(August 20, 2021 / JNS) Apparently, two elderly, wealthy Jewish men aren’t speaking to each other anymore. Who cares? In theory, no one ought to. But when the pair in question are television comedy star Larry David and former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, and a chance meeting between them results in a public scene involving screaming occurs in a popular spot on Martha’s Vineyard, it’s exactly the sort of thing that does get treated as a very big deal indeed.
You may count yourself among those who have no interest in celebrity gossip. Just as likely, you may be among the many who either can’t stand or don’t think Larry David is funny. Or you may be among those who have always found Dershowitz insufferable or think his stints as a lawyer for accused killers Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson—, not to mention his representation of former President Donald Trump—makes him someone you don’t want to hang out with either. In either case (or if you don’t like both of them), your reaction to the headlines about the incident is utter indifference.
But even if you include yourself in all of the above categories, this story should concern you. It’s a symptom of a troubling trend that is impacting more than the rich, famous and obnoxious who spend their summers on the exclusive Massachusetts island.
It’s more evidence of the national crackup that America has been experiencing in recent years in which all sorts of people have decided that they will no longer tolerate being in the presence of anyone with whom they disagree politically. Far from being harmless, this kind of toxic intolerance is not only making this country a worse place to live. It’s also deepening political divides to the point where our democratic system is very much in danger.
The incident at hand took place on the porch at the Chilmark General Store on Martha’s Vineyard, which is where the elites who spend their time on the island (and some of the people who clean their houses) purchase food and other necessities. According to Page Six of the New York Post, the exchange went something like this:
Dershowitz: “We can still talk, Larry.”
David: “No. No. We really can’t. I saw you. I saw you with your arm around [former U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo! It’s disgusting!”
Dersh: “He’s my former student [at Harvard Law]. I greet all of my former students that way. I can’t greet my former students?”
David: “It’s disgusting. Your whole enclave—it’s disgusting. You’re disgusting!”
The Post suggested that this passage be read with the theme to David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” playing inside your head.
Of course, it does sound like something that might happen on TV, the conceit of which is how a consistently inappropriate and often irrational older Jewish guy played by David often does inappropriate and irrational things just like this.
But what David was doing wasn’t just a “Curb” thing. It’s widely reported to be how most of the cool kids who summer there have been treating Dershowitz since he extended his practice of representing famous villains to the person that the privileged set on Martha’s Vineyard considers far worse than a mere murderer: Donald Trump.
Dershowitz was merely a well-known liberal legal expert until he parlayed his successful appeal of von Bulow’s conviction for murdering his wife into a popular book and movie (“Reversal of Fortune”) and became something of a celebrity. His fame was enhanced by his subsequent role as a member of O.J. Simpson’s legal “dream team.” When the football Hall of Famer was acquitted on charges of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, most of the country (other than many African-Americans) were outraged at what they saw as a blatant perversion of justice.
But that didn’t present a problem to the highbrow liberal circles in which Dershowitz moved.
David first gained fame as the man who helped create the “Seinfeld” television show. But like many other famous people, he wasn’t too offended by the company the professor kept, which included Dershowitz representing David himself in a legal case and helping the comedian’s daughter get into college.
When Dershowitz first began expressing skepticism about the claims that Trump had colluded with Russia and opposition to the effort to impeach him (as he had 20 years earlier when Republicans were trying to impeach former President Bill Clinton), that was a bridge too far for many of his friends. His shunning was sealed when he joined Trump’s impeachment defense team in 2020.
The fact that Dershowitz is also a proud and assertive supporter of the State of Israel may also count against him in some circles. Even though Dershowitz has remained politically liberal on the issues, is a registered Democrat and someone who voted for President Joe Biden over Trump last year, that doesn’t matter to those who are canceling him. Many liberals think that conservatives, Republicans and anyone who can be linked to the 45th president are, at the very least, no longer worthy of their friendship.
Granted, Dershowitz’s very public whinging about the treatment he’s gotten from his former pals is tiresome. His frequent comparison of it to “McCarthyism” isn’t entirely accurate since being on the liberal blacklist has, at least in his case, not had any discernible impact on his life other than no longer being invited to parties on the Vineyard.
Dershowitz is right, however, when he says the opprobrium thrown at him shows that many Americans no longer respect the tradition in which any cause—no matter how unpopular—has a right to a zealous legal defense. Moreover, breaking up with friends over politics is a sign of a very ill society.
In the last generation, it became clear that left and right no longer read, listen to or watch the same media. And both treat the other side’s media as not only lacking in credibility but actually peddling lies.
That was compounded by the rise of social media, which allowed us to live in virtual cocoons where we can insulate ourselves from anyone or any information that might contradict our pre-existing beliefs and prejudices.
This is reflected in the way people view their neighbors. Surveys show that a clear majority of Americans are opposed to their children marrying someone from a different political party. Indeed, there has been a sea change on the issue since 1958, when polls began tracking these attitudes. At that time, large majorities opposed inter-racial and interfaith marriages, but few thought politics was a deal-breaker. Today, few oppose inter-racial or interfaith marriages, though a strong majority believe that people with different political opinions should be avoided like the plague. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that there are more interracial marriages occurring than those taking place between Trump and Biden voters.
That has made America a much less civil place to live. It also undermines the fabric of our democratic culture.
Both sides of the political divide nowadays tend to speak of their opponents as not merely wrong but lacking good motives and actively seeking to destroy democracy. Yet democracy is not just a matter of voting; it requires both sides to accept the results when they lose and to act as a loyal opposition to the winners. The behavior of many Democrats after the 2016 election and Republicans after 2020 shows that, despite their claims of righteousness, both sides only like democracy when they win.
Perhaps a lot of us don’t want to be friends with either David or Dershowitz. Still, a country where politics appears to serve the same function that religion once played in most lives is not one that is compatible with normative democratic culture. Instead of the opening line to a joke, this story about two cranky old Jews is actually emblematic of something that is both dangerous and tragic.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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