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Professor Norman Finkelstein and DePaul End Tenure Dispute, But Effect on Academic Freedom Remains

StorySeptember 10, 2007
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Norman Finkelstein

author of four books, including Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

Lynne Bernabei

Norman Finkelstein’s attorney.

Professor Norman Finkelstein has resigned from DePaul University after the two sides agreed on a private settlement. The deal was announced just before a scheduled protest against the school’s decision to deny Finkelstein tenure and to cancel his classes this semester. As part of the settlement, DePaul issued a statement that described Finkelstein as a "prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher." Finkelstein has said DePaul’s decision to deny him tenure was a result of political opposition to his speaking out about the Israel-Palestine conflict. We speak with Finkelstein and his attorney, Lynne Bernabei. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to our last segment. Professor Norman Finkelstein has resigned from DePaul University in Chicago after the two sides agreed on a private settlement. The deal was announced Wednesday just before scheduled protests against the schools decision to deny Finkelstein tenure and to cancel his classes this semester. Finkelstein spoke before a crowd of over 120 supporters wearing T-shirts that read "We are all Professor Finkelstein."

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I have been recognized as a public intellectual at many of the leading universities in the United States and Europe and have become an internationally recognized scholar in my academic specialties. Based on this record, I should have received tenure. It is now 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.

AMY GOODMAN: As part of the settlement, DePaul issued a statement that described Professor Finkelstein as a "prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher." Finkelstein has said DePaul’s decision to deny him tenure was a result of political opposition to his speaking out about the Israel-Palestine conflict. For years, Professor Finkelstein has been one of the most prominent critics of the Israeli government in U.S. academia.

Norman Finkelstein joins us now in the firehouse studio. His attorney, Lynne Bernabei, also joins us from Washington, D.C. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Norman Finkelstein, can you talk about why you were denied tenure and the settlement that you eventually came to at DePaul?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I think it’s clear from the record that I had earned tenure at the DePaul. The criteria for tenure are pretty straightforward: publications, teaching and service. And I had met all of those standards, I think. It’s not really a serious dispute on that. I was denied tenure because I became the object of a relentless battering and a vicious smear campaign, which eventually climaxed in a national hysteria. And the pressure apparently became too much for DePaul, and they succumbed to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Those forces, who?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: It’s hard to pinpoint, because a lot was going on behind the scenes. But unlike in the past, I’ve had problems elsewhere in academia. In this case there were some people who were not operating behind the scenes, in particular Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, who went on, to quote Professor Chomsky, "a veritable jihad" to deny me tenure and was engaging in the most scurrilous character assassination in venues like The Wall Street Journal.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Bernabei, you’re Norman Finkelstein’s attorney, a well-known civil rights attorney. You have represented a lot of professors at places like Georgetown in their tenure cases. How unusual was this tenure battle?

LYNNE BERNABEI: It seems that Professor Finkelstein’s tenure battle was much more emotional. And, I think, given the context that it was about his criticism of Israel, which is such a sort of lightning rod, and, you know, given the war in Iraq and the U.S.’s current position in the Middle East, I think it drew a lot of energy from other places. And it was almost as though sort of the microcosm of the struggle within the country — it was a microcosm of the struggle within the country over American foreign policy. So it was much more emotional and drew a lot of outside forces.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a quote, an interview that we did with Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg. He died last month at the age of 81. He was widely considered the founder of the field of Holocaust studies, author of the classic The Destruction of the European Jews. I interviewed Professor Hilberg in May in the lead-up to DePaul’s decision over whether to grant Norman Finkelstein tenure. This is what Professor Hilberg had to say about Norman’s work.

RAUL HILBERG: That takes a great amount of courage in and of itself. So I would say that his place in the whole history of writing history is assured and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the late Professor Hilberg. How important was this founder of Holocaust studies support to your work, Professor Finkelstein?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, one of the unusual outcomes of this whole struggle was the alignment of forces. Professor Hilberg is a — was a conservative Republican, and yet he gave me unstinting support, whereas The Progressive magazine, where you might expect I would get support, they characterized me as a Holocaust minimizer. The Nation magazine said that Alan Dershowitz and I deserved each other. So it really wasn’t predictable how the people would align.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re the son of Holocaust survivors.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I’m the son of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. It was the support of people like Hilberg, it was the support of Democracy Now!, and it was also — and I am eternally in their debt — it was the support of my students at DePaul University who worked tirelessly over a period of some five months to try to assure me some justice in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Bernabei, how unusual was that students’ support and how significant was it in the settlement that DePaul reached with Professor Finkelstein?

LYNNE BERNABEI: Well, I think, in any case, and this would be true here, the students’ support and the mobilization of supporters was extremely important. The students recognized that, one, Norman was a great teacher, but also that his voice was one that should be heard. I might also mention the Association — the American Association of University Professors was strongly supportive of Professor Finkelstein along — across the board when they were very upset at the denial of tenure, given the circumstances and the outside influences, and they were all so very upset when DePaul essentially cancelled his terminal contract. So, in addition to the students, there were outside institutions interested in academic freedom that were very upset by how this whole case was handled.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Bernabei and Norman Finkelstein, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

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