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A Conversation With Alan Dershowitz

The lawyer and author addresses the presidential election, BDS, J Street, and his new book about opposing the nuclear deal with Iran

Jas Chana
August 24, 2015

What sparked the fire to write your new book, The Case Against the Iran Deal?

I’ve been very concerned about this deal and the Iranian nuclear program since 2005 when I started to write about it. I expected it to be a deal that was not acceptable but I didn’t think it would be as bad as this one. I expected that the deal would continue to not cross Obama’s own red lines—namely that the deal would be forever not just ten years. Secondly I expected that there would be very rigorous, 24/7, instantaneous inspections [and] that those rules—those red lines—would not be crossed.

I also didn’t think Obama would be naive enough to take the military option off the table during the negotiations, and that’s what he did and led the Iranians to believe that they wouldn’t face the tiger and could negotiate with us as equals. So when the deal was announced, I had a sleepless night. Then I woke up and sent an email to my publisher. I said ‘I want to write a book about the Iran deal.’ He said, ‘If you can get it in in two weeks we can do it.’ So I sent it to him in 11 days.

My bottom-line understanding of your book is this: Regardless of political inclination, if you are pro-Israel then you have to oppose the Iran deal.

I would put it a little differently: If you are pro-Israel, you have to understand that this is not a good deal for Israel, not a good deal for America. Even the people who are in Congress ratifying the deal don’t think that this is a good deal. So the question isn’t whether this is a good deal or a bad deal; It’s a bad deal. Could we have gotten a better deal? Yes. That’s not the issue. The issue is: Is the alternative worse? That is, would rejecting the deal be worse, would it be worse for Israel, would it be worse for peace, or would it make war more likely?

So we’re presented with two bad choices—a bad deal and, according to the president, an even worse outcome if the deal is rejected. I think that’s where the debate has turned in the last month or so. I think reasonable people can disagree about that second question about whether rejecting would be worse, and that’s why I pose a third alternative in my book.

The third alternative is only for those people who are going to vote for the deal. If you are going to vote for the deal, at the very least vote conditionally on the preliminary part of the deal being integral to the deal itself. Namely, Iran’s commitment that it will never, under any circumstances, seek to develop nuclear weapons. And put some teeth behind that by authorizing the president to implement that part of the deal if it becomes necessary. And that’s not only my proposal, it’s Tom Friedman’s perspective—that even people who support the deal want to see that kind of commitment or teeth put into that specific part of the deal.

How can a Democratic liberal Jew oppose the deal without being accused of dual loyalty to Israel, and therefore not be considered a “true” American?

It doesn’t even bother me one bit. I’m as patriotic and as American as Obama or any member of his administration. Was Obama any less patriotic when he opposed the Iraq war? He opposed his president and I opposed my president; me and Obama were on the same side when it comes to being against the Iraq war. Was it not patriotic of me to oppose the Vietnam war?

If Jews in America are considered to be first class citizens—and I insist that we are first class citizens—[then] we have the right to express any views without being accused of having dual loyalties. I will never ever be deterred by that accusation. I will say what I think and put my loyalty and patriotism on equal footing as anyone else’s, including the president of the United States.

Speaking of the president, one thing that came across very clearly in your book is your satisfaction with Obama’s initial stance on Iran compared to some members of his administration. I was wondering: At this moment what are your feelings on Obama?

Well, I’m very disappointed. I’m very disappointed in John Kerry. John Kerry is a friend, I’ve known him for years, and I’ve known Obama for a long time. I think they’ve undercut American power in the world. I think it is they who have to answer questions as to whether they are as supportive of America as they could be. I’m extremely disappointed. And I do think now that governor Romney would have done a better job with in dealing with Iran than President Obama has. I’m personally disappointed with President Obama because he looked me in the eye and he essentially promised me he wouldn’t do this, and he did it.

Who are you backing in the 2016 presidential election?

At the moment I’m supporting Hillary Clinton. I’m a liberal democrat. I’ve known Hillary Clinton for a long time and I’ve discussed [the Iran Deal] with her. But my vote can’t be taken for granted, obviously. I have to get a feel of what the candidates look like and what their positions are on this and other issues. I vote as an American for the candidate who I think would be best for America and the values that I support so my vote can never be taken for granted. But I’m a presumptive liberal and a presumptive supporter of Hillary Clinton.

What are your thoughts on presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders?

I like him personally. We both come from Brooklyn, both went to Brooklyn College for a while. We share some values but he’s not going to be the president of the United States and he’s not going to be a third party candidate who will hurt the democrats. I wish he’d be a little bit more supportive of Israel. He’s been as supportive as leftists like him can be, but I wish he could be a little bit closer to mainstream pro-Israel views. But I think he serves an important function as a leftist, supporting the Jewish right to a state and a two-state solution. In general, I’m not unhappy with Bernie Sanders.

One section that was very interesting in the book was about J Street.

I think J Street has been the most damaging organization in American history against Israel. It has been the most damaging, more damaging than Students for Justice in Palestine [and] more damaging than the early anti-Zionist Council for Judaism. J Street has done more to turn young people against Israel than any organization in the whole of history. It will go down in history as one of the most virulent, anti-Israel organizations in the history of Zionism and Judaism. It has given cover to anti-Israel attitudes on campus and particularly its approach to Israel’s self defense.

Now I agree with some of J Street’s approaches to the two-state solution, and the settlements. But when it comes to Israel’s war against Hamas, and when it supports the Goldstone report, and when it accepts money from anti-Zionists, and when it puts all its support and money behind this deal, it becomes very hard to describe it as anything but anti-Israel. I used to say J Street can’t call itself pro-Israel. I’ve now changed my mind and say that J Street has to reveal itself as a major anti-Israel organization.

The BDS campaign has been in the news a lot recently. What are your thoughts on efforts to boycott Israel?

Well, it will never work in the United States. No American college or university will survive if it supports BDS. It’s major area of impact is in Europe. We saw what happened in Spain last week with Matisyahu. [Europe] has become more dangerous. That’s why I’m going to Oxford [University] in November to debate at the Oxford Union against BDS.

What are your arguments against BDS proponents?

The issue is not BDS, it’s BDS against Israel. One can have a reasonable argument that the BDS movement might be moral if directed against China, if directed against Russia, if directed against Cuba, if directed against Hamas, if directed against a hundred countries in the world that have horrible human rights record. The question isn’t BDS, it’s why should be applied only to the nation state of the Jewish people. A movement like that hurts human rights around the world because it singles out Israel and singles out the Jewish people. So there’s nothing positive about the BDS movement. Moreover, it won’t work against Israel, and helps to generate anti-Israel sentiments among young people.

Let me go back to J Street. I renew here my challenge to J Street. J Street has refused me to speak at any J Street event. They’ve invited every hard-left opponent of Israel. They’ve invited BDS supporters.They’ve invited supporters of terrorism. But they will never ever invite me to a J Street convention because it doesn’t want people to hear my point of view. They want an open tent [in order] to enter into the mainstream of pro-Israel groups but it will not allow mainstream supporters of Israel to speak at their events. It’s extraordinarily hypocritical.

Speaking of hypocrisy, there’s a section of your book devoted to reporting on Israel, Netanyahu, and the Iran Deal. Can you elaborate on that section?

Take The New York Times. The Times published an editorial which stated that it is wrong for a member of Congress to listen to a foreign leader over our commander in chief. That is so wrong. First of all, he’s not our commander in chief, he’s only the commander in chief of the armed forces; he’s not the commander in chief of the senate and he’s not the commander in chief of the American people. We’ve always listened to foreign leaders. Certainly President Obama listened to foreign leaders when he opposed the war in Iraq. Foreign leaders were telling him not to get involved in that war and our leaders were telling us to get involved in that war. So was he being unpatriotic when he didn’t listen to his predecessor, our commander in chief? Of course not. So the reporting has been very skewed.

One final thing I wanted to ask you was about the Iranian threat to annihilate Israel. How much substance is there behind that threat?

We dont know. We didn’t know how much the threat was behind Hitler’s Mein Kampf. His threat was to annihilate the Jews. Let’s assume there’s a 1-in-6 chance that Iran means it—that’s russian roulette. Would anybody put a bullet in a gun and spin it if there was a 1-in-6 chance of blowing their head off? What if it’s only a 1-in-6 chance Iran would use a nuclear weapon against Israel? That’s much too high a risk for any democracy to take. And especially for the nation state of the Jewish people to take.

It’s a gamble.

It’s a gamble and that’s why the cover of my book has two dice on it—one coming up showing the peace symbol, the other coming up showing the nuclear symbol. It’s a role of the dice and we should expect more from our leaders than requiring the leader of the free world to roll the dice with its own security and the security of its primary allies in the Middle East.

Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.