Tonight at 7:30 P.M., Students Allied for Freedom and Equality is bringing political scientist and professor Norman Finkelstein to the Rackham Amphitheatre to give a lecture entitled “The Israel-Palestine Conflict: What We Can Learn From Gandhi.” Some members of campus may be uncomfortable with having such a controversial speaker here. When considering Finkelstein, however, it’s important to look at the long history of academic censorship that has followed his career and what it means for intellectual freedom.
Prior to being denied tenure at DePaul University in June of 2007, Norman Finkelstein was no stranger to intimidation. In 2000, Finkelstein wrote a book titled “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” in which he discussed how the Holocaust is often used as an excuse for Israel’s maltreatment and aggression toward the Palestinians. The book created a stir amongst many Jews and non-Jews alike, and resulted in vociferous criticism directed specifically at Finkelstein. Since then, Finkelstein has written several other books that focus more on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the logical fallacies used by many in the pro-Israel community to justify Israel’s forced dispossession and military occupation of Palestinians since 1948.
Since “The Holocaust Industry” was published in 2000, Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz, an influential author and professor of law at Harvard, have been locked in a seemingly intractable war of words. Over the years, Dershowitz has gone to great lengths to try and silence Finkelstein. In one instance, Dershowitz made a personal phone call to Governor Schwarzenegger of California in order to convince the University of California not to publish one of Professor Finkelstein’s books entitled “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.”
Most recently, it appears that Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University as a direct result of Dershowitz’s meddling. Before leaving DePaul in 2007, Finkelstein had been teaching there since 1991. In an April 12, 2007 New York Times article entitled “A Bitter Spat Over Ideas, Israel and Tenure”, Finkelstein said that he was optimistic about his chances at securing tenure at DePaul. His annual reviews appeared to be going well, an implicit indicator that he was on his way to the tenure track. But in 2005, Dershowitz began a correspondence with DePaul’s president, Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, and the previous chairman of DePaul’s political science program, Patrick Callahan. Dershowitz pressured the Arts and Sciences’ Faculty Governance Council so much so that the 12-member board wrote letters to the presidents of DePaul and Harvard complaining about Dershowitz’s behavior.
In the end, although Finkelstein’s own department at DePaul voted to award him with tenure, his bid was ultimately denied by the University Board on Promotion and Tenure. While DePaul has gone to great lengths to convince the academic community that its decision to deny Finkelstein tenure was not influenced by Dershowitz or any other outside forces, Finkelstein’s failure to secure tenure in the face of Dershowitz’s shameless behavior demonstrates that academic freedom cannot be taken for granted.
Finkelstein’s writings may certainly be provocative and controversial. At the same time, they are original, intellectual, and are not the product of spurious scholarship and research. To that extent, they should be subject to intellectual debate and not written off as “hate speech” simply because they recognize Palestinian suffering and question Israel’s system of discrimination. From President Carter to Joel Kovel, it has long been the goal of many pro-Israel activists to make criticism of Israel’s policies taboo. As students at an institution of higher learning, we have a fundamental responsibility to grapple with ideas that may appear diametrically opposed to our own. The need for this kind of civil debate becomes increasingly important when it comes to contentious issues like the Zionist-Palestinian impasse.
Andrew Dalack is a chair of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.