Alan Dershowitz and the theory of relativity

There is an old story  that chronicles the adventures of Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein who toured the US in the late 1940’s in an attempt to raise funds for the soon to be Jewish State. Legend has it that during their first dinner, Weizmann asked Einstein if he would explain his theory of relativity. Following dinner, Weizmann wrote in his diary “Today Mr. Einstein explained his theory of relativity”. The following evening, Weizmann politely asked Einstein if he would explain his theory once more. This went on for an entire week at the end of which Weizmann wrote in his diary “Today Mr. Einstein explained his theory for the sixth time. I am now certain that Mr. Einstein understand the theory of relativity”.

It is not surprising that the theory of relativity was developed by a Jewish scientist as it often seems that Jewish mentality is rooted in relative thinking, always believing things could be worse and always measuring a child’s success as opposed to that of neighbor’s child. This mentality was best expressed by Woody Allen, the ultimate Jewish relativist, who opens “Annie Hall” with a conversation between two elderly Jewish women at a Catskill mountain resort. When the one lady says “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible”, the other answers “Yeah, I know; and such small portions”.

Two weeks ago, prominent American attorney Alan M. Dershowitz published an op-ed article in the Haaretz newspaper attacking the American Studies Association who issued its first call for an academic boycott on Israeli academic institutions. Dershowitz is a longtime supporter of Israel and often acts like a modern day crusader moving onwards and upwards to safeguard Jerusalem.

In his opening statement, the seasoned lawyer writes that the American Studies Association did not decide to boycott China that imprisons academics or Iran that executes dissenting academics but rather decided to boycott Israeli academic institutions who, according to Mr. Dershowitz, “boast a higher level of academic freedom than almost any country in the world”.

Allan’s statement regarding the high level of academic freedom in Israel may have been true a few years ago (when you’ve known Mr. Dershowitz for a long as Israelis have, you get to call him Alan). Yet the current climate in the Israeli academia is one of uniformity and threat of banishment. Academics who dare question the Zionist narrative or the morality of the Israeli occupation are quickly labeled as Post Zionists and protesters from the “Im Titrtzu” movement picket outside their classes while demanding they be banished from their institutions.

From reading his article, one arrives at the conclusion that Dershowitz has also adopted the theory of relativity as from the beginning of his Op-Ed he compares Israel to the likes of China and Iran. But Allen goes even further by translating this theory into a legal argument.  He explains that Israel is by no means the only country to illegally occupy territory. “China occupies Tibet, Russia occupies Chechnya and several other countries occupy Kurdish lands. In those cases no offers have been made to end the occupation. Yet no boycotts have been directed against the academic institutions of those occupying countries”.

So Dershowitz doesn’t bases his defense of the Israeli academia on the on the momentary insanity plea or the self-defense plea but on the relativity plea. There are a great many countries occupying other peoples and their lands and violating human rights- so why focus only on Israel? Why not boycott all the others as well? It’s not that Israel is good, but that it’s just as bad as the others.

One might find it strange that while presenting his case Dershowitz chooses to compare Israel, a democracy, to Arab dictatorships. Yet he is not the only one to do so. Whenever Israelis wish to feel good about themselves they compare their country to Saudi Arabia or Egypt where asylum seekers from Africa are not detained but are killed and the term human rights does not exist in the local vernaculars.

Like Allan, Israelis feel that as long as we’re relatively better than Saudi Arabia, we are on the right track.

I do not support the AAS boycott on the Israeli academia as I believe that Israeli academic institutions are still a place where an open discourse is taking place regarding the impact the ongoing occupation has on our society. Moreover, Israeli academics are still willing to question the morality of the occupation even amidst growing criticism from home.  I don’t support the academic boycott as I find it ludicrous to boycott institutions that aim to promote free thought while claiming to do so in the name of freedom.

But I do believe that the Israeli occupation is morally reprehensible and I wish that Allan and Israelis would compare this country to the most enlightened of nations and not the most ignorant ones. Let us change the variables of our theory of relativity and aspire to be good rather than simply better.

About the Author
Dr. Ilan Manor (PhD Oxford University) is a diplomacy scholar at Tel Aviv University. Manor's recent book, The Digitalization of Diplomacy, explores how digital technologies have reshaped diplomatic practices. Manor has contributed to several publications including The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. According to his Twitter bio, Manor is the inventor of the ashtray. He blogs at