Revolution #85, April 22, 2007
The Clash Over Prof. Finkelstein's Tenure…
and the Assault on Critical Thinking on Campuses
In the past month, an attempt by the administration of DePaul University in Chicago to deny academic tenure to Norman Finkelstein, an assistant professor in the Political Science Department, has been made public. The administration aims to do this despite the fact that the two campus committees normally concerned voted to grant Finkelstein tenure.
But the DePaul administration's move was immediately met with outrage and resistance. This is a struggle with very broad and serious implications for dissent and critical thinking on campuses in this country.
Academic tenure is very important for a professor. It is a formal status that gives professors protection from being fired for their research, writing, and speech—it's designed to ensure that thinkers and researchers on campuses who come under political attack are not threatened with losing their positions.
Norman Finkelstein's academic work, writing, and public speaking—focusing on Israel, Palestine, and U.S. policies regarding those areas—have made him the target of right-wing political forces. These same forces are carrying out an accelerating and wide-ranging assault on dissent and critical thinking in the universities. Last year, David Horowitz—a highly connected political operative who describes himself as a "battering ram" for taking on the left in academia—included Finkelstein in his book The Professors: 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.
Around the same time, there began a ferocious political campaign, spearheaded by Harvard law professor and media celebrity Alan Dershowitz, to prevent Finkelstein from even getting tenure and being promoted to the position of associate professor.
Highly Regarded by Students and Colleagues—and Reviled by the Right
Finkelstein is a highly regarded teacher at DePaul, one of the largest private universities in the U.S. His effectiveness as a teacher is one key reason given by the Department of Political Science for recommending that he be granted tenure. A report from the department notes that student evaluations of his teaching “are truly outstanding, and among the most impressive” of all the professors in the department.
As for his academic work and contributions, the Political Science Department's report sums up: “[T]here is clearly a substantial and serious record of scholarly production and achievement. He exceeds our department's stated standards for scholarly production, and both the department and the outside experts we consulted recognize the intellectual merits of his work.” John Mearsheimer, a prominent University of Chicago political science professor, describes Finkelstein as “a major scholar who is known all around the world.”
Finkelstein, moreover, is an influential public intellectual who speaks out widely and in a sharply polemical way against the state of Israel for its brutal subjugation of Palestinian people, against U.S. backing of Israel, and against intellectuals who act as defenders of and apologists for Israel. And he is doing this at a time when any criticism of U.S. policies and actions in the Middle East can be quickly branded as "support for terrorism," and any opposition to Israel is equated with anti-Semitism.
Other Middle East scholars have also come under vicious attack for not following the “official line.” Joseph Massad and other professors in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University have been under fire since 2004, accused of things like anti-Semitimism and “intimidating” students. NYU professor and prominent historian Tony Judt has had public appearances canceled because of his criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. (See, e.g., "In N.Y., Sparks Fly Over Israel Criticism," Washington Post, 10/9/06.)
Finkelstein's views and his visibility have made him a top target of the hateful venom of those like Dershowitz. In a recent radio interview with Revolution contributor Michael Slate, Matthew Abraham, professor of English at DePaul, said that Finkelstein is “reaching wider audiences much beyond the academy, and he's forcing a public reckoning with the real costs Israeli and U.S. militarism have wreaked in the Middle East." (From the KPFK program "Beneath the Surface" with Michael Slate, April 10, 2007, www.kpfk.org)
In his first book, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995), Finkelstein, among other issues, took on the claims of the Zionists that Jews have a “historical right” to Palestine and that the land was “unoccupied” before Zionist settlers arrived. He wrote, for example: "One can imagine an argument for the right of a persecuted minority to find refuge in a another country able to accommodate it; one is hard-pressed, however, to imagine an argument for the right of a persecuted minority to politically and perhaps physically displace the indigenous population of another country. Yet…the latter was the actual intention of the Zionist movement."
In his fourth book, titled The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2000), Finkelstein—whose parents were survivors of Hitler's concentration camps—argued that the legacy of the Nazi Holocaust was being misused as a way to shield the state of Israel from criticism: “I sometimes think that American Jewry 'discovering' the Nazi Holocaust was worse than its having been forgotten. True, my parents brooded in private; the suffering they endured was not publicly validated. But wasn't that better than the current crass exploitation of Jewish martyrdom?... The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable ideological weapon. Through its deployment, one of the world's most formidable military powers, with a horrendous human rights record, has cast itself as a 'victim' state, and the most successful ethnic group in the U.S. has likewise acquired victim status. Considerable dividends accrue from this specious victimhood—in particular, immunity to criticism, however justified. The time is long past to open our hearts to the rest of humanity's sufferings. This was the main lesson my mother imparted. I never once heard her say: 'Do not compare.' My mother always compared. In the face of the sufferings of African-Americans, Vietnamese and Palestinians, my mother's credo always was: 'We are all holocaust victims.'”
In 2003 Dershowitz—who, by the way, has campaigned loudly for the legalization of torture by the government in "extreme circumstances"—came out with the best-selling book The Case for Israel. When Finkelstein was preparing his book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitimism and the Abuse of History (Univ. of California Press, 2005) as a direct and sharp response to The Case for Israel, Dershowitz mounted an intense and outrageous effort to try to squash its publication. Dershowitz threatened to sue the publisher for defamation if Finkelstein's book came out. He even wrote to California Governor Arnold Scharwzenegger, asking him to intervene with the University of California Press. Many in the publishing business said that this was the first time they'd heard of someone trying to get a governor to stop publication of a book. (See "Giving Chutzpah a New Meaning" by Jon Wiener in The Nation, 6/23/05.)
Dershowitz Attacks… and the Dean Capitulates
Dershowitz was unsuccessful in his attempts to stop Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah. But in 2006, when the tenure review process for Finkelstein began at DePaul, Dershowitz immediately cranked up his attack machine. He sent a document of over 50 pages to the members of the DePaul Political Science Department and other faculty, accusing Finkelstein of "academic misconduct."
This attempt to cloak a political attack on a radical professor by charging "academic misconduct" is very similar to the witch-hunt, led by David Horowitz, against University of Colorado Professor of Native American Studies Ward Churchill, a tenured professor now threatened with losing his position. (See "The Case of Ward Churchill: A Witch-Hunt That Must Be Defeated," in the special supplement "WARNING: The Nazification of the American University" in Revolution #81.) Dershowitz, in fact, is quoted by the online journal Inside Higher Education as saying that Finkelstein is "worse than Ward Churchill."
The department's Personnel Committee, which examined Dershowitz's key charges against Finkelstein, concluded last November: "None of the individual allegations we examined seem to be examples of academic misconduct or dishonesty, and we found no evidence of a pattern of such in the record we examined."
The Department of Political Science, by a vote of 9 to 3, supported Finkelstein's application for tenure and promotion. By a 5 to 0 vote, the College Personnel Committee also supported Finkelstein's bid for tenure.
But then, in an extraordinary move, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Chuck Suchar, came out in opposition to tenure for Finkelstein. In a March 22 memo to the University Board on Tenure and Promotion, Suchar said that he agreed that Finkelstein is a well-regarded teacher, but that he disagrees that Finkelstein's scholarly work merits his receiving tenure. Suchar's supposed reason was that the “tone and substance” of Finkelstein's scholarship “is inconsistent with DePaul's Vincentian values, most particularly our institutional commitment to respect the dignity of the individual and to respect the rights of others to hold and express different intellectual positions—what I take to be one significant meaning of what we term Vincentian 'personalism'..."
In contrast to how the Political Science Department and the College Personnel Committee based their assessment of Finkelstein's work on objective, scientific criteria, Suchar suddenly brought in the idea that professors should be assessed according to "Vincentian," or religious, values! Finkelstein told the New York Times, “That’s just inventing a new standard.” Finkelstein said that in the annual reviews he has gone through, like any other professor, “no one ever warned me that I wasn’t meeting the Vincentian standard of personalism." He added, “I would not have stayed at a university if it told me upfront that a condition for me getting tenure [was that] my views have to be filtered through Catholic values." ("A Bitter Spat Over Ideas, Israel and Tenure," 4/12/07)
Zachary Lockman, the president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), wrote a letter to the DePaul president saying that Suchar's memo "seems to conflate the tone of Professor Finkelstein’s work with the substance of his scholarship." Lockman also pointed out that "the American Association of University Professors clearly stipulates that scholars are to be evaluated strictly on the basis of their scholarship’s academic merit and their teaching—not on their collegiality, nor on whether some may deem their scholarly work too controversial."
In the name of supposedly "respect[ing] the rights of others to hold and express different intellectual positions," Suchar has taken a very harmful position against a scholar who is under political fire, precisely for expressing "different intellectual positions" that have been ruled out of order by powerful forces in this society. Whatever his intentions, Suchar is cravenly capitulating to (if not collaborating with) reactionaries like Horowitz and Dershowitz who are out to silence dissenting voices in academia.
As Revolution analyzed in "WARNING: The Nazification of the American University," the right-wing forces headed by David Horowitz and others "are setting out to forge university administrations into instruments of coercive enforcement and control over faculty and students—intimidating, threatening, and 'cleaning house' of dissident thinkers when called on to do so, while leaving scholars under attack to fend for themselves." And this is precisely what Suchar's action against Finkelstein's tenure represents.
A Dangerous Situation and Need for Wider Resistance
The attempt to deny Finkelstein tenure has not gone unopposed. Students on the DePaul campus have been organizing in support of Prof. Finkelstein. The Norman G. Finkelstein Solidarity Campaign has gathered signatures from scholars and teachers in various institutions in the U.S. and around the world on a letter sent to the DePaul administration. According to university spokespeople, a decision on Finkelstein's tenure will be announced in June.
The situation is urgent, and the opposition to the political attack on Finkelstein needs to be taken up even more broadly around the country, as part of the larger resistance to the nazification of the American university. As the letter from the Finkelstein Solidarity Committee says, "Dean Suchar’s letter sets a dangerous precedent, and also sends the signal that arts and sciences are now endangered at DePaul University and in the American academy in general."
If those who are attempting to stop Norman Finkelstein from getting tenure have their way, this will have very serious consequences on campuses and academia broadly, at a time when dissent and critical thinking in society overall is more urgently needed than ever.
(Further information, updates, and relevant documents on the fight to defend Norman Finkelstein are available online at normanfinkelstein.wordpress.com.)
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