Finkelstein, Academic Freedom, and a Demand to Fire Professors

Five years ago this week, DePaul University denied tenure to political scientist Norman Finkelstein (pdf of tenure denial letter). To mark the anniversary of this important academic freedom case, Academe Blog will have essays by Peter Kirstein and DePaul professor Matthew Abraham, and interviews with Norman Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz.

Finkelstein remains a figure who attracts vicious attacks. Earlier this week, Ben Shapiro (a fellow at David Horowitz’s David Horowitz Freedom Center) wrote an essay for, calling for the firing of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign political science professor Farhad Malekafzali because he dared to quote Finkelstein in a class. Shapiro’s article was even titled, “University of Illinois Professor Quotes Holocaust Denier in Class,” with Finkelstein being the alleged “Holocaust Denier.”

Finkelstein is often accused of being a Holocaust denier through a process of guilt-by-association and sheer misinformation, but this charge is utterly false.

Finkelstein, whose parents are survivors of the Maidanek and Auschwitz concentration camps, has never denied the Holocaust, and a quick search reveals numerous statements where Finkelstein not only acknowledges the Holocaust but also argues that it is a fact beyond debate: “No rational person can deny that during World War II the Nazis and their collaborators systematically murdered 5-6 million European Jews.”

Finkelstein has also noted, “In my opinion, rational people will not debate whether the Nazi holocaust happened. Of course the Nazi holocaust happened. It was a colossal crime that was committed against Jews, against Gypsies, against the handicapped, against many peoples. Among those people were the crimes committed, colossal crimes, against the Jews. Roughly speaking, you can say between 5 and 5 1/2 million Jews were exterminated during World War 2. That’s the factual question and rational people, reasonable people, will not debate the factual question.”

This is the man Shapiro considers a “Holocaust denier” and regards the quoting of as grounds for dismissal.

Shapiro also attacked Malekafzali for a question on a recent final exam, “Compare and contrast in depth the arguments advanced in Mearsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby and Plitnick and Toensing, The ‘Israel Lobby’ in Perspective.”

According to Shapiro, “This isn’t just anti-Israel. It’s anti-Semitic.” What utter nonsense. First of all, Mearsheimer and Walt aren’t anti-Semitic (or even anti-Israel) for pointing out the influence of the Israel Lobby on US foreign policy. Second, assigning Mearsheimer and Walt’s writings absolutely isn’t an act of anti-Semitism. Third, no rational person can consider it anti-Semitism to ask a question about Mearsheimer and Walt’s arguments while contrasting them with critics who argue against the influence of the Israel Lobby.

But it was Finkelstein who attracted most of Shapiro’s ire. Shapiro concluded his essay about Malekafzali by writing, “If he’s quoting Holocaust minimizers to do it, he’s going further than that. His job should certainly be on the line for this sort of indoctrination.” If merely quoting Finkelstein is to be deemed a thoughtcrime that will result in the firing of professors, then we would see an extraordinary attack on our fundamental freedoms.

Every defender of academic freedom should be completely repulsed by this kind of demand for political censorship. When terms like “anti-Semitic” and “Holocaust denier” are maliciously and falsely used to engage in a political witchhunt demanding the firing of professors, it is an act of intellectual dishonesty and an assault on intellectual liberty.

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