More than 1,000 students, staff and members of the community attended an evening with famed law professor Alan Dershowitz in ‘The Case for Peace in the Middle East’ on Thursday, Nov. 29 in the Student Center. Dershowitz, a Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and author of more than 20 books, visited UC Irvine to give a speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rabbi Elie Spitz from the B’nai Israel Congregation moderated the event after Chancellor Michael Drake offered some opening remarks that highlighted the need for tolerant, intellectual dialogue on campus to ease tensions between Jewish and Muslim students.
The event was made possible by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Orange County and was sponsored by all of UCI’s major Jewish organizations, including Hillel: The Jewish Student Union, Anteaters for Israel, Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity and Jews in Medicine (JIM).
Hillel co-president Michelle Eshaghian, a third-year political science major, explained that the goal of inviting Dershowitz was to ‘educate our own organizations [as well as] the community, the Muslim Student Union, the Christian Coalition and Greek fraternities and sororities.’
Dershowitz, who has been a consistent supporter of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, emphasized several times in his speech that ‘when the Palestinian leadership wants to see their own state more than they want to see the end of Israel as a Jewish, secular, democratic state, we will have a two-state solution.’ He went on to argue that a viable solution ‘has to be acceptable to the majority of Israelis and to a majority of Palestinians.’
Dershowitz has been a strong advocate of encouraging free speech from every perspective relating to the Middle East. However, when asked about how tensions could be decreased at UCI between Jewish and Muslim students, Dershowitz proposed that the best way to achieve progress on campus is to marginalize extremists and to invite moderates of good will.
‘I think he is quite possibly one of the best people we could have brought to UCI because he is not afraid to take questions head-on and he knows exactly what he is talking about,’ said Isaac Yerushalmi, president of Anteaters for Israel and third-year economics major. Yerushalmi argued that the event was a way to counter anti-Israel speakers and to provide an alternate perspective on the situation.
After the event, Yerushalmi admitted his overall satisfaction with Dershowitz’s speech: ‘Obviously, [Dershowitz] is very well-educated and one of the youngest law professors ever. I definitely think he was a good choice to bring here.’
However, these sentiments were not shared by Omar Zarka, president of the Muslim Student Union and a fourth-year mechanical engineering major. Zarka felt that the event was biased and that a debate format would have allowed both sides to be presented. Zarka was one of the few attendees who spoke up during a short Q-and-A session, asking Dershowitz if he would be willing to debate former DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein.
Dershowitz explained that he would never share a stage with Finkelstein because he demeans intellectual discourse and he does not consider him to be a responsible or reasonable person.
However, Dershowitz countered with an offer to debate Noam Chomsky, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist, who is an outspoken critic of Israel.
‘We’re looking forward to a debate with him and hopefully we will make that happen whether it is with Noam Chomsky or someone else,’ Zarka said. ‘We’ve been trying to get a debate down for a while.’
‘I know both sides say this, but honestly, we’ve been in contact and we’ve been trying to get it to happen, but it hasn’t, so our intention behind calling him out in public would be to have a public record so that we can hold him to it,’ Zarka said.
Another attendee, Brandon Louie, a fourth-year international studies major, said that he ‘thought it was really interesting. It cleared up a lot of misconceptions [he] had and it gave [him] different insights and a different point of view from Jimmy Carter on Israel’s policies and the controversy between Israel and Palestine.’ It remains to be seen whether or not a debate will occur on campus in the future.