By George McLeod
‘I have no regrets," says Norman Finkelstein, after losing one of the most divisive and publicised campus battles in US history.
Despite student demonstrations and sit-ins, protests from some of the world’s most prominent academics and an outcry from free speech groups, Finkelstein was dismissed from DePaul University, the US’ largest Catholic university. The firing generated headlines around the world with many claiming it was an effort to gag his criticisms of the Israel lobby and Israel’s human rights record in Palestine.
One of the most well-known and outspoken commentators on Israeli policy, Finkelstein is the author of five noted books on the Israel-Palestine issue and is a popular speaker on the subject.
Finkelstein accuses the lobby of using the Holocaust to stifle debate on Israel and to embezzle funds earmarked for Holocaust victims. Much of Finkelstein’s research on Israel relies on mainstream human rights organisations, which he says universally condemn Israel for torture, illegal imprisonment and intentionally killing civilians.
Many suspect that his dismissal is part of a national house-cleaning against critics of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby. The alleged campaign has seen numerous academics fired or demoted, and high-profile speeches at US universities cancelled following pressure from pro-Israel groups.
Even mainstream activists like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was key in bringing down South Africa’s apartheid regime, have incurred the wrath of the lobby for criticising Israel.
According to Finkelstein, the furor over the Israel issue has everything to do with the lobby.
"There is nothing unusual about the Israel/Palestine issue, apart from the fact that there is a lobby here that prevents any kind of rational debate," he said in a phone interview.
When Finkelstein came up for tenure last autumn, a series of pro-Israel and neo-conservative groups are believed to have campaigned against his appointment. The university also received a dossier from Israel-backer and former OJ Simpson lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who accused him of anti-Semitism.
Finkelstein was dismissed this autumn despite receiving outstanding student reviews and being endorsed by his department colleagues.
In his usual frank manner, Finkelstein said that the pro-Israel lobby is willing to use unsavoury methods to discredit critical thinkers.
"There is no other field where a gang of hoodlums use their money and their brass knuckles to prevent tenure appointments, and that’s very odd. There are other politicised fields like Cuba studies or China studies – but these kinds of jihads and witch hunts – they just don’t go on in other fields," he said.
This allegedly involves blacklisting and smear campaigns by pro-Israel organisations like Campus Watch, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and Frontpage. Campus Watch is one of the most controversial groups and is said have encouraged students to inform on their professors for de facto blacklisting. Campus Watch maintains that it is merely trying to counteract liberal bias on campuses.
Norman Finkelstein was born in Brooklyn in 1953. Both of his parents narrowly survived the Nazi Holocaust, which he says had a major impact on his childhood and academic life.
"Neither of my parents ever spoke of their respective families’ fate (from the Holocaust). If questioned, (my mother’s) voice cracked, her breath quickened, her eyes moistened, she turned or lowered her head," he wrote in his childhood account entitled Haunted House.
Finkelstein has dedicated much of his career to exposing what he called the "misuse of the Holocaust" by Israel backers.
But Finkelstein’s most heated dispute was with the pro-Israel-activist and former OJ Simpson lawyer Alan Dershowitz.
Finkelstein published the book Beyond Chutzpah, where he accused Dershowitz of plagiarism and misquotation in his bestseller The Case for Israel. Letters obtained under the State of California’s freedom of information laws suggest that Dershowitz may have urged Governor Schwartzenegger to suppress the book’s publication under the guise of "prevent(ing) an impending scandal".
The effort failed, but Dershowitz persevered and his lobbying is believed to have been a key factor in Finkelstein’s dismissal from DePaul.
One of Finkelstein’s most vocal backers is Noam Chomsky, voted the 20th century’s most important academic.
"There’s never been anything remotely like it, to my knowledge," Chomsky wrote of the Finkelstein issue in an email response.
"The pressure in this case was of an unusual kind…. Finkelstein wrote a very important book…He framed the book in part as a response to a disgraceful piece of apologetics produced by Dershowitz, and demonstrated, conclusively, that Dershowitz is…[a] charlatan, and vulgar apologist for the atrocities of his favoured state," Chomsky wrote. Chomsky also said that universities are under immense pressure from pro-Israel groups, who often accuse them of anti-Semitism for keeping critical academics on the payroll.
But according to Israel backers, the accusations against the lobby are unfair.
David Twersky, a spokesman for the World Jewish Congress (WJC), said that Finkelstein’s case has nothing to do with pro-Israel groups.
"I challenge (Finkelstein) to come up with examples of pro-Israel organisations intervening in his situation. I think he has a very inflated sense of himself. Iran getting a nuclear weapon, that’s a big issue, Finkelstein getting tenure, its not a big issue for us." He dismissed Chomsky’s comments on Israel as "ridiculous".
Twersky also said that US universities are highly critical of Israeli policy. "(Universities) are dominated by the left. It is preposterous to approach the problem of independent thinking and American universities…to suggest that people on the left don’t get a chance to express themselves or to get tenure – the exact opposite is the problem," he said.
Many of Israel’s defenders also say that the country is subject to disproportionate criticism and point to the poor human rights records of many Arab states.
"Israel can be criticised like any other country. This idea that the Jewish community or the pro-Israel community is trying to shut down debate or stifle dissent is palatably false," he said.
The WJC has not been accused of involvement in the Finkelstein issue.
Finkelstein says that even with his dismissal, the tables are turning on the pro-Israel lobby, which has come under serious scrutiny over the past year with the publication of two ground-breaking books – The Israel Lobby by Walt and Mearsheimer and Peace not Apartheid by former US president Jimmy Carter – both of which stimulated unprecedented debate on the lobby’s role in American politics.
"In terms of its strength, the Israel lobby is beginning to fall apart. The case for Israel is becoming indefensible. Israel’s human rights record, the actual historical record, and the diplomatic record, are becoming better known. And the more the facts are becoming part of mainstream discourse, the more the lobby has a difficult time defending what is indefensible," said Finkelstein.
"I was a bit of an odd case because I was both an academic and highly political. Most academics are not involved in politics…So the standards of academia remain the same as they have been."
Finkelstein said that he has no plans and that he wants to put the DePaul incident behind him. But if his colourful website is any indicator, Finkelstein has been anything but silenced. He has been on a speaking tour that to Japan, the UK and to US destinations.
Norman Finkelstein was born in 1953 in Brooklyn, New York. He received his doctorate in 1988 from Princeton University, after completing a thesis on Zionism. He has published five books on the Israel-Palestine issue, including The Holocaust Industry in 2000 and Beyond Chutzpah in 2005.
Finkelstein is a popular speaker and commentator and has been featured on the BBC, Al Jazeera and numerous other major media outlets.
– Bankok Post – www.bangkokpost.com, November 11, 2007