Summers, Harvard, and Israel · 27 February 2006

Filed under: Massachusetts

By Alex Beam--Boston Globe--02/27/06

Within 48 hours of Larry Summers's resignation, Harvard professors Alan Dershowitz and Ruth Wisse, and Martin Peretz, a longtime Harvard lecturer, wrote passionate defenses of the deposed president in the Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic. Wisse quoted Dershowitz's remark that Summers was a victim of ''an academic coup d'etat by . . . the die-hard left of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences." Peretz expressed similar scorn for the FAS, which he called ''an alliance of frightened souls and hyped-up orators."

All three bemoaned the loss of Summers, and all three are among the country's most vocal, articulate, and consistent defenders of Israel.

So: Is support for or opposition to Israel the new fault line dividing the Harvard faculty?

Dershowitz seemed to be saying as much when he bearded his colleague J. Lorand Matory, professor of anthropology and of African and African American Studies, after Matory appeared on the ''Greater Boston" talk show. Dershowitz, who described Matory as the ''chief architect of the putsch" against Summers in a column on huffingtonpost.com, wrote that he challenged Matory to defend his statement that Summers '' 'was telling us that people who insist that Palestinians have rights should be quiet because they're being anti-Semitic.' "

''I confronted Matory after his television show and offered $1,000 to his favorite charity if he could prove that Summers had ever said that people who insisted that Palestinians have rights should be quiet," wrote Dershowitz, Harvard's Felix Frankfurter professor of law. Matory remembered differently. He said Dershowitz bet him $1,000 that he had misstated the size of US aid to Israel. Both men agreed that the meeting ended badly. Dershowitz: ''He began shouting at me that I was a terrible professor and suggesting that I was not qualified to teach at Harvard." Matory recalled suggesting that Dershowitz wasn't ''a very good scholar or professor."

So was Dershowitz saying that Summers's 2002 condemnation of calls for the university to divest its investments in Israel -- actions Summers called ''anti-Semitic in their effect, if not in their intent" -- set the faculty against him? ''It's not Israel alone," Dershowitz said in an interview. ''Was I in some ways influenced by Larry's statements on Israel? Sure. But I was much more influenced by the attacks on free speech and diversity [by Summers's opponents], even on matters where I didn't agree with him."

Who is ''the die-hard left," I asked? ''They are anti-American and anti-Israeli," he replied. When Matory and others started lobbying for a no-confidence vote against Summers last year, Dershowitz said, ''we did find an association between those who signed the petition against Israel and those who opposed Summers. There was a high degree of correlation."

''What he is getting at isn't true," Matory said. ''The majority of the faculty who weighed in on divestment opposed it, while the no-confidence vote against Summers won a majority." Addressing my question about a ''fault line," Matory situated Summers's attitude toward Israel as ''one among a variety of issues on which Mr. Summers seemed to advocate the rights of the privileged, and where he silenced debate by bullying rather than persuasion. Because of his extremely vocal support of Israel, he essentially shut down the national divestment movement. Those people who love Israel when it is right or wrong had a very deep interest in protecting Mr. Summers."

Peretz declined to discuss faculty attitudes toward Summers. When I broached the notion of a ''fault line" with Wisse, who happens to be Harvard's Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish literature, she answered my question with a question: ''That's not the question that I'm being asked. The question that I'm being asked is, 'Was anti-Semitism the driving engine of this coup?' "

Well, what is the answer?, I asked her more than once. ''It's the point of view of many people who watch these things closely," she replied. ''It's something the Globe should investigate."

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.