The public debate over whether Norman G. Finkelstein, controversial for his virulent criticism of Israel, should get tenure at DePaul University, where he is a professor of political science, is the latest episode in what the author describes as the "difficult journey" of his academic career.
But the journey - which has intimately involved his long-time critic, Harvard University Law Professor Alan Dershowitz (read his Jpost Blog) - may be cut short if the Catholic university decides against giving Finkelstein tenure sometime in June, when a final decision is expected.
"I have evoked the wrath of Dershowitz, and he is tenacious," said Finkelstein.
Ideological opponents, the two have been at each other's throats for the last few years.
Dershowitz told The Jerusalem Post he opposed tenure for Finkelstein because of his lack of scholarship. "He would be the first person in modern history to get tenure based on admittedly fraudulent scholarship. This is about a man about to get tenure, not because of scholarship, but because of ideological ad hominem attacks," Dershowitz charged.
Speaking from his office in Chicago, Finkelstein spoke of his career as an academic with noticeable weariness, a far cry from the vociferous spirit that characterizes much of his work and for which he is currently being judged.
"At this point I am too weary to worry," Finkelstein told the Post. "I have had my share of battles at DePaul over the years. Nothing comes easy when you are on the wrong side of power. This is one battle too many for me."
His role as a public persona has made his career as an academic tougher than most, Finkelstein maintained. "I am considered a more threatening personality than those who operate narrowly within academic life. I am 53 years old, I am struggling for a simple tenure track position at a relatively modest university. The difficulties I face are of a higher order."
In 2000, Finkelstein, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, published The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, in which he argued that Jews in Israel and America exploited the Holocaust for profit and have often used it to silence criticism of Israel. His latest book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, is no less controversial. It systematically attacks Dershowitz's The Case for Israel. Published by the University of California Press, the book originally included a statement by Finkelstein that accused Dershowitz of plagiarism and of not having written The Case for Israel. Dershowitz threatened to take legal action if the statement was not removed. It eventually was.
Although faculty in his department voted in favor of granting Finkelstein tenure, 9-3, and a college-level faculty committee unanimously supported that vote, Charles Suchar, dean of DePaul's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, recommended against tenure in a memo to the University Board on Tenure and Promotion, arguing that "the personal attacks in many of Dr. Finkelstein's books border on character assassination."
Suchar's memo also claimed that his own estimation of "the tone and substance of his scholarship is that a considerable amount of it is inconsistent with DePaul's Vincentian values."
But according to Finkelstein, Suchar's recommendation against his tenure has everything to do with outside pressures on the university, especially from Dershowitz.
When Finkelstein came up for tenure in 2005, Patrick Callahan, previous chairman of DePaul's political science department, emailed Dershowitz requesting documentation of his opposition to Finkelstein, according to Dershowitz. Dershowitz responded with a lengthy document, which he also sent to many of DePaul's faculty, which elaborates on his criticism.
In the email, dated Sept. 18, 2006, Dershowitz writes: "I would like to point out from the outset that the ugly and false assertions that I will discuss below are not incidental to Finkelstein's purported scholarship; they are his purported scholarship. Finkelstein's entire literary catalogue is one preposterous and discredited ad hominem attack after another."
The attacks are nothing new. For the last few years the two professors have been pointing fingers and throwing accusations at each other that include charges of plagiarism and polemicism.
The Liberal Arts and Sciences Faculty Governance Council sent a letter to the president of DePaul University, the president of Harvard University and the dean of Harvard Law School, expressing dismay at Dershowitz's involvement in the tenure issue.
"The faculty council sent a letter to Harvard saying that Dershowitz's intrusions were corrupting the process," said Finkelstein.
Dershowitz said he simply "provided them with documentation. He's claiming I'm intruding. [But] he organized outside people to write petitions."
Asked whether his attacks are based on ideological differences, Dershowitz said: "I would never oppose someone for tenure because of ideology." Dershowitz said he would support tenure for Tony Judt and Noam Chomsky despite their ideological differences. "The reason he (Finkelstein) shouldn't get tenure is because he just isn't a scholar. I've written 28 books, some scholarly, some advocacy. All he writes is agitprop, no scholarship, nothing that purports to be scholarship."
According to an article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Finkelstein contacted the Chronicle to discuss his concerns about the status of his case. "I was determined from the beginning to go by the process, and was confident based on my academic record that I would sail through," he said.
For its part, DePaul insists that the tenure process will be fair. "Tenure is an internal university process that is not influenced by outsiders," said university spokeswoman, Denise Mattson. "We are confident in the procedures we have followed and that all candidates had the same rights and protections set out in the handbook."