H.R. 3077: The Education of Alan Dershowitz

On Monday of last week, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum met in Faneuil Hall in Boston to honor Alan Dershowitz, renowned Harvard law professor. The JCPA is an umbrella for the nation’s Jewish organizations. Dershowitz is highly regarded in the Jewish community, especially for his book The Case for Israel. He came to Faneuil Hall to accept the honor—and caused a stir with an inadvertent remark on H.R. 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act. That’s the piece of legislation that would reform the Title VI subsidy program for area studies, and append to it an advisory board.

After accepting the award, Dershowitz began to talk about issues of the day, and then spoke these words: “There is a far-right-wing effort underway to allow for governmental monitoring of Middle Eastern studies at American universities. I would strongly urge you to oppose all such efforts to allow government oversight of university curriculum.” This was an apparent reference to H.R. 3077, which is supported by the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and several other national Jewish organizations.

Richard Foltin, legal counsel for the American Jewish Committee, leapt to the microphone. Foltin assured Dershowitz that the bill was not the work of “far-right-wing” groups. He explained why his organization and others supported it, and stressed that it would not touch on university curricula. Dershowitz was plainly embarrassed. He admitted having no detailed knowledge of the bill, or any idea that major Jewish organizations supported it. “May I move for my comments to be removed from the record?” he pleaded.

Now how in the world did Alan Dershowitz get misled about H.R. 3077? Where did he pick up the notion that the bill would empower government to police what is taught in universities?

Certainly the notion is out there. It’s been spread by some professors, the campus left, and extremist advocacy groups. They don’t want Congress or the Department of Education to look too closely at a troubled corner of academe that they’ve turned into a fiefdom of intolerance and error.

But Dershowitz would be the last person to rely on these characters for information, especially since they include the entire gamut of Israel-bashers against whom he has campaigned. (Some of them were outside Faneuil Hall, noisily demonstrating against him.) So the question really is this: from what reputable source did Dershowitz get the notion?

Flash back to October 21, the day H.R. 3077 passed in the House of Representatives. That evening, Dershowitz appeared before an audience of more than 1,000 people at UCLA. The format: a dialogue with Professor Geoffrey Garrett, vice provost and dean of the UCLA International Institute, and director of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. Garrett’s official bio describes him as “the senior academic officer responsible for international teaching, research and service at UCLA.” For this occasion, Garrett described himself to the audience as “master of ceremonies and traffic cop.”

The dialogue was devoted to Israel, the Palestinians, and the climate on campuses. About midway through, Garrett said the following to Dershowitz:

I don’t know whether you have been following this, but the Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization. In fact, it passed the House today. And there was criticism on the floor of the House and in committee proceedings which basically said that Edward Said brainwashed a generation of academics and students on American campuses. That’s the analysis. And the solution to this problem was going to be to have the Department of Defense and the CIA monitor international studies activities on American campuses. That’s actually the legislation that was passed today by the House.

For sheer intellectual dishonesty, it would be difficult to surpass these few sentences.

For starters, Garrett told Dershowitz that the bill would empower government to “monitor international studies activities on American campuses.” In fact, the bill would create an advisory board to “study, monitor, apprise and evaluate” the government’s own program. Title VI is a taxpayer-funded set of subsidies for fellowships and non-curricular activities like “outreach.” Recipients of these grants are legally accountable even now to the government, by mutual contract. Title VI will cost the public treasury half a billion dollars over the next authorization period. “In establishing the board, we are doing no more than exercising our responsibility to ensure that the Federal funds we authorize and appropriate are expended properly.” That was Rep. Howard Berman, a liberal California Democrat and UCLA law alumnus, speaking on the House floor the very day Dershowitz appeared on campus.

And worse: Garrett didn’t mention the board, telling Dershowitz the Department of Defense and the CIA would be monitoring university activities. “That’s actually the legislation that was passed today by the House.” But it was not actually the legislation that was passed by the House. H.R. 3077 makes no mention of the Department of Defense or the CIA—none whatsoever. It would establish a seven-member advisory board, independent of any department. Only two of its members would represent “agencies that have national security responsibilities.” Those two could just as easily come from the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security, Energy, Justice, Treasury, or State—all are agencies with national security responsibilities. (The Secretary of Education would choose.) Garrett’s name-dropping of the agencies most detested in academe—Defense and the CIA—was typical fed-baiting, and it’s the sort of agitprop about H.R. 3077 that’s rife on the campus left.

Finally, Garrett simply ignored the most crucial provision of the bill: it explicitly bars the board from “mandating, directing, or controlling an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction.” It’s partly because of that provision that the bill didn’t just pass in the House; it passed unopposed, with full bipartisan support.

But Dershowitz, listening to Garrett, could have easily concluded that this legislation was some sort of far-right McCarthyite scheme to send CIA agents into classrooms. In fact, he may have concluded just that. Here is his response to Garrett:

Let me unequivocally state my opposition to any legislation that would in any way impose Defense Department or any government controls on what’s taught in the classroom. I grew up during real McCarthyism. I’ll never forget Professor Elsa de Haas at Brooklyn College one day, in a political theory class, seeing a strange face in the back of the classroom and asking the young man, older than we were, to identify himself and he did. And then she asked him if he worked for the government and he said he did. And then she asked him if he worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and he said he did. And she walked over. She was a very large woman and literally lifted this man up and carried him outside of the classroom and said, “When I teach my students, I make love to them and I do not want the FBI watching me making love to my students.” And she threw him out. I would have done the same thing. There’s no toleration, nor should there be, of any government intrusion in what goes on on college campuses.

By distorting H.R. 3077, Garrett led Dershowitz to assume that the bill would revive McCarthyism, right down to “government controls” in the classroom. (In the transcript of the dialogue, on the website of Garrett’s own center, the section quoted above is titled “Government Monitoring of Classes on the Middle East.”) And why should Dershowitz have disbelieved Garrett? Here was UCLA’s top man in international affairs, a vice provost, dean and director, a well-groomed liberal, speaking before 1,000 people with total confidence. (“That’s actually the legislation…”)

I have immense respect for Alan Dershowitz, who’s done as much as anyone to challenge campus orthodoxies about the Middle East. I can imagine the distress he felt last week, when he realized that he had been misled somewhere along the line. I don’t fault him for the Boston episode, which he himself regrets, and I sincerely hope that he’ll make a close study of H.R. 3077, perhaps even giving it his endorsement.

And what of Geoffrey Garrett? Deans of international affairs, whose institutions are beneficiaries of Title VI largesse, have a professional and ethical responsibility to represent H.R. 3077 accurately, on and off campus. As citizens, they have every right to campaign for its modification. But it’s a gross abuse of authority to misrepresent the actual provisions of the bill in a way that amplifies and validates the fantastic lies put out by the extremist fringe. Ultimately, too, it is self-defeating. If prominent academics can’t tell the truth about a bill under consideration in Washington, who in Washington will believe they are capable of telling the truth about the world?

Dershowitz vs. Finkelstein: My (Proper) Footnote

Over the last month, Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein have been going at one another over Finkelstein’s charge that Dershowitz plagiarized passages of his book, The Case for Israel. I’ll spare my readers the details. Israelis and Palestinians lurch from crisis to crisis, while two professors debate the finer points of the Chicago Manual of Style. I find it difficult to take the whole business seriously, but if you do want to track the controversy, here is a link that will take you to Finkelstein’s charges, subsequently amplified by Alexander Cockburn; Dershowitz’s rejoinder; Finkelstein again; Dershowitz again….

So why even mention it here? The controversy provides me with a perfect opportunity to post my review of the book that Dershowitz allegedly plagiarized: From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine, by Joan Peters. I wrote the review more than nineteen years ago, when I was young and obscure, and it appeared in a journal that isn’t exactly a must-read: The New Leader. I have no recollection of why I agreed to review the book, but I did, and in retrospect I managed to identify both its strong points and its weaknesses. Finkelstein, with his taste for hyperbole, has called the book a hoax, which it wasn’t. It raised an important question about Palestinian demography, but it did so in ways that left it vulnerable to attacks by serious people. Nevertheless, other serious people have substantiated aspects of her argument, at least for certain periods.

These days, the demographic argument is not so much about what was but what will be. Until Sandstorm approaches it, content yourself with my resurrected review of From Time Immemorial.