Sure, conservatives and liberals will always spar on a host of topics ranging from local to foreign policy and even religion. But on Tuesday night, two of America’s most prominent intellectuals, Alan Dershowitz and Dennis Prager–each on opposing sides of the political spectrum–were able to agree on one thing: support for Israel is essential.
Prager is a nationally-syndicated radio talk show host and New York Times bestselling author who has been called one of the greatest living American thinkers. Dershowitz, who is also a bestselling author, is perhaps the best known criminal litigator in the world and Israel’s most visible defender in the U.S.
The Stephen S. Wise Temple was packed to capacity. Judaism and religion, American politics, and antisemitism were among the topics in focus at a forum whose theme was “Great Minds Don’t Always Think Alike,” moderated by Rabbi David Woznica.
The night started off with a few laughs as Dershowitz playfully recalled having once received a grade of “Mediocre Minus” on a report card and thinking, “I didn’t even make it to mediocrity; at least I have something to aspire to.”
Dennis Prager said his eighth grade report card had been forged, and made a gaffe about how he “graduated in the top 80% of his class,” humor the audience also appreciated. Both men turned those statistics around quickly with the slew of achievements they accomplished in the years that followed.
A Different Type of Religion
Dershowitz and Prager–both New York natives–spoke of their upbringing in observant Jewish homes and recalled their yeshiva upbringings–which they both made hasty departures from–but both men fundamentally differed on the questions of God and morality. According to Prager, “If you don’t have a core belief that something is divine then you become your god…if God is not the ultimate source of morality, we are in trouble. I want people to feel responsible to a God for their behavior.”
Dershowitz disagreed, saying human beings do not come with an instruction manual, and emphasizing that they need to “struggle to find their own morality.” He added that he believes that “at least four of the 10 Commandments are still valid,” garnering chuckles from the audience. As for God, Dershowitz said he “couldn’t care less” if Americans believe in one deity or not. “It’s none of my business… As Jefferson said, a person’s view on God is about as relevant as a person’s view on geometry.”
Then Prager pointed out that he believes a different type of religion has influenced Judaism and Christianity. He called that “dynamic religion” of the last 100 years “Leftism.” The conversation then shifted…
Israel and the University
“Vast numbers of American Jews don’t give a hoot about Israel,” Prager lamented. “Even conservatives have forgotten how to make a case for conservatism. And then the university turns them around and then parents don’t know what happened to their children’s values,” he said.
According to Dershowitz, it was so much easier to support Israel when he was growing up. “My generation is very proud” of their support for Israel, he said, but that “tragically” his grandchildren’s classmates at Harvard University–where Dershowitz is a professor emeritus of law–are “embarrassed about being supportive of Israel.”
One of his granddaughters said that a classmate of hers confessed that he couldn’t express his support for Israel on Harvard University’s campus because it is unpopular; he said he “won’t be accepted into social clubs, he won’t get dates….Today you have to apologize. You have to explain why you went to Israel.”
On campuses throughout the nation, Dershowitz added, younger members of the lobby group J Street have been misled into believing that they belong to an organization that is pro-Israel although it “has never taken any position that is in support of Israel or praises Israel,” as far as he can recall.
“They [J Street] even now, commended Secretary of State John Kerry for calling Israel potentially an apartheid country, even though Kerry has apologized for it,” Dershowitz said. “J Street is defending him because they think he may be right,” he continued. “I think anyone who uses the word apartheid to describe Israel is worse than anti-Zionist.”
But when Prager went on to criticize the Ivy League colleges of our nation, specifically, the far-left professors at Harvard who are anti-Israel, Dershowitz went on the offensive and referred to Professor Ruth Wisse, citing her as a one of “plenty” conservative faculty members at the esteemed university. Prager did not back down and made certain to point out that Professor Wisse is perhaps the only one of her kind there, and that she teaches Yiddish.
Why All This Hatred?
“Bible-based Christians are our best friends. The secular university is our least good friend,” said Prager. When Dershowitz asked him to explain who he meant by “our”, he answered the Jews. Dershowitz’s next comment came with a kick: “The secular university is perfectly open to Jews if you are anti-Israel.” Prager responded: “I accept that. I accept that.”
Recently, Dershowitz recalled, he appeared on MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow Daily where he said the “extreme left and extreme right have only one thing in common: they hate Jews.” He said “Israel is the greatest country, morally, in 62 years of any country in the world….We [Jews] are hated because of our unique vocation in history.” He believes that if a nation-state, not of the Jewish people, behaved exactly the way Israel behaves, it would be criticized and condemned but “not with the kind of oratorical and emotional violence that we feel. So I think you cannot explain the deep hatred about Israel without looking at Jew-hatred and the depth of antisemitism,” which he describes as being “just as feral as it ever was.”
“Jealousy,” Dershowitz said, due to “extraordinary successes…in every area of the world where Jews have lived,” is a major component in this hatred. Dershowitz recalled how even “America was the home of rampant antisemitism for many years,” detailing that despite being first draft in his class at Yale Law School–and editor in chief of the Yale Law Review–he was rejected by 32 Wall Street firms, turned down by each and every single one of them, because he was Jewish.
Things have changed since then. However, challenges remain: “The Jewish future is in the United States and Israel and Canada maybe a half a dozen other countries…the tragedy is there is no Jewish future in France….I think [the] Jewish future in England is very, very questionable,” he said dimly.
Dershowitz and Prager agreed that there is no simple solution to the host of problems–but that is where the agreement ended.
Prager vehemently said he will only vote for candidates who state that “we are with Israel, that we support free states over police states, that we fear a world where Iran will have a nuclear weapon and not negotiate with them as to how man rotators they can have at their atomic [facility].”
Dershowitz agreed that “Iran is the greatest enemy that Israel faces today,” but said he “does not vote for candidates solely based on their position on Israel” and somewhat coyly expressed that Hillary Clinton would be his candidate of choice. He said he has told President Obama “to his face,” as well as in writing, that if that Iranians develop nuclear weapons on his watch, “he will be remembered as the Neville Chamberlain of the 21st Century,” despite how much he has accomplished in other areas of his life.
“The best answer to anti-Semitism is Jews. Just as the best answer to homophobia is gays. The best answer to racism is blacks,” said Dershowitz.
The debate came to an end with Rabbi Woznica’s signaling that time had expired. Both men shook hands and exchanged smiles, showing that despite their sharp differences, they retained a clear underlying friendship.
For a list of upcoming community events please visit the Stephen St. Wise Temple Website.