Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz may be a high-profile advocate of freedom of speech — he appears everywhere from Nightline to 60 Minutes to the pages of Penthouse defending the First Amendment. But when it comes to the exercise of that right by others in a discussion of the good attorney himself, well, that’s another story.
Chutzpah, Dershowitz’s autobiography-cum-call-to-arms for American Jews, is heading for its fourth week atop the New York Times best-seller list. But the author (and defender of Claus von Bülow and Leona Helmsley, among others) has been busy firing off outraged missives to papers and magazines when he perceives a review as unfair.
”There’s no vacation from vilification,” says Dershowitz, speaking by phone from his Martha’s Vineyard summer home. ”I want to have my little stall open in the marketplace of ideas.” Hard at work in his crowded cubby, he has penned the following rebuttals:
In response to Entertainment Weekly’s charge that Chutzpah is humorless, Dershowitz wrote, ”I suspect that these reviews tell us more about the respective senses of humor of the reviewers, than about the book itself.”
In his letter published in Time, he referred to the reviewer as ”a schlemiel.”
In a letter to The Washington Post, he claimed Paul Breines wrote ”an interesting review, but not of my book.”
He accused New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier of ”…jealousy toward those who actually try to do something about the issues he kvetches about in his dilitantish (sic) columns.”
Dershowitz claims he ”fights back” only when he believes a reviewer has not accurately described the premise of his book: that American Jews must be more assertive in fighting anti-Semitism.
”I don’t write books for the reviews,” says the lawyer, whose book about the von Bülow defense was made into the film Reversal of Fortune (Ron Silver played Dershowitz). ”I don’t do it to make money. (But) if a reviewer is so peremptory that (he) doesn’t give readers enough information to decide what they think about the book,…I respond.”
While it’s not unusual for authors to react to what they deem unjust reviews, Dershowitz’s acrimonious letter-writing campaign has struck many book types as chutzpah gone awry. ”It’s not necessarily wise for authors to respond to negative reviews,” says Nina King, editor of the Post’s ”Book World” section. ”Sometimes it sounds like whining.”
But Breines says that kind of behavior is characteristic: ”It’s consistent with his book, (his idea) that everything he says is right. Maybe he’s sending out these letters to promote his book.”
But there are even more serious charges floating around Dershowitz these days — accusations of defamation. In Chutzpah, he claims that Henry Siegman and Robert Lifton, executive director and president, respectively, of the prominent American Jewish Congress, undermined his attempts to have Poland’s Jozef Cardinal Glemp retract anti-Semitic remarks. The result: Dershowitz and the two men may argue their cases before a Beit Din, a religious court with jurisdiction that dates back to biblical times.
Though Dershowitz doesn’t deny that the controversy can only help Chutzpah, he insists that boosting sales is not the motive behind his letters.
”Part of the quality of chutzpah,” he says, ”is to make sure you don’t take things sitting down.”