Campus Profile: Norman Finkelstein

BY NAN RUBIN

**This profile is one in a small collection produced for PRA’s report Constructing Campus Conflict: Antisemitism and Islamophobia on U.S. College Campuses 2007-2011. Figures profiled played significant roles in campus controversies reviewed for that report. In the assessment of our authors, these figures’ campus appearances have done more to inflame existing divisions than to build towards positive alternatives. However, we imply no moral, ideological, or other equivalency. Individual profile authors decided what information was most useful for readers to evaluate their claims, rhetoric, and roles in campus controversies.

HISTORY AND BACKGROUND

Norman Gary Finkelstein is an American political scientist and author whose primary fields of research are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the politics of the Holocaust. His parents were both Holocaust survivors and he credits them with imparting his sense of “support for left-wing humanitarian causes” and moral outrage at such events as the Vietnam War. He is a graduate of Binghamton University and has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Princeton University. He has had a checkered history in academia, having held faculty positions at Brooklyn College, Rutgers University, Hunter College, and New York University. Most recently, he taught at DePaul University, where he was an assistant professor from 2001 to 2007 but left amid a major scandal surrounding his denial of tenure.

Finkelstein characterizes himself as an “old-fashioned communist” who is a “forensic scholar.” A prolific writer, commentator, and speaker, he has made his reputation by sharply criticizing a number of prominent Jewish writers and scholars whom he accuses of misrepresenting the historical record, challenging popular notions of the history of Israel and the occupation of Palestine, and of the representation of the Holocaust. He has produced a steady stream of books, articles, lectures, and interviews reflecting his positions on these topics. Beginning with his doctoral thesis, his career has been marked by controversy and public rivalries, most notably with attorney Alan Dershowitz.

CRITIQUE OF FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL

Controversy began as early as Finkelstein’s doctoral thesis, where he challenged the claims made in Joan Peters’s 1984 book From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine. Peters claimed that at the time Israel was created in 1948, the Arabs in Palestine were not long-term subjects of the Ottoman Empire, as was the accepted history of the time. Instead, she argued, waves of Arab immigrants actually arrived much later, in the 19th century and through the period of the British Mandate. Peters concluded that the picture of a native Palestinian population overwhelmed by Jewish immigration was little more than propaganda describing two almost simultaneous waves of Zionist Jewish settlers and Palestinian immigrants who arrived at the same time in what had been a relatively empty land.

Finkelstein’s dissertation accused the book of being nothing other than fraudulent history. He challenged enthusiastic reviews of the book and immediately earned the suspicion of being anti-Israel. Even so, by 1986 such recognized experts in the field as Yehoshua Porath, Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, were calling Peters’s book “sheer forgery” and supporting Finkelstein’s position.

EXPOSING THE “HOLOCAUST INDUSTRY”

Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, published in 2000, reinforced his reputation as a public anti-Zionist and to some, an antisemitic “self-hating Jew.”

The book argues that the American Jewish establishment exploits the memory of the Nazi Holocaust for political and financial gain and to further the interests of Israel. This “Holocaust industry,” he says, has corrupted Jewish culture and the authentic memory of the Holocaust (as embodied by both his parents) by casting Israel as a perpetual “victim state” despite its militarization and poor human rights record. Finkelstein also accuses the American Jewish establishment of funding a broad range of questionable institutions and individuals who profit from legal settlements and restitution payments rather than passing funds directly to Holocaust survivors. In this context, he has provided a level of credibility to Holocaust deniers, such as David Irving, whom Finkelstein says “serve a good function in society” as a “devil’s advocate.”

The book was a bestseller in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America and was translated into 16 languages. However, it was panned in the United States, where critics charged that it was poorly researched and allowed others to exploit the Holocaust for antisemitic purposes. Finkelstein did have among his supporters Raul Hilberg, considered by many to be the founder of Holocaust studies, who agreed that such exploitation exists and said of Finkelstein, “his conclusions are trustworthy … and [he] has come up with the right results.”

BEYOND CHUTZPAH: TAKING ON ALAN DERSHOWITZ AND THE CASE FOR ISRAEL

In 2003, Alan Dershowitz published The Case for Israel, a book presenting a series of essays on what he identified as the most common accusations and myths about Israel and rebutting them chapter by chapter. Shortly after publication, Finkelstein derided it as “a collection of fraud, falsification, plagiarism, and nonsense” and based on extensive passages taken from other writers including Joan Peters. He publicly repeated the plagiarism charge when both he and Dershowitz appeared on a live radio debate on “Democracy Now!” Elena Kagan, then dean of Harvard Law School, asked former Harvard president Derek Bok to investigate the plagiarism charge. Dershowitz was eventually exonerated.

To counter what he considered Dershowitz’s unsupportable claim that Israel had an excellent human rights record, Finkelstein published Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History in 2005. In this book he analyzes “The Not-So-New ‘New Anti-Semitism,” arguing that a “new anti-Semitism” was invented by supporters of Israel to brand any serious criticism of Israel’s human rights abuses as antisemitism and provide a cover for that country’s expansionistic policies in the Palestinian territories. He also elaborated his charges of plagiarism against Dershowitz, who retaliated with a lawsuit against the publisher, University of California Press, that was eventually dropped.

BEING DENIED TENURE BY DEPAUL UNIVERSITY

In early 2007 DePaul’s political science department voted to award Finkelstein tenure, but the University Board on Promotion and Tenure rejected his bid and placed him on administrative leave for the 2007-2008 academic year. At the same time, the university also denied tenure to Assistant Professor of International Studies Mehrene Larudee, a strong Finkelstein supporter, despite unanimous support from her department.

Dershowitz had openly admitted that he strongly lobbied faculty, administrators, and others to derail Finkelstein’s tenure recommendation. An official statement from DePaul praised Finkelstein as a scholar and outstanding teacher but strongly defended the tenure decision, stating that outside influence played no part. The incident sparked weeks of student protests supporting the two faculty members, support from DePaul’s Faculty Council, and a flurry of letters from academic organizations such as The American Association of University Professors, which stated, “It is entirely illegitimate for a university to deny tenure to a professor out of fear that his published research … might hurt a college’s reputation.” By September 2007 Finkelstein had resigned, fearing that as a result of this “blacklisting” he would be “barred from ever entering a college classroom again.”

RECENT ACTIVITIES

Finkelstein maintains his own official website—with his speaking schedule and a comprehensive list of publications, video and audio materials, reviews, critiques, and correspondence to and about him. He is a prolific writer who continues to turn out a stream of materials; his most recent book is Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End. A documentary film about him—American Radical: the Trials of Norman Finkelstein—was released in 2009.

Because of the feud between them, Finkelstein presents himself as a David against the Goliath academic heavyweight Dershowitz. He is in demand on college campuses by pro-Palestinian groups, both for his consistent defense of Palestinian independence and anti-Zionist critique of Israeli policy; and for the messy process that apparently killed his tenure bid and made him a martyr in the hostile campaign against him by Dershowitz. At his public events, he often faces pro-Israel protesters and his speaking engagements are frequently cancelled.

Most recently, material posted on Finkelstein’s website played a significant role in a debate around the granting of an honorary degree to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. In May 2011, a trustee of the City University of New York, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, said that Kushner had disparaged the State of Israel, an assertion he said came from Finkelstein’s website, and objected to the City University of New York’s (CUNY) proposal that Kushner be granted an honorary degree.[1]

Kushner, who is Jewish and on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, said that he was “dismayed by the vicious attack and wholesale distortion of my beliefs.” He argued that while he has criticized Israeli policies, he has never supported a boycott of Israel, and he believes in Israel’s right to exist and in a “negotiated conclusion to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.”[2] In the ensuing furor, CUNY had to deal with a public relations scandal, and the trustees’ decision to table Kushner’s nomination was reversed, with chair Benno Schmidt calling it “a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy.” The incident led to claims of intolerance and restrictions on the exercise of free speech all around.


[1] Patrick Healy, “CUNY Blocks Honor for Tony Kushner,” New York Times, May 4, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/nyreligion/cuny-blocks-honor-for-tony-kushner.html; Norman Finkelstein, “The Crimes of Tony Kushner,” http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/the-crimes-of-tony-kushner/.

[2] “Tony Kushner to The Board of Trustees of the City University of New York,” Nation, May 4, 2011, http://www.thenation.com/sites/default/files/user/20/54643560-Letter-to-CUNY-Trustees-05-04-11.pdf.