An Interview with Norman Finkelstein

John K. Wilson of Academe Blog interviewed Norman Finkelstein via email about his thoughts on the 5th anniversary of being denied tenure by DePaul University.

Academe Blog: Have you been considered for any faculty jobs since leaving DePaul? Do you feel like you’ve been blacklisted from academia?

Norman Finkelstein: The first two years after being denied tenure I conscientiously sought employment both in the U.S. and abroad. I never came close. In fact, although I received a lot of verbal support among academics during the tenure battle, not a single professor (except for a mathematician in California) has invited me to speak at any college or university in the United States. It’s quite a sight to behold. I live in New York. There are numerous institutions of higher learning in the vicinity, including Columbia University and New York University. Not one professor, let alone department, has invited me to give a talk, even at a brown-bag lunch. Columbia University recently inaugurated a new Center for Palestine Studies. I am told some 300 people were invited to the opening. I was not. The Center holds several events each month. I have yet to be invited to present.

Academe Blog: What did you think of the AAUP response to your case? Do you believe that the AAUP did enough to help you?

Norman Finkelstein: To be perfectly honest, the whole last year at DePaul is a blur in my memory. I was on automatic pilot. I don’t remember many of the details, and would prefer to forget all of them. I do recall being pleasantly surprised at the support AAUP lent my case. My recollection is that they sent at least two strong letters to the DePaul administration, for which I am of course grateful.

Academe Blog: Did your settlement with DePaul include any restriction on you and DePaul criticizing each other? If so, did you ask for any limits on criticism, or did DePaul want it? And what do you think of the practice of universities using confidentiality clauses?

Norman Finkelstein: The final agreement did include a confidentiality clause and in fact we argued about it at some length during the three months preceding the settlement. But it is still not entirely clear exactly what the agreed terms mean as a practical matter. This past year I spoke at DePaul on my tenure case and did go through many of the grisly details. The university did not consider this a breach of the agreement so it seems I am free to say whatever I want so long as, to the best of my knowledge, it is factually accurate.

Academe Blog: While any controversial professor runs the risk of a backlash, do you think that scholars working on Israel-Palestine issues are more likely to face repression? Do you think that defenders or critics of Israel are more likely to be silenced on college campuses?

Norman Finkelstein: I do not believe speaking in support of the Palestinians entails many risks nowadays. In fact, it’s much more hazardous to be “pro-Israel” than “pro-Palestinian” on most U.S. campuses. The real risks are these: 1) the Israel lobby machinates behind the scenes to preempt events sympathetic to Palestinians from taking place, threatening suspension of alumni contributions, etc.; 2) the Israel lobby doesn’t really care if you stick to writing for academic publications and attending academic conferences. It went after me because I was reaching fairly large audiences and was reasonably effective at what I did. They went after me not because I was a professor per se, but because I was a politically active professor.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: An Interview with Norman Finkelstein | Norman G. Finkelstein

  2. I think Finkelstein is right that special interest groups are not interested in suppressing academics as academics, per se, if only because it would be an exhaustive effort the only effect of which would be taking articles out of an academic journal only other academic read anyhow.

    But insofar as academics are not just monks working away on their own esoteric projects and seek to have an actual effect on the world – Finkelstein being a great example of a prolific scholar and political activist and speaker – the line between political and academic freedom is not really that clear-cut.

    Taking away a person’s academic freedom because you can’t take away their political freedoms is simply a subversive way to suppress our more basic liberties.

  3. When one chooses to apply minimizing qualifiers on factual statistics of World War II atrocities committed by the Nazis – as Norman Finkelstein does – you leave the realm of pure academics and enter the sphere of morality. When you enter the world of morality, it is up to other moral people to decide if they are willing to accept anything you say as valid, or somehow tainted by an inherently amoral world-view. In the case of Norman Finkelstein, the world is making its judgment known. Anyone now who continues to defend him – or oppose the decision of DePaul University to deny him tenure – shows they are mired in obsolete hate speech and reinforces the idea that current academics in America are openly Anti-Israel.
    In his answer to John K. Wilson’s last question, Finkelstein shows his true colors by making reference to some malevolent, self-serving Jewish cabal that “machinates behind the scenes”. This cliché and hackneyed bit of blatant Anti-Semitism harkens back to a primitive age of ignorance – he might as well add that Jews are devil worshippers who drink the blood of children, as Hamas and Hezbollah are fond of reiterating.
    History has shown Finkelstein is wrong about nearly all of his assertions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that his observations are biased with the self-validating rhetoric of a true self-hating Jew. How can anyone support him in light of recent events, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas passed a written note to Secretary of State John Kerry delineating the Red Line that Palestine will not acknowledge the right of Israel to exist?

    • You have quite a good magic trick for making academic freedom disappear: you simply declare that academic freedom only applies to “academic” issues and anyone who discusses morality can be subjected to your moral judgment and be fired. Of course, virtually all controversial issues have some kind of moral component, which means the abolition of academic freedom as we know it. As for Finkelstein, his answer to my last question shows he’s very thoughtful and not a dogmatic thinker. It’s true that he does think that influential pro-Israeli forces have the power to get professors fired, but that’s rather understandable considering that it’s exactly what happened to him. And in your final paragraph, you cite some obscure private note by a Palestinian politician as proof that all Palestinians are innately evil and anyone who criticizes Israeli policy should be fired. It’s not surprising that you think that anyone who believes in the principle of academic freedom for all is guilty of hate speech and being anti-Israel.

      • Let me be perfectly clear, I am not against academic freedom. It is an essential aspect of freedom of expression, and by extension, the very workings of our modern democracy. Norman Finkelstein has every right to say what he wants, how he wants – but others in our society have an equal right to object, as strongly as they see fit. I see DePaul’s actions as merely being a private institution freely expressing its disapproval of Mr. Finkelstein’s general message (and/or specific transgressions) – and in this particular case, they expressed their disapproval on moral grounds as opposed to academic ones. To you, this means they are stifling academic freedom – to me, this means they have a conscience (or at least Dean Suchar does).
        As for my bringing up the recent news about President Abbas’ message to John Kerry: I hardly consider it “obscure” seeing as how it was covered by the Associated Press in an article about how the Palestinians have yet again refused any compromise toward a legitimate solution. The oft cited quote comes to mind, “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” To that I would add, the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to express their vehement distaste for Jews and their desire to destroy Israel. This predominant attitude is conveniently white-washed in all of Finkelstein’s “academic” contributions. Perhaps history will prove me wrong about the Palestinians, but at the moment I believe it is Mr. Finkelstein that is on the losing side of that argument.
        Finally, one good trick deserves another – and your magic trick of making anti-Semitism disappear by rationalizing it as academic freedom is equally problematic.

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