Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part I: Alan Dershowitz

Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part I: Alan Dershowitz

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on January, 2009)

I

It is generally true that most abstract or general principles are best illuminated by getting down to cases, the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts of the thing. 

Take the Dershowitz-Prager debate, for instance. Though the subject matter is ostensibly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its import transcends this all-too-familiar by now and perhaps over-discussed topic. What’s being said is far less important than what’s being left out. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this exchange, let me recap.

II

Alan Dershowitz is a vociferous proponent of Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from such entities as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the like. He had written several books and articles on the subject, and if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. His views haven’t changed one bit, and he makes no bones about it. 

The article in question, “Double Standard Watch: Israel’s Actions are Lawful and Commendable” in The Jerusalem Post of January 4, 2009, is fairly representative of Mr. Dershowitz’s position: aside from being brief, it encapsulates it to a T.

III

Dershowitz’s argument turns on two points: 

  1. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which reserves to every nation the right to engage in self-defense against armed attacks; 
  2.  “the principle of proportionality,” which is the only limitation international law places on any nation-state or democracy so attacked, namely, that the casualties (or the collateral damage) inflicted on the aggressor – civilian or otherwise, but mostly civilians – in the course of its act of self-defense be proportional to the damage it itself suffers at the hands of the aggressor. 

Dershowitz argues, and I think convincingly, that Israel’s actions against Hamas satisfy the proportionality principle. He cites example after example of Israeli restraint apropos of bombing known Hamas targets purportedly protected by human shields. As to the first-mentioned item, Article 51 is part of the record. 

Insofar as Dershowitz is concerned, it’s an open-and-shut.

IV

So convicted, Mr. Dershowitz is somewhat dismayed by his apparent inability to sway the world to his view. He finds it perturbing. To get his point across, he enumerates several divergent responses. 

One is the position held by Hamas and other parties directly or indirectly involved in or supporting the act of Hamas’ alleged aggression – all terrorist networks supposedly intent on Israel’s destruction as a nation-state and a people. Quite rightly, he dismisses them for being irrelevant, self-serving, and so forth.  

Next, he considers the responses from major geopolitical players, Russia, China, and Iran. Since these players have a vested interest in perpetuating the Middle East conflict, he dismisses them too.

The position held by the State Department, Mr. Dershowitz can live with; whether tacitly or overtly, United States supports Israel. But what exercises his conscience the most is the view of the European community, the UN in particular.

How can it possibly condemn Israel in light of its very charter?

V

Let’s shelve for now the merits or the demerits of Mr. Dershowitz’s argument. I want to focus, instead, on Mr. Prager’s response in “Dissecting Dershowitz” in the Jewish World Review, January 6, 2009. 

In essence, Prager criticizes Dershowitz for suffering from cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas at once.

VI

What makes Prager’s argument all the more compelling is that he agrees with Dershowitz on all the main points. But then, he poses the question: 

Why on earth, Alan, would you want to continue as a member of the Left when the Left’s position on such an important [to you] issue is equivalent to that held by the UN? — [ a position] which you had personally characterized time and again as verging on moral idiocy? 

Wouldn’t it make more sense under the circumstances to switch sides and join the right-wing or the conservative party? The Christian right in particular,  [Prager concludes] all believers in Judeo-Christian values, are the most stalwart supporters of Israel. 

Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in their midst?

VII

Thus stands the challenge. “Put your money where your mouth is, Alan, or get off your high horse!” Prager is saying. And it appears that he had presented Mr. Dershowitz with a foolproof argument. 

The fact that it isn’t so — that Dershowitz’s options aren’t as clear-cut as Prager would have us believe — is significant in its own right.

VIII

I believe that Mr. Prager is aware of this, or at least suspects that ’tis so — and so, does Mr. Dershowitz, too — which is why he had issued his challenge in the first place, knowing full well that it couldn’t have been met! Consequently, I predict that this debate will peter out. Don’t expect Mr. Dershowitz to respond any time soon!

But this only reiterates the point I made at the outset: what’s significant about this “debate” is what’s left out, what both Mr. Prager and Mr. Dershowitz share in common and in silence. 

IX

Let me be so bold here as to say that the real subject matter of the Dershowitz-Prager dispute is none other than the concept of “the Left” and of “the Right,” respectively.  And further, that to understand this is to understand the hidden dimensions of American politics. The bottom line is — you’ll never be able to view the modern political landscape in the same old way!

Look forward to Part II where I’ll examine those concepts anew, in light of the “Vietnam experience.”

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