Chutzpah by Alan M. Dershowitz (Boston: Little, Brown and Co) 378 pp.,c. 1991

Civil liberties attorney, Alan Dershowitz comments on the state of the American Jewish community in his controversial book, Chutzpah:

As we approach the close of the most cataclysmic century of Jewish history the time is ripe for a major reassessment of the situation of Jews in America and in the world.

And reassess he does! Dershowitz challenges American Jews (and anyone else who cares to read) to look at who we Jews are and where we are going. The dominant theme of his book is summed up in his repeated call for those of us who are Jewish

to shed our self-imposed second-class status, drop our defensiveness, and rid ourselves of our pathological fear of offending our ‘hosts.’ We must strike from our vocabulary the offensive concept of shanda fur de goyim an embarrassment in front of the gentiles.

His solution is for Jews to be heard and not have a sh’a shtill ” (be quiet, keep still) attitude when it comes to Jewish issues or any issues for that matter, and he challenges Jews to assert themselves as “first class citizens” in America.

In a style reminiscent of the movie Avalon, Dershowitz’s opening chapter tells of his great grandparents’ immigration to the United States in 1888 and the struggles they and their children faced upon arrival in the new land. Then Dershowitz takes the reader through his childhood years as an Orthodox Jew in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, his undergraduate years at Brooklyn College, and his journey across the Brooklyn Bridge to Yale Law School where the young student got his first real glimpse of the non-Jewish world.

According to Dershowitz, after graduation from Yale, he personally faced anti-Semitism as he sought employment. Although at the top of his class and editor of the Yale Law Review, he was turned down by the biggest and most well known New York City law firms because he was a Jew and because would not work on Saturdays for religious purposes.

Dershowitz then tells of his years of teaching as “Harvard’s first Jewish Jew” and of his activism against the anti-Semitic admissions practices at that university. The primary focus of the remainder of the book is the politics of anti-Semitism and Dershowitz’ crusade against it. He states:

We should never take or refrain from taking any action just because of its anticipated impact on anti-Semites. Once a Jew forbears from seeking maximum success in order to placate the anti-Semite, he accepts second-class status and rewards the anti-Semite for his bigotry.

A book on the politics of anti-Semitism would not be complete without reflections on the Holocaust, and Dershowitz does this by recalling his own visits to the Polish extermination camps where he and his son found little evidence of the destruction of millions of Jews. His travels move from Poland to Israel, Egypt, the Soviet Union and the synagogues of Europe.

In addition, the celebrated lawyer describes the principles behind many of the decisions and strategies of his renown law cases including his representation of Jewish civil rights, a defamation lawsuit against Polish Cardinal Glemp, his attempts to free Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky and his defense of American Jew Jonathan Pollard’s life sentence for spying for Israel.

The book is replete with absorbing anecdotes like the story of his grandmother “advising” the late Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg not to run for governor of New York: “You’ll be a lightning rod for anti-Semitism. Everything you do wrong will be blamed on the Jews. You’re so Jewish not like the Lehmans or the Morgenthaus. You’re Arthur Goldberg, one of us. The country isn’t yet ready for a Governor Goldberg.”

Dershowitz defines his own Jewish identity as having chosen “a more secular road” than his parents and grandparents before him. He readily admits to holding to a pick and choose Orthodoxy and that his favorite T-shirt shows a teacher and his students with the motto, “Question Authority?Ǫbut raise your hand first!” He explains that he does not feel he can impose religious practices and rituals on his children that he himself does not believe in. He rejects the Orthodox axiom, “Act and it will produce belief.”

Dershowitz, who also questions the validity of monotheism and sees logic in a polytheistic position, views the New Testament as containing the theological basis for Christian anti-Jewish sentiment:

The suffering experienced by Jews at the hand of Christians over the past two millennia grows primarily out of the conflict over whether Jesus was the true Messiah. Would it not have been (and still be) better if Jesus were seen as the Christian Messiah, but not as the Jewish Messiah?

Chutzpah alerts the reader to the real dangers of an “alive and well” anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and what Dershowitz calls Judeopathy. He sees Judeopathy as resentment, even hatred of Jewish success. He notes that Jewish approval was high during the Scud missile attacks on Israel. He maintains that the Jew and the Jewish State as victims are far more acceptable images than that of the successful Jew. However, while he sounds the alarm, he does not offer viable solutions.

Ironically, with all of Dershowitz’s training and experience to think with a legal mind, some prima facie evidence on Jewish survival is sorely missing from his account. In his search, Dershowitz leaves the stones of Hebrew Scriptures largely unturned.

Dershowitz is a man with lots of questions, but he’s not looking in the right places for the answers.