A Perverse Brilliance

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CHUTZPAH by Alan M. Dershowitz

Little, Brown; 378 pages; $22.95

When Naftuli Ringel arrived in the U.S. in 1907, the best available job was shohet -- ritual slaughterer. But the immigrant was too sensitive for throat cutting, and he chose to become a peddler. Assimilation works wonders in America; 84 years later, his grandson has developed an unerring instinct for the jugular vein.

The author, perhaps best known for his defense of Claus von Bulow, was a central character in the film Reversal of Fortune. Ron Silver accurately portrayed him as an amalgam of clenched hair and perverse brilliance. Those eager for a sequel have only to consult Chutzpah. The title is a Yiddish term that resists translation. In a word, gall. In two words, Alan Dershowitz.

In this autobiographical screed, Dershowitz begins with a childhood in an Orthodox Jewish section of Brooklyn. The boy was too secular for Talmudic scholarship, but he proved to be a stubborn and flashy debater. A fellow student appraised him: Alan "has a mouth of Webster and a head of Clay." The mouth went on to Yale Law School, where he ranked first in his class, yet found himself locked out of prominent legal firms because of "the world of bigotry, discrimination, racism, and anti-Semitism called the American bar."

Dershowitz eventually landed a teaching job at Harvard Law School. There, gratitude was not his long suit. Neither was tweed. He recalls his fellow Jews on the faculty: they didn't " 'dress British and think Yiddish.' They thought British too. Their Anglophilia . . . affected their mannerisms, their attitudes, their style of speech, their choice of metaphors, even their jokes." None of this for Dershowitz, then or now. His attire, jokes and attitude proclaim him as the peddler's militant grandson: out for social justice and civil rights, and along the way maybe a little advertising wouldn't hurt.

Dershowitz is guilty of many excesses, but moral blindness is not one of them. That he leaves to his opponents: Angela Davis, a leader of the American Communist Party, used him as a consultant when she was charged with murder. Acquitted, she vowed to spend the rest of her life defending political prisoners. When she journeyed to Moscow, Dershowitz asked the radical to speak up on behalf of Soviet Jewry. She refused because " 'they are all Zionist fascists and opponents of socialism.' Davis would urge that they be kept in prison where they belonged." Dershowitz's other targets include Pat Buchanan, Jesse Jackson, Meir Kahane and Norman Podhoretz. All made the mistake of locking horns with a master prosecutor; all come off a bloody second best.

It is on defense that the attorney is ill advised. His accounts of anti- Semitism in Europe and the Middle East are little more than a catalog borrowed from more capable historians. And his preening modesty belongs in a textbook of self-caricature: "Several years ago, Elie Wiesel flattered me by publicly stating that 'if there had been a few people like Alan Dershowitz during the 1930s and 1940s, the history of European Jewry might have been different.' Generous as the assessment is, it is an obvious exaggeration."

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