Finking on Finkelstein

Does the tenure case of Norman Finkelstein bode ill for academic freedom?


The denial of tenure to political scientist and author Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University, blamed by some on pressure from celebrity law professor Alan Dershowitz, has become the focus of a debate about academic freedom and academic standards. Where does one draw the line between unpopular opinions and junk scholarship, advocacy and agitprop, polemics and character assassination? These questions have implications far beyond the Finkelstein case.

To Finkelstein's backers, he is a public intellectual punished for holding controversial views and defending them too combatively. To some of his supporters, he is a victim of Zionist oppression. Even some people who hold his beliefs in contempt, such as blogger and Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner, are troubled by DePaul's decision and the reasoning behind it. Finkelstein, an assistant professor, was endorsed in his bid for tenure by a 9-3 faculty vote in the political science department but opposed by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The case went to a university-wide faculty panel, which voted 4-3 to reject him. The university president followed this recommendation, citing Finkelstein's tendency "toward advocacy and away from scholarship" and, most important, his habitual personal attacks on his opponents.

This emphasis on style over substance is worrying to Drezner, who sees "collegiality" as a too-convenient excuse to target outspoken dissenters.

To call Finkelstein controversial is an understatement. The son of Holocaust survivors, he has gained notoriety by accusing his fellow Jews of exploiting the Holocaust to justify Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians and to "shake down" German corporations and Swiss banks. His 2000 book, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, was described by historian Omer Bartov in the New York Times Book Review as "a novel variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.'" Finkelstein has assailed the film Schindler's List as a propaganda ploy to drum up sympathy for Israel, compared the Anti-Defamation League to Nazis, mocked Holocaust memoirist Elie Wiesel as a "clown," and suggested that Holocaust survivor accounts are routinely fabricated. More recently, he has scoffed at death threats to Muslim feminist Irshad Manji, a critic of Islamic extremism.

At times, Finkelstein has been the target of unfair charges. Dershowitz has accused him, apparently without solid grounds, of having commissioned an obscene cartoon that accompanied his anti-Dershowitz screed on one website. Finkelstein also convincingly defends himself against allegations that he is an admirer of Holocaust-denying historian David Irving. Yet the overall picture of his record is nothing short of morally repugnant.

Arguably, the issue is not Finkelstein's morality but the quality of his work. In this area, Finkelstein has some backers with no apparent political axe to grind; renowned Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg has praised his research on the mishandling of reparation payments to Holocaust survivors. But it is worth noting that he has no publications in peer-reviewed journals—usually a requirement for tenure—and most assessments of his books have been scathing. Columbia University historian David Greenberg, no knee-jerk defender of Israel, called The Holocaust Industry "a hate-filled screed" filled with "pseudo-scholarship, extreme anti-Israel ideology and—there is no way around it—anti-Semitism."

In view of this, one may legitimately ask if the real political bias lay not in the denial of tenure to Finkelstein, but in the political science department's support for his tenure bid. Whatever one may think of Finkelstein's ego-driven nemesis Alan Dershowitz, he has a point when he writes that this case is about "denial of tenure for unscholarly, ad hominem propaganda."

Somewhat similar issues are raised by a tenure case at Iowa State University, where astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure last month despite a stellar teaching and publication record. Gonzalez is a fellow at the Discovery Institute, which supports "intelligent design," and the co-author of the 2004 book, Privileged Planet, which champions this theory. While the university claimed that the rejection of Gonzalez was based on his inability to raise research grant money, some of his colleagues have admitted that their vote against him was based his advocacy of "intelligent design."

Writing in The Weekly Standard, David Klinghoffer has decried the decision as a blow to academic freedom, claiming that Gonzalez is being punished for "the expression—outside the classroom—of an inconvenient personal belief."

Yet Gonzalez is not being penalized for expressing his personal belief in, say, the resurrection of Christ as a miracle outside the laws of nature. His advocacy of "intelligent design" amounts to promotion of ideologically motivated junk science. Even if he does not bring this advocacy into the classroom, a science department can be rightfully concerned about its reputation being used to lend credence to an anti-science crusade.

What does all this mean for academic freedom? UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh says that while particular tenure cases are "highly fact-specific" and often murky, the overall issue of when a professor's maverick views or abrasive style should affect the appraisal of his or her work is a thorny one: "The question is, how do you promote tolerance and diversity of ideas while maintaining judgment of quality." Given the ideological tenor of the academy, there is a real risk that opponents of affirmative action or gun control, or proponents of traditional gender roles, could some day find themselves declared "beyond the pale."

The only good answer, perhaps, is to approach each case on its individual merits. There is no cause to cry for Finkelstein or Gonzalez, whose right to express their beliefs does not include the right to a lifetime professorship. (Nor would I cry for someone on my side of an issue—say, a critic of racial preferences—who lost a tenure bid partly due to a habit of calling his opponents Klansmen or race hustlers.) But proponents of academic freedom should also be vigilant against the suppression of reasoned dissent. One never knows, after all, when pseudo-scholarship will become the new orthodoxy.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor of reason.

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