NEW BRITAIN — Leave it to Norton Mezvinsky to exit on the perfect note.
The controversial Central Connecticut State University icon, in his final lecture last week, found pathos in his life story and struck an American Gothic aura in his championing of radical causes.
At the end of his 42-year tenure as a history professor, when he spoke in Torp Theatre about how CCSU is a special place where freedom shines, you sat in the audience and you believed.
Whether before 300 listeners or one, his message now is of how meaningful it has been for him to teach students — many the first generation in their families to attend college — who have to work their way through school, who excel in their studies, and who go on to success in their chosen career.
"The best students I've had are as good as the best students at any Ivy-league institution, though there may be fewer of them here at Central," Mezvinsky says. "You can not only pique their interest, you might even be able to change a life."
Often when Mezvinsky is in a restaurant in New Britain or a pastry shop on Franklin Avenue someone will come up to him and say, "You probably don't remember me, Professor Mezvinsky. But I was your student and you changed my life."
"I know I have a gift," says Mezvinsky. "I know I can inspire students. Some may not be top students, but they'll become students of life. For me, that's a major contribution."
He points to associate professor of history Matt Warshauer, a CCSU graduate who was hired from a pool of 150 candidates. "Look how he's developed," said his mentor. Warshauer edits the scholarly publication "Connecticut History" and has won several teaching awards.
Warshauer says Mezvinsky has a passion for everything he does.
"Anyone who has taken one of his classes remembers at least one of his lectures."
"He's never lost that drive or passion. Norton epitomizes what a university professor should be. Over the years I've modeled myself after him."
Mezvinsky says he will always value CCSU for its academic freedom, how each university president encouraged him to teach, to travel when necessary and do research. "They shot me up the ranks pretty fast — tenure, full professor. I had opportunities to go elsewhere. But I've always been comfortable here and been treated well. It wasn't publish or perish. But if you're a historian, you should write."
Mezvinsky has served CCSU since 1966 as a professor in the history department. He has contributed to numerous books and published articles in professional journals on the Middle East. He has lectured in the United States and abroad. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Iowa and his master's degree and doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. He taught history at City College of New York and drove a taxi cab in New York City. Following post-doctoral studies at Harvard University, Mezvinsky began his academic career at the University of Michigan. His most recent work, "Jewish Fundamentalism is Israel," co-authored with the late Israel Shahak, appears in English, Arabic and Turkish editions. Czech and Hebrew editions are planned, as well as an updated English-language second edition.
Warshauer believes Mezvinsky's life could be a page-turner.
His father immigrated from Kiev, his mother from Warsaw. They met in Kansas City, Mo., married and moved to Iowa. Mezvinsky's father said he wanted to live as a religious Jew among non-Jews. They were the only Jewish family in Red Oak, Iowa, at the time.
At the University of Iowa, he began to question his family's Zionist beliefs. Later, American Zionists, in their effort to discredit him, began calling him "a self-hating Jew."
"It's insulting," said Mezvinsky's Rabbi, Shamuel Metzger. Speaking by telephone from New York City, he said, "Though our views on Israel differ, Norton is very spiritual. The story of the Mezvinsky family is the story of Judaism in America."
Metzger calls Mezvinsky "a wonderful person who does many acts of kindness for the community below the radar. He's an intelligent person. I respect him tremendously. We often pray together."
Mezvinsky insists he receives letters from pro-Zionist rabbis who tolerate his views.
When CCSU presidents "got letters complaining about Norton's views, they didn't try to limit Norton," Mezvinsky said, referring to himself in the third person.
The complaints weren't only in a few letters. An on-campus group called Campus Watch considers itself a watchdog on political bias on campus and frequently reported about Mezvinsky.
According to one report, "a captive audience was subjected to 70 minutes of anti-Israel rhetoric, and then ten minutes of pro-Israel perspective. The central theme of the event was to compare Israel with Nazism and the apartheid."
After one of Mezvinsky's talks Campus Watch reported the professor accused Israel of granting minimal rights to non-Jews "despite the fact that Arab citizens of Israel vote, sit in parliament, and have greater political and religious freedoms than do other Arabs anywhere else in the Middle East." One troubled participant recalled Mezvinsky kept repeating that "Israel is a terrorist state."
West Hartford Rabbi Stephen Fuchs has debated Mezvinsky at Central over the Arab-Israeli conflict. "To be at one institution for 42 years, to teach and gain the respect that Dr. Mezvinsky has earned is very admirable," Fuchs said. "At the same time, it is of great concern to me that he has slanted the views of a whole generation of students about the Middle East. I am concerned that he has created a negative atmosphere toward Israel ... To speak of human rights violation without mentioning the horrific, oppressive conditions in many of the dictatorships in the Arab world as far as women and minorities are concerned is very sad and disturbing. I believe Dr. Mezvinsky believes what he teaches. I just don't understand how he is able to present a perspective that is so biased, so one-sided that makes Israel a villian; 22 Arab/Islamic states have had the chance to live out their dreams of statehood and sovereignty. Jews were persecuted and forced out in country after country, yet for some reason Professor Mezvinsky does not [view] the claims of Israel as legitimate."
Some say Mezvinsky's presence at Central has been an important invitation for discussion.
Katherine Hermes, associate professor of history at CCUS, calls Mezvinsky "a renowned scholar whose work challenges readers to confront uncomfortable truths, and thus it acts as a catalyst for change in the real world. He demands of his students open minds and generates a love of learning. His lectures in history are legendary for their compelling stories and dramatic delivery alike. Most of all, Professor Mezvinsky has made academic freedom his most cherished principle, and he believes it extends to those who think like him and those who think differently. As his colleague, I admire him tremendously for maintaining the highest standards of scholarly inquiry while never neglecting the students who study with him."
Nonetheless, previous CCSU presidents — F. Don James, John Shumaker and Richard Judd — encouraged him to test the limits of academic freedom.
Judd views Mezvinsky as a colleague and values his opinion.
"When I needed an ear, Norton was there," Judd said. "We didn't always agree sometimes over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or guest speakers. I'd remind him, 'Norton, there's only one person who speaks for the university — that's the president.'"
Judd calls Mezvinsky "a consummate academic. He's brilliant, an excellent teacher and he writes well. He goes above and beyond your average academic ... as a consultant in Arab/Israeli peace negotiations over many years has had a profound effect. The insight of those many years of labor provide his students with 'living' history. [He] is one of those rare, extraordinary, and erudite professors who make the profession of teaching the calling that it truly is."
Whenever Mezvinsky traveled to the Middle East, the FBI would contact Judd to ask him where Mezvinsky was headed and to question the purpose of his trip.
"Thanks to this university I've been able to do almost anything I've wanted," he says. "I'm not saying I've always been a success. If there's anyone to thank, it's the history department. I may be biased, but I think it's the best department in the university. They write and publish substantive history. The teaching is better than when I joined the faculty 42 years ago. It's the phalanx of the university."
Mezvinsky is leaving to become president of the new International Council for Middle East Studies, a newly formed "think tank" of educators based in Washington, D.C. It will build cultural bridges and promote faculty and student exchanges between the United States and Middle Eastern nations.
"We have one purpose." Mezvinsky says, "to achieve peace."