Protesting Norman Finkelstein’s Tenure Denial; or, Academic Freedom Declines across the U.S. – Part II

By Dr. Terri Ginsberg



NEW YORK: 26 June 2007, (Arabisto.com):
As U.S.-backed military actions in the Middle East become increasingly destructive, with thousands of Arab and Muslim civilians dead at the hands of allied troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Palestinians suffering to an unprecedented degree under brutal Israeli occupation, scholarly intellectuals have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of attempts by pro-Zionist and neoconservative spokespersons to pressure government bodies and educational institutions to curb opposition and suppress dissent regarding such actions.


Nearly three weeks have passed since one such intellectual, Norman Finkelstein, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at DePaul University in Chicago, was denied tenure by that school’s University Board on Tenure and Promotion. The decision to deny Finkelstein tenure was upheld by DePaul’s president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, despite a majority (9-3) recommendation by the departmental tenure committee and a unanimous (5-0) recommendation by the Personnel Committee for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Additionally, Mehrene Larudee, Assistant Professor of International Studies at DePaul, was denied tenure ostensibly for having publicly supported Finkelstein in his tenure bid when it was challenged externally by Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor whose bestselling Zionist screed, The Case for Israel, Finkelstein effectively deconstructed and discredited as pseudo-scholarship in his acclaimed study, Beyond Chutzpah: The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. In 2005, Dershowitz attempted unsuccessfully to block the publication of Beyond Chutzpah by making concerted appeals to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that the book was anti-Semitic and laced with Holocaust denial. Amidst furious public and scholarly outcry in support of the book’s publication, the Austrian-born actor-turned-politician ultimately refused to heed those appeals on grounds that their implications stood to jeopardize Finkelstein’s academic freedom.


In the three weeks since Holtschneider’s autocratic move, protests in favor of Finkelstein’s and Larudee’s reinstatement have erupted on the DePaul campus as well as across the U.S. and internationally. Immediately following public announcement of the tenure denials, DePaul students staged a sit-in at their school’s executive offices (and were evicted upon threat of expulsion). These students subsequently presented Holtschneider with a 700-signature petition requesting Finkelstein’s and Larudee’s reinstatement. They have since begun a hunger strike, now in its second day, at the DePaul University Student Center to continue “to express the seriousness of their distress over the curbing of academic freedom, as university administration has largely ignored the concerns of students and faculty” (student Media Advisory, June 22, 2007, http://normanfinkelstein.wordpress.com/2007/06/23/depaul-students-fast-for-academic-freedom/).


DePaul officials cite Finkelstein’s alleged “uncollegiality” as a main reason for denying him tenure. Holtschneider echoes Dershowitz in asserting that Finkelstein’s scholarly writings are inappropriately polemical and, as such, fail to offer scholarly critique in a manner conducive to constructive dialogue and debate within the academic community. In fact, Finkelstein’s numerous published works are not polemical (a mode of argumentation which is nonetheless perfectly acceptable within academia), but painstakingly analytical. Indeed they are renowned for their intellectual integrity and meticulously researched documentation. In addition to Beyond Chutzpah, Finkelstein, who received his doctorate from Princeton, has written four other books, including the seminal The Holocaust Industry, the revelatory Image and Reality of the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict, and, with Ruth Bettina Birn, the important A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth. Each of these books engages variously in exposing the corruption of scholarship on both the Holocaust and the conflict in Israel/Palestine.


By contrast, it is Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel which must be designated a polemic. Unlike the body of Finkelstein’s work, moreover, The Case for Israel is largely devoid of scholarly methodological foundations and controls. That book, not the one written by Finkelstein, distorts facts of Israeli and Zionist history to which the international community of scholars has consented, rehearsing baldly pro-Zionist assertions which ignore the expanding array of scholarship available about Israel/Palestine that in recent years has served indubitably to demystify official Israeli narratives and reveal many of them as blatant propaganda. Israeli “New Historiography,” for instance, exemplified by the writings of respected scholars such as Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, acknowledges and documents al-Nakba, the Zionist massacre and expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their historic homeland prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948, which Dershowitz, among other Zionist apologists, is at pains to deny or, at best, minimize (see http://www.counterpunch.com/bendor06232007.html). In effect, as Finkelstein makes plain, The Case for Israel mocks academic protocol and scholarly precedent in precisely the manner that Dershowitz and his supporters, who include the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman and numerous U.S. pro-Israel lobbyists (see http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article7055.shtml), falsely attribute to Finkelstein.


The political challenge to intellectual and academic freedom posed by DePaul’s tenure decisions is clear. DePaul faculty is considering invoking no-confidence measures against Holtschneider and other school officials. Petitions and letters to Holtschneider as well as to John Simon, chair of DePaul University’s Board of Trustees, and the American Association of University Professors, a large nationwide faculty union, protesting the tenure denials and demanding an investigation into them have been drafted and signed by an international array of academic scholars. More radically, unofficial calls have been issued by scholars worldwide for a boycott of both DePaul University and the Catholic Church of which it is a subordinate educational unit unless and until Finkelstein and Larudee are reinstated and granted tenure. In a move not yet taken by U.S. Jews, a Jewish-Canadian human rights organization, Vancouver Jews for a Just Peace, has declared its solidarity with Finkelstein: “[W]e recognize continuities between an attempt to silence a professor and the conditions that make it difficult for marginalized people all over the world to express their political beliefs. Prof. Finkelstein's dismissal leads us to reflect on Palestinians living in West Bank and Gaza who risk more than tenure when they choose to speak truth to power.”


As protests escalate on Finkelstein’s behalf, others continue to develop around ongoing cases involving Ward Churchill, Sami al-Arian, and Steve Kurtz (a film about Kurtz’s case, Strange Culture, premiered last week at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York City). These along with countless unpublicized cases against lesser-known scholars who have publicly criticized U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East and elsewhere make for a chilling academic environment, the future effects of which on U.S. higher education cannot be underestimated. The overdetermined inanity of political battles now being waged almost daily against truthful discovery must be seen as a wake-up call for all of us—scholars, journalists, community organizers and activists—who still recognize and uphold intellectual freedom’s integral relationship to the envisioning and achievement of a more just and lasting global peace.
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About Dr. Terri Ginsberg

Terri Ginsberg is a film scholar and Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. She is co-author of Historical Dictionary of Middle Eastern Cinema (2010), author of Holocaust Film: The Political Aesthetics of Ideology (2007), and co-editor of A Companion to German Cinema (2012). She is active in New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership, coordinates the Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, and is a Board member of the International Council for Middle East Studies.

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