In an event that received major international coverage this summer, DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure due to his outspoken views on a number of issues. This past week the Catholic university went even further, canceling Dr. Finkelstein's remaining classes and officially terminating his employment.
The Finkelstein episode is highly controversial because of its political connotations, specifically regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. Dr. Finkelstein, an outspoken leftist and champion of Palestinian self-determination, is reviled by the right and the Israel lobby in particular. His books, including "The Holocaust Industry" and "Beyond Chutzpah," have received much attention and praise in the European press, but have mostly been ignored, and occasionally scorned, in the United States.
Dr. Finkelstein's candidacy received the enthusiastic endorsement of many renowned scholars, including the late Raul Hillberg, founder of Holocaust studies, and Noam Chomsky, famous linguist who was recently named the world's Top Intellectual by The Guardian.
In truth, Dr. Finkelstein's highly acclaimed research and support from his fellow academics should have made him a glowing candidate. Not surprisingly, the college committee voted 5-0 in favor of offering Dr. Finkelstein tenure and the political science department voted 9-3, also in favor of tenure. It was the University Board on Promotion and Tenure, in a 4-3 vote, which rejected his candidacy.
The contradiction between Dr. Finkelstein's highly regarded credentials — even the university recently conceded that he is a "prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher" — and the results of his bid for tenure has aroused suspicion that outside factors determined the outcome.
Indeed, pro-Palestinian academics are often harassed by groups and individuals outside the university. With regard to Dr. Finkelstein, he has faced persecution from the Israel lobby for decades, and his tenure case was no exception.
Dr. Finkelstein's most infamous critic is Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, an aggressive and lifelong defender of Israeli apartheid. Dr. Finkelstein earned the ire of Dr. Dershowitz after he exposed the latter's book, "The Case for Israel," as plagiaristic and untruthful.
Dr. Dershowitz attempted to censor Dr. Finkelstein's findings, even appealing to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to block its publication. That attempt failed, so Dr. Dershowitz degenerated even further and accused Dr. Finkelstein's late mother, a Holocaust survivor, of serving as a "Kapo" in Auschwitz. It hardly needs to be said that this claim is demonstrably absurd. The Harvard professor has also actively lobbied against Dr. Finkelstein at DePaul. He even sent a dossier to tenure committee members intended to defame Dr. Finkelstein, a highly unorthodox action from a fellow academic.
Outside of academia, the attention that Dr. Finkelstein's case has received in America has been largely one-sided. For example, a Fox News story showed Dr. Finkelstein giving a speech in which he expressed support for Lebanese resistance to Israel's invasion and ethnic cleansing campaign in 2006. The caption at the bottom of the screen read, "Controversial Prof Caught On Tape Making Anti-Semitic Remarks."
Dr. Finkelstein's tenure denial has nothing to do with his scholarship and everything to do with his politics. His writings and activism penetrate the façade of conventional political discourse and expose the ugly reality of U.S. and Israeli power. University of Texas professor Robert Jensen notes that Dr. Finkelstein's research "challenges the prerogatives of the powerful to rule as they please." The result has been a backlash from the political mainstream — especially from the Israel lobby — in the form of an aggressive campaign to silence him as a public intellectual.
The American Association of University Professors condemned DePaul's actions, writing, "Dr. Finkelstein's abilities as a teacher and a scholar … would normally be more than sufficient to justify tenure." They concluded that DePaul's actions "threaten academic freedom." Their concerns have also been echoed by academics across the country.
Dr. Finkelstein's case is not an isolated one. Indeed, it is indicative of an increasingly hostile atmosphere for pro-Palestinian and leftist academics. A perfect example of this trend is the founding of Campus Watch in 2002, a right-wing think tank designed to monitor and silence critics of Israeli and American policy in the university.
Given the pervasiveness of support for Palestinian justice that exists on college campuses, it is not surprising that academia has become the chief target of the Israel lobby. The university is the only major American institution where an honest discussion about the conflict can take place, and this is precisely what the lobby wants to prevent. Its agenda mandates the silence of intellectuals.
Dr. Finkelstein's attempts to appeal were blocked by the university, rendering him jobless for the time being. However, the support he has received from the DePaul faculty and student body has been overwhelming and encouraging. Many of Dr. Finkelstein's students have even refused to shake the hand of DePaul's president, Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, at graduation ceremonies.
Admittedly, a battle has been lost by this turn of events. I have no doubt, however, that Dr. Finkelstein will continue with his work, albeit outside the university. He has demonstrated courage that most intellectuals are rarely called on to rouse. If this is any indication, his fight for truth and quest for justice are far from over.
Kyle Szarzynski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in Spanish and history.