Norman G. Finkelstein's book, "The Holocaust Industry," alleges that Jewish leaders have exploited the Holocaust for profit and that they have used it to silence critics of Israel. In a second book, he seeks to discredit Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz's defense of Israel. And in still another, he was the first to claim that a widely respected book defending the Jewish state, "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters, was nothing more than a hoax.
Now, as he seeks tenure from DePaul University, Finkelstein's words are coming back to haunt him, and the controversial scholar is in the fight of his academic life.
Charles Suchar, dean of DePaul's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has recommended against tenure, reportedly explaining in a memo that he found "the personal attacks in many of Dr. Finkelstein's books to border on character assassination."
As reported by Inside Higher Ed, Suchar went on to say that Finkelstein's tone and approach threaten "some basic tenets of discourse within an academic community."
Although the faculty in his department voted 9-3 in favor of granting him tenure, and a college-level faculty committee supported that recommendation with a unanimous 5-0 vote, another vote will be held this week by the university faculty. The matter will then be sent to the university president, Father Dennis Holtschneider. DePaul, located in Chicago, is the largest Catholic university in the United States with 23,000 students.
Denise Mattson, a university spokeswoman, said Suchar had only rendered a "supplemental opinion." She said he would not discuss his opinion and that "the president makes the final decision; we expect that to happen sometime in June."
But Finkelstein told The Jewish Week that he believes the president has already decided to deny him tenure.
"Since the speculation is that it was the president who ordered or urged the dean to deny me tenure, it means it's a done deal," he said.
But Finkelstein said he is "not resigned to defeat" and that "legal action will come if they send me a note saying you're rejected [for tenure]."
Were he to lose, Finkelstein said: "It's likely, without being too dramatic, that I will never be able to teach in a college classroom again. The odor of this defeat will follow me, and my academic career will be effectively terminated."
"I don't want to be too dramatic," he added. "I have to remember that my parents went through Majdanek [the Nazi death camp in Poland] and Auschwitz and that I will survive. It is not the worst injustice, but an injustice. And it will be a setback for those who want to show courage."
"It's unprecedented what he did," Finkelstein said of Suchar. "There has never been a case of a dean overriding the unanimous decision [of the faculty] at the college level. Technically he has that right and he proceeded to recommend that I not get tenure. Speculation by most people is that he would never have done such a thing ... were it not for the fact that the president put pressure on him, in effect turning him into a hit man."
Finkelstein, 53, said he does not "hold the [university] president at all responsible," but rather blames "relentless pressure" from outside DePaul for compelling the university to take this action. He explained that since the fall the university has been "bombarded" with such pressure that it "had to make a choice between two disasters — deny me tenure and get outrage from students, or have me on the faculty for another 20 years and every month face another hysteria and claims that I am a Holocaust denier and a self-hating Jew. Between the short-term and the long-term disasters, it was prudent to go for the short-term disaster."
The outside pressure to deny him tenure, Finkelstein said, was orchestrated by Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard University law professor, who in the fall "sent a 50-page, single-space" letter to DePaul faculty members in which he reprinted "mostly everything he has written about me in different venues."
Finkelstein said Dershowitz titled one section of the letter, "The nuttiest things the nutty professor has said."
"It was a very high level of academic interchange coming from the senior most professor at Harvard Law School," he said sarcastically. "It's hard to imagine something so juvenile even in fifth grade."
He said his department "exhaustively examined all of the claims against me and every claim, they concluded, had no merit."
Asked why Dershowitz would do this, Finkelstein said it was in reprisal for his "comprehensive examination" of Dershowitz's writings.
"I think I have caused him a lot of damage," he said. "I was the first one to sit down and examine what he has been saying over many years, and the only conclusions I could reach ... is that he is a serial fabricator. If he could get me denied tenure, he could go around and say I couldn't get tenure at a third-rate Catholic university. In his mind, that would restore some of his reputation. So I don't believe this is pure vindictiveness. This is a man desperate to restore the damage that was done."
Dershowitz said the letter he wrote was "seven pages instead of 50" and that it was written at the request of the former chairman of the political science department.
"He is not worth 50 pages," Dershowitz snapped. "All I do is read his own words back to him. By quoting his own words, I am engaged in character assassination? The problem is, he is the assassin."
He said he had quoted Holocaust scholar Michael Novick of the University of Chicago who had written that Finkelstein made up quotes and citations.
"You can't believe anything he says," Dershowitz said, citing Finkelstein's claim that the Israeli High Court of Justice had found that the shaking of a terrorist suspect had resulted in the man's death.
"I checked it and the quote does not exist — he made it up," he said. "Then he said over and over again that I did not write, ‘The Case for Israel.' I threatened to sue. I don't type and I wrote every word by hand. I sent his publisher 300 pages of handwritten manuscript and so that was withdrawn. But he was prepared to say something that he knew was false."
Asked about Finkelstein's books, Dershowitz said he has "done nothing scholarly" and that the "tone of his scholarship is nothing but ad hominem attacks. You can't get tenure for that. ... He claims he is a forensic scholar, but he is a one-sided forensic scholar" who writes only critically of Israel.
"I'm proud of what I'm doing to alert people at DePaul to the truth," Dershowitz added. "He should be fired from DePaul. He does not belong in a university. ... He can have a wonderful academic career in Ukraine or Tehran, but not in any American university."
Finkelstein said he has a "considerable following among students." But Mollie Adler, a member of Hillel at DePaul, said she and other Jewish students she knows stay away from him.
"We have some concerns about the fact that his behavior doesn't match the values of the university," she said. "We wonder how he can do certain things and not get in trouble. He makes chaos ... and it does not reflect well on the university. He had a horrible cartoon on his Web site that was grotesque and horrible. It involved defecation by Alan Dershowitz."
Adler, 23 and an Orthodox Jew from Chicago, said Finkelstein is "abrasive when it comes to issues involving the Middle East. He is biased against Israel; there is no impartiality or even an attempt to have impartiality. I knew when I transferred to DePaul not to take his classes. His classes are taken by students who agree with him, so of course he will get good reviews from them."
Adler added that there are about 800 Jewish students at the university and that she believed "a majority of Jewish student don't want him to get tenure."
Finkelstein said that although he "can't say the faculty love me," he has found it "fair" in judging whether he should be granted tenure after six years at DePaul.
One Jewish member of the faculty, Rabbi Roy Furman, a teaching associate in the department of religious studies, said he read four of Finkelstein's books when the issue of his tenure surfaced. He said that although Finkelstein is "brusque and sometimes states things in an overblown manner, in terms of substance I don't find disagreement with him."
Asked about Finkelstein's open support for the terrorist organization Hezbollah, which has vowed to destroy Israel, Rabbi Furman replied: "I'm not in favor of individuals who bring terror rather than peace. I would be against such statements."
Finkelstein said that in seeking to overrule the faculty's support for his tenure, the administration "needed a pretext" because he had fulfilled all the criteria of tenure.
"He has among the highest student evaluations of any professor in the school," Finkelstein said of himself, "his publishing record meets all the standards, in fact his books have now gone into 46 foreign translations, which means more than the entire liberal arts and sciences faculty combined. So what do you deny him on? They pulled this rabbit out of the hat and they called this rabbit, they christened it ‘personalism.' They said the fine scholarship doesn't meet the standard of personalism. I've never heard of personalism.
"The only conclusion I could reach was that the university concocted a pretext to knock me out. Had I been told upon coming to DePaul that my scholarship and thinking had to conform to Catholic values, I probably would not have agreed to come here. I find it deeply offensive that an institution would want to control my thinking and impose on it Catholic values. I would never have signed on. I'm not Catholic.
"I honestly did not know ... that whatever I write would be submitted to censors who would then decide whether or not my scholarly production was in conformity with Catholic values," he said, adding that he could find no other faculty member in DePaul's 100-year history who had been similarly judged.