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Norman Finkelstein is the target of a witch-hunt that could cost him his job teaching at DePaul University in Chicago.
An outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights as well as a renowned scholar with a reputation for exceptional teaching, Finkelstein is being considered for tenure at DePaul. He won strong support from the political science department and the personnel committee of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, but DePaul’s dean refused to back his application for tenure.
Finkelstein’s longtime adversary, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, has publicly campaigned against Finkelstein getting tenure at DePaul. DePaul’s provost will make his decision before June, and the university president has until June 15, the last day of the quarter at DePaul, to issue his final word.
Students and faculty have come to Finkelstein’s defense. Hundreds signed a petition of support, and pickets and meetings were organized to draw attention to the case. Students began wearing armbands this week to show their solidarity, and plans are in the works for a week of support events starting May 21, culminating in a demonstration and town hall meeting on May 24.
KW: HOW DIFFICULT has it been for you to make a space for yourself in teaching in the current political environment?
NF: I GOT my doctorate in 1988. Until 2000, I taught as what is called an adjunct, where you get paid per course. I lived in New York and taught at various universities and colleges. I was paid about an average of $3,000 per course and taught five to six courses a year, so I lived in New York for about 12 years on a salary ranging from $15,000 to $18,000 a year.
Eventually, I got a “visiting professorship,” which is a yearly position. I was paid substantially more, but those were exceptional years–I think three years out of the 12. My entire teaching career, I have only once been interviewed for a job.
My dissertation was on the theory of Zionism. I don’t want to bore people with the details–just let’s say it was very difficult for me to get a job, because it’s considered a prerequisite that one of the letters of recommendation required for work, if not two, are from your thesis advisors–and none of my thesis advisors would support my candidacy.
HOW DID you recover from that?
WELL, I never got a job! I was working as an adjunct and non-PhDs get adjuncting jobs. It’s the equivalent of substitute teaching.
WHAT HAS been happening at DePaul?
I THINK that had the tenure process been allowed to go along according to basic protocols and procedure, I would have sailed through tenure, but external pressures were applied to the university, which have corrupted the process and derailed my tenure application.
There are two factors, really. One is vindictiveness and revenge–to “get” me for my public opposition to Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories. The other is to transmit the message that if you step out of line on this question, you’re going to face the same penalties as Finkelstein faced. It’s a way of silencing others for coming up behind me.
Finally, the hope is that if I’m denied tenure, it will de-legitimize me. The claim will be made that this Finkelstein guy, because he couldn’t get tenure at what these people consider a “ninth-rate Catholic university,” doesn’t know what he’s saying. That’s not me speaking about DePaul–that’s what they say.
CAN YOU describe the development of this fight with Dershowitz?
I FIRST met Professor Dershowitz on a program called Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman’s nationally broadcast program. I had read his book The Case for Israel as soon as it came out, and it was plain to me that large parts of it had been plagiarized, and also large parts of it were sheer fabrication and falsification of the documentary record.
When I was on the program I effectively told him as much. He was furious when he left the interview. Amy actually told me to watch out.
I felt obliged, having leveled incendiary allegations, to document it all, because otherwise, it would seem as if I was speaking in an irresponsible manner. I went on to document the allegations and produce a manuscript.
When Professor Dershowitz got wind of the manuscript, he embarked on a huge campaign to suppress publication of the book. He wasn’t successful, and now he’s embarked on a new campaign to deny me tenure.
Basically, I think there’s elements of vindictiveness, but also a desire to discredit me–and hopefully, in his mind, to repair some of the damage done by my book and my public allegations.
TO WHAT extent do you think he’s been successful in framing the debate over your tenure?
I DON’T think he’s been very successful. I think he’s looking very foolish. Even mainstream publications like the New York Times, which are very much in his corner and very much not in my corner, didn’t give him a write-up that he can be particularly proud of. He’s not been very successful. He’s behaving at this point in a very self-destructive manner.
WHAT DO you think the state of academic freedom in the U.S. today?
I’M NOT as hysterical about these issues as other people. Mine is kind of an unusual case, because I don’t confine my activity to academia. I speak before large numbers of audiences and I’m a known quantity outside the ivory tower, and so I pose many more problems to the powers that be than most academics.
I could be wrong on this subject, but I don’t think that academic freedom is being threatened. There are some cases, but my case is simply unusual because I’m a political activist outside the ivory tower of academia.
DO YOU think that professors have an obligation to engage in political activity?
THEY DON’T have an obligation as professors; they have an obligation as citizens. They have the luxury of devoting their working life to trying to ferret out the facts and the truth about what’s going on.
For most other working people, their working lives are devoted to jobs which have minimal levels of personal gratification and have very little to do with mental activity of the sort that creates informed citizens. So since you have the luxury of sitting around and reading books, you do have an obligation as a citizen to pursue and expose the truth.
KATHRYN WEBER is a student at DePaul who has helped to organize the Finkelstein support campaign.
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This interview originally appeared in the Socialist Worker.