Alan Dershowitz

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Alan Dershowitz
Born Alan Morton Dershowitz
(1938-09-01) September 1, 1938 (age 85)
Brooklyn, New York
Nationality American
Alma mater Brooklyn College (A.B.)
Yale Law School (LL.B)
Occupation Former Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School
Spouse(s) Sue Barlach
Carolyn Cohen
Children Ella Dershowitz. Jamin Dershowitz, Elon Dershowitz
Parent(s) Harry and Claire Dershowitz

Alan Morton Dershowitz (born September 1, 1938) is an American lawyer, jurist, author, and political commentator. He is a prominent scholar on United States constitutional law and criminal law,[1][2] and a leading defender of civil liberties.[1][3] He spent most of his career at Harvard Law School where in 1967, at the age of 28, he became the youngest full professor of law in its history. He held the Felix Frankfurter professorship there from 1993[4] until his retirement in December 2013.[5]

Dershowitz has been involved in several legal cases and is a commentator on the Arab–Israeli conflict.[6] As a criminal appellate lawyer, he has won 13 of the 15 murder and attempted murder cases he has handled,[7] and has represented a series of celebrity clients, including Mike Tyson, Patty Hearst, and Jim Bakker. His most notable cases include his role in 1984 in overturning the conviction of Claus von Bülow for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny, and as the appellate adviser for the defense in the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995.[8]

A political liberal,[9][10][11] he is the author of a number of books about politics and law, including Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case (1985), the basis of the 1990 film; Chutzpah (1991); Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O.J. Simpson Case (1996); the best-selling The Case for Israel (2003); Rights From Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights (2004)[12] and The Case for Peace (2005).

Early life

Dershowitz was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on September 1, 1938, the son of Claire (née Ringel)[13] and Harry Dershowitz, an Orthodox Jewish couple. He was raised in Borough Park.[14] His father was a founder and president of the Young Israel Synagogue in the 1960s, served on the board of directors of the Etz Chaim School in Borough Park, and in retirement was co-owner of the Manhattan-based Merit Sales Company.[15] According to Dershowitz, Harry had a strong sense of justice and talked about how it was "the Jew's job to defend the underdog."[16]

Dershowitz's first job was at a deli factory on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1952, at age 14. He recalls tying the strings that separated the hot dogs and once getting locked in the freezer.[17] He attended Yeshiva University High School, where he played on the basketball team. He was a rebellious student, often criticized by his teachers. The school's career placement center told him he had talent and was capable of becoming an advertising executive, funeral director, or salesman. He later said his teachers told him to do something that "requires a big mouth and no brain ... so I became a lawyer."[18] After graduating from high school, he attended Brooklyn College and received his A.B. in 1959, majoring in Political Science. Next he attended Yale Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal,[14] and graduated first in his class with a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) in 1962.[4] He has been a member of a Conservative minyan at Harvard Hillel, but is now a secular Jew.[19] He is married to Carolyn Cohen and has three children.[20]

Dershowitz is a first cousin of Los Angeles Conservative rabbi Zvi Dershowitz.[citation needed]


After being admitted to the bar, Dershowitz served as a clerk for David L. Bazelon, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He said that "Bazelon was my best and worst boss at once ... He worked me to the bone; he didn't hesitate to call at 2 a.m. He taught me everything—how to be a civil libertarian, a Jewish activist, a mensch. He was halfway between a slave master and a father figure." During the 1963–1964 term, he served as law clerk for the Supreme Court Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg. He told Tom Van Riper of Forbes that getting a Supreme Court clerkship was probably his second big break; his first was when, at age 14 or 15, a camp counselor told him he was smart but that his mind operated a little differently.[17] He joined the faculty of Harvard Law School as an assistant professor in 1964, and was made a full professor in 1967 at the age of 28, at that time the youngest full professor of law in the school's history.[21] He was appointed Felix Frankfurter professor of law in 1993.[4]

Much of his legal career has focused on criminal law, and his clients have included high-profile figures such as Patty Hearst, Harry Reems, Leona Helmsley, Jim Bakker, Mike Tyson, Michael Milken, O.J. Simpson and Kirtanananda Swami. Dershowitz also reports to have been one of Nelson Mandela's lawyers.[22] He sees himself as a "lawyer of last resort"—someone to turn to when the defendant has few other legal options—and takes those cases that are what he calls "the most challenging, the most difficult and precedent-setting cases."[20] He is currently advising Julian Assange's legal team.[23]

Dershowitz retired from teaching at Harvard Law in December 2013.[5]


Pornography (1976)

In 1976, Dershowitz handled the successful appeal of Harry Reems, who had been convicted of distribution of obscenity resulting from his acting in the pornographic movie Deep Throat. In public debates, Dershowitz commonly argues against censorship of pornography on First Amendment grounds, and maintains that consumption of pornography is not harmful.[24]

Claus von Bülow (1984)

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Dershowitz represented Claus von Bülow, a British socialite, at his appeal for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny von Bülow, who went into a coma in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1980 (and later died in 2008). He had the conviction overturned, and von Bülow was acquitted in a retrial.[25] Dershowitz told the story of the case in his book, Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow case (1985), which was turned into a movie in 1990. Dershowitz was played by actor Ron Silver, and Dershowitz himself had a cameo role as a judge.

Józef Glemp (1989)

In 1989, Dershowitz filed a defamation suit against Cardinal Józef Glemp, then Archbishop of Warsaw, on behalf of Rabbi Avi Weiss. Glemp had accused Weiss and six other New York Jews of attacking nuns at a much-disputed convent on the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Glemp's statement about Weiss, made in July 1989, was coupled with suggestions that Jews control the world's news media. Dershowitz's account of the lawsuit appears in his book Chutzpah (1991).[26]

Mike Barnicle (1990)

Dershowitz sued The Boston Globe in 1990 over a remark reporter Mike Barnicle attributed to him, in which Dershowitz allegedly said he preferred Asian women because they are deferential to men. Dershowitz reportedly received a $75,000 out-of-court settlement and the newspaper's ombudsman questioned Barnicle's credibility, according to The Boston Phoenix.[27]

O.J. Simpson (1995)

O.J. Simpson murder case Dershowitz acted as an appellate adviser to O.J. Simpson's defense team during the trial, and later wrote a book about it, Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O.J. Simpson Case (1996). He wrote: "the Simpson case will not be remembered in the next century. It will not rank as one of the trials of the century. It will not rank with the Nuremberg trials, the Rosenberg trial, Sacco and Vanzetti. It is on par with Leopold and Loeb and the Lindbergh case, all involving celebrities. It is also not one of the most important cases of my own career. I would rank it somewhere in the middle in terms of interest and importance."[28] The case has been described as the most publicized criminal trial in American history.[29]

Jeffrey Epstein (2006)

Dershowitz provided legal assistance to friend and reported billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was investigated following accusations that he had repeatedly solicited sex from minors. Dershowitz investigated some of Epstein's accusers and provided both the police and the State attorney’s office with a dossier containing information about their personal behavior, which had been obtained from their personal MySpace pages, including allegations of alcohol and drug use. Eventually, in 2008, Epstein pled guilty to a single state charge of soliciting prostitution and began serving an 18-month sentence.[30]


Dershowitz is an avowed supporter of the Democratic Party. Dershowitz endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in United States presidential election, 2008, and later endorsing the eventual party nominee, Barack Obama.[31]


Israel and the Middle East

Dershowitz is a leading supporter of Israel. He self-identifies as "Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine",[32] and said "were I an Israeli, I'd be a person of the left and voting the left".[33] At the same time, he is on record as claiming that both the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people supported a genocidal war, and revere a figure, Amin al-Husseini, probably because, in Dershowitz's view, the latter actively participated in the Holocaust.[34] Historian Michael Sells argues that, in making these claims, Dershowitz is adopting a discredited "Perish-Judea narrative".[35]

Dershowitz has engaged in highly publicized debates with a number of other commentators, including Meir Kahane, Noam Chomsky, and Norman Finkelstein. When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006) published—in which he argues that Israel's control of Palestinian land is the primary obstacle to peace—Dershowitz challenged Carter to a debate at Brandeis University. Carter declined, saying, "I don't want to have a conversation even indirectly with Dershowitz. There is no need to debate somebody who, in my opinion, knows nothing about the situation in Palestine."[36] Carter did address Brandeis in January 2007, but only Brandeis students and staff were allowed to attend. Dershowitz was invited to respond on the same stage only after Carter had left.[37]

He also took part in the Doha Debates at Georgetown University in April 2009, where he spoke against the motion "this House believes it's time for the US to get tough on Israel," with Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Speakers for the motion were Avraham Burg, former Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and former Speaker of the Knesset; and Michael Scheuer, former Chief of the CIA Bin Laden Issue Station. Dershowitz's side lost the debate, with 63 percent of the audience voting for the motion.[38]

Harvard–MIT divestment petition

Randall Adams of The Harvard Crimson writes that, in the spring of 2002, a petition within Harvard calling for Harvard and MIT to divest from Israeli and American companies that sell arms to Israel gathered over 600 signatures, including 74 from the Harvard faculty and 56 from the MIT faculty. Among the signatories was Harvard's Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson, in response to which Dershowitz staged a debate for 200 students in the Winthrop Junior Common Room. He called the petition's signatories antisemitic, bigots, and said they knew nothing about the Middle East. "Your House master is a bigot," he told the students, "and you ought to know that." Adams writes that Dershowitz cited examples of human rights violations in countries that the United States supports, such as the execution of homosexuals in Egypt and the repression of women in Saudi Arabia, and said he would sue any professor who voted against the tenure of another academic because of the candidate's position toward Israel, calling them "ignoramuses with PhDs."[39]

"New Response to Palestinian Terrorism" (2002)

In March 2002, Dershowitz published an article in The Jerusalem Post entitled "New Response to Palestinian Terrorism." In it, he wrote that Israel should announce a unilateral cessation in retaliation, at the end of which it would "announce precisely what it will do in response to the next act of terrorism. For example, it could announce the first act of terrorism following the moratorium will result in the destruction of a small village which has been used as a base for terrorist operations. The residents would be given 24 hours to leave, and then troops will come in and bulldoze all of the buildings." The list of targets would be made public in advance.[40] The proposal attracted criticism from within Harvard University and beyond.[41] James Bamford argued in The Washington Post that it would violate international law.[42] Norman Finkelstein wrote that "it is hard to make out any difference between the policy Dershowitz advocates and the Nazi destruction of Lidice, for which he expresses abhorrence—except that Jews, not Germans, would be implementing it."[43]

Mearsheimer and Walt

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In March 2006, John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, co-wrote a paper entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," published in The London Review of Books.[44] Mearsheimer and Walt criticized what they described as "the Israel lobby" for influencing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in a direction away from U.S. interests and toward Israel's interests. They referred to Dershowitz specifically as an "apologist" for the Israel lobby. In an interview in March 2006 for The Harvard Crimson, Dershowitz called the article "one-sided" and its authors "liars" and "bigots."[45] The following day on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, he suggested the paper had been taken from various hate sites: "every paragraph virtually is copied from a neo-Nazi Web site, from a radical Islamic Web site, from David Duke’s Web site."[46] Dershowitz subsequently wrote a report challenging the paper, arguing that it contained "three types of major errors: quotations are wrenched out of context, important facts are misstated or omitted, and embarrassingly weak logic is employed."[47] In a letter in the London Review of Books in May 2006, Mearsheimer and Walt denied that they had used any racist sources for their article, writing that Dershowitz had failed to offer any evidence to support his claim.[48]

2006 Israel–Lebanon conflict

In July 2006, Dershowitz wrote a series of articles defending the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict. There was an international outcry at the time regarding escalating Lebanese civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian infrastructure resulting from Israel's stated attempt to weaken or destroy Hezbollah. After the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour indicated that Israeli officials might be investigated and indicted for possible war crimes, Dershowitz labeled her statement "bizarre," called for her dismissal, and wrote about what he called the "absurdity and counterproductive nature of current international law."[49] In a Boston Globe editorial several days later, he argued that Israel was not to blame for civilian deaths: "Israel has every self-interest in minimizing civilian casualties, whereas the terrorists have every self-interest in maximizing them—on both sides. Israel should not be condemned for doing what every democracy would and should do: taking every reasonable military step to stop the killing of their own civilians."[50]

Alice Walker controversy

He authored an editorial in the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post accusing Alice Walker of bigotry for refusing to have her novel The Color Purple published by an Israeli firm.[51]

Second Amendment and gun control

Dershowitz is a strong supporter of gun control. He has criticized the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, saying that it has "no place in modern society".[52] Dershowitz supports repealing the amendment, but he vigorously opposes using the judicial system to read it out of the Constitution because it would open the way for further revisions to the Bill of Rights and Constitution by the courts. "Foolish liberals who are trying to read the Second Amendment out of the Constitution by claiming it's not an individual right or that it's too much of a public safety hazard don't see the danger in the big picture. They're courting disaster by encouraging others to use the same means to eliminate portions of the Constitution they don't like."[53]


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Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Dershowitz published an article in The San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Want to Torture? Get a Warrant," in which he advocated the issuance of warrants permitting the torture of terrorism suspects, if there were an "absolute need to obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it."[54] He argued that authorities should be permitted to use non-lethal torture in a "ticking time bomb scenario," and that it would be less destructive to the rule of law to regulate the process than to leave it to the discretion of individual law-enforcement agents. He favors preventing the government from prosecuting the subject of torture based on information revealed during such an interrogation.[55] The "ticking time bomb scenario" is the subject of a play, The Dershowitz Protocol, by Canadian author Robert Fothergill, in which the American government has established a protocol of "intensified interrogation" for terrorist suspects.[56]

William F. Schulz, Executive Director of the U.S. section of Amnesty International, found Dershowitz's ticking-bomb scenario unrealistic because, he argued, it would require that "the authorities know that a bomb has been planted somewhere; know it is about to go off; know that the suspect in their custody has the information they need to stop it; know that the suspect will yield that information accurately in a matter of minutes if subjected to torture; and know that there is no other way to obtain it."[57] James Bamford of The Washington Post described one of the practices mentioned by Dershowitz—the "sterilized needle being shoved under the fingernails"—as "chillingly Nazi-like."[42]

He opposes the use of torture except in the "ticking bomb" situation, maintaining that it should be put under the control of the law, because of the element of accountability. Conscious of the possibility of misleading information, he maintains that it should not be used, for example, to obtain the confession of a crime, but rather the objective would be to have the terrorist lead the authorities to the location of the bomb, as in the case of the prevented assassination of the Pope in the Philippines.[58]

Animal rights

Dershowitz is one of a number of scholars at Harvard Law School who have expressed their support for limited animal rights.[59] In his Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights (2004), he writes that, in order to avoid human beings treating each other the way we treat animals, we have made what he calls the "somewhat arbitrary decision" to single out our own species for different and better treatment. "Does this subject us to the charge of speciesism? Of course it does, and we cannot justify it, except by the fact that in the world in which we live, humans make the rules. That reality imposes on us a special responsibility to be fair and compassionate to those on whom we impose our rules. Hence the argument for animal rights."[60]

Iran nuclear deal

In his 2015 book, The Case Against the Iran Deal, Dershowitz claims that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei has urged the Iranian military "to have two nuclear bombs ready to go off in January 2005 or you're not Muslims".[61] Dershowitz attributes this quote to Khamenei sourcing Jerome Corsi, an American conspiracy theorist,[62] also known for claiming that the United States supports Iran in its attempts to build nuclear weapons.[63]

People's Mujahedin of Iran

On February 29, 2012, Dershowitz filed an amicus brief in support of delisting the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) from the State Department list of foreign terrorist organization.[64][65]

Civilian casualties

"In the age of terrorism, when militants don't wear uniforms, don't belong to regular armies and easily blend into civilian populations," Dershowitz has called for the reporting of civilian casualties to be reexamined in terms of a "continuum of civilianality." In one example, he writes: "There is a vast difference—both moral and legal—between a 2-year-old who is killed by an enemy rocket and a 30-year-old civilian who has allowed his house to be used to store Katyusha rockets."[66]

Presidential candidates

During the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, Dershowitz endorsed Hillary Clinton, calling her "a progressive on social issues, a realist on foreign policy, a pragmatist on the economy."[67] In 2012, he strongly supported Barack Obama's re-election, writing, "President Obama has earned my vote on the basis of his excellent judicial appointments, his consensus-building foreign policy and the improvements he has brought about in the disastrous economy he inherited."[68]


Norman Finkelstein

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Shortly after the publication of Dershowitz's The Case for Israel (2003), Norman Finkelstein of DePaul University said the book contained plagiarism.[69][70] Dershowitz denied the allegation. Harvard's president, Derek Bok, investigated the allegation and determined that no plagiarism had occurred.[71] In an opinion piece supportive of Finkelstein written for Counterpunch, Los Angeles attorney Frank Menetrez asserted that "neither Dershowitz nor Harvard ... has identified the specific issues or arguments that Harvard allegedly investigated and rejected. In particular, neither of them has ever said whether Harvard investigated the identical errors issue".[72]

In October 2006, Dershowitz wrote to DePaul University faculty members to lobby against Finkelstein's application for tenure. The university's Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty voted to send a letter of complaint to Harvard University.[73] In June 2007, DePaul University denied Finkelstein tenure.[74]

Sexual assault allegations

On December 30, 2014, a Florida court filing named Alan Dershowitz as one of several prominent figures alleged to have participated in sexual activities with a minor. The motion states that Dershowitz had sexual relations on several occasions with an underage girl later identified as Virginia Roberts,[75] employed by financier and convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein.[76] Dershowitz, who represented Epstein in his 2008 plea deal, denied the allegations.[77] Dershowitz challenged Roberts to make her claims under oath; on January 21, 2015 Roberts submitted a sworn declaration reaffirming the allegations.[78]

Dershowitz has vowed to seek the disbarment of the lawyers filing the suit[79] while lawyers representing the alleged victim have countered by filing suit against Dershowitz for defamation.[80] Dershowitz alleges unfairness in the United States legal system, saying lawyers can make false accusations against him or against other parties in court documents while the accused cannot sue for defamation due to litigation privilege.[81]

In April 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth A. Marra struck all allegations from the pleadings which referred to or related to Dershowitz. The Court struck the allegations under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f), which empowers the Court to strike "immaterial, impertinent or scandalous matter" and considered the striking of the allegations a "sanction" against the petitioners.[82][83]


Dershowitz has been described by Newsweek as America's "most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer and one of its most distinguished defenders of individual rights."[4] He was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1979, and in 1983 received the William O. Douglas First Amendment Award from the Anti-Defamation League for his work on civil rights.[84] In November 2007, he was awarded the Soviet Jewry Freedom Award by the Russian Jewish Community Foundation.[85] In December 2011, he was awarded the Menachem Begin Award of Honor by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center at an event co-sponsored by NGO Monitor.[86] He has been awarded honorary doctorates in law from Yeshiva University, the Hebrew Union College, Monmouth University, University of Haifa, Syracuse University, Fitchburg State College, Bar-Ilan University, and Brooklyn College.[4] In addition, he is a member of the International Advisory Board of NGO Monitor.[87]

Dershowitz has also appeared as himself in a number of fictional television series, including Picket Fences, Spin City, and First Monday.[88]



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  34. Alan Dershowitz, The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace, John Wiley & Sons , Hoboken 2009 pp.196-203: ‘the Palestinian leadership, supported by the Palestinian masses, played a significant role in Hitler’s Holocaust’.
  35. Michael A. Sells,'HOLOCAUST ABUSE:The Case of Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husayni', Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 43, No.4 2015 pp 723–759 p.742.
  36. Dershowitz, Alan. The Case Against Israel's Enemies. John Wiley and Sons, 2009, p. 20.
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    • Also see his Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age. Little, Brown, 2002, chapter nine, particularly pp. 84–85.
  61. Dershowitz, Alan. "The Case Against the Iran Deal: How Can We Now Stop Iran from Getting Nukes?". RosettaBooks, 2015. pp. 37
  62. Berlet, Chip (2010). "The roots of Anti-Obama rhetoric", in Cunnigen, Donald; Marino A. Bruce (ed.) Race in the Age of Obama (Research in Race and Ethnic Relations, Volume 16), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.301–319 ISSN 0195-7449 ISBN 978-0-85724-167-2 doi:10.1108/S0195-7449(2010)0000016015 "Then there were books by well-known conspiracy theorists such as Jerome R. Corsi, author of The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality (2008)."
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  66. 'Civilian casualty'? That's a gray area
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Further reading

External links