Norman Finkelstein is a 50-something itinerant academic who revels in controversy, especially with his delight in attacking Israel and Jewish establishment interests at every turn. He is Jewish himself and enjoys cover by widely advertising himself as a child of Holocaust survivors (both now deceased).
He is not lying in this regard. A long-time acquaintance of mine is related to him by marriage. According to him, his relatives don’t speak to Finkelstein because he arbitrarily defines survivors only as people who were in concentration camps. So this relative’s parents, by virtue of surviving in hiding, were “not” survivors.
He has published a number of books that take a very one-sided pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel stance. A few years ago, he published a widely cited book, The Holocaust Industry, which ferociously savaged Jewish institutions and (shall we say) “professional” survivors. Much of his work is factually on-target but is argued in a tendentious way that reduces complexities to simple moralistic terms of black & white. It’s accurate to say that he feeds on facts, presenting them in ways that inspire hatred or contempt (rather than understanding) toward Jews and Israel.
Back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, I wrote a review of one of Finkelstein’s books for ISRAEL HORIZONS. I compared his work with that of a Mapamnik (Mapam being the socialist-Zionist party that later merged with the Civic Rights Movement, RATZ, to form Meretz); the books were quite similar factually in ways that were not complimentary to Israel, but the tone and context were hugely different. The Mapamnik wrote to instill understanding and to foster a new approach toward peace making; Finkelstein wrote only to condemn and to excoriate.
Despite my dislike for Finkelstein’s views and my doubt that he engages in true scholarship – as opposed to politically-charged argumentation – I see DePaul’s decision on his tenure as its decision. Outside attempts to argue against his tenure are doomed to failure even if they succeed, because they would make him a victim of the all-powerful “Israel Lobby.” Obviously, people have the right to make their views known, but the cause of academic freedom is served neither by his obtaining tenure (because he’s dedicated to polemics rather than disinterested scholarship) nor by his rejection (because he becomes a “martyr” that extremists will rally around).
Efforts by Dershowitz against Finkelstein have been particularly obnoxious and counter-productive; I am advised by a colleague that Dershowitz was asked by an authority at DePaul to make his case, but this doesn’t negate his reported effort to get the University of California Press to cancel the publication of a book by the Fink via an appeal to Governor Schwartzenegger. Dershowitz has a personal animus against Finkelstein – quite understandably – because the Fink has written his book, Beyond Chutzpah, and otherwise engaged in a very public and caustic campaign against the Dersh’s views. Dersh is responding in kind, but this doesn’t make him any better in doing so. This resembles an undignified food fight. – R. Seliger