Chutzpah on the scales of justice

六月 13, 1997

Alan Dershowitz defended Claus von Bulow and helped O. J. Simpson beat a murder rap. Here hetalks to Tim Cornwell about hislatest concern, the future of the Jewish race

Today is Wednesday," Alan Dershowitz says. "It must be Frankfurt." Calling from a mobile phone in Germany, he runs the interview on the hoof. He talks about the O. J. Simpson case and his new book as he steps from his car, walking to his hotel room. Thinking on his feet, literally: something he is famous for. His conversation never pauses for breath. Half-way through the call, someone is heard pleading in the background. "I think he wants an autograph," Dershowitz mutters, and apparently obliges.

Dershowitz, one of the United States' most famous lawyers, veteran professor of the Harvard law school, is on tour promoting his novel, The Advocate's Devil, recently translated into German. It is the tale of a young defence lawyer who gets into an ethical bind when he concludes that his client, a famous basketball player, is guilty, as charged, of rape.

Harvard law professor, celebrity defence attorney, prolific writer, accomplished self-promoter, Dershowitz is juggling several balls in the air. He is researching his next novel, he explains, set around the Holocaust and partly in Germany. Meanwhile he is considering a European version of his newest book, The Vanishing American Jew.

The US, a country where the law is elevated to a civil religion, has a love-hate relationship with its defence lawyers. They are both lionised and vilified. Typically they are far more colourful than the prosecutors, their ethical dilemmas more compelling, the kind in which Dershowitz, an appeals specialist, revels. But they occasionally score wins for clients that many people despise.

Mike Tyson, O. J. Simpson, Patty Hearst, Claus von BulowI Alan Dershowitz has represented them all. He is an unmissable quote-meister and television talking head. Every story, reporters joke in his home state of Massachusetts, should end "Alan Dershowitz was unavoidable for comment".

His most famous success, probably, was Claus von Bulow, convicted in 1982 of the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny. The motive, it was charged, was his claims on her $75-million fortune. Dershowitz got the conviction overturned on appeal. Von Bulow was acquitted in a retrial.

One of a select collection of prominent US law professors who run successful private practices from their university offices, Dershowitz enlists his students as researchers, and uses his inside knowledge of the cases to teach the law. Another such is his Harvard law school colleague Larry Tribe, the constitutional specialist once dubbed the "tenth Justice" because of his expertise in bringing cases before the nine-member Supreme Court.

At the same time, Dershowitz has asserted his place as a Jewish lawyer and commentator. The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of a Jewish Identity for the 21st Century is published in the US this spring, and in the United Kingdom later this year. In it, Dershowitz unblushingly claims, on the basis of thousands of questions, calls, letters, and meetings, "an extraordinary window into the hopes, fears and beliefs of a wide assortment of JewsI I think I understand what is in the minds and souls of many Jews."

The book addresses a common Jewish fear, particularly in the US, that the diaspora's success is also a threat. Jews comprise 2 per cent of the US population, but account for 10 per cent of senators and 40 per cent of US Nobel prizewinners. Seventy-five per cent of the top 200 intellectuals have at least one Jewish parent. Assimilating into the mainstream, more than half of Jews who get married marry non-Jews. It is said that, at this rate, the diaspora will shrink to a few pockets of the ultra-orthodox in the 21st century.

Anti-Semitism, Dershowitz argues, has been relegated from the upper classes to the dregs of US life. It has no impact on most Jews. He notes a 1988 poll of Dartmouth College students; asked if their Jewishness would hamper their success, not one said yes. "We continue to see anti-Semitism even where it has ceased to exist, or exaggerate it where it continues to exist in some marginalised form," he says.

As a result, Jews can no longer rely on tsuris (troubles) to hold them together. Dershowitz argues that education, to overcome Jews' increasing ignorance about their own 3,500-year-old civilisation, must be the glue that keeps the community alive. It is the "only workable solution" to the vanishing American Jew. But in order to use it, he writes, "we will have to loosen the monopolistic hold that Rabbis have over Jewish education". Secular Jews must be able to teach the Bible and the Talmud their own way, as he himself proposes to do in a new law course, "Scriptural sources of justice". Abraham became the first lawyer, Dershowitz says, when he tried to argue God out of the destruction of a city of sinners.

Dershowitz's declaration that anti-Semitism is all but dead does not always go down well with his American audiences; critics accuse him of being sheltered by the elite circles he moves in. But the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, accused of promulgating modern anti-Semitism, is a problem for blacks, not Jews, he insists.

In Germany, Dershowitz, as usual, is not shying from controversy and his civil libertarian streak is coming into play. It is time to discuss and debate the Holocaust, he says, rather than censor it, particularly in view of Germany's attempt to limit access to neo-Nazi material on the Internet. "Expressing anti-Semitism, or Holocaust denial, is a crime here (in Germany)," he says. "I think it's a terrible mistake, and I've been telling them that."

Dershowitz began his career with blue-chip credentials: editor of the law journal at Yale, shortlisted for a Rhodes scholarship. He was respected as quiet, conservative, and studious, emerging early as a protege of the criminal law faculty. But later a transformation took place, said one former classmate; a new Dershowitz, with moustache, wild curly hair and a flamboyant outspokenness, emerged. Now when he takes on a high-profile case, he is likely to write a book about it afterwards.

Reversal of Fortune, his book on the von Bulow case, made it to the silver screen. Jeremy Irons won an Oscar as Von Bulow; Ron Silver appears as Dershowitz depicted as the scruffy scholar afire with conviction, who, needless to say, captures all the best lines. The one thing you have going for you, he tells von Bulow, is that "everybody hates you".

Dershowitz joined O. J. Simpson's defence team for a reported fee of $350,000, though he now insists he was paid much less. At first he covered the case, as he often did, by speakerphone and fax from his East Coast office; later he flew to California on weekends. His rule with cases is that they never cut into his teaching time, he insists. One of the questions potential jurors were asked as they were vetted was whether, if they knew that the Harvard professor was on the case, they would think that Simpson was really in trouble.

Dershowitz's main task was preparing for an appeal that was never necessary. But the book American Tragedy, one of the best on the trial, points to what even Dershowitz's critics agree is an immensely agile and imaginative legal mind. He was the first on the defence team to spot that prosecutors would sell their story to the jury as a domestic abuse case, where Simpson was a wife batterer who progressed to murder.

Dershowitz does not rest comfortably in any of the circles he moves in. His fellow lawyers and law professors agree that he is one of the quickest thinkers in the trade, but they wince at his client list. Peter Arenella, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles, says Dershowitz is a gifted appellate attorney, but has not yet produced the heavyweight legal scholarship that his talent promised. In the US Jewish community, meanwhile, Dershowitz describes getting the silent treatment at his local synagogue after the acquittal of Simpson. Whites may have believed Simpson guilty, but Jews, in part because one of the victims was Jewish, took the issue particularly hard, he claims. He has received Jewish hate mail, and had copies of his books returned to him in protest.

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish watchdog organisation, said he was "surprised and disappointed" by Dershowitz after his Simpson colleague, Johnnie Cochran, compared a Los Angeles policeman to Hitler. But Dershowitz is not easy on his own clients. He does not defend either Simpson or von Bulow as innocent, but rather as not guilty as charged.

Dershowitz is "a gadfly", says Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor and a regular pundit on CNN and other television shows. It is, he adds, a complimentary remark. With his almost obsessive allegiance to civil liberties, free speech, individual rights and particularly those of the defendant, Dershowitz's role is to raise questions when society is looking for a culprit. "He generally challenges the conservative and law enforcement orientated view in our society generally," Rothstein said. "Society needs someone like him."

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