Reflecting on the Dershowitz Protest

Abdulrahman Al-Janahi
    A couple of days ago Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a self-proclaimed Zionist and supporter of the two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, was invited to give a lecture at the Northwestern University campus in Doha, Qatar. He was met with vocal protest and a walkout by a number of attending students.
    In an opinion piece in The Hill titled “Qatar universities have a lot of work to do” (see link below post) Mr. Dershowitz complained that the protest (organized by the group Qatar Youth Opposed to Normalization) was not directed at him for his ideas, but for him being a Zionist Jew, and that it was based on a biased anti-Israel narrative that was uninterested in considering the other point of view in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He questioned “the right of a government to present a singular narrative without allowing dissenting views” and indicated that Qatari students needed to be educated about the complexity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
    As a Qatari graduate of Law and of International Affairs, this incident – and Dershowitz’s complaints – aroused in myself a number of questions, two of which I will reflect upon in this post:
      1. Is it right to oppose and to ban the hosting of overt Israeli affiliates or supporters in our country?
      2. If so, does that contradict with freedom of speech and dialogue?
    The answer to the first question depends on the answer of another: What does hosting such individuals entail?
Answer: it entails the familiarity of the local communities with the presence of Israeli individuals and/or supporters. I.e. the normalization of the presence of, and relations with, Israel-affiliated individuals in the public mind. Whether that alone would lead to 𝘭𝘦𝘨𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘪𝘻𝘪𝘯𝘨 such presence might be disputable, but no doubt it is a step in that direction.
    Is such a consequence desirable? That depends on one’s position regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Which side are we supportive of? And, assuming we are supportive of the Palestinians as the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims are, how firm and indisputable do we believe their claim (or, some would argue, 𝘰𝘶𝘳 claim) to be?
    And if that is our position, to what degree do we understand the Israeli position to be 𝘪𝘯𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘭𝘺 wrong or unjustified? Is it just a misunderstanding between “neighboring peoples” with contrasting grievances? Or is there something more 𝘧𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘺 unjustified about the Israeli position, akin to the claims of historical colonialism?
    This leads to the second question: if banning the hosting of overt Israeli supporters or affiliates is the correct measure to take, doesn’t that contradict freedom of speech and dialogue?
    As for freedom of speech, the answer depends, yet again, on answering another question: is freedom of speech absolute? While at its core it is no doubt a universal principle, the 𝘭𝘪𝘮𝘪𝘵𝘴 of freedom of speech are hardly indisputable, even among its own proponents. We find that denying the holocaust, for example, is not an issue of free opinion in some Western countries, but a crime. What is considered incitement or not is another issue. Nazism a third.
    However, a reasonable criteria for freedom of speech that could be placed in light of such controversies is that it should be limited to what is considered “reasonably disputable” by the community and its moral frame of reference.
    In light of that criteria, and if we are of the position that there is something 𝘪𝘯𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘭𝘺 wrong in the pro-Israeli position according to our community’s moral frame of reference (Islam, universal justice, common sense, etc.), then no doubt that opposing and banning the official hosting of overt Israeli affiliates or supporters does not contradict with freedom of speech.
    And as for dialogue, has banning official hosting of Nazis or holocaust deniers precluded dialogue with such individuals in numerous other unofficial venues? Has it precluded it with the Palestinian Conflict? It obviously and quite visibly hasn’t, though it is a dialogue that does not lend a kind of legitimacy to the other side.
    Finally, while it is important for one to understand the principles and reasoning underlying one’s position – as reflected upon in this post – it is also important to base that position on an educated understanding of the facts and the different sides of the issue at hand, but that is a topic well covered elsewhere.

    Link to Dershowitz’s opinion piece:

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  • Terrorists and their supporters are not welcomed in civilized communities. Their appropriate places are jails. If they want to discuss or share their opinions with civilians, they have to drop all their weapons and stop supporting occupation and violence against unarmed people.

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