Scott Jaschik: Furor over Norm Finkelstein

By Scott Jaschik

Norman G. Finkelstein has been more controversial off his campus than on it. On his frequent speaking tours to colleges, where he typically discusses Israel in highly critical ways, Finkelstein draws protests and debates. When the University of California Press published Finkelstein’s critique of Alan Dershowitz and other defenders of Israel in 2005, a huge uproar ensued — with charges and countercharges about hypocrisy, tolerance, fairness and censorship. But at DePaul University, Finkelstein has taught political science largely without controversy, gaining a reputation as a popular teacher.

But the debate over Finkelstein is now hitting his home campus — and in a way sure to create more national controversy. Finkelstein is up for tenure. So far, his department has voted, 9-3, in favor of tenure and a collegewide faculty panel voted 5-0 to back the bid. But Finkelstein’s dean has just weighed in against Finkelstein.

In a memo leaked to some supporters of Finkelstein and obtained by Inside Higher Ed, Chuck Suchar writes that he finds “the personal attacks in many of Dr. Finkelstein’s published books to border on character assassination” and that Finkelstein’s tone and approach threaten “some basic tenets of discourse within an academic community.” Suchar says that Finkelstein’s record is “inconsistent with DePaul’s Vincentian values, most particularly our institutional commitment to respect the dignity of the individual and to respect the rights of others to hold and express different intellectual positions.”

While the leaked memo led to some false online reports that Finkelstein had been denied tenure, his case is very much alive and no final decision will be made until June, according to a university spokeswoman, who added that the dean’s memo was not meant for public consumption and that no administrators could comment.

Debates over scholars who take controversial views on the Middle East are, of course, nothing new to academe. But Finkelstein’s case may be in a category all its own. He portrays himself as a courageous scholar, bringing rationality to discussions of the Holocaust and Israel — all the more bold for being Jewish and doing so. While criticizing people who invoke the Holocaust to justify political positions, he constantly identifies his parents as Holocaust survivors.

His supporters tend to characterize Finkelstein as the victim of right-wing, pro-Israel forces — and there are plenty of conservative supporters of Israel who despise Finkelstein. But among the groups he’s currently sparring with is Progressive magazine, a decidedly left-of-center publication that regularly publishes pieces that are highly critical of Israel’s government. Finkelstein and his supporters also say that criticisms of his tone are an excuse for attacks on his political views — and that issue appears to be key to the DePaul dean’s review.

Much of the criticism from the dean focuses on Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry. The book argues that supporters of Israel use the Holocaust unreasonably to justify Israel’s policies. While the book does not deny that the Holocaust took place, it labels leading Holocaust scholars “hoaxters and huxters.” A review of the book in The New York Times called it full of contradictions (at one point he rejects the idea that the United States abandoned Europe’s Jews and then he later praises a book for which that idea was the central thesis) and full of “seething hatred” as he implies that Jews needed the Holocaust to justify Israel. The reviewer, Brown University’s Omer Bartov, a leading scholar of the Holocaust, described the book as “a novel variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ “

Finkelstein said he could not comment on his tenure case in detail until later in the week, although he confirmed via e-mail that he had been approved at the departmental level and college levels, and that the dean was opposing his tenure. He also questioned the fairness of being judged by whether he adheres to Vincentian values. He said that the issue was never mentioned in his annual reviews and that he had always been told that his research would be judged by “the conventional academic requirements for scholarship.” It is wrong for DePaul to raise these issues now, he said. “You can’t spring new criteria at the second stage of the last year of a tenure-track position,” he said.

In Dean Suchar’s letter, he starts by noting that there has been no dispute at DePaul over the quality of Finkelstein’s teaching. He has received “consistently high” course evaluations, Suchar writes, and many students report that they have had “transformative” experiences in his classes.

The dispute over the tenure review focuses on research. The College Personnel Committee, a faculty-elected body that reviewed Finkelstein’s candidacy and unanimously endorsed it, raised concerns about the “tone” and “frequent personal attacks” in Finkelstein’s work, Suchar writes. That committee, however, concluded that “the scholarship was, on balance, sufficiently noteworthy and praiseworthy to merit their support for the application for promotion and tenure.”

Suchar disagrees. “I find this very characteristic aspect of his scholarship to compromise its value and find it to be reflective of an ideologue and polemicist who has a rather hurtful and mean-spirited sub-text to his critical scholarship — not only to prove his point and others wrong but, also in my opinion, in the process, to impugn their veracity, honor, motives, reputations and/or their dignity,” Suchar writes. “I see this as a very damaging threat to civil discourse in a university and in society in general.”

Finkelstein has also threatened to sue DePaul if he is denied tenure, Suchar writes, adding that this fits into the pattern. “Disagreements over the value of his work seem to prompt immediate threats and personal attacks. This does not augur well for a college and university that has a long-standing culture where respect for the dignity of all members of the community and where values of collegiality are paramount.”

Suchar’s memo was sent to a universitywide committee that will now review the case, which will then work its way to the president.

Supporters of Finkelstein take issue with the dean’s letter. “This is all because of Dershowitz wanting him to be fired. These people play rough,” said Peter N. Kirstein, a professor of history at Saint Xavier University who has blogged about the case and who is on the board of the Illinois conference of the American Association of University Professors. (Via e-mail, Dershowitz — who has previously battled with Finkelstein — said he had no information about the case.)

Kirstein questioned why the dean would mention Finkelstein’s threat of a lawsuit. “Doesn’t this country allow people to do things like suing?” he asked.

It would be appropriate for a dean to question the accuracy or significance of a professor’s work, but not to focus on its tone, Kirstein said.

On the question of the tone of one’s writing, Kirstein said he had plenty of experience. In 2002 he was suspended from his job after he sent an e-mail to a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, calling the cadet “a disgrace to this country” and criticizing the “aggressive baby-killing tactics” of the military. Kirstein was reviled by many conservative groups and defended by many civil liberties groups.

“Tonality is usually a red herring to destroy controversial speech that elites don’t like,” Kirstein said.

Anne Clark Bartlett, a professor of English and president of the Faculty Council at DePaul, said that it is “not common” for deans to write letters disagreeing with the views of a department and collegewide panel reviewing a tenure candidate. But she also said that the faculty handbook did give deans that right.

Bartlett, who said she does not know Finkelstein, said that she has not taken a stand on his case and wants to see how the process plays out. She said that it was important that administrators respect that the university’s regulations “give the faculty primary responsibility over promotion and personnel matters” for professors.

Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that the national office of the group had recently received the dean’s memo and was paying close attention to the case, but had not been asked to play a formal role. He said that the dean’s involvement and raising the issue of tone were not — in and of themselves — cause for concern with regard to academic freedom. He said that any questions about academic freedom would focus on the fairness of the dean’s comments, the due process afforded to Finkelstein, and how those comments were viewed in the totality of the evidence about Finkelstein’s tenure bid.

However, Kreiser said that the AAUP believes that “ordinarily a dean would defer to the judgment of a faculty member’s peers.” AAUP policy calls for administrators to have “compelling reasons” that they can present before they overrule a faculty recommendation on tenure.

“The dean would have to provide compelling reasons,” Kreiser said. The question going forward will be: “Were the dean’s reasons compelling?”

(, April 3, 2007)

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