Son of Brooklyn Brings Home Legacy of High-Profile Trials

Alan Dershowitz Donates Archives to Brooklyn College

Brooklyn College President Christoph Kimmich (left) accepts the collection from Alan Dershowitz on behalf of the Library - with no restrictions on access to the files.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Thursday, September 25, 2003

BEDFORD AVENUE - Claus von Bulow, Mike Tyson, John Lennon, 2 Live Crew, Dr. Spock, O.J. Simpson, Penthouse Magazine, Israeli prisoners of conscience and U.S. heads of state - what do they have in common? One Brooklyn College graduate, who has defended them all in the course of his high-profile legal career.

Alan Dershowitz, '59, brought them home to his alma mater on Tuesday, when he donated his papers and correspondence to the Brooklyn College Library. His proud mother, 90, of Borough Park, looked on.

"Be there with encouragement for your child, because you never know," Mrs. Claire Dershowitz told reporters.

Apparently Young Dershowitz needed a lot of encouragement. He claims he was a bad high school student, and yeshiva teachers told his mother they should throw him out on the sidewalk.

She took him to a vocational placement center that said he was very talented; his aptitudes showed he could succeed as an ad executive, salesman, or funeral director.

"Teachers said I should do something that requires a big mouth and no brain... so I became a lawyer," Dershowitz grinned.

"He always had a big mouth, and he's always arguing," his mom admitted. "But I still say he's a mensch and he's there to help people. He's made that very important."

His big mouth got him into Yale Law School, a clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court and, at age 23, a teaching position at Harvard Law School. Helping people has gotten him into high-profile court cases across the land. But Dershowitz said his admission to Brooklyn College was the most important in his life.

Formative Years At Brooklyn College

"I was going to Brooklyn College or I wasn't going at all," he said. His mom, who helped him fill out the application, backed him up. "When the letter came," she remembered, "I was so happy! I had a good cry that day,"

"Without Brooklyn College, there would be no papers," said Dershowitz. He won a state scholarship and put the $1400 in the bank for law school. But more than the money saved, he values the intangible lessons learned.

"Every aspect of my life grew out of what happened here."

Dershowitz fondly recalled conservative old teachers like Philosophy Professor John Hospers, who challenged him to think and to defend his liberal arguments.

On the debate team, Dershowitz had a handicap: as an observant Jew he couldn't write on Shabbat and most competitions were held on Saturday.

Coach Charles Parkhurst taught him to make it an asset by developing a mnemonic memory. "I then never needed notes, for three years in law school," said Dershowitz. To this day, he does not allow his Harvard Law students to take notes during the first few weeks of classes. "Take it in, don't take it down," he says.

Dershowitz bucked Brooklyn College's conservative administration under President Gideonse. He got involved in the NAACP (then considered a radical group) and got in trouble for taking them to D.C. with Brooklyn College banners.

Being banned from campus won an audience for one speaker's "drivel," Dershowirz recalled.

"State universities like Brooklyn College have an obligation to have the most diverse expression of views," Dershowitz said Tuesday during a student question-and-answer session. If a group of Nazis wants to start a campus group, they should be allowed to."

This clash of ideas made one student a little nervous. "It makes me wonder how safe we are," said Lindy Am Ottley, 21, a fourth-year student from Mill Basin.

Others, like first-year students Christina Giuliano of Staten Island and Clint Alexander of Crown Heights, were inspired and impressed by Dershowitz's ideas.

Senior Ephraim Shimoni, of Flatbush, learned "how judicial activism and judicial restraint are really used to cover one's own opinions."

Brooklyn College has changed a lot since the days that spurred Dershowitz to a life of radical action. But based on their comments, students today would elect him student president all over again.

Radical Ideas

Dershowitz became known early on for successfully defending infamous criminals. He became notorious later for defending pornography, prostitution, obscenity. As a civil libertarian, Dershowitz supports freedom of speech in many radical (liberal and conservative) contexts

Most recently, his writings about terrorism, torture, and Israel have attracted critical attention.

After a November 2001 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled "Is There a Torturous Road to Justice" many critics say Dersnowitz supports torture. He denies it. "I have never publicly stated a position on torture."

His essay argues that if the government is going to torture people (and he believes it does) then we should be accountable for it under the law. The result would be legalized torture, in very special circumstances.

The man known for having extremist views is being praised for the scholarship of his latest book, The Case for Israel, which hits the New York Times Best-Seller List on Sunday.

"Your latest book makes you popular among many conservatives," one scholar observed, "They appreciate it because it's objective and analytical."

"I make the liberal progressive argument for Israel," said Dershowitz. "I spend more time arguing against liberal Israel-bashers. Conservatives should go after ultra-conservatives.

"I wrote the book with the same care and scrupulousness I would write a legal brief," he added.

Awed students wanted to know how they could get to Harvard. Be enthusiastic, the professor said.

Create A Life

"Don't do anything just for the money. Money is a very important side effect. Create a life that allows you to do the things you really believe in," said Dershowitz.

His advice for students? "Don't take advice. You don't want to be like anybody else, you want to be yourself "

Ironically, his one regret may be accepting a position at Harvard Law School, where he has taught for 42 years. Although "it's all turned out okay," Dershowitz says he could have been Bob Kennedy's right-hand-man first, if he'd had more self-confidence.

"I think people underestimate the value of work," he continued, encouraging students to find a balance in life and to do work they enjoy. "Figure out who you are and build a life around the total personality that you are. Live the passion of your times."

Lawyer. Professor. Author. Alan Dershowitz has built a complex and rewarding life around his many interests, strong beliefs and hyperactive work-style.

Now, 1,000 boxes of materials from a career spanning 43 years and the biggest legal cases of our times will be available to researchers, scholars and the public at Brooklyn College.

Building the college archives is a priority for President Christoph Kimmich, who hopes to collect the papers of other famous, alums and political leaders. The school hopes to hire a legal archivist to help catalogue this particular project. The Dershowitz Archives are expected to open in 2006.

 

By Elizabeth Stull
Reprinted here with permission from the
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