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Name-Calling and a Canceled Lecture

May 29, 2007

On Thursday, Robert L. Trivers took a train to Boston to give a talk at Harvard University the next day. Trivers is a prominent evolutionary biologist and anthropologist at Rutgers University and he had been invited to Cambridge in honor of his having won this year's Crafoord Prize in Biosciences, a top international award that many consider a notch below the Nobel.

Trivers never got to give his talk. He says that hours before he was scheduled to lecture, he was called by an organizer and told that the appearance was being called off because of statements he had made about and to Alan Dershowitz, a law professor at Harvard. In a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal last week, Trivers quoted from an April letter he had sent Dershowitz. In that letter, Trivers wrote: "Regarding your rationalization of Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians, let me just say that if there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly, look forward to a visit from me. Nazis -- and Nazi-like apologists such as yourself -- need to be confronted directly."

According to Trivers, Dershowitz used his letter to have him declared "a threat" and blocked from speaking at Harvard.

Dershowitz said that he did not seek to have the talk called off, but he confirmed reporting the Trivers letter to the university's police department. "My office routinely sends all letters that can be construed as threatening to the Harvard police," Dershowitz said via e-mail. "The Trivers letter fit into that category. I am and always have been opposed to the cancellation of speeches of any kind, whether it be David Duke, Norman Finkelstein or Robert Trivers. I do favor counter speech such as leafleting."

Finkelstein is the DePaul University political scientist whose critiques of Israel, Dershowitz and the "Holocaust industry" have made him controversial. Dershowitz is among many scholars who have questioned Finkelstein's work, but others see him as a victim of pro-Israel groups who disagree with his views. Trivers said that he wrote to Dershowitz to object to his statements about Finkelstein, whose work is currently under scrutiny at DePaul as that university considers his tenure bid.

So why is Trivers caught up in this debate? His two sisters married Lebanese men, so Trivers has family in Beirut and has learned much about the country. His current research is about national myths and self-deception, and one of the examples he is exploring concerns Israel's invasion of Lebanon last year.

Trivers said that "in retrospect," he wishes that he included the word "verbally" after the reference in his letter to confronting Dershowitz. But he said that "under no circumstances have I threatened him physically, or would I."

Calling off the lecture was a violation of academic freedom, he said, and he blamed Dershowitz, saying that some donors to the evolutionary biology program at Harvard, which was sponsoring his lecture, were close to Dershowitz and had been enlisted to squelch his appearance. He acknowledged, however, that he had "no proof" to back up that view.

Of the cancellation, he said: "I'm furious. I don't think it has anything to do with the alleged threat. I think it has to do with trying to suppress views that are seen as anti-Israel."

Harvard officials could not be reached for comment about why the talk was called off.

 

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