CHUTZPAH begins by retracing the 1888 exodus of Dershowitz’s great-grandfather, Zecharia, from a religiously repressive Poland to America, where constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom awaited him. Dershowitz treats his own heritage as a reflection of the circumstances faced by all Jews in their efforts to thrive culturally and religiously as a people. Until the founding of America (and later Israel), Jews, throughout history, have lived as guests in other people’s lands. They were tolerated for a time, then “expelled, pogromed, crusaded, inquisitioned, jihaded, and holocausted out.” With respect to this history of anti-Semitism and recurring displacement of Jews, America has become a refuge within which Judaism has flourished.
Dershowitz, however, remains skeptical about the security of Judaism in America. He believes that American Jewry is threatened by many forces, and he cites key moments in American history during which Jews have been at risk; among them, the limited success of movements to declare America officially as a “Christian nation” and impose prayer in school; America’s abandonment of European Jews during the Holocaust; the Ivy League’s imposition of geographical admissions quotas which served to limit the number of Jewish students enrolled, since Jews tended to live in concentrated areas; a Supreme Court ruling which restricted an Orthodox rabbi from wearing his yarmulke while serving as a clinical psychologist in the air force; the scheduling of political elections on Saturday—the Jewish Sabbath—which disenfranchises many observant Jews; a Supreme Court ruling which upheld state laws that required every store to be closed on Sunday, even if the owner celebrated Sabbath on Saturday; and the ongoing super-scrutiny by the government and the media on all issues related to Israel—"the Jew among nations.”
Dershowitz zealously condemns a commonly held belief among Jews that they themselves are to blame for anti-Semitism. Acting upon this false (according to Dershowitz) belief, Jews are frequently too embarrassed to speak out or involve themselves in certain activities for fear of arousing anti-Semitism. Dershowitz speaks out against injustice in CHUTZPAH and encourages American Jews to join him in condemning all injustices waged against them and against humanity. He refuses to act like an unwelcome guest—merely tolerated by the host country and afraid to speak out for fear of being seen as a “stereotypical” Jew. Dershowitz proudly touts his chutzpah (boldness, assertiveness, willingness to challenge authority) as a device with which to grasp firmly the liberty which is granted by the American Constitution but which is always at risk of being denied.