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A Retrospective on the Year-old Alan Dershowitz Controversy

By Guest Writer Emeline Armitage ‘18

(image from Youtube)

A little over a year ago, MSE Symposium invited lawyer Alan Dershowitz onto campus to discuss his views on Israel. Two groups of campus activists mobilized to protest his controversial stances. The Hopkins Feminists protested Dershowitz’s sexual assault apologia (attempting to discredit women by calling them “serial prostitutes,” stereotyping feminists as crazy man-haters, perpetuating the myth of a false-rape accusation epidemic, arguing that the Massachusetts age of consent should be lowered from sixteen, using alcohol and drug use to defame his client Jeffrey Epstein’s rape victims, defending the Catholic Church from charges of covering up systematic sexual abuse, and more), and Hopkins’ Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) protested Dershowitz’s Zionist and whitewashing of Israeli war crimes (while I supported the SJP protest, this article will concentrate on the petition concerning his views on sexual assault). MSE lobbed accusations of anti-Semitism onto both groups; critics on both sides wrote angry editorials.

The day Dershowitz’ speech took place, I, among many others, placed black tape over my mouth, held up signs that said “You Are Rape Culture”, and walked out during his speech. People raised Palestinian flags, pro-Palestinian signs, and wore keffiyehs. Dershowitz asked us to stay and debate his views— people in the audience applauded him and booed us. To Dershowitz and his supporters, we were coddled millennials, seeped in a new world of language that Dershowitz did not like (“rape culture”), and anti-Semitic agents who hated the First Amendment.

A year has passed; it is time to reflect.

The Dershowitz controversy left a hole in my naive heart. It hurt, deeply so, to see so many students support a man who had made such horrible comments about sexual assault victims, bringing up drug and alcohol use and accusing one of being a “prostitute” (even though neither of those things should discredit someone’s experience of abuse). That hurt turned into rage when Theodore Kupfer, a member of MSE’s programming committee and the programming chair, accused Hopkins Feminists (including the Jewish feminist who wrote an editorial in the JHU Politik defending the petition), the Black Student Union, the Sexual Assault Response Unit, the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance, and Voice for Choice for “giving anti-Semitism a disguise, a megaphone and an audience.” I am a member of SARU and Hopkins Feminists and I was and am on the executive board for Voice for Choice. I take being accused of anti-Semitism seriously, and as much as I wish the rage had subsided, reading those words still makes me livid.

The current chair of one of the most well-funded and respected student organizations labeled a huge swath of the JHU population (and pretty much all of the progressive community on campus) as anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is a serious, deadly issue in the United States yet critiquing a man for his views on victims of sexual assault-- things he has said on television, in articles, or in legal documents-- does not constitute anti-Semitism and in fact distracts from actual anti-Semitism. A year later, I have no answers on how to move forward with reconciling with MSE’s huge presence on our campus and how campus activists should interact with MSE and its collaborators. While no dispute between MSE and student groups has arisen since the Dershowitz controversy, many others and myself still view MSE with hostility and resentment, and I harbor deep contempt for the members of MSE who leveled that accusation against me and my peers. A year later, the rift is still there.

Recently, I went back and re-read all the pro-Dershowitz editorials and comments and, besides being accused of supporting anti-Semitism, one thing struck me. Most of the pro-Dershowitz defense concerned his occupation as a defense lawyer and in their view, that Dershowitz’s comments and actions were justified because he was acting in his capacity as a defense lawyer. Interestingly, the pro-Dershowitz editorials in the Newsletter by Theodore Kupfer and the comments made by MSE declined to state the specific actions and comments (as described in the first paragraph, attempting to discredit sexual assault victims based on their use of alcohol or marijuana, being a “serial prostitute,” etc.) they were defending as part of Dershowitz’s job, perhaps because it would have reflected poorly on them. The concept that if someone is acting in a capacity as a defense attorney, any legal thing they say or do is justifiable is mind-boggling to me. Lawyers have (rightfully) been dragged over the coals for being racist while defending clients. The Constitution and US laws protect Dershowitz to defend his client in any way he sees fit; the Constitution and US laws do not protect Dershowitz from being criticized for making disgusting misogynistic comments. I would critique any lawyer for that, regardless of their faith or opinions on Israel.

The fact that MSE (again, one of the most well-funded and well-respected student organizations) doubled-down on its defense of Dershowitz in their comments to the Newsletter  with the flimsy-lawyer excuse is emblematic of deep-seeded rape culture on our campus. I do not write this editorial with the intent of opening up old wounds, but rather I think it is vital to reflect upon the climate of our campus. The Dershowitz controversy is one of many reasons why many, including me, have zero faith in our peers to defend victims of sexual assault and to not actively promote rape culture (call us crazy free-speech-hating feminists if you must). In order to see how we can move forward, we must look back at what events shaped the campus climate.

It is important to student activists to reflect on events like the Dershowitz controversy to see what tactics work, what criticism will be leveled against them, and how the various student institutions on our campus function together. I believe that the protest was successful at expressing our disgust at MSE, but we must still remember that disgust and channel it into productivity. MSE’s contribution to rape culture on campus should not be forgotten and activists must remember this whenever considering collaborating or interacting with MSE. Having a short memory will do us no good when student institutions refuse to change or even acknowledge past mistakes.

This article is my personal reflection on the event; I hope those involved on either side of the controversy and those on the sidelines can reflect as well. Events like the Dershowitz controversy have ripped holes in my heart and eroded away trust in my fellow students. But over my two-and-a-half years on campus, I see more and more students getting involved in activism and my heart begins to mend. Hopefully by looking at the past we can construct a better future.

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