VANCOUVER — A record crowd of 1,500 came to hear Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz’s thoughts on Israel, U.S. politics, anti-Semitism and Jewish continuity at last week’s opening of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s (JFGV) annual campaign.
Dershowitz said he had just returned from Israel, where he declined an offer from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“I felt it could raise questions of dual loyalty,” he told the Sept. 20 crowd at the Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts.
On the subject of Iran, he said the Islamic Republic is “the smartest adversary Israel and the U.S. has ever faced. They’re not going to build a bomb right now. Rather, they’re going to develop civilian nuclear energy. They won’t make the ultimate step, because they know it crosses the red line, and Iran will try to create a situation where it crosses Israel’s red line, but not the U.S.’s red line.”
Iran sees the United States as being tired from its involvement in two wars, both of which are going badly, Dershowitz said. “The feeling among Iranians is that America is not going to get into a third war.”
But Dershowitz’s big fear, he said, was that U.S. President Barack Obama will be remembered as the Neville Chamberlain of the 21st century if he fails to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“You cannot allow a government like Iran’s to have nuclear weapons,” he said. “If Israel does take preventative action and attacks Iran’s nuclear reactor, it will be acting within its legal rights according to Article 51 of the UN Charter, and I will defend Israel legally and morally.”
Outside the doors of the Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts, a handful of protesters brandished signs equating Israel’s policies with apartheid in South Africa. Dershowitz dismissed them angrily from the stage.
“Those people outside are not pro-Palestinian – they support the end of the peace process,” he said. “As one of Nelson Mandela’s lawyers, I fought against apartheid and I know what it was about. Israel is a country struggling with lots of difficult problems, but apartheid is not one of them.”
Dershowitz also had plenty to say on other problems facing Israel and the Jewish People. On conversion, for example, he quipped, “I think whoever wants to carry the burden of Judaism should be allowed to carry it!”
Speaking more seriously, he noted that the policy of matriarchal descent in Judaism grew out of the Middle Ages and was adopted to protect Jewish women and children. “I don’t think that matriarchal descent policy is critical today,” he said. “Israel is a place of sanctuary, and I’d like to see the issue of conversion and who is Jewish taken out of the realm of religion.”
On assimilation, he argued that the Jewish community treats must treat intermarried couples differently. “We have to make it much easier for intermarried couples to become Jewish by welcoming the non-Jewish spouses to our communities, federations and cultural events. We have to welcome their children and make Judaism so exciting and attractive that they want to be a part of it,” he said.
Assimilation is inevitable, he added, and the “guilt business” isn’t enough to keep Jews in the fold. “We have to think progressively, adapt, change and stay ahead of the curve when it comes to how we deal with change in our community.”
The JFGV’s fundraising goal this year is $8 million, $2.4 million of which has been raised so far.
Dershowitz ended with a plea.
“A strong, thriving Jewish community, built around tzedakah and tzedek, a community that knows its responsibilities and gives generously, is an essential weapon in Israel’s need to defend itself,” he said. “Please, dig into your pockets. We owe it to our grandparents and our grandchildren to keep our community strong.”