Alan Dershowitz came to the University of Pennsylvania last week to articulate the case for Israel and counter the message of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – not to discuss presidential politics.
But when the noted Harvard law professor and author addressed 900 people at Perm's Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the 2012 campaign managed to wiggle its way into the discussion.
Event moderator Robert Traynham, a political journalist, asked Dershowitz how Israel will affect the presidential election.
The professor said he hopes support for Israel can remain a bipartisan issue, as if by saying this he were attempting to sidestep the issue of the race for the White House.
"Probably many of you know my politics," he went on to say. "I'm a liberal Democrat."
But, he added: "I have made it clear that each candidate has to earn my vote, and I frankly haven't made up my mind about who I'm going to vote for in the next election."
Just a few hours earlier, in a sit down with several jour nalists, Dershowitz said that he was supporting President Barack Obama. The lifelong Democrat and staunch pro-Israel defender backed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary before throwing his support behind Obama in the general election, despite concerns among some Jewish voters regarding Obama's attitude toward the Jewish state.
When asked to clarify his disparate remarks at Penn, Dershowitz reiterated that he hasn't made a final decision, and that it would hinge on the Iran issue.
He said he hopes "to support President Obama, but my support will depend to a significant degree on his words and actions regarding Iran's nuclear program, which I regard as the greatest danger to peace in the world."
If the candidates are equalIy strong in their support for a thoughtful and principled foreign policy," Dershowitz said, he would back Obama based on domestic concerns.
The bulk of the Penn event on Feb. 2, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Hillel and other local and national Jewish groups, focused on why, as a human rights advocate, Dershowitz supports Israel, and how students can counter the BDS message on campus.
The law professor called Penn the "model campus" when it comes to pro-Israel activism.
"You guys have stood strong, you have stood hard. You don't just let anti-Israel people get away with silence," said the 73-year-old, who voiced support for the university's decision to allow the BDS event to happen despite considerable opposition.
He reiterated the liberal defense of Israel that he laid out in his 2003 book, The Case for Israel. He's pro-Israel, he said, because he's pro-human rights, pro-women's rights and pro-gay rights.
But he emphasized that one can be pro-Israel and disagree with some of the Jewish state's policies. For instance, Dershowitz said, he opposes the continued building of settlements on the West Bank.
"If criticism of Israel were anti-Semitic, the greatest concentration of anti-Semites in the world would be in Tel Aviv," he said, adding that someone is justified in criticizing Israel's policies if they don't subject the nation to an unfair double standard and if they support its right to defend itself. "I support Israel because I'm a liberal."
He added that students must be ready to come to Israel's defense if it is forced to attack Iran.
"Will Israel's need to defend itself become the latest justification for the oldest hatred in the world?" he asked. "We have to stop that from happening, not by convincing the individuals who support BDS and the extremists who will not be reasoned with, but by talking to people with open minds."
He said that he spent hours speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several weeks ago, but he claimed no inside knowledge on whether, or when, Israel would try to disable Iran's nuclear facilities. He did assert that such an attack would be permitted under international law.
"It won't be a pre-emptive attack, it will be a reactive attack. Israel is entitled to attack Iran legally because Iran has attacked Israel illegally through arming Hezbollah and Hamas," he said. "You can have pre-emptive motives, but the law, international law, would regard it as a reactive attack."
The Brooklyn native said that younger people who are more savvy with technology and social networking need to be at the vanguard of the proIsrael movement.
"I'm too old to be the one making the case on college campuses around the country," he said. "We need younger people, we need more people of color, we need more people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds – we need to make the case in a much more diverse way."
In making pro-Israel pitches, students should point to all the technology and advances that Israel has brought into the world, as well as the fact that it's far better on gay rights than many Western countries, let alone Middle Eastern nations.
He also stressed that Israel's founding was based on a legally binding decision taken by the United Nations and that students should not accept allegations that the Jewish state came into being by evicting Arabs.
"There was no Palestinian state," he said.
In a brief interview before the Penn program, Dershowitz rejected the notion that staging large communal events brings more attention to the BDS conference than it might otherwise have gotten. He said the true agenda of the movement must be exposed.
"Their definition of occupation is Haifa and Tel Aviv. Their motto is Palestine will be free from the river to the sea," he said in the interview. "The occupation for them is a pretext."
Asked why so many Jews are drawn to the BDS movement, as evidenced by the speakers and the organizers, Dershowitz replied, "Jews voted for Mussolini, Jews supported Stalin.
"Don't ask me to explain Jews," he continued. "You will find a Jew on every side of every issue. The number of Jews that support the movement is small. What I am more concerned about is the number of Jews that don't condemn it."