegations that Trump committed obstruction of justice when firing former FBI Director James Comey. He called indictment against Michael Flynn the strangest he's ever seen, because Flynn lied about something that wasn't illegal, and said that claimed "collusion" in reference to Russian meddling in the 2016 election is not a crime. He published a book in 2018, The Case Against Impeaching Trump, in which he argues against impeachment.
However, Dershowitz said that Trump's alleged disclosure of classified information to Russia is "the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president". Dershowitz has received some criticism from liberals and praise from conservatives for his comments on these issues.
Dershowitz defended Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh against accusations by Julie Swetnick that he was present along with Mark Judge at a party where she was gang raped. Dershowitz said on Fox News, "that affidavit is so deeply flawed and so open-ended that any good lawyer, any good defense attorney would be able to tear that apart in 30 seconds". Dershowitz called on Swetnick's lawyer Michael Avenatti, who was also representing Stormy Daniels, to withdraw the affidavit because of inconsistencies.
In June 2018, Dershowitz wrote an op-ed criticizing the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging that it had become an organization dedicated to advancing leftist policy goals and marginalizing conservatives and centrists. He wrote, "The move of the ACLU to the hard-left reflects an even more dangerous and more general trend in the United States: the right is moving further right; the left is moving father left; and the center is shrinking... The ACLU's move from the neutral protector of civil liberties to a partisan advocate of hard-left politics is both a symptom and consequence of this change."
During the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, Dershowitz endorsed Hillary Clinton, calling her "a progressive on social issues, a realist on foreign policy, a pragmatist on the economy". In 2012, he strongly supported Barack Obama's re-election, writing, "President Obama has earned my vote on the basis of his excellent judicial appointments, his consensus-building foreign policy, and the improvements he has brought about in the disastrous economy he inherited." In 2018, after a photo with then-Senator Obama and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at a 2005 meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus emerged, Dershowitz insisted that he never would have campaigned for Obama had the photo been publicized soon after it was taken.
During the 2020 Democratic Party primaries, Dershowitz endorsed Joe Biden. He said: "I'm a strong supporter of Joe Biden. I like Joe Biden. I've liked him for a long time, and I could enthusiastically support Joe Biden." He criticized Bernie Sanders, saying: "I don't think under any circumstances I could vote for a man who went to England and campaigned for a bigot and anti-Semite like Jeremy Corbyn."
Dershowitz is a strong supporter of Israel. He self-identifies as "Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine", and said "were I an Israeli, I'd be a person of the left and voting the left". At the same time, he is on record as stating that both the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people supported a genocidal war, and revere a figure, Amin al-Husseini, probably because, in Dershowitz's view, the latter actively participated in the Holocaust. In addition, he has criticized President Barack Obama on his foreign policy stance toward Israel after the United States abstained from voting on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned Israel for building Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory. He has said, "I will not be a member of a party that represents itself through a chairman like Keith Ellison and through policies like that espoused by John Kerry and Barack Obama."
Dershowitz has engaged in highly publicized debates with a number of other commentators, including Meir Kahane, Noam Chomsky, and Norman Finkelstein. When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006) published – in which he argues that Israel's control of Palestinian land is the primary obstacle to peace – Dershowitz challenged Carter to a debate at Brandeis University. Carter declined, saying, "I don't want to have a conversation even indirectly with Dershowitz. There is no need to debate somebody who, in my opinion, knows nothing about the situation in Palestine." Carter did address Brandeis in January 2007, but only Brandeis students and staff were allowed to attend. Dershowitz was invited to respond on the same stage only after Carter had left. He authored an editorial in the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post accusing Alice Walker of bigotry for refusing to have her novel The Color Purple published by an Israeli firm.
He took part in the Doha Debates at Georgetown University in April 2009, where he spoke against the motion "this House believes it's time for the US to get tough on Israel", with Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Speakers for the motion were Avraham Burg, former Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and former Speaker of the Knesset; and Michael Scheuer, former Chief of the CIA Bin Laden Issue Station. Dershowitz's side lost the debate, with 63 percent of the audience voting for the motion.
In his 2015 book, The Case Against the Iran Deal, Dershowitz argues that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei has urged the Iranian military "to have two nuclear bombs ready to go off in January 2005 or you're not Muslims". On February 29, 2012, Dershowitz filed an amicus brief in support of delisting the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) from the State Department list of foreign terrorist organization.
On civilian casualties, he has said, "In the age of terrorism, when militants don't wear uniforms, don't belong to regular armies, and easily blend into civilian populations," civilian casualties should be re-examined in terms of a "continuum of civilianality." In one example, he writes: "There is a vast difference – both moral and legal – between a 2-year-old who is killed by an enemy rocket and a 30-year-old civilian who has allowed his house to be used to store Katyusha rockets."
Randall Adams of The Harvard Crimson writes that, in the spring of 2002, a petition within Harvard calling for Harvard and MIT to divest from Israeli and American companies that sell arms to Israel gathered over 600 signatures, including 74 from the Harvard faculty and 56 from the MIT faculty. Among the signatories was Harvard's Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson, in response to which Dershowitz staged a debate for 200 students in the Winthrop Junior Common Room. He called the petition's signatories anti-Semitic, bigots, and said they knew nothing about the Middle East. "Your House master is a bigot", he told the students, "and you ought to know that." Adams writes that Dershowitz cited examples of human rights violations in countries that the United States supports, such as the execution of homosexuals in Egypt and the repression of women in Saudi Arabia, and said he would sue any professor who voted against the tenure of another academic because of the candidate's position toward Israel, calling them "ignoramuses with PhDs".
In March 2002, Dershowitz published an article in The Jerusalem Post entitled "New Response to Palestinian Terrorism". In it, he wrote that Israel should announce a unilateral cessation in retaliation, at the end of which it would "announce precisely what it will do in response to the next act of terrorism. For example, it could announce the first act of terrorism following the moratorium will result in the destruction of a small village which has been used as a base for terrorist operations. The residents would be given 24 hours to leave, and then, troops will come in and bulldoze all of the buildings." The list of targets would be made public in advance. The proposal attracted criticism from within Harvard University and beyond. James Bamford argued in The Washington Post that it would violate international law. Norman Finkelstein wrote that "it is hard to make out any difference between the policy Dershowitz advocates and the Nazi destruction of Lidice, for which he expresses abhorrence – except that Jews, not Germans, would be implementing it".
In July 2006, Dershowitz wrote a series of articles defending the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces during the 2006 Israel–Lebanon conflict. There was an international outcry at the time regarding escalating Lebanese civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian infrastructure resulting from Israel's stated attempt to weaken or destroy Hezbollah. After the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour indicated that Israeli officials might be investigated and indicted for possible war crimes, Dershowitz labeled her statement "bizarre", called for her dismissal, and wrote about what he called the "absurdity and counterproductive nature of current international law". In an op-ed several days later in The Boston Globe, he argued that Israel was not to blame for civilian deaths: "Israel has every self-interest in minimizing civilian casualties, whereas the terrorists have every self-interest in maximizing them – on both sides. Israel should not be condemned for doing what every democracy would and should do: taking every reasonable military step to stop the killing of their own civilians."
Dershowitz is a strong supporter of gun control. He has criticized the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, saying that it has "no place in modern society". Dershowitz supports repealing the amendment, but he vigorously opposes using the judicial system to read it out of the Constitution because it would open the way for further revisions to the Bill of Rights and Constitution by the courts. "Foolish liberals who are trying to read the Second Amendment out of the Constitution by claiming it's not an individual right or that it's too much of a public safety hazard don't see the danger in the big picture. They're courting disaster by encouraging others to use the same means to eliminate portions of the Constitution they don't like."
Dershowitz took on a case of a 1% shareholder of the TransPerfect company and has been arguing that the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, Due Process under both, the 5th and 14th Amendments, apply for individuals even in a corporate issue. Dershowitz is an attorney for defendant Shirley Shawe and is looking to take the case of the Delaware Chancery's forced sale of TransPerfect away from its shareholders to the United States Supreme Court. Dershowitz has argued, and will argue to the Supreme Court that the Delaware Chancery court violated the personal rights of an individual shareholder when it ordered the public auction on the privately held company.
Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, Dershowitz published an article in The San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Want to Torture? Get a Warrant", in which he advocated the issuance of warrants permitting the torture of terrorism suspects, if there were an "absolute need to obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it". He argued that authorities should be permitted to use non-lethal torture in a "ticking time bomb scenario", and that it would be less destructive to the rule of law to regulate the process than to leave it to the discretion of individual law-enforcement agents. He favors preventing the government from prosecuting the subject of torture based on information revealed during such an interrogation. The "ticking time bomb scenario" is the subject of a play, The Dershowitz Protocol, by Canadian author Robert Fothergill, in which the American government has established a protocol of "intensified interrogation" for terrorist suspects.
William F. Schulz, executive director of the U.S. section of Amnesty International, found Dershowitz's ticking-bomb scenario unrealistic because, he argued, it would require that "the authorities know that a bomb has been planted somewhere; know it is about to go off; know that the suspect in their custody has the information they need to stop it; know that the suspect will yield that information accurately in a matter of minutes if subjected to torture; and know that there is no other way to obtain it". James Bamford of The Washington Post described one of the practices mentioned by Dershowitz – the "sterilized needle being shoved under the fingernails" – as "chillingly Nazi-like".
Dershowitz is one of a number of scholars at Harvard Law School who have expressed their support for limited animal rights. In his Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights (2004), he writes that, in order to avoid human beings treating each other the way we treat animals, we have made what he calls the "somewhat arbitrary decision" to single out our own species for different and better treatment. "Does this subject us to the charge of speciesism? Of course it does, and we cannot justify it, except by the fact that in the world in which we live, humans make the rules. That reality imposes on us a special responsibility to be fair and compassionate to those on whom we impose our rules. Hence the argument for animal rights."
Shortly after the publication of Dershowitz's The Case for Israel (2003), Norman Finkelstein of DePaul University said the book contained plagiarism. Dershowitz denied the allegation. Harvard's president, Derek Bok, investigated the allegation and determined that no plagiarism had occurred. In an opinion piece supportive of Finkelstein written for CounterPunch, Los Angeles attorney Frank Menetrez asserted that "neither Dershowitz nor Harvard ... has identified the specific issues or arguments that Harvard allegedly investigated and rejected. In particular, neither of them has ever said whether Harvard investigated the identical errors issue".
In October 2006, Dershowitz wrote to DePaul University faculty members to lobby against Finkelstein's application for tenure. The university's Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty voted to send a letter of complaint to Harvard University. In June 2007, DePaul University denied Finkelstein tenure.
On December 30, 2014, a Florida court filing by lawyers Bradley J. Edwards and Paul G. Cassell alleged that Alan Dershowitz was one of several prominent figures, including Prince Andrew, to have participated in sexual activities with a minor later identified as Virginia Roberts, who was held as a sex slave by financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Dershowitz had associated with Epstein and represented him in his 2008 criminal conviction, and helped to negotiate a non-prosecution agreement. Dershowitz vehemently denied the allegations and sought disbarment of the lawyers filing the suit. The two parties settled in 2016 for an undisclosed financial sum. Cassell and Edwards later said it was a "mistake" to include the allegations in their suit. In April 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth A. Marra, presiding over a 2008 lawsuit seeking to re-open the Epstein case, ordered "sensational" allegations against Prince Andrew and Dershowitz stricken from the record as having no bearing on the lawsuit's goal of re-opening the case. In April 2019, Virginia Giuffre (formerly Roberts) filed a defamation lawsuit against Dershowitz alleging he had made "false and malicious defamatory statements" against her, such as accusing her of perjury. The lawsuit sought punitive damages and included the previous allegations of sexual misconduct. Dershowitz responded saying: "I will prove without any doubt that she is lying about me. She is going to end up in prison."
In March 2006, John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, co-wrote a paper entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy", published in The London Review of Books. Mearsheimer and Walt criticized what they described as "the Israel lobby" for influencing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in a direction away from U.S. interests, and toward Israel's interests. They referred to Dershowitz specifically as an "apologist" for the Israel lobby. In an interview in March 2006 for The Harvard Crimson, Dershowitz called the article "one-sided", and its authors "liars" and "bigots". The following day on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, he suggested the paper had been taken from various hate sites: "Every paragraph virtually is copied from a neo-Nazi Web site, from a radical Islamic Web site, from David Duke's Web site." Dershowitz subsequently wrote a report challenging the paper, arguing that it contained "three types of major errors: Quotations are wrenched out of context, important facts are misstated or omitted, and embarrassingly weak logic is employed." In a letter in the London Review of Books in May 2006, Mearsheimer and Walt denied that they had used any racist sources for their article, writing that Dershowitz had failed to offer any evidence to support his claim.
Dershowitz was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1979, and in 1983 received the William O. Douglas First Amendment Award from the Anti-Defamation League for his work on civil rights. In November 2007, he was awarded the Soviet Jewry Freedom Award by the Russian Jewish Community Foundation. In December 2011, he was awarded the Menachem Begin Award of Honor by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center at an event co-sponsored by NGO Monitor. He has been awarded honorary doctorates in law from Yeshiva University, the Hebrew Union College, Monmouth University, University of Haifa, Syracuse University, Fitchburg State College, Bar-Ilan University, and Brooklyn College. In addition, he is a member of the International Advisory Board of NGO Monitor.
He is presently married to Carolyn Cohen and has three children. He is related to Los Angeles Conservative rabbi Zvi Dershowitz. Dershowitz's son Jamin married Barbara, a Roman Catholic, which was one prompting for Dershowitz's book The Vanishing American Jew, dedicated to them and their children, whom Dershowitz regards as still Jewish.
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