Shinewald: The diverging careers of Irwin Cotler and Alan Dershowitz

(l-r) Irwin Cotler and Alan Dershowitz (Dershowitz photo courtesy of Vito Amati)

They ought to be a bookish, cross-border dynamic duo, fighting for justice,  not in spandex and capes, but in rumpled tweed jackets with ties askew. But the path of Canada’s Irwin Cotler and America’s Alan Dershowitz have diverged and each are now on a different course.

It wasn’t always this way. A generation ago, these legal scholars-cum-activists, born just two years apart, emerged as champions of civil liberties, valiant defenders of Israel and genuine heroes of the Jewish community.

They embodied the best of Jewish intellectual leadership, acting on behalf of Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky, co-authoring op-eds about Jonathan Pollard and Iranian incitement, and leading the fight for Soviet Jewry internationally and for civil liberties back home.

Steeped in moderate liberalism, Cotler went on to serve as a Liberal cabinet minister, while Dershowitz stated plainly, “Hey, I’m a left-wing liberal Jew.”

And they’re great friends. Dershowitz nominated Cotler for the Nobel Peace Prize and dedicated a book to him. And on becoming justice minister, Cotler’s first call was to his friend Dershowitz.

Yet, although they began down the same splendid path together, comrades in the central causes of our times, at some point their paths forked, and they went their separate ways.

Today, Cotler, though retired from academia and politics, is hardly retired from the pursuit of justice. At nearly 80, but indefatigable as ever, he dedicates himself to his Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, an organization dedicated the idea that “one person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can confront evil, prevail and transform history.”

Dershowitz, meanwhile, seems to fill his time as a pugnacious pundit on Fox News (is there any other kind?), quickly written issue-of-the-day books and highly paid speaking gigs. His criteria for taking on clients appears to be rooted, not in service of justice, but in which clients get him the most attention and make him more money.

Sure, Dershowitz has long taken on wealthy, high-profile clients and, sure, defense attorneys have a solemn, democratic duty to fearlessly defend clients who, after all, are presumed innocent. But in taking on Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump – and that’s just in the last year or so – you get the uneasy feeling that Dershowitz’s real clients are his own ego and pocketbook. And that is not justice he is pursuing, but the limelight.

Meanwhile, Cotler has taken on such high paying, high profile, high society clients as Saudi dissident Raif Badawi, exiled Venezuelan leader Leopoldo López and Iranian political prisoner Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi.

I should disclose that Cotler has been an acquaintance and role model of mine for decades, though I did not share this piece with him in advance, and it distresses me that it may cause him some discomfort, given his friendship with Dershowitz. As for Dershowitz, I have never met him – I just don’t care to fork out the cash to hear him rant and rave at some swanky black-tie gala and then shake his hand.

So for me, Cotler is all truth, tenacity and tachlis, while Dershowitz is all glitz, glamour and gelt. Cotler humbly serves others, while Dershowitz obnoxiously serves himself.   

Serious question: Is Alan Dershowitz a lawyer first or a celebrity first?

Rhetorical question: Could you even imagine Irwin Cotler as anything but a human rights activist first?

But maybe that’s the point. In Canada we still manage, generally, to maintain some decorum in our politics, and to cut people down to size. In the United States, celebrity has replaced thoughtfulness, and publicity has replaced process. Perhaps Cotler and Dershowitz just reflect their respective national contexts.


Still, I long for that glorious heyday when not just Cotler, but also Dershowitz, represented the very best of our community, championed the profoundest Jewish and universal principles, and made us all proud.

At least we can all take enormous pride in Canada’s Irwin Cotler, whose entire life is testament to the finest ideals of Jewish leadership.