Give Alan Dershowitz the choice of three topics to talk about -- "Chutzpah," his newest book; the First Amendment, which he will discuss tonight in a speech at Johns Hopkins University; or Michael Milken, his latest high-profile client -- and guess which he'll pick.
"Let's talk about 'Chutzpah,' it's been thrilling," says the Harvard law professor who cuts a pretty high profile himself with 20 appearances on "Nightline" under his belt; a who's-who of clients that includes Leona Helmsley, Jeffrey MacDonald and Christian Brando; and a recent rebuttal to critics in the form of a somewhat-less-than-modest, full-page ad in the New York Times.
Long identified with civil liberties issues as well as celebrity clients, Alan Dershowitz, 53, divides his time in a variety of pursuits: He teaches and speaks frequently to college audiences, he writes books, and he often attracts the media spotlight for his outspokenness and flamboyance.
He's thrilled by the reaction to "Chutzpah" not only because the book rode the top of the best-seller lists all summer, he says on the phone from his home near Boston, but because of the way American Jews have reacted to his message that they should be more assertive in their claim to first-class citizenship.
"It's nice to know that I've touched a chord," he says. "I've gotten thousands of letters from people telling me they could have written the book. Not just from Jews, but from blacks, from older Americans, from women, from Asian-Americans."
But statements such as "American Jews . . . are not pushy or assertive enough for our own good," and the book's continuing theme that Jews are willing to accept second-class citizenship rather than embarrass themselves in front of Christians are more offensive than inspirational to some Jews.
Henry Siegman and Robert Lifton, executive director and president of the American Jewish Congress, threatened lawsuits because of Mr. Dershowitz's account of a meeting they had with Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp. They were meeting to discuss anti-Semitic comments attributed to the cardinal in an incident involving the establishment of a convent at the site of the former Auschwitz concentration camp. In Mr. Dershowitz's version, the two AJC leaders placated the cardinal so that he never retracted his comments, as he had planned. Mr. Siegman reportedly called this version "a complete fabrication."
Mr. Siegman and Mr. Lifton were out of the country and unavailable for comment. To date, they have not filed a lawsuit, Mr. Dershowitz says.
Closer to home, Rabbi Mark G. Loeb, of Beth El Congregation -- who calls himself "no fan of Dershowitz" -- echoes the opinion of many book reviewers. "Dershowitz's claim that we need more positive chutzpah is an overstatement," he says. "He runs the risk of boorishness and being provocative to no good end. One can always assert one's rights without crudeness."
Baltimorean Shoshana Cardin, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, hasn't read "Chutzpah" but says she is familiar with its premise and doesn't really agree that American Jews don't speak up for themselves.
"The organized Jewish community has certainly spoken up and taken necessary actions for its purposes," she says, adding that she has no quarrel with Mr. Dershowitz offering his differing point of view. "The strength of this democracy is that every one of us can approach the issues the way we want to. Not everyone has the same style."
Alfred I. Coplan, chairman of the board of The Associated: the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, is halfway through "Chutzpah" and finding "there are a lot of good things in there, but some are too far out, pushing people too far."
But, Mr. Coplan says, Alan Dershowitz is "an exciting personality," which is why The Associated has invited him to speak to its $10,000-and-over annual givers next Tuesday. The event is expected to draw up to 500 people.
Mr. Dershowitz dismisses negative comments about "Chutzpah" with a blithe "reviewers and leaders don't speak for the people in this country." And he's not at all reluctant to move on to what's become an even hotter topic recently -- his appeal of the 10-year-prison sentence of convicted junk bond trader Michael Milken.
He decided to represent Milken, he says simply, "because he was one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life." He was approached by Milken's wife, Lori, after she saw the movie "Reversal of Fortune," which is based on a book Mr. Dershowitz wrote about his successful appeal in the case of Claus von Bulow, who was accused of trying to kill his socialite wife.
The appeal to reduce Milken's sentence is pending. The current imbroglio arose earlier this month when Mr. Dershowitz took exception to a favorable review by Michael Thomas in the New York Times Book Review of "Den of Thieves," a new book by James B. Stewart about the prosecutions of Wall Street figures including Milken.