June 8th was a black day for academic freedom and a black day for free and open debate about issues of concern to the Jewish community like the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a banner day for the intellectual thought police represented by Alan Dershowitz who has triumphed with an intense, fiercely fought and ugly smear campaign entirely devoid of intellectual content. Instead the campaign was fought on overheated rhetoric and twisted arguments. And Dershowitz has won. DePaul has rid itself of the meddlesome professor by denying him tenure.
This statement from DePaul’s president beggars belief:
“Over the past several months, there has been considerable outside interest and public debate concerning this decision,” Rev. Dennis Holtschneider said. “This attention was unwelcome and inappropriate and had no impact on either the process or the outcome of this case.”
Some will consider this decision in the context of academic freedom. In fact, academic freedom is alive and well at DePaul. It is guaranteed both as an integral part of the University’s scholarly and religious heritage, and as an essential condition of effective inquiry and instruction. On a daily basis, DePaul faculty and students explore the most important ideas of our time, including difficult and contentious issues, and they do so in ways that adhere to professional standards of academia and respect the dignity and worth of each individual.
Dershowitz and the pro-Israel hatchet-folk didn’t have any impact on the internal campus debate surrounding tenure? Right.
I want to make clear that while I don’t agree with Finkelstein’s anti-Zionist position, I think he has much to say in his critique of the Jewish community’s obsession with the Holocaust as the supposedly defining element of Jewish identity. And as eminent a historian as Raul Hilberg–dean of Holocaust historians, in fact–agrees with me. I urge anyone who cares about intellectual fairness and justice in this case to read the DemocracyNow interview with Hilberg and Avi Shlaim, an Oxford historian. They are not always in full agreement with Finkelstein. They take him to task for the incendiary nature of some of his discourse. But what they say in his support is very strong and very important:
I am impressed by the analytical abilities of Finkelstein. He is, when all is said and done, a highly trained political scientist who was given a PhD degree by a highly prestigious university. This should not be overlooked…
However, leaving aside the question of style — and here, I agree that it’s not my style either — the substance of the matter is most important here, particularly because Finkelstein, when he published this book, was alone. It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him. And so, I think that given this acuity of vision and analytical power, demonstrating that the Swiss banks did not owe the money, that even though survivors were beneficiaries of the funds that were distributed, they came, when all is said and done, from places that were not obligated to pay that money. That takes a great amount of courage in and of itself. So I would say that his place in the whole history of writing history is assured, and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.
This smug statement by Dershowitz makes me sick:
“It was the right decision, proving that DePaul University is indeed a first-rate university, not as Finkelstein characterized it, ‘a third-rate university.’ Based on objective standards of scholarship, this should not have even been a close case.”
Harvard should be ashamed that it gives academic cover to such a mendacious, overblown bully.
DePaul has made a very serious mistake. It has set a very bad precedent for American universities. Given the worldwide recognition that Finkelstein’s academic books and articles have received it is ludicrous to say he has not met the threshold for publishing. And if you want to argue that he’s not a nice person or collegial enough or that he has a sharp tongue–well, get in line with the tens of thousands of other tenured professors who share those qualities.
I an incredulous that DePaul would essentially deny a professor tenure claiming (though of course this is a smokescreen reason) that Finkelstein’s rhetoric toward his academic peers was overheated. Here’s what Peter Kirstein–who has read the dean’s memo denying tenure–has to say:
The university’s decision to deny tenure is basically a repetition of the Suchar Memorandum’s charge of inappropriate tone, collegiality and manners. I think this case will continue to be examined by national organisations that exist to protect professors from such arbitrary and egregious display of contempt for controversial research that may offend some but on its merits represent significant and valuable scholarship.
UPDATE: In the president’s letter to Finkelstein (pdf file) he quotes this lame passage from the faculty tenure committee which voted 4-3 against granting him a promotion:
…Some may interpret parts of his scholarship as “deliberately hurtful” as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions. Criticism has been expressed for his inflammatory style and personal attacks in his writings and intellectual debates. These concerns are relevant in the recognition that an academic’s reputation is intrinsically tied to the institution of which he or she is affiliated. It was questioned by some whether Dr. Finkelstein effectively contributes to the public discourse on sensitive societal issues.
Then the president continues:
…Reviewers at all levels…commented upon your ad hominem attacks on scholars with whom you disagree…Your unprofessional attacks divert conversation away from consideration of ideas, and polarize and simplify conversations that deserve layered and subtle consideration…Your work not only shifts toward advocacy and away from scholarship, but also fails to meet the most basic standards governing scholarly discourse within the academic community.
…Nor can I conclude that your scholarship honors our University’s commitment to creating an environment in which all persons engaged in research and learning exercise academic freedom and respect it in others.
Can you imagine this academic jackanape has the chutzpah to accuse Finkelstein of not respecting “academic freedom??” And since when do college faculty NOT engage in ad hominem attacks or even savage debate about subjects on which they are passionate? This is beyond lame.
Kirstein also reports that another DePaul professor who prominently supported Finkelstein was denied tenure. This makes a laughingstock of the DePaul president’s statement above.
I am glad that Finkelstein has the right attitude toward this travesty of academic justice and his persecutors:
“As it happens, I was just this past week teaching about Paul Robeson in my political science class. When Robeson was crucified for his beliefs, he said, ‘I will not retreat one-thousandth part of one inch.’ That’s what I say to the thugs and hoodlums who are trying to silence me. They don’t want to talk about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. So they make Norman Finkelstein the issue.”
No doubt, Finkelstein has enough fame that he will publish and earn a living from his books and the lecture circuit and not need an academic appointment. But should he wish to return, one has to wonder what university would hire him and be willing to risk the “hit” it would take from Dershowitz and his academic Brownshirts. There would be a massive campaign to enlist alumni to cancel donations much like Daniel Pipes’ blackmail at Brandeis recently. It would get ugly. What faculty department or university president is willing to take on such a burden? DePaul didn’t.
The Inside Higher Education has one of the better articles on the subject.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.