You would think a country founded upon the principle of free speech might welcome the controversial views of independent scholar Norman G. Finkelstein. His books, including A Nation on Trial
, The Holocaust Industry
and Beyond Chutzpah
, combine meticulous research with a healthy skepticism toward prevailing wisdom.
Yet critics still try to silence him for his uncompromising style and opinions.
"I don't have any illusions," he said by phone recently from his New York City home. "My teaching days are over. My name was blackened so much during the whole DePaul debacle that no school administrator would hire me."
The debacle Finkelstein refers to is the highly controversial decision by DePaul University, in Chicago, to deny him tenure in 2007, despite support from a majority of his political science colleagues. What brought the otherwise private personnel decision to national media attention were the public efforts of Harvard law professor and political commentator Alan C. Dershowitz, who asked the university to deny Finkelstein tenure.
Why was Dershowitz so concerned about Finkelstein? In Beyond Chutzpah
(University of California Press, 2005), Finkelstein had analyzed Dershowitz's best-selling book The Case for Israel
and documented alleged misrepresentations of facts regarding Israel's human rights record as well as possible instances of plagiarism.
Thereafter, the two entered into a contentious public debate not just on their philosophical differences but also on the finer points of scholarship. Then, just prior to Finkelstein's tenure evaluation, Dershowitz mailed DePaul law and political science faculty what he termed "a dossier of Norman Finkelstein's most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations and distortions."
DePaul President the Rev. Fr. Dennis H. Holtschneider simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed "outside interest" in his letter to Finkelstein informing him of the decision to deny tenure. "I am satisfied that the faculty review process maintained its independence from this unwelcome attention," Holtschneider wrote. "As much as some would like to create the impression that our process and decision have been influenced by outside interests, they are mistaken."
In retrospect, Finkelstein says he probably could have preserved his position had he limited himself to writing in academic journals and attending academic conferences. "I think tenure was denied because I was committed to trying to reach a large public and was having some success. I was the object of a witch-hunt and professor Dershowitz devoted a large amount of energy to trying to deny me tenure - that was an eccentric factor. That's not typical."
But it still factors into controversies surrounding Finkelstein's public appearances around the world, including his keynote presentation at the Midwest Peace & Justice Summit this Saturday, April 4 on the IUPUI campus. In an e-mail message sent to the student newspaper, the Sagamore
, and provided to NUVO, Leslie Lenkowsky, professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at IUPUI and director of graduate programs for its Center on Philanthropy, notes Finkelstein's denial of tenure and asserts, "Finkelstein's work is not taken seriously by most respected historians and political scientists who have studied the Holocaust and Middle East peace issues."
Lenkowsky wrote to NUVO: "I am not seeking to prevent Finkelstein from appearing. That is a decision the sponsoring groups need to make, several of which are IUPUI organizations, and I am simply trying to make them aware of who they have invited to be their featured speaker."
Lenkowsky told the Sagamore
: "For the past decade or so, Dr. Finkelstein has played an increasingly visible public role, making intemperate and unfounded remarks about Jewish writers and scholars, Israeli policies and what he calls "the Holocaust Industry" that have earned him repeated denunciations from people from a wide range of viewpoints."
While acknowledging that Finkelstein's parents survived the Holocaust, Lenkowsky said that Finkelstein's "writings and comments are generally regarded as inflammatory and painful, if not anti-Semitic," adding, "Students should know that those responsible for his appearance on the IUPUI campus are causing considerable distress to their fellow Jewish students and faculty, as well as members of the Indianapolis Jewish community."
Finkelstein doesn't disagree that his language is intemperate. "I do hate war, I do hate racism, I do hate those who justify war and those who propagate racism. If I denied that, I would be betraying the whole legacy of my family - if I suddenly said I'm tolerant of incinerating children and I think you should have the right to kill people. I'm pretty passionate about those areas. I am intemperate in my aversion to those things."
To the accusation of anti-Semitism, Finkelstein replies, "Who isn't called anti-Semitic these days who criticizes Israel? Jimmy Carter is anti-Semitic, Desmond Tutu is anti-Semitic, Amnesty International is anti-Semitic, Human Rights Watch is anti-Semitic, the United Nations is anti-Semitic, Bill Moyers is anti-Semitic. It's just a meaningless term now. That currency has been thoroughly devalued from overuse."
He views this situation with optimism. "The fact that the apologists for Israel fling around so promiscuously charges like anti-Semitism at Jimmy Carter and Bill Moyers and Amnesty International, then you know the hitherto consensus support for Israeli policies is collapsing."
Finkelstein points out that more people are coming forward to deplore Israel's recent Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. "Leaving aside the 1,400 Palestinians who were slaughtered, it was a public relations debacle because many people believed that Israel had crossed a moral red line by what it did during those 22 days."
He cites a recent article, "Post-Gaza Sea Change," by M.J. Rosenburg, Washington director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum. "This prominent observer of the American Jewish community wrote that there was a sizable amount of public opinion appalled by what Israel did, as it rightly should be.
"I think people are receptive nowadays to hearing that something really ghastly has been going on in that little place and that those people have suffered beyond any reasonable limit," he added.
Commenting on Israel's continued construction of a wall in defiance of a 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice at The Hague, which declared construction of the security fence a violation of international law, Finkelstein said, "I'm not saying Israeli policies are changing. Israel has become a lunatic state. It's regrettable to have to say it and it's not the first state that has become so, but it's off the map."
He points to the recent controversy surrounding Chas W. Freeman Jr., retired U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who withdrew his acceptance to chair the National Intelligence Council after a robust opposition campaign by what Freeman called "The Israel Lobby." "Israel is driving itself toward a cliff," Freeman told the New York Times
, "and it is irresponsible not to question Israeli policy and to decide what is best for the American people.
"I think that's true," Finkelstein said. "Israel has lost its senses. And a lot of the reason it's lost its senses is because of this American Jewish community, which through its lobbying and its intimidation tactics has given Israel free rein to act - to put it mildly - in an irresponsible fashion. Whether by intimidation or by finesse, they really thought they could control public opinion and get away with committing a massacre in Gaza."