Professor Alan Dershowitz, UN Watch Lifetime Achievement Award
UN Watch Gala Dinner, Geneva, Switzerland, May 7, 2018
Thank you, thank you so much. It is such a great honor to be honored by an organization that I respect so much. But I have a problem. I feel like a mere spectator among the heroes who have spoken here tonight. People who have been seriously injured, people who have been tortured. The worst thing that happens to me is I get booed or I get screamed at or nasty op-eds are written about me. These are the true heroes. You know—American Jews, European Jews, Zionists who don’t live in Israel—we are the spectators to history.
While I was listening to that brilliant, brilliant young man who was injured in the helicopter, or the brilliant, brilliant slightly older man who suffered torture in Egyptian prisons, I was thinking about my 23-year-old grandson who’s here with me today and what he would be doing if he had been born in Israel. He’d be flying a helicopter or he’d be risking his life in some other way. If he had been born in Egypt, he’d be one of those who would be a dissident in prison. We who are not part of the battle have such a special obligation to support those who are in the battle every day, and that’s what UN Watch does so brilliantly.
Look, I’ve had a close association with the UN for more than sixty years. I did Model UN as a student. When I was fifteen years old, I was president of the student government in high schools and yeshivas in New York City, and the UN came up with a hairbrained idea to have a universal calendar that would result in Shabbos, or Jewish holidays, but the Shabbos particularly, coming out one week on a Tuesday, one week on a Thursday. It would have created a serious issue for observant Jews, and so, I organized when I was fifteen years old, a campaign against the UN adopting the universal calendar, and I got to meet with Ambassador Lodge to the UN—and we prevailed. We persuaded the UN, with the help of Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists, Christians and others, not to adopt that philosophy.
Then a few years later as was mentioned, I worked with Justice Goldberg on the language of 242. My particular contribution was to emphasize that when 242 talked about refugees, it didn’t only mention Palestinian refugees, it talked about all the refugees, which provided a basis for us focusing on the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries as well.
I remember with thrill when Hillel invited me in 2009 to come speak against Ahmadinejad, who was being honored here at the United Nations, and we conducted a walk out. This organization does so much good. It is the transparency that the UN needs and doesn’t give itself. It is the fulfillment of the Roman philosopher’s question, “Who will guard the guardians?” And the answer is clear: Hillel, UN Watch, and all of you here today, we are guarding the guardians.
Perhaps the greatest moment, or offer, of my life happened—it must be now eight or nine years ago—when the Prime Minster of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu asked me, an American Citizen, to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. And what a thrill it was for me to think about it even for a moment. The idea of speaking truth to falsity, speaking decency to indecency, it would have been the greatest way to round out my career, to represent a nation I love, the nation of Israel in the United Nations, but in the end I couldn’t do it. I’m an American citizen, I love America. America rescued my family, my grandparents, great-grandparents, and I couldn’t do it.
I was afraid that charges of dual loyalty would be leveled and so I told the Prime Minister that I couldn’t do it. He asked me to come to Israel to be persuaded, and Bibi is very persuasive, but I’m pretty persuasive too. And in the end, I couldn’t take the job, but he said, I should take another job. I should become an unofficial ambassador to non-Israeli, Israeli supporters around the world, and I’ve been trying to make that case ever since.
So, the United Nations, it can be a force for good, but it has not been a force for good on the Middle East. I think it was Abba Eben who once said that “If Algeria introduced a resolution to the General Assembly that the earth is flat and that Israel has flattened it, you could predict the vote. 123 in favor, 68 abstentions, and 23 opposed.” That’s the way the UN automatic majority operates.
Now, nobody has to tell Israel, how much it’s accomplished over the past 70 years, nobody has to tell Israel that it has saved more lives in 70 years per capita than any country in the history of the world. It has saved more Muslim lives, Christian lives, Jewish lives, lives of others through its medical technology, through its pharmacology, through its stem cell research, and through everything it does to promote and protect lives of human beings around the world. Nobody has to tell Israel what it has contributed to the environment through drip technology and other forms of activities that help the environment. No country in history has contributed more to the world in so short a period of time than Israel has over the past 70 years.
You saw a part of a debate that I had with Peter Tatchell at the Oxford Union. During that debate, I stepped down into the audience, and I challenged them to name a country in the world, anywhere in the world, faced with threats comparable to those faced by Israel, that has a better record of human rights, higher compliance with the rule of law, and more concern for the lives of enemy civilians. There was silence. I said I have all day, I can wait. Not a single person could name a single country in the world that has a better record, because there is none. And yet, and yet, Israel is condemned more at the United Nations than all the other countries of the world combined.
Shame, shame on the United Nations for doing that. Shame on the BDS movement, shame on BDS for not listing all the countries in the world in order of their human rights violations and in order of the inaccessibility of their citizens to judicial review or media scrutiny, and then focusing BDS on the worst first. No, BDS is not a movement, it’s a tactic. It’s a tactic directed only against the nation-state of the Jewish people. It’s a tactic that originated in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, continued among the Arab boycotters of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
BDS started just at about the time that Israel was offering to end its occupation, end its settlements, give the Palestinians a state in 2000-2001. As Israel was making these concessions, the BDS movement began, and then it came into fruition when Israel left the Gaza Strip, and allowed Gaza to become the Singapore on the Mediterranean, and instead what happened is Hamas took over and used it as a launching pad for rockets and terror tunnels. And yet, the United Nations does what it does.
My fear is that people take the United Nations seriously. That United Nations votes are used to support BDS on campus today. And if you ask college students in Europe, to a lesser extent than the United States but still to great extent, to list the countries with the worst human rights records, or the worst oppressors, or those who commit genocide and apartheid, Israel will be on any such list. Why? Why, because an organization like Black Lives Matter, that does so much good—I have devoted my life to the civil rights movement, I went down South and marched—and yet Black Lives Matter, that organization condemns only one country in its platform, the nation-state of the Jewish people, and calls it genocidal and apartheid.
We cannot accept that. We cannot accept intersectionality on college campuses today, a new concept, that tells students you can’t be a Zionist and a feminist, you can’t be an environmentalist and a Zionist, you can’t be a supporter of human rights and a Zionist. If you’re a Zionist, you’re on the wrong side of intersectionality, and we have to persuade these students that if you’re a feminist you must be a Zionist, if you’re and environmentalist you must be a Zionist, if you support human rights you must support the right of national liberation of the nation-state of the Jewish people. But we’re not winning on the college campuses today.
Recently, the Columbia chapter of Amnesty International invited me to give a speech on human rights. I gladly accepted, and Amnesty International global office canceled the event—prohibited Columbia University’s Amnesty International from sponsoring me because I’m a Zionist. Amnesty International, an organization that I’ve proudly belonged to for many years, but which now focuses so pathetically on Israel, along with Human Rights Watch and other organizations, which support the United Nations effort to single out Israel for delegitimation, demonization and the application of a double standard.
Look, we are living in a world of extremism as our previous speaker said, and extremism on both sides is extremely dangerous. We have to move the conversation more to the center. We can’t repeat the problems on the 1920s and the 1930s where extremists clashed and produced the catastrophic results that we all know about from Stalinism and from Fascism, and Nazism. And I’m so focused on our students because our students are the future leaders.
When I taught at Harvard for 50 years and I would have a class this size, I would look out and it was the first day of class, and there would be several hundred nervous students afraid that I was going to call on them and use the Socratic method, which I was going to do. But when I looked out, I didn’t see frightened students, I saw the future President of the United States, the future chairman of Goldman Sachs, the future editor of the New York Times, the future Chief Justice of the United States, all of whom were students at great universities, and these are the future leaders who are being propagandized. These are the future leaders who are being miseducated. These are the future leaders to whom we must speak.
We must speak to them and we must speak truth to them. We must speak to them in a way that makes sure that Israel remains always a bipartisan issue. We can never allow in the United States what is now quickly happening in Great Britain, where if the Labour Party wins, Israel loses. If the Conservative party wins, Israel wins. Or what happened in Spain and what happened in Norway, when similar elections divided along lines of whether or not Israel would be supported.
The Palestinians, if they want to get a state, have to come to the bargaining table to negotiate. They can’t expect to get a state through BDS, through the United Nations. My mother, who died a few years ago at the age of 95, was a very smart woman, and her favorite joke was about Shloimy who turned 79, which is what I am, and Shloimy every day prayed to God, and said, “God I only am asking you for one thing, before I turn 80 I want to win the New York Lottery.” Every day he prays to God, “I want to win the New York Lottery.” Shloimy turns 80, he doesn’t win the New York Lottery, he rails at God and says, “God I asked you for one thing. I wanted to win the New York Lottery. Why didn’t you let me win the New York Lottery?” God responds, “Shloimy, help me out a little, buy a ticket.” And my mother would love that story because she would say the Palestinians haven’t bought a ticket. They haven’t bought a ticket. They haven’t sat down, they haven’t negotiated, they haven’t compromised. That’s the way you get a state, you have to compromise.
I’m often asked am I a pessimist or an optimist. You know in Israel a pessimist is somebody who says “Oy gevalt, things are so bad they can’t possibly get any worse,” an optimist says, “Yes they can.” So, I’m an optimist. Why am I an optimist? I’m an optimist because Israel has never been stronger. It has never been stronger economically, militarily, diplomatically. It has never been stronger in every possible way.
Those of us who remember the Israel of 1948, how poor it was and how weak it was militarily, and how many people it lost in the early wars. But Israel is a superpower now. But it faces several distinct threats. One, obviously, a threat from Iran, a threat that could reproduce the Shoah. A threat by leaders who say overtly that, “If we bomb Israel and kill 3 million people and they bomb Tehran and kill 20 million people, the tradeoff would be worth it.” As we stand here today, Israel worries about Iranian rockets raining down on it in the weeks to come. We also face a threat to Israel from BDS and from other efforts at delegitimation. We must fight back.
You know the Psalmist says, “Hashem oz li amo yitan,” that is: “God will give the Jewish people strength” — “Hashem yivarech et amo b’shalom” — “Only then will the Jewish people get peace.”
We have learned the lesson of the Shoah. We have learned the lesson that Jews and the nation-state of the Jewish people need disproportionate strength to survive. We have also learned the lesson the Eli Weisel taught: “Always believe the threats of your enemies more than the promises of your friends.” Tragically, Israel must be strong enough to stand alone against any threat it faces, militarily, economically, or in every other way, and we have to stand behind Israel as it faces those threats.
But our main goal here tonight is to turn the United Nations back into an instrument of peace, into an instrument of justice, into an instrument of law, into an instrument of the kind that Eleanor Roosevelt and Rene Cassin imagined when they wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for which Cassin won the Nobel Peace Prize. So I urge you, keep up your great work. UN Watch is invaluable. It is one of the most important organizations in the world. We need you and we will always stand behind you.