Alan Dershowitz: A Hypocrite Grows In Brooklyn

Alan Dershowitz has long perfected the art of throwing a toddler’s tantrum  – especially in his fulminations against the academic freedom that his fellow academics and he himself enjoys. Last year, when Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler spoke at a BDS-themed event at Brooklyn College,  our esteemed academic hygienist threw a particularly epic fit. He held his breath till he turned blue, he wailed, he screamed, he kicked and flailed, he gnashed his teeth, he threatened alternately to call mommy and papa. He demanded that the speakers be ‘balanced’ by opposing counterpoints; he insisted that inviting one speaker, without inviting his or her intellectual and political antithesis, was an act of gross intellectual dishonesty. To use a pair of particularly appropriate Australianisms, he spat the dummy and threw his toys out of the pram. (My apologies to all the little ones who do so much else that justifiably provokes affection and care from us; they are more far more interesting and diverse and I daresay, nuanced, in their personalities.)  A Harvard Law professor was rapidly transformed into something far more undignified: all unsatisfied Id, no Ego, no Superego.

Long-time observers of this torture-advocating, plagiarizing, walking embarrassment to Harvard Law School–whose batting average these days has been particularly stratospheric thanks to the diligent efforts of Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz–thought they immediately detected a certain sadness, a hurt, manifested in this spectacular display of an underdeveloped psyche. Why, oh why, hadn’t Dershowitz’s alma mater, Brooklyn College, or anyone associated with it, invited him to speak at Brooklyn College? Why this rejection of its son? Why this turning away from the door? Indeed, Dershowitz himself said as much, expressing a febrile mix of disappointment and rage in his queries into the lack of a standing invitation from the Political Science department to come speak to their students – and to allow their students to see, at first-hand, how an expensive education and an Ivy League professorship are no guarantee of even a modicum of intelligence or reasoning ability.

The Greeks–or perhaps it was someone else–might have thought the gods pay no attention to our piteous bleating about our misfortunes. But such is not the case with Brooklyn College and Dershowitz. For an invitation was extended to him by a student group–the Brooklyn College Israel Club–to speak here, and so he did this past week. His talk was sponsored by four departments–including Political Science, the department that bore the brunt of his tirades the last time, and mine, Philosophy. (I voted in favor of the sponsorship decision.)

Dershowitz spoke at Brooklyn College and talked about the need for ‘nuance’, for the need for ‘balance’ in campus discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict; he criticized departments that sponsored events like the ones that so infuriated him last year. He did so alone. His only companion on stage was an empty chair. (There is no indication of whether Dershowitz pulled a Clint Eastwood.) There were no speakers to provide ‘balance’ – like say, Norman Finkelstein, who once said that Dershowitz’s books were not good enough to be used as schmattas, rags to clean windows with.

To paraphrase Nietzsche ever so slightly, “A man far oftener appears to have a decided character from persistently following his temperament than from persistently following his [professed] principles.”

Protesting Gaza: After Gaol, A Day in Court

This morning, I reported to the New York City Criminal Court to be arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct (blocking traffic)–these stemmed from my arrest during a civil disobedience protest staged outside the Israeli mission to the UN on July 29th. My half-day in court was not as tedious and onerous as my day of imprisonment. It couldn’t possibly be, but it had its moments all the same.

I arrived promptly at 9AM, and soon thereafter, met–besides those who had been arrested and charged similarly–attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild, who would represent us at the hearing (three, I think, were present in all; I am grateful to all of them for their help.) I was quickly advised about my legal options: accepting the charge of ‘adjournment contemplating dismissal’ (ACD)–a deferment for six months, during which time the charge would remain open and after which could be dropped; a plea of ‘guilty’, which would result in a $125 fine and a misdemeanor conviction that would stay on my record for a year; a plea of ‘non-guilty’, and thus the possibility of a trial. The consensus seemed to be that accepting the ACD was the way to go–in case I was offered that option by the state (which seemed likely, as I had no priors.)

From there on, the waiting began. From our total of twenty-nine, groups of three or four were called in to the courtroom, and their cases disposed of. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that I would be among the last to be called. I soon found out why; the papers pertaining to my case were nowhere to be found. I groaned. Perhaps I would have to return to court on another day? Fortunately, a little later, at 11:45 AM or so, the papers were sent over from the DA’s office and my arraignment proceeded.

I waited in the courtroom for a little over ten minutes. In that time, two other defendants–not from our group–went up to be arraigned, both on charges of marijuana possession; one of the two young men had been arrested in the public housing building he lived in. (Great, I thought, a perfect use of police and court time.) Soon thereafter, our numbers were called; we walked up, heard the charge and the offer of the ACD. I accepted, and that was that.

As noted above, my case remains open for the next six months. In all probability, the charges will be dropped at the end of that period. If I am arrested again in the interim, this current charge will appear on my record as a prior, thus possibly complicating the charges at my next arraignment.

My many thanks again, to those who spent the day in gaol with me–all of whom I met again today (including Norman Finkelstein, Corey Robin, and Benjamin Kunkel). It was a pleasure to renew their acquaintance. And to be reminded of the reason why we were handcuffed, imprisoned temporarily, and then made to appear in court today, some six weeks later.

I would do it again.


Israel And A Jewish Solution To The Palestinian Problem

When I was eight years old, my mother told me the story of the Jews. We were on a month-long vacation, the mother of all road-trips; our destinations included the mountains and the valleys of Kashmir and the Garhwal. One day, after a long and tiring drive through innumerable twisting roads, we had reached our long-sought destination for the day, a charming forest bungalow, and after we had eaten dinner and settled in for the night, she drew my brother and me close to her and told us their tale.

It was a story that haunted and inspired me: a story of suffering and perseverance, of persecution and survival, of endurance and persistence in the face of adversity. It was a tale of dispersal and flight, of resistance, of the preservation of the things most precious to the Jewish identity. She told us of the Holocaust, of the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camps, and then, she told us of Israel, and its creation as a safe haven, finally, for an eternally persecuted people. She told us of a land reclaimed from the desert, made fertile and populated by a people who saw within its borders a chance to make their lives anew, away from the death and destruction that had been visited them during mankind’s most horrible conflict. She told us of their continued fight for survival through the wars that followed; their continued and enduring resilience. She told us of their learning and culture; she told us of their intellectual accomplishments in science, literature and the arts; she told us of the value they placed on education and lifelong learning.

And, then, unforgettably, bringing up the example of the Rothschilds, she told us of Jewish philanthropy, how a long-oppressed and suffering people had taken their immense, hard-earned wealth and used it for the greater good, deciding that their pain would be unique only in that they were determined to not let others suffer as they had, that they would do what they could to decrease the sum total of the inevitable pain and anguish that is every human’s lot on this earth.

I do not remember if my mother told us about Palestine and its dispossessed people. Perhaps she did, but only briefly. Perhaps she meant to tell us another time. Or perhaps she did, but I could not pay attention, for I was riveted by other components of the tale I had just heard.  Perhaps my mother only told me the Exodus version of happenings in the Middle East, and elsewhere. All stories are incomplete; this one surely was.

I grew familiar with the story of the Palestinians much later; the moral burden that placed upon the residents of Israel and perhaps Jews everywhere, only became clearer to me much later in my life. By then, because of the story I had first heard as a eight-year old, and its storyteller, and because–other than Edward Said–the strongest and clearest voices that pointed out Israeli missteps were always Jewish, I had come to believe–even as figurative scales fell from my eyes–that a resolution of the ‘Palestinian problem’ lay within the moral, intellectual and political reach of the Jewish people.

It might be their sternest challenge yet, to find the moral clarity and the political courage to undo undoubted injustice, one which Judaism’s ethical codes most certainly instruct them to.

A Day in Gaol, Part Deux: Notes on Police, Precincts, and Penality

Spending a day in jail has some social scientific value for the temporarily detained; it enables a closer, albeit short-lived, look at the systems of policing and criminal justice. And because I often expend much time on this blog railing against the excesses of the New York City Police Department, it makes especial sense for me to offer a few observations on my interactions with them on Tuesday last.

First, the arrest itself. The NYPD was scrupulous about providing warnings to those that lay down on Second Avenue; we were told that we were obstructing traffic and had to clear the intersection, failing which we would be arrested. We were not immediately bum-rushed. After the warning was repeated, and those who did not want to court arrest had moved out, the police moved in. I was hauled to my feet but I was not treated roughly. The handcuffs placed on my wrists–the plastic variety–were painful, and a couple of tightening tugs made them more so. The arresting officer then placed his fingers through their central loop, making them even more painful. I told him I had no intention of absconding, as I had deliberately courted arrest; he replied he had to follow arresting procedures. Fair enough. We were then bundled into the wagon, un-seatbelted, and  thus susceptible to being thrown around, forward and backwards, when the wagon braked or took corners. The driver of the wagon thankfully opened the doors when we arrived at the precinct, and assured us he had turned on the A/C, but it hadn’t worked, thus leaving us sweltering. I believe him; he sounded sincerely apologetic for any discomfort caused to us.

I had been a little nervous about the arrest because I did not want to get shoved around or slammed to the sidewalk, but none of that occurred. There was no animosity directed at the police by the protesters and the police seemed more bemused than anything else by our doings.

Second, my booking at the precinct. The central irony of the precinct–as Corey Robin and I both noted in our conversation after we had been released–is that while it is a zone of legal enforcement, it feels, and very often is, a lawless zone. You come face to face to unblinking, resolute bureaucracy, beholden to its procedures, and their utter rigidity, all the while knowing that the police can stretch and violate them with impunity. The incarcerated are always aware that they are powerless, that the police can exert all manner of power over them. You might seek redress later, but that will not, in any way, diminish the terrifying powerlessness when a policeman got in your face, or pushed you, or otherwise abused you in any other way. There is also the depressing empirical fact that the long arm of the law rarely reaches out to accost a policeman. You are at the policeman’s mercy. Questions may be treated with a blank stare or a noncommittal reply, and very little helpful clarification about procedure is offered. It is here that you most sense a figurative forcing of you to your knees. The swagger, the cockiness, the brusqueness of the cop; these are all external manifestations of the confidence they posses in their imperviousness to any forms of pleading or redressal.

Third, my time in the holding cell. This is a continuation of the previous state; you are imprisoned; it can be a terrifying feeling.. The police are taciturn and reticent; they do not offer helpful responses to questions put to them, and requests for the lessening of personal discomfort are responded to with visible reluctance; you do not get straight answers on when you may expect to be booked and released. (One Bangladeshi cop was kind enough to tell us we would be released soon; in an effort to reach out to him, I told him my father had fought in the war of liberation for his erstwhile home; he offered me a tight smile and walked away, telling me his wife was from Mumbai.) You sense the police bound by procedures of due process but you also sense that they may at any time, at their own whim, decide not to follow them.  (The refusal–and then later, grudging agreement–to provide water despite our constant requests seemed one instance of this.) The irony of the co-existence of the arbitrary with the rules of law is reinforced. You draw companionship from your fellow prisoners if you can. I was lucky to be with my partners in civil disobedience; their companionship sustains you; it is far more uncomfortable to be with those who are strangers. (Note: at one point late in the afternoon, a middle-aged Cuban gentleman was brought into our cell; he had been arrested for panhandling. He claimed he had merely been asking a friend for some money. His English was not as good as his Spanish, and he seemed a little discombobulated. The police had a field day with him, cracking several jokes at his expense as he was led out and in and otherwise subjected to other procedures. I presume the police code of conduct includes no strictures on gratuitous mocking of the incarcerated.)

My imprisonment was exceedingly brief; I only suffered minimal discomfort (one of my fingers is still slightly numb). I am privileged and lucky. Many others who deal with the police and the penal system are not.


Why Get Arrested? Why Perform Civil Disobedience?

A Facebook friend of mine asked in response to my posts and photos about yesterday’s protest at the Israeli mission to the UN:

It seems as though you all knew you were going to get arrested and almost seem proud of that? Isn’t there a way to protest without being arrested?

This is a very good question. Let me attempt to answer it, building upon a response I initially wrote in the comments space of my Facebook page.

My friend is right. There are ways to protest without being arrested. I have taken many political actions, participated in many rallies and protests, all without being arrested. I have written blog posts, held up banners, shouted slogans, and marched through city streets in sub-zero temperatures. These forms of protest suffer from one disadvantage: they are often not as politically effective, or as rhetorically and substantively powerful as civil disobedience actions, which culminate in protesters getting arrested.

Consider yesterday’s action for instance. If some hundred or so protesters had shown up, shouted some slogans, all the while confined to the pen the NYPD had put up for us, and then finally dispersed, their energies dissipated, the associated political message would have all too quickly been lost. Yet, precisely because twenty-six folks were arrested and put into jail, we have had a day and perhaps more of social media buzz. Some folks already know what is happening in Gaza, yet others will learn about it for the first time. More conversations will be sparked, and perhaps some might be inspired to take action as well–of whatever form they choose.

Civil disobedience actions are thus more effective in raising political consciousness. Moreover, they are more disruptive of the social order; they send the message–to those watching, to those on their way to work–that business cannot proceed as usual. They impose costs, and thus send a message that political stances, strategies and tactics, such as the US’s support of Israel with a seemingly blank check, lead to domestic costs. Getting arrested shows you are willing to incur a cost yourself – like spending time in jail. It shows your commitment to the cause, which is an expression of solidarity for those who are far more viscerally involved in the political struggle. Getting arrested, and undergoing all the discomforts it entails, sends a message that the cause at hand is not a trivial one, that it has somehow evoked people to step forth and expend time and energy in this fashion. It is not a pleasant experience, and thus provokes the question: Why would people be willing to undergo handcuffing, being pushed around by cops, and being confined in a holding cell?

Imagine millions of American citizens doing the same thing, shutting down traffic, clogging up the jails, bringing all work to a halt. Could the US government really continue with its policies if that was the case? They could, if all they had to deal with was large, vocal rallies. (As they perhaps did at the time  of the Iraq War.)

Politics, political action, and rhetoric go together. Getting arrested is a form of speech; it speaks loudly to the cause it represents. It is another arrow in the quiver of the political activist, one which if used well, can be singularly effective.

Protesting For Gaza: A Day in Gaol

Earlier today, during the course of a peaceful civil disobedience action–at the Israeli mission to the UN, on Manhattan’s East Side–protesting the humanitarian catastrophe currently underway in the Gaza Strip, twenty-six protesters, including moi, were arrested and taken in custody. The protesters included Norman Finkelstein, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin, and my cellmate for the day, the writer Benjamin Kunkel.

Finkelstein had sent out a call last night–via social media–for the protest to take place this afternoon. I was not sure whether I would be able to take part as I had spent most of Monday feeling distinctly unwell thanks to a cold, cough and slight fever. But I awoke this morning feeling rested, went for a run, and decided on my return that I would join Norman Finkelstein (and others) at the protest. I called my wife and told her of my plans, asked her to pick up our daughter from daycare, and headed out. (My wife, bless her heart, was fully supportive, perhaps entirely unsurprising for someone who had spent many of her university days working with a student group called Committee for Justice in Palestine.)

I arrived at the Israeli mission to find our small group clustered across the street. We waited for about forty-five minutes, during which time our numbers grew, all the while chanting slogans. At noon, after a small discussion, Norman announced that the civil disobedience action would involve blocking traffic on Second Avenue.  Which is what we did. At half-past noon, approximately hundred protesters marched out into the middle of Second Avenue, linked hands, and lay down. The police asked us to move; some protesters did, others did not. I continued to lie down.

A few minutes later, I was hauled to my feet and handcuffed. I did not resist arrest by going ‘boneless.’ The plastic handcuffs used by the New York City Police Department are never pleasant on the wrists, and this occasion was no exception. After standing around for a little while, continuing to chant, I was put into a police paddy wagon and taken to Manhattan’s 7th precinct.  Eight others accompanied me.

Getting arrested and booked is a tedious business. The paddy wagon was hot and stuffy, and we had to wait outside the precinct–mercifully, with the door opened for us by the driver–to be called in. Once we were let in, our handcuffs were cut off–again, mercifully, because my fingers were starting to go numb by this time. We were then searched, some forms were filled out, and we were ushered into a filthy holding cell. There were nine of us in it. The remaining protesters were put into two other cells (the arrested women had one to themselves.)  We were not allowed to make any phone calls; we were asked to take off our shoelaces; we could not take food or water into the cell.

The waiting now began. My companions included two grizzled Vietnam veterans and two very young students. We chatted among ourselves, engaged in some friendly verbal jousting with the police, and engaged in a great deal of passionate political discussion. (Kunkel and I also chatted about many other topics on the side.) One of the Vietnam vets told us harrowing tales of his time in that war, and about the experiences that convinced him  it was unjust and immoral. Our partners in the cell adjoining were also engaged in similar discussions and at one point, as they burst into song, we joined them for Solidarity Forever. There was no water to drink and we were given none. (Apparently, there were vending machines in the precinct lobby, but we could not use them.)  At  four pm, we were told our wait was almost over, but it dragged on a for a little while longer.

Finally at around seven or so, we were released one by one. My call came at a quarter after. I was given a desk appearance ticket and told to appear in court on September 9th. I had been charged with disorderly conduct. I collected my belongings, called my wife to let her know I had been released, and walked outside to be greeted by members of the National Lawyers Guild and other folks come to show support. I waited for my cell companions to join me outside. We briefly chatted, took a few photos, and then I left with Kunkel and Robin for a much-needed dinner. (Dumplings and soup in Chinatown.) Two hours later, I was back home in Brooklyn. My daughter was fast asleep so I missed kissing her goodnight. My wife was still awake, and we chatted for a bit about the day’s happenings.

My actions today are insignificant in the extreme. They will not stop the Israeli government from attacking Gaza; they will not bring the carnage ensuing there to a halt. But I’m still glad I went, got arrested, and inconvenienced myself for a day. It was a small price to pay. I often write politically tinged posts here, I express political opinions in person to my friends and family. I have felt strongly about the terrible carnage taking place in Gaza, but have not managed to do anything concrete about it. I wanted to indicate American support for Israel is not unanimous, to let those know who protest for Palestine and Gaza that they are not alone. I wanted, somehow, to do something about a feeling that surges within me, from time to time, that no policy which entails–as an almost inevitable side-effect–eighty percent civilian casualties, can ever be morally or politically justified.

I’ve never been arrested before at a protest, and I have certainly never deliberately courted arrest. Today, when the moment came, it felt like an easy decision. My friend Corey Robin lay down next to me, ready to be hauled away in handcuffs, and lying there, preparing to do the same felt, for many reasons, the right thing to do. In the course of an eternally indecisive life, marked by all too much cognitive dissonance, that is a rare feeling, one to be treasured.

Addendum, July 30th: Here is a follow-up post defending the use of civil disobedience actions as a form of political protest and action.

Addendum, July 31st: A follow-up critiquing Bernard-Henri Lévy’s claim that pro-Palestine protesters are guilty of ‘selective outrage.’

Addendum, August 1st: Some brief notes on my interactions above with the police and the penal system.