CHICAGO - A tenure committee at DePaul University may weigh in Friday on a donnybrook that has been waged with a combination of learned footnotes and body-blow rhetoric, a fight reverberating across the nation and beyond academia.
Norman Finkelstein, an assistant professor of political science, wants tenure at the North Side institution. His detractors claim he uses his academic post as a political pulpit from which to bash Israel. His supporters say Jewish organizations want to silence legitimate criticism of the Jewish state.
His most vocal critic, Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, threatened to sue one of Finkelstein’s publishers for libel. Finkelstein reportedly threatened to sue DePaul colleagues who vote against his promotion. Finkelstein’s mentor, famed linguist Noam Chomsky, calls the case “scandalous.”
Now, under the secrecy that cloaks decisions about whether professors are granted tenure, Finkelstein’s bosses and colleagues must decide how far academic freedom extends, and where its abuse begins.
One thing his opponents and champions agree upon is that Finkelstein does political science a la Don Rickles, the comedic master of insults.
In recommending his promotion, members of the political science department noted that in Finkelstein’s work, “careful and important scholarly arguments are often sprinkled with ad hominem attacks, invective, and unsparing criticism.”
In his books, Finkelstein has called efforts to get compensation for Holocaust victims from Germany a “shakedown.” He labels leaders of Jewish organizations “Holocaust-mongers.”
Claiming the numbers of survivors has been inflated to scoop up more money, Finkelstein in one book recollects the words of his mother, herself a prisoner of the Nazis: “‘If everybody who claims to be a survivor actually is one,’ my mother used to exclaim, `who did Hitler kill?’”
At the same time, Finkelstein has supporters among widely respected scholars. Raul Hilberg, the dean of Holocaust historians, formerly of the University of Vermont, has spoken favorably of Finkelstein’s book, “The Holocaust Industry.”
Chomsky and other Finkelstein supporters have said that his record of publications qualifies him for tenure. If tenure is denied, they say, the burden is on the university to show it is not bowing to outside pressure.
Finkelstein, who declined to comment for this story, denied to an Israeli newspaper that he foments anti-Semitism: “I am just the messenger who reports on the actions of the Jewish establishment, actions that are encouraging anti-Semitism.”
University officials also declined to comment on the case.
Finkelstein, who is Jewish, has written books highly critical of Israel. He is a frequent speaker at other universities.
His appearances have a regular rhythm: a Jewish organization protests, and the university president responds by defending the principle of free-speech, while acknowledging some people might find Finkelstein’s views hurtful. An SRO audience is virtually guaranteed.
In the classroom, Finkelstein is circumspect. He gets excellent student evaluations, encouraging discussion of issues from a variety of positions.
“Of my advisees who’ve spoken highly about Norm’s classes, four of six are Jewish,” said Jonathan Farkas, a professor of political science.
But Finkelstein writes his books in the style of a counter-puncher, framing them as a critique-often a denouncement-of another scholar’s work.
Finkelstein has called Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel the “resident clown” of the “Holocaust circus.” After Dershowitz published “The Case for Israel,” Finkelstein responded with “Beyond Chutzpah.” As publication approached, verbal war broke out.
“He called me a `moral pervert,’” Dershowtiz said. “Supposedly he was going to claim I didn’t write my own book.”
Dershowitz put Finkelstein’s publisher on notice that he would sue if that claim were to appear in the book, which, in the end, did not happen. But Dershowitz has hardly gone silent; in an interview with the Tribune, he said of the upcoming vote, “Finkelstein would be the first person to get tenure because he is anti-Semitic.”
The pros and cons will wind up on the desk of De Paul’s president, Dennis Holtschneider, whose own administration seems conflicted.
In an internal report now circulating on the Internet, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Chuck Suchar, writes that Finkelstein’s style is inconsistent with “De Paul’s Vincentian values,” including respect for “the rights of others to hold and express different intellectual positions.”
But two years ago, President Holschneider held up Finkelstein as an example of the university’s values. Another faculty member Thomas Klocek, was being fired after a heated exchange outside class with Muslim student leaders.
Holschneider denied a comparison between Klocek and Finkelstein, writing in an email that he hoped “DePaul’s longstanding friends in the Jewish community” would see the need for a scholar to speak freely.
“We have learned throughout history that the greater good is served when all people are allowed to express an opinion,” Holschneider wrote.