Celebrating Alan Dershowitz

Today I will have the honor of participating in a special Harvard Law School event honoring the career of Alan Dershowitz, the famous defense lawyer and legal scholar. I have been asked to speak specifically about his work as a teacher, representing the experience of the many thousands of students he has during his exceptional tenure, ranging from Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and every shade of the political spectrum in between (and beyond).

There are many things that make Dershowitz unique as a teacher. I will highlight just three. The first is his passion for the job, which is unparalleled. A criminal law or legal ethics class with Dershowitz is a master class in thinking and debate–one in which students are constantly challenged to express (and discover) their own views, to take a stand, to push back and push each other. Beyond the classroom, Dershowitz engages constantly in student life, ready to be a mentor and friend.

The second is his absolute commitment to the free exchange of ideas. One of the best stories about Dershowitz is how he helped Palestinian students fight for the right to fly their flag on campus–then stood by the flag handing out literature against Palestinian terrorism. When I was a student, and encountered a class that took an anti-Israel approach to the Middle East, he encouraged me in my efforts to develop alternate readings. He lives by the maxim: more speech, not less.

A third unique quality of Dershowitz as a teacher is his willingness to take the side of students against the faculty and administration–not to be a gadfly, but to defend fundamental principles. When I was an undergraduate here in the late 1990s, I remember how Dershowitz had offered to help a religious student who had accidentally burned down her dorm room when she lit a Chanukah menorah. The college was furious. But for Dershowitz, her religious freedom was at stake.

On a personal note, Dershowitz has been an inspiration to me ever since I was a fourteen-year-old kid reading and re-reading Chutzpah on my summer vacation. I never imagined then that I would have the chance to study with, and work for, the man whose bold approach to citizenship inspired my own political instincts. As an eighteen-year-old freshman, during the height of the O.J. Simpson trial, my friends and I dropped in on his criminal law class to see him in action.

Since then, Dershowitz has continued to inspire new generations with his public advocacy and his writing. Perhaps his most important book was The Case for Israel, which came at a very dark time in the debate over the second intifada and was a crucial intellectual reinforcement for young people on the front lines, resisting a massive intellectual assault. After helping Dershowitz prepare for his debate with Jimmy Carter in 2007, I had the opportunity to work on two of the sequels.

Some of the most important lessons I have learned from Dershowitz arose–and this is typical–from the disagreements I had with him. It was a debate with Dershowitz over affirmative action policy in a legal ethics class that inspired me to be outwardly religious. “It’s easy enough for you to argue that individual identity trumps racial prejudice,” he said to me. “You can always tuck your identity away.” Whereupon I resolved that I would put my faith up front, and still try to be who I am.

Throughout our time at Harvard, and beyond, my wife Julia and I have also enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of Prof. Dershowitz and his remarkable family. They opened their home to us, and invited us into a community of warm–if often contentious!–colleagues and neighbors. Dershowitz is famous for acknowledging his students’ work: unlike many in the legal academy, he puts it right up front in every book. So it is a privilege to return the favor. May his legacy long endure!

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The Conversation, Defense, Supreme Court, Elena Kagan

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