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'Times' Pundit Speaks of First Amendment Rights -- and Israel

October 11, 2007 By:
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Anthony Lewis

During Anthony Lewis' tenure as a columnist for The New York Times (1969 to 2001), he visited Israel on a yearly basis to gather material for writings on the Jewish state and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Especially during the tumultuous 1990s -- which saw the signing and later unraveling of the Oslo accords, along with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin -- Lewis often was criticized by pro-Israel groups, particularly the Committee for Accuracy in Near East Reporting (Camera) for being too harsh on the Jewish state and overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

"Impervious to the actual course of events and their impact, Lewis clings to his mantra of blameless Palestinians victimized by the ruthless Israelis," Andrea Levin, Camera's executive director, wrote in a 2001 Jerusalem Post opinion piece.

Now, nearing 80, Lewis has largely stayed out of the latest rounds of rhetorical battle on the Mideast, choosing to write occasional pieces for The New York Review of Books and work on his own first book in 17 years, Freedom for the Thought We Hate, which is about the First Amendment.

But as the native New Yorker made clear during an interview before an Oct. 2 lecture on constitutional law at Temple University's James E. Beasley School of Law, he still holds strong opinions about the conflict and the ideological debate surrounding it here in America.

"People criticize the United States government all the time, and I see no reason why they shouldn't be free to criticize the Israeli government. After all, it's a government, and governments make mistakes," said Lewis, sitting back in a tiny office at Temple, where he made some calls and read for a while before giving his lecture.

He was addressing the flap surrounding the scholars John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who, in a 2006 article and new book titled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, argue that Jewish groups monopolize the debate on Israel, and push Congress and the president to adopt a pro-Israel stance.

The two academics say this runs counter to U.S. strategic interests and cannot be supported on moral grounds.

Critics, including Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, have asserted that Walt and Mearsheimer are perpetuating the old notion of the Jewish conspiracy to control the world.

Yet Lewis clearly sympathizes with the political scientists.

"The real sting of it is, if you criticized Israeli policy, you can be labeled 'anti-Semitic,' as indeed Walt and Mearsheimer have been labeled," he said. "I think it's a great mistake to jump on anyone who disagrees with Israeli policy. It really shuts down open discussion."

A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Lewis is the author most notably of Gideon's Trumpet, the 1964 account of how a destitute Florida man, Clarence Earl Gideon, took his case to the Supreme Court. The court decided that defendants unable to afford a lawyer must have one appointed to them.

'Ethics and Outlook'

Raised on New York City's Upper East Side, Lewis lived in a kosher home and attended an Orthodox synagogue.

"There were separate men and women -- the whole deal," said Lewis, who added that his religiosity had "faded away" by the time he reached Harvard University, which he attended both as an undergraduate and, later, as a law student, in preparation for covering the Supreme Court for the Times.

But Lewis stressed that he maintained Judaism's "ethics and outlook of humanity," and that his interest in secular law was spurred, in part, by studying Jewish law.

He cited Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as his legal hero, although the title of his new book echoes a quote from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Lewis was in town to deliver the 2007 Arlin M. and Neysa Adam Lecture at Temple Law School. In his presentation, he focused on how a series of rulings in the 1920s and 1930s gave life to the first amendment, and thus created the modern notion of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

And concerning free speech, what did Lewis think of the decision of Columbia University -- where he teaches journalism -- to offer a platform to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

"I think Ahmadinejad is an unpleasant, sort of crazy person. To have a conference to prove that the Holocaust didn't happen is about as insane as you can get," remarked Lewis.

"But I have no objection to him being invited to talk at a university," he continued.

"Letting him speak [was supposed to have been] a demonstration on American attitudes on free speech. But unfortunately, [Columbia University President] Lee Bollinger spoiled it by deciding to attack the guy in his introduction, which gave Ahmadinejad the opportunity to say, 'In my country, it's not the custom to invite people and then insult them.' "

During the interview, Lewis also addressed his favorite topic, the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Today's court does things I don't like; I thought the court's decisions last term on race and abortion were wrong," he offered. "But you can't expect the court to decide every case the way you would. In this country, we would never have made it this far without the Supreme Court -- never. You have to have some institution that's above the daily battle of politics."

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