International Conference of Chabad Lubavitch Emissaries
Cheshvan 25, 5766 * November 27, 2005
Hilton Hotel, New York City.
Address by Professor Alan Dershowitz
Wow, what a gathering. The energy, the love, the yiddishkeit in this room are beyond belief. Whenever I hear people speak about the diminution of Judaism around the world, I wish they could be here tonight to experience this.
Thirty five years ago I had the zechus [merit] to meet with the great Rebbe – to me it was one of the great honors and educational experiences of my life – we then corresponded and I continued to learn from the Rebbe so much. I remember, I had the Chutzpah to once write him a letter, saying how come for your 80th birthday you decided among those you wanted to honor was Senator Jesse Helms. At the time Senator Jesse Helms, I think could be fairly described as a Sone Yisrael (anti-Semite). He was not a friend of the Jewish people, he was not a friend of Israel. So in my naiveté I wrote the Rebbe a letter. He wrote me back one of the most beautiful responses. He said you honor not only to influence the past, but to influence the future. He said: watch senator Jesse Helms and see whether or not our decision was a correct one. Within a year of that honor Jesse Helms had become one of the strongest supporters of Israel in the United States Senate and as chairman of the Foreign Relations committee one of its most important. You live and you learn. And I learned a great deal. I learned a great deal from many of the Shluchim that I met over the years.
I used to travel very regularly to Eastern Europe, to the former Soviet Union, to Poland, to the Ukraine, to Latvia, to Lithuania and I don’t remember a single flight that I was on that there wasn’t at least a single Shliach. We were there on separate business; I was defending Jews from prosecution, I was in the court on their behalf, people like Nathan Sharansky, and they were just saving Jews; and they were creating the future of Judaism in what they had complete confidence would be a Russia which was free of communism and able to respect the rights of the so many Jews who lived there under oppression. It was really remarkable to see these Shluchim on those airplanes to those obscure cities and obscure parts of the world.
When it was announced recently that I would be speaking here tonight I got an interesting call from New York Magazine – you know reporters, they’re always looking for a story – his question was: why; why are you, a civil rights and civil liberties lawyer speaking in front of Chabad? You don’t agree with all of their policies. And somehow the reporter also knew (I don’t know how) that my own family is a misnaged family. I was born in Williamsburg, I grew up in Boro Park, but we were misnagdim, but we always had a very warm spot in our hearts for Chabad for several reasons. My best friend growing up was Tzvi Groner whose uncle Rabbi Groner was of course very close to the Rebbe and I would come to Crown Heights with my friend Tzvi Groner and we would meet Rabbi Groner. My mother always had a love for Chabad. In fact here’s a wonderful story. Not so long ago, she was very sick, she needed heart surgery. She went to an eminent cardiologist who had in fact treated the Rebbe and lehavdil he had also treated the pope. To show what a great doctor he was he showed my mother the two pictures on the wall, there was the pope and there was the Rebbe. The problem was the pope’s picture was hanging higher than the Rebbe’s. When the doctor went out quickly to treat a patient, came back, my mother had switched the pictures. My mother who taught me the meaning of the word chutzpah said to Dr. Cohen, your name is Cohen, you are a Jew, and the Rebbe gets top billing in this office.
So when New York magazine asked me why? the implication was if you don’t agree with everything, you must agree with nothing. I explained to the reporter that what I have learned more than anything from Chabad is how to emphasize points of agreement, rather than points of disagreement, how to look at the positive. Chabad doesn’t require agreement; Chabad simply opens itself up to Jews without regard to their theology, to their perspective, to their attitudes towards life. If you want to come to Chabad there are no questions asked, and Chabad provides a wonderful model for the entire Jewish community and I think for Israel as well.
When I think of what happened a few years ago when this young Rabbi came to see me and said we’re thinking about opening a Chabad at Harvard, my idea was: Siberia, that’s nothing, central Africa that’s a breeze; Chabad at Harvard? Impossible. How could that ever happen? Kids come to Harvard to rebel against their parents, to rebel against religion, to look for other ways, to look for more liberal attitudes. Could Chabad succeed at Harvard? As soon as I met Hirschy and Elkie it was clear to me that it could succeed and it would succeed.
And they had a secret – I learned so much from their secret – their secret was don’t ask Harvard students to do anything inconsistent with their own secular philosophy, don’t conduct any Chabad programs for example that require men and women to sit separately, therefore don’t have Shabbat services necessarily, don’t have Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, emphasize those aspects of Jewish religion and Jewish practice in which men and women can sit together, in which men and women can celebrate Chanukah together by lighting a Menorah, celebrate the chag after Purim, celebrate sitting in the sukkah together, it worked so marvelously, because what Elkie and Hirschy did was emphasize what the Jews of Harvard shared in common, the 90% that we agree on rather than the 10% that we don’t agree on.
And that to me is so critical because the Jewish community as a whole always specializes in the 10%. How can we disagree; what do we have that differentiates us; what can we argue about? The old story of the Jew who was on a desert island, after 15 years he had built two shuls, the one I go to and the one I wouldn’t go near; or the Israeli who had been found on the island and after 15 years he had created 15 political parties and published 12 newspapers, that is the tradition of Jews arguing about everything. Chabad says no, let’s focus on the 90% that we agree and let’s deemphasize the 10%, the 10% we can talk about, we don’t have to change our philosophy, nobody is being asked to change anything. It is simply a question of emphasis and I think that’s the great success of Harvard’s Chabad. 400 people a few weeks ago attended a Shabbat Friday night Dinner, a regular Shabbat – not even a Rosh Chodesh – a regular Shabbat at Harvard Law School, 400 Harvard law students. If it had been at Elkie’s house I can understand, anyone would come for Elkie’s food, but this was at Harvard Law School itself; so they weren’t coming for the food, they were coming for the spirituality, they were coming for what Chabad had to offer them and it was a great success.
With the great tzedakah of George Rohr and others who have supported Chabad houses on college campuses we are seeing a revolution in American university education which has been stimulated by Chabad.A major revolution!
What I learned from Chabad, I have now taken on the road. I speak on college campuses all over the country and all over the world defending Israel and speaking about Jewish values and I learned the same secret. When I go on college campuses, I don’t start by saying Prime Minister Sharon wants to do this, I disagree; or the Labor party wants to do this, I disagree. That’s the way most Jewish speakers start their speeches on college campuses. I talk about the 90%, I talk about what is it that we all agree about, what we support and the enemies of Israel oppose, let’s resolve those issues first then we can resolve; If we ever can the 10% that separates us.
So I want to mention the ten areas of agreement which I speak about on college campuses and I think there is broad consensus among the Jewish people about:
the right of Israel to exist and thrive as a Jewish state. Who can disagree with that in the Jewish community?
the right of Israel to defend itself, to defend its citizens. To have assured boundaries and to be free from the terror of terrorism.
the right of Israel – the Jewish nation – to be treated equally and not subjected to a double standard on university campuses, at the United Nations, in the European community and everyplace in the world today.
the right of Israel not to be delegitimated, demonized and defamed on college campuses the way it happens so often today, whether it be at Berkeley or Columbia or at so many other major universities in America.
the right of Jews to live anywhere in the world. No part of the world should ever be Judenrein– free of Jews.
the right of Jews to practice Judaism and to be educated Jewishly, and to be treated equally by the government in every country which they live.
And equally important as the right to be treated equally is the right of Jews to retain their separate identity and to be different if they choose to, without any obligations to melt or to assimilate into anyone else’s culture.
a negative right, a very important one, one that has been very important to Jewish history. The right of every Jew to leave any country that does not treat us with dignity, with equality and with fairness.
the right of both Israel and Judaism, not only to survive, but to thrive and to increase Kein Yirbu.
and finally, a right that we all share, a right to hope someday for a better world.
It’s these ten points of agreement that I speak about on college campuses. I don’t get into the debates about specific policies in Israel with which one can agree or disagree. Two nights from now I am debating Noam Chomsky, who is probably the most influential intellectual in the world today and the greatest enemy of Israel in the world today, and I am debating him in Harvard’s Kennedy school. I will focus on these ten points of agreement and I hope I can persuade people when they agree with these ten points to see that Israel’s rights are being diminished and the rights of Jews are being threatened in the world today.
Now when Jews face external threats as too often in history we have, we do join together and focus on what is common and what is agreeable. G-d forbid when we had the Holocaust, when Israel was threatened existentially in 1967 and 1973, we tended to come together and emphasize the agreements but I want to make a point that it is equally important for Jews to emphasize their commonality even when there is no crisis on the horizon. Now, Jews are never without a crisis, we always fight the twin crises, on the one hand of external threats which continue. Anti-Semitism is growing in many parts of the world today, so we face external threats, we face external threats to Israel, we often face internal threats, threats of assimilation, intermarriage, threats of what I call in my book “the vanishing American Jew” and I think Chabad has learned how to respond both to the external and to the internal and spiritual.
I’ll tell you a story about how Jews sometimes need external threats. A few years ago I was asked to speak at Columbia University, student groups called me, they said the Jewish community is very divided, we have nothing in common that we share we need you to come to columbia and really speak to us and unify us. I said I would be happy to do it but I couldn’t do it for the next month because I was busy with classes so I told them to call me in about a month. In about a month the same woman called me and she said “Professor Dershowitz, we don’t need you; somebody better has come to Columbia and really united the Jewish community.” I was a little insulted, I said “who?,” she said “Louis Farrakhan.” Louis Farrakhan by coming to Columbia and preaching his anti- Semitism had united the Jewish people, that kind of stimulus unification we can do without. We know that Judaism is adapted to crisis, we know how well it does when it faces external threats; the real test of Judaism is how it deals with its own internal crisis and how it deals with problems that cannot be blamed on others outside of the Jewish community. I call this the tzures theory of Jewish survival, Jews need tzures to survive, that puts Jews in a very uncomfortable position, we don’t want tzures, we don’t want to be attacked and nonetheless we want to survive and thrive.
Chabad has taught us how to do that; Chabad has taught us how to have Judaism without the Oy but with the Joy and introducing the joy instead of the oy. Kohelet has a wonderful statement that says “Lechol Z’man” to everything there is a season, and Chabad miraculously has figured out how to be not only responsive but proactive as to every season of Jewish life. It’s there in times of difficulty, we saw that in the wonderful video about the storms, it’s there in times of crisis, we know what Chabad did during the Shoah, we know what Chabad did during other times of crisis, we often neglect what Chabad does to bring the joy, during periods of relative calm that the Jewish community sometimes experiences.
Somewhere in the world there is always a Jew in crisis and somewhere in the world there are always Jews at peace and Chabad had figured out a way of dealing with both in a very admirable and positive way.
And so I want to end this greeting with a phrase, when I went to the Soviet Union for the first time in the early 70’s it was virtually a crime to say it, people had to say it in the secrecy of their homes, people had to worry when they said it. No longer is that the case, Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people live, the Nation of Israel thrives, we must all of us acknowledge our debt to Chabad for keeping it alive, for never giving up hope, for focusing proactively on the young as well as the aging.
The theory of the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people is very simple, they focus on college campuses, why do they focus on college campuses? obvious, they focus on college campuses because they know tomorrow’s leaders are today studying and if they can poison the minds at the Sorbonne, at Oxford at Cambridge at Harvard at Berkeley, Princeton, Yale, wherever people today study. If they can poison the minds of young students, Jews and non-Jews, away from Israel and towards a rigidly anti-Israeli point of view, what they hope for is that hopefully in 15-20 years, when these students become the leaders of their countries they will have the same kind of knee-jerk anti-Israel attitudes that we are seeing in so many parts of the world.
That’s why Chabad’s presence on college campuses today is absolutely crucial, not only to respond but to inoculate, to make young people proud of being Jewish, to make young people proud that they support Israel, to make young people understand that the support of Israel is one of the great human rights issues of the 21st century.
I believe that one of great issues of human rights today is whether Israel’s willingness to defend itself to demand secure boundaries and to protect its citizens will become yet another excuse in the millennial long fight to prevent anti-Semitism from engulfing the world. The Jews are the canary in the mine shaft. Whenever Jews have been subject to anti-Semitism, they are the first, but they are never the last. And that’s why the fight for the minds, hearts and souls of college students today is so important, and that’s why we must extend a collective yasher koach to people like the Zarchi’s, the other Shluchim – some of whom I met tonight – at Penn, at Connecticut, at Princeton (I’m going to leave out places and names).
We cannot rest until there is at least one Chabad shliach on every major college campus in the world. Until every Jewish student feels pride in saying to other Jews and non-Jews on campus: “Am Yisrael Chai.”