Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, One Rung at a Time

“It is time for me to move on and hopefully find new ways to fulfill my own mission in life of making the world a slightly better place on leaving it than when I entered it.”

Norman G. Finkelstein on 9/5/07

When Norman Finkelstein announced last Wednesday that he and DePaul University had reached a negotiated settlement, ending his nearly year-long battle to gain tenure in the face of the highly unusual set of circumstances created by the extramural campaign of hate and intimidation launched by Alan Dershowitz, the Israel Lobby, and its numerous affiliates, one could have almost have felt as if the whole controversy had come to an anti-climactic end. It was a sad moment for many who had defended Finkelstein throughout the year, in the hope the administration could be brought to its senses about the deadly blow that had been delivered against academic freedom and this world-class intellectual, who brought a determination to his work few will be able to match.

In exchange for his immediate resignation from DePaul’s faculty, DePaul would essentially admit that Finkelstein had met the University’s tenure and promotion requirements (“Professor Finkelstein is a prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher”), while also providing Finkelstein with an undisclosed amount of money, along with a backhanded acknowledgment of the public outrage that had been generated in response to the tenure denial (“We understand that Professor Finkelstein and his supporters disagree with the University Board on Promotion and Tenure’s conclusion that he did not meet the requirements for tenure.”) Well, the obvious reason Finkelstein and many of his supporters disagreed with the University Board on Promotion and Tenure’s conclusions is because Finkelstein consistently earned among the highest, if not the highest, teaching evaluations in the political science department for six years in a row. Coupled that with the five books which he has published to international acclaim, the most recent being his Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History with the University of California Press, which Dershowitz’s campaign of abuse and vilification could not censor, one might naturally understand why Finkelstein and his supporters have drawn the logical inference that something else-other than the usual DePaul standards-might have been in play.

Given that the University has now settled with Finkelstein under confidential terms, the logical inference, that outside political interference was the real reason Finkelstein was denied tenure, is most certainly correct. The administration’s repeated rejoinder that Finkelstein just did not measure up to the institution’s standards is clearly absurd. To recap: The tenure members of Finkelstein’s own department voted 9-3 supporting his tenure bid; The five members of the Liberal Arts and Science’s College Personnel Committee voted 5-0 to support Finkelstein’s tenure and promotion to full professor; two outside reviewers, of international acclaim, enthusiastically endorsed Finkelstein’s application. In late March, an administrative intervention, in the form of Dean Chuck Suchar, took place because the faculty, if left to its own devices, was going to give Finkelstein tenure. Suchar alleged that he could not support Finkelstein’s tenure bid because his scholarship was at odds with DePaul’s institutional mission, which apparently requires DePaul professors to respect the God-given dignity of political opponents such as Alan Dershowitz. In brief, according to Suchar, tenuring Finkelstein would be problematic since the latter engages in ad hominem and reputation-demeaning attacks.

In my opinion, all of this discussion about whether or not Finkelstein engages in ad hominem attacks, and whether or not his doing so should be legitimate grounds for denying him tenure, seems to completely miss the larger point: Finkelstein’s colleagues within his department and College overwhelmingly supported his tenure bid. The tenured members of his department, the people who worked with him on a daily basis, voted to support his tenure and promotion to associate professor. The three members of the department who voted against him filed a minority report, arguing that Finkelstein was uncollegial to them personally. The College Personnel Committee voted unanimously to support the Department’s majority recommendation. Surely, no one is going to claim that the nine people who voted for Finkelstein in his own department, and the five people who supported him on the College Personnel Committee, did so because they are anti-Semites or self-hating Jews, right?

Realizing that faculty support for Finkelstein would pose a huge problem for the administration’s long-ago hatched plan to deny him tenure, the Dean intervened and claimed that Finkelstein’s scholarship–which has been published to international acclaim and praised by the likes of the leading experts on the Israel Palestine conflict (Avi Shlaim (Oxford), Sara Roy (Harvard), the late Barcuh Kimmerling (Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem), William Quandt, and Beshara Doumani (Berkeley) and the Nazi Holocaust (the late Raul Hilberg, the founder of Holocaust Studies who was actually doing serious work on the Holocaust long before it became politically convenient and ideologically serviceable to do so, Joachim Fest, Arno Mayer, Christopher Browning, and Ian Kershaw)–just did not comport with what it means to embody Vincentian personalism.. Finkelstein’s five books have undergone forty-six different translations-more than the entire faculty within DePaul’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences combined. That doesn’t sound very controversial to me.

In his report, the Dean bases his argument that Finkelstein’s scholarship doesn’t meet DePaul’s standards on a single chapter from The Holocaust Industry. As it turns out, the Dean, in the course of advancing his argument, reveals he hasn’t read any of Finkelstein’s books, much less the one he is referencing. Suchar got so confused in his borrowings from another text, which was perhaps provided to him by Dershowitz or some other third party, that he misspelled the word “huckster” as “huxter”-just as Dershowitz misspelled it in his propaganda package, [see p. 5 of 21], which he sent Finkelstein’s former department chair. In addition, note that Suchar places the Israeli historian Benny Morris in the same company as Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel, and Daniel Goldhagen. As anyone who has read Finkelstein’s work surely knows, Morris is someone Finkelstein holds in high regard and is not someone he would mention in the same breath as Dershowitz, Wiesel, and Goldhagen– all of whom he has referrred to as “hoaxers” and “hucksters”; not, as Suchar (and Dershowitz) would have it, “hoaxters and huxters”. After Suchar’s memo withholding support for Finkelstein’s tenure came out in late March, fourteen members of the political science department, including all the junior faculty members, refuted what was alleged about Finkelstein’s supposed incivility, stating they found him to be a great colleague who made a tremendous contribution to the department.

The University Board, which voted 4-3 against tenure, embraced the minority report written by the three people in Finkelstein’s department who voted against him, none of whom are experts on the Middle East or the Nazi Holocaust, while ignoring the majority vote from Finkelstein’s department, the unanimous vote of the College Personnel Committee, and the enthusiastic endorsements of two distinguished outside reviewers, whose views and opinions about Finkelstein’s record were solicited by DePaul’s political science department. This year’s university committee consisted of faculty members from Psychology, Law, Theatre Arts, Management, Mathematics, Communications, and Education. Is one to understand that these faculty members were in a better position to judge Finkelstein’s record than his own department, his College, and the distinguished reviewers? Note that President Holtscheider, in summarizing the University Board’s reasoning, doesn’t even offer one example of the ad hominem attacks in Finkelstein’s work, which apparently necessitated the tenure denial.

In examining the evidence at hand, it’s fairly clear that Finkelstein was not denied tenure because of his supposed ad hominem attacks or his lack of collegiality. He was denied tenure at DePaul because tremendous outside pressure was placed on the university to remove an effective critic of U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East from its precincts. I wish the administration would stop repeating the bald-face lie that Finkelstein’s scholarship did not meet DePaul’s tenure and promotion standards. It’s embarrassing and an insult to the intelligence. Apparently, Rubinstein and Associates, the PR firm DePaul hired to help it with its public relations image, thought the repeated invocation of this lie would pass muster; it clearly did not.
Private giving to DePaul doubled between 2006 and 2007. I have no doubt that DePaul receiving that money was dependent upon the administration ensuring that Finkelstein be denied tenure. It’s to DePaul’s credit that it hired and retained Finkelstein for six years. There was plenty of pressure placed on the university during that time period to get rid of him because he was writing and speaking, with great effectiveness, about Israel’s terrible human rights record against the Palestinians in the Occupied territories, which is sustained by the United States’ crucial material, military, and diplomatic support. Indeed, it’s often difficult for U.S. intellectuals to hear that they might be contributing to a cultural milieu that condones and turns its eyes away from U.S.-supported war crimes. When Finkelstein exposed Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, in his Beyond Chutzpah, to be a “hoax concocted from another hoax,” Finkelstein in fact exposed how our own elite intellectual culture works. How else does one explain that Henry Louis Gates praised The Case for Israel as a great book? Maybe he didn’t read it before he wrote a positive blurb for it?

In October of 2004, I had the distinct honor of interviewing Professor Finkelstein for an online discussion of his books. Although he became impatient with the participant’s seemingly, complete lack of comprehension of his work, which were supposed to be the basis of participant questions, he tried to provide some comic relief. His dismissal of Derrida and his work, the day after Derrida’s passing, was in meant to force discussion participants to think about why Derrida’s thinking had come to dominate so much contemporary discussion within the humanities; that’s what iconoclasts are supposed to do. They force us to question why we embrace certain figures, theories, and approaches, attacking them when they become all too sacred.

Below, I’ve pasted in Finkelstein’s final post to the discussion list, which struck me as ironic and insightful. I’d prefer tenure to be an honor we bestow upon people who are saying provocative and timely things about the important issues of the day, rather than an accolade with which we buy people’s silence and good behavior. All too often that’s unfortunately how tenure operates. Robert Jensen wrote a powerful essay about this problem a few months ago, considering what it would mean for the U.S. academy if Finkelstein were denied tenure. I’m afraid Jensen’s words were prescient.

If there are those in the public sphere who have actually read Finkelstein’s books and grappled with his arguments who wish to offer up some examples of Finkelstein’s supposed ad hominem attacks, I’m sure they could be analyzed and discussed. For example, are Finklestein’s charts documenting Dershowitz’s reliance upon Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial in his The Case for Israel ad hominem?

For someone to state that they’ve heard that Finkelstein is a nasty piece of work, a self-hating Jew, and an anti-Semite based on third parties, who have a vested interest in silencing him, seems inconsistent with what responsible public intellectualism is all about. Let’s not forget that Finkelstein is Jewish, the son of Holocaust survivors, and had much of his family exterminated during the holocaust. The dedication of his Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict reads as follows:

To my beloved parents,

Maryla Husyt Finkelstein,
survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto,
Maidanek concentration camp


Zacharias Finkelstein,
survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto,
Auschwitz concentration camp.

May I never forget or forgive what was done to them

Thanks, Norm, for all you have done for your colleagues and students at DePaul. In the end, you proved to have had far more integrity, intelligence, determination than those who were in a position to judge you. As you helped humanity climb Jacob’s ladder, one rung at a time, you have inspired all of us to make this world a better and more humane place.

Wed, 27 Oct 2004 08:11:02 -0500
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One reason for the right-wing’s ascendancy in the United States is that, at any rate, in some departments, and especially those where I can lay reasonable claim to personal and professional knowledge, what reactionaries have to say, however painful it might be to confess, contains a grain, and then some, of truth. It is frequently alleged in these right-wing quarters that universities have been effectively hijacked by semi-literate, politically correct blowhards spouting an incomprehensible and vacuous jargon, not to mention one with the tonal aesthetic of a tin can, which, rather than be a badge or shame, is for these post-whatevers a point of preening and, what’s yet more a matter
commanding consternation among those still preserving a jot of rationality, for them a signifier of superiority to the common herd who, God forbid, make themselves
generally understood. I am old enough to have passed through multiple of these epochs in non-thought. When I was coming of age politically, Althusser and his acolytes like Poulantzas were all the rage. Who can forget that prose that induced the same aesthetic effect as it was chewed over in the mind as tin foil does when chewed over in a mouth filled with cavities? This fashion passed expeditiously enough when Poulantzas jumped off a towering edifice (showing enough consideration for humanity by, reportedly, carrying his books with him as he plunged to eternity), quickly to be followed by Althusser strangling his wife to death, all in the fateful academic year 1979. (On a personal note, havng been a student in Paris at the time, I still vividly recall these untimely deaths, attended by the almost simultaneous passings of Sartre and Roland Barthes, the latter run down by a car.) This lunatic craze however was almost immediately superseded by the Foucault cult, when every half-baked,ill-educated dimwit imagined him or herself a philosopher after having dabbed in (excerpts from, if even that much) Nietzsche, Heidegger and the Paris master-thinker himself. Shortly thereafter began the Derrida fad with a fresh wagon-load of cliché and jargon unloaded at navel-contemplating conferences, pawned off as radical and cutting edge whereas it possessed all the intellectual and political content of marsh mellow topped with Redi-Whip; and – will the Lord ever forgive them for this sin- unloaded on unsuspecting students. I have on occasion, mostly for light amusement after a hard day’s work, picked up some of these texts, and wonder how poor, unsuspecting, innocent, naive young people have borne such utter rubbish. To inflict it on them is – and here I write as a committed, if atheistic, educator – truly a sin beyond redemption. Fortunately adults such as myself, and not bound by the constraints, whether of political correctness or academic fashion, still preserve the liberty – which I, at any rate, do not intend to abdicate – of calling this what it is. For all I know he might have been the most decent fellow going, but as an influence on academic life Derrida was an abomination – or, more exactly, a too-long running joke. I do not in the least lament his passing, except in the sense of the truism that for those who knew him personally, his loss, like the loss of human life generally, must be source of sorrow. Beyond that, good riddens. The reactions to my posting on this listserv have fallen into three main categories: 1) studied disgust at my lack of academic couth – which is a useful pretext (if I might appropriate that word) for avoiding discussion of substantive issues; 2) incomprehensible gibberish about my “rhetoric,” “representations,” intermixed with words I’ve never heard of like “aporia” and “irenic” – or, to be precise, words I have heard of, but don’t think it’s worth the trouble of learning their definition, although I love dictionaries – my last great hope is that if reincarnation is yet a transcendental and temporal truth, I come back as a Webster’s unabridged; and although reveling in the exquisite delights of learning new words: yet as a point of principle I refuse to invest the energy requisite for such lexicological investigation simply to satisfy the pitifully deformed ego of a pedant; and 3) factual points of difference. Almost none of the postings fit under the last head. I will limit my remarks here to two interrelated point.

I asserted that one evidence that Holocaust studies is a non-field is the sorts of questions it ponders: e.g. the fanatical insistence on proving the “uniqueness” of the Nazi holocaust. It was then asserted in response by one listserv member that this concern is hardly peculiar to Holocaust studies. Let’s then, put forth a simple challenge. Consider this illustrative rendering from a leading light of this purported field. Professor Steven T. Katz has published the first of a projected three volume study (Oxford University Press) harnessing over 5,000 titles the purpose of which is to prove that “the Holocaust is phenomenologically unique by virtue of the fact that never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized policy, to annihilate physically every man, woman and child belonging to a specific people.” Clarifying his thesis, Katz explains: “”? is uniquely C. “? may share A, B, D,…X with ?£ but not C. And again “may share A,B,D,…X with all £ but not C…”| lacking C is not “….By definition, no exceptions to this rule are allowed. ?£ sharing A,B,D,…X with “? may be like “? in these and other respects…but as regards our definition of uniqueness any or all ?£ sharing A,B,D,…X with “? may be like “? in these and other respect…but as regards our definition of uniqueness any or all ?£ lacking C are not “?….Of course, in its totality “? is more than C, but it is never “? without C.” To avoid any confusion, Katz further elucidates that he uses the term phenomenological “in a non-Husserlian, non-Shutzean, non-Schelerian, non-Heideggerian, non-Merleau-Pontyian sense.” Translation: the Katz enterprise, like Holocaust studies generally, is phenomenal non-sense. Now here’s my question: Please cite even a single article in the vast output of scholarship on American slavery that even remotely echoes such insane preoccupations. Or, point to me a single article in the scholarly literature on American slavery making the claim that it “leads into darkness,” “negates all answers,” “lies outside, if not beyond, history,” “defies both knowledge and description,” “cannot be explained nor visualized,” is “never to be comprehended or transmitted,” marks a “destruction of history” and a “mutation on a cosmic scale,” is “non-communicable ” – “we cannot even talk about it.” I am, or course, quoting here the high-priest of Holocaust studies, Elie Wiesel. Does this sound to anyone on the listserv like rational inquiry or is it, as I’ve suggested, a highly lucrative and politically useful mystery religion?

MATTHEW ABRAHAM is an Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse at DePaul University. He was the 2005 Rachel Corrie Courage in the Teaching of Writing award winner. He can be reached at