A Season for Chutzpah

December 1, 2007
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Alan Dershowitz

Ecclesiastes teaches us that to everything there is a season. Nearly 20 years ago I wrote a book called Chutzpah in which I argued that the Jewish community needs more chutzpah. American Jews need more chutzpah. Notwithstanding the stereotype, we are not pushy or assertive enough for our own good and for the good of our more vulnerable brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Despite our apparent success, deep down we see ourselves as second-class citizens — guests in another people’s land. We worry about charges of dual loyalty, of being too rich, too smart, and too powerful. Our cautious leaders obsess about what the “real” Americans will think of us. We don’t appreciate how much we have contributed to the greatness of this country and don’t accept that we are entitled to first-class status in this diverse and heterogeneous democracy.

Today there are voices, both within and without the Jewish community, asserting that the season for chutzpah has passed and a new season of silence is upon us. Former President Jimmy Carter asserts that the voice of the Jewish community is too loud for its own good and for the good of the United States. Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt complain that the voice of the Jewish lobby is too powerful and should be muted. Anti-Israel professors at major universities, from Harvard to Columbia, claim that Jewish voices are silencing the voices of their critics. Jewish students on campuses worry that if they speak out in favor of Israel, their grades will be lowered.

The debate has shifted from a discussion about the merits of the Arab-Israeli conflict to a debate about debate, speech, and academic freedom. It is a tactic designed to empower opponents of Israel and silence supporters of Israel. We can’t fall for it. Those opponents of Israel who wrap themselves in the banner of free speech are proclaiming free speech for me but not for thee. They are among the first to try to silence speech that is offensive to them or their causes.

There are surely seasons for quiet reflection, even for silence. This is not that season. Those who would silence us are setting a trap. If we speak out in opposition, they see our chutzpah as proof of their point that we are too powerful and that we try to silence our critics. If we turn to silence, they win, for they surely will not join in silence.

The one area where silence today may turn out to be a virtue is in the area of quiet, behind- the-scenes diplomacy designed to bring about the kinds of pragmatic compromises that cannot be done effectively in public.

So let us continue to speak out on behalf of just causes without fear of being considered too powerful, too pushy, too influential, too rich, or too chutzpahdik. But let us also be silent when silence is necessary to produce a compromised peace. To everything there is indeed a season.

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Professor Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. His most recent books include Rights From Wrong and Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking the Declaration of Independence .

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