The Significance of Norman Finkelstein

By Matthew Abraham

The facts on the Finkelstein case at DePaul have been covered in some detail elsewhere, so I will not review here what is already quite well known. It is difficult to dispute that DePaul was subjected to enormous financial and political pressure as it considered Finkelstein’s tenure application. The documentary record itself will present interesting reading for future historians of academic politics. I would like to examine the significance of Norman Finkelstein’s example for academic activism on the fifth anniversary of the tenure denial.

Although he is no longer technically an academic since he does not have an institutional home, a scandal in itself, Finkelstein is frequently invited by student groups to lecture on the Israel-Palestine conflict at universities throughout the world. Student groups at Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere welcome Finkelstein to their campuses because of the timeliness of his message about the coming break- up of American Zionism and the far reaching consequences of Israel’s continued defiance of the international consensus on a just resolution of the Question of Palestine. While the academic establishment may have little use for what Finkelstein says and writes about Zionism and the use of the Holocaust for political gain, students and progressive faculty have clearly located a prophetic voice in this son of Holocaust survivors who has just marked his thirtieth year of involvement in the conflict.

Although he has been essentially barred from entering academe as a tenure-track professor, the fact that he continues to persist in speaking the truth to power about the Israel-Palestine conflict in the midst of a heavy-controlled public space—where it is difficult to separate fact from fiction with respect to the Middle East—is a significant accomplishment it itself. It is of crucial import, for example, that Finkelstein was asked to speak to the UN Correspondents Association last September when the issue of Palestinian statehood was placed before the world stage. Experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Nazi Holocaust concur with what Finkelstein has written in such classics as The Holocaust Industry: The Abuse of Jewish Suffering, Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict, and Beyond Chutzpah: The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.

Finkelstein’s presence beyond the academy as a well-respected public intellectual on the Israel-Palestine conflict represents a wholesale rejection of the conventional pieties and clichés about the Middle East that pollute the public sphere, where Leon Uris’s Exodus has provided the main basis for American understandings of where justice resides in the Israel-Palestine conflict. One should read the frequency and the vehemence of the attacks that have been launched against Finkelstein over the last thirty years as being indicative of just how threatening his presence on the public stage is to certain political interests.

The narrative of Finkelstein’s tenure denial at DePaul essentially wrote itself, as any threat to American Zionism’s dominance in controlling how U.S. citizens comprehend the images of the conflict must be excised from the academic space, even when the space is within a mid-tier institution. Concerns about the supposed stridency of Finkelstein’s tone, his manner of dealing with intellectual opponents, and his refusal to adopt a more nuanced perspective on the conflict were all flimsy pretexts that were used to avoid the substance of Finkelstein’s critiques. This is the message we should remember on the fifth anniversary of Finkelstein’s tenure denial at DePaul. Finkelstein’s tenure denial is an affront to intellectual honesty and an indictment of the American academy.

Matthew Abraham is Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse at DePaul University and author of the forthcoming book, Out of Bounds: Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine.

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