Dershowitz’s Continuum of Civilianality Turns Five

By Belen Fernandez

Five years ago, Israel waged a 34-day war on Lebanon that resulted in the elimination of approximately 1200 persons in the targeted country, most of them civilians, as well as 43 Israeli civilians.

In a July 2006 opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Harvard Law School’s resident piranha Alan Dershowitz placed the term “collective punishment” in quotation marks and announced the need for a “continuum of civilianality” to determine just how civilian Arab civilians were.

Two-year-olds, for example, are established as falling on the “more innocent” side of the continuum, while Dershowitz explains that “[t]here is also a difference between a civilian who merely favors or even votes for a terrorist group and one who provides financial or other material support for terrorism.”

Voting and other forms of support for “a terrorist group” are of course presumably facilitated when said group is an official political party represented in the Lebanese government. Dershowitz’s categorization of “civilian” as an “increasingly meaningless word” meanwhile does not prevent him from employing the words “terrorism” and “terrorists” no less than 12 times in his brief piece.

Why Dershowitz bothers making distinctions between various levels of civilianality becomes even less clear with his announcement that:

“Hezbollah and Hamas militants… are difficult to distinguish from those ‘civilians’ who recruit, finance, harbor and facilitate their terrorism. Nor can women and children always be counted as civilians, as some organizations do. Terrorists increasingly use women and teenagers to play important roles in their attacks.

The Israeli army has given well-publicized notice to civilians to leave those areas of southern Lebanon that have been turned into war zones. Those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit. Some — those who cannot leave on their own — should be counted among the innocent victims.”

The week before Dershowitz’s detection of the need for a continuum of civilianality, a pickup truck filled primarily with children was fired on at close range by Israeli Apache helicopter while complying with Israel’s instructions to flee south Lebanon. Dershowitz does not explain where on the continuum the 23 victims of this particular massacre should fall, or what level of civilianality should be awarded to professors at prestigious law schools who provide legal veneers for collective punishment.

Conveniently, the decisive civilianality of Israeli civilians is fairly easily preserved despite the small matters of the universal military draft in Israel and overwhelming Israeli support for the devastation of Lebanon. Dershowitz writes:

“[T]he line between Israeli soldiers and civilians is relatively clear. Hezbollah missiles and Hamas rockets target and hit Israeli restaurants, apartment buildings and schools. They are loaded with anti-personnel ball-bearings designed specifically to maximize civilian casualties.”

That total innocence is not an option for Arabs is underscored by Dershowitz’s assertion that, “[i]f the media were to adopt this ‘continuum,’ it would be informative to learn how many of the [Arab] ‘civilian casualties’ fall closer to the line of complicity and how many fall closer to the line of innocence.” The reality that the continuum is itself a weapon is meanwhile unavoidable given that, rather than require Israel to be more discerning in its treatment of Lebanese civilianality, Dershowitz instead encourages the media to retroactively exonerate Israel’s lack of discernment.

As for collective punishment that occurs outside quotation marks, our legal scholar has chosen to apply war crime terminology to the idea that “[a]t all of the Norwegian universities, there have been efforts to enact academic and cultural boycotts of Jewish Israeli academics”—part of the international campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions that sustain the occupation of Palestinian land.

Readers of The Wall Street Journal were alerted to the “collective punishment of all Israeli academics” in Dershowitz’s March 2011 dispatch “Norway to Jews: You’re Not Welcome Here.” The text of the article promptly backtracks from the sensationalism of its title and Dershowitz announces that, despite the recent “refusal” of certain Norwegian law faculties to invite him to lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “I delivered three lectures to packed auditoriums at the invitation of student groups. I received sustained applause both before and after the talks.” Whether collective punishment truly applies to “all” Israeli academics is called into question by Dershowitz’s complaint in the second paragraph that Israeli academic Ilan Pappe has been courted by the Norwegian university system.

The possibility that an article title along the lines of “Certain Norwegian Law Faculties to Lunatic: You’re Not Welcome Here” might have been slightly more accurate gains momentum with Dershowitz’s attempt to equate Norway rather than Israel to Apartheid South Africa. As for the recent terror attacks in the alleged anti-Semitic paradise, the continuum of civilianality remains up for grabs for anyone who may want to incorporate it into a victim analysis.

– Belén Fern

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