Cutting through the bullshit.

Monday, 9 April 2007

Support Finkelstein

Update: The letter has now been sent to de Paul, but there’s still an online petition circulating if anyone is interested, 3736 signatures, so far.


You probably already know that DePaul University is currently considering tenure for Dr Norman Finkelstein, author of Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (2nd ed. 2003), The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2003), and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (2005).

The issue, reported in the Chronicle of higher education, as well as Jews sans frontiers and Otto's Random Thoughts, is that the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Charles S. Suchar, in a 22 March memo, rejected the recommendation of a ¾ majority of Finkelstein’s own Political Science Department and the unanimous recommendation of the College Personnel Committee. The grounds Suchar adduced were couched in terms of vague principles like ‘personalism’.

Finkelstein writes, ‘DePaul is in a growth mode, and they see me as an albatross because they’re getting all this negative publicity because of me. And they want to get rid of me.’

It would appear that this is a response to a vindictive campaign by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who circulated a dossier of some fifty pages to the DePaul Law Faculty, the Political Science Department, and, as Dershowitz told the Chronicle, everybody who would read it’. It was Dershowitz, it will be recalled, who attempted to have Finkelstein’s Beyond chutzpah suppressed, going as far as to threaten the University of California Press with a libel suit. One of the matters Finkelstein takes up in Beyond chutzpah is Dershowitz’s plagiarism, in his The case for Israel (2004), of the well known fraud, Joan Peters’s From time immemorial (1984).

Now I’m not Finkelstein’s biggest fan. For example, in an interview on 3 April, he told Jamie Stein-Weiner on The heathlander,

The refugee question is a red herring. It serves the same purpose now as the Palestinian Covenant did in the 1970s-1980s; to divert attention from Israel’s refusal to fully withdraw. Israel knows that the international community will be sympathetic to its stand regarding the refugees but not sympathetic on borders/settlements, so it’s trying to divert attention from the latter, and towards the former.

But he has done good work in debunking a lot of the widely circulating Zionist myths, of which Dershowitz is one of the principal purveyors. And it is assuredly because his research does not support the approved version of Palestinian history, and not because of the quality or quantity of his scholarship, or his teaching ability, that his tenure is even in question.

Academics, Filmmakers, Artists, Intellectuals, and Doctors for Intellectual Freedom In Support of Dr. Norman Finkelstein have established a website and drafted a letter to the DePaul authorities. The site provides the text of the letter, as well as the memos from the Political Science Department, the Personnel Committee, and Suchar. If you are concerned about the erosion of academic freedom and hegemony of the Zionist discourse, I encourage you to visit the site and add your signature to the statement.


  1. Hi Ernie,

    Just out of curiosity - what did you object to in Finkelstein's response?

  2. What I keep saying is that if I were a refugee, I wouldn't consider my rights to be some kind of ambit for people who can't even make a credible pretense of representing me to negotiate away. As I read it, the substance of Finkelstein's response was very much in the same vein that doesn't take the refugees themselves into consideration. They're just some issue that, in his view, Olmert is using to distrct attention from the real issue, 'Israel's refusal to withdraw'.

    I might go further, because I don't agree that Israel has ever had any serious intention of withdrawing to anywhere near the Green Line, nor that doing so and partitioning Palestine could ever solve anything.

    Finally, what you actually asked was, 'Israeli PM Ehud Olmert recently declared that “I’ll never accept a solution that is based on their [the Palestinian refugees] return to Israel, any number”, and “I will not agree to accept any kind of Israeli responsibility for the refugees. Full stop.”, on the grounds that the refugee problem was created when Arab countries attacked the newly-formed State of Israel (hence, one presumes, he places the responsibility on the aggressor Arab states). What do you think of this view?' In my view, he doesn't actually address that question very fully. To be fair, however, if the refugees themselves don't actually matter, dismissing the whole issue like this is probably a satisfactory answer.

  3. What Finkelstein meant, judging from his other writings, is that Olmert's focus on the refugees was just a distraction from the occupation. I think that's true.

    But Finkelstein can certainly not be accused of trivialising the refugee issue - look at any of his speeches and he makes clear that every single one of the 4-5 million refugees has the right to return to their homes inside of Israel.

    You're right that he didn't exactly answer the question - he empahsised before I sent the questions that he would have to keep his answers very brief, and I guess he sort of used the question to say what he wanted to say.

    But again: you and Finkelstein definitely agree on the issue of refugees (that they all have the right to return to their homes).

    Finkelstein would also readily accept that Israel has no intention of withdrawing to the Green Line - indeed, that was precisely his point.

  4. A point that I’ve made in the past ( is that my view is that what an academic says for a general audience, in an op-ed, an interview, or a public debate, is more important than what they put into their academic work. They have to be aware that they are presenting as experts and that people with no familiarity of any nuances they may have put in their other work are going to take them seriously. So it doesn’t actually matter what he may have said elsewhere. It’s sufficient that he is dismissive of the refugee question in this particular interview.

    Now my view is that the refugee issue is actually central. While the notion of an ethnically exclusive state is anathema in its own right, if Palestine had really and truly been ‘a land without people’, the establishment of a Jewish state there would be a much less atrocious act. That the expulsion of the Palestinians was integral to Zionist thought from its inception is a grave condemnation of the ideology. But what’s important is that the ethnic cleansing of 1948-49 was actually carried out and the refugees are the direct result. If the concern is peace and justice, my position is that the refugee issue actually takes precedence over where Israel ends up drawing its borders. This is partly as a matter of principle. But the practicalities of resettling the refugees in ‘Israel proper’ as justice requires will impact on the border issue, as well, anyway. So I guess I think it’s important to keep raising the issue. If an interview is necessarily brief, the refugees are the issue that I would want to find an opportunity to raise, even if the interviewer tried to steer clear of it. You provided Finkelstein with an opening and he rejected it to make a point he considered more important.

    Now when Finkelstein says, ‘refusal to fully withdraw’, you say you understood him to mean ‘fully withdraw to the Green Line’, as did I and as did everyone else who read it. Certainly if he intended some other withdrawal, say to the borders stipulated in the resolution 181 partition plan, he should take more care to express that explicitly. But I think he really did mean the Green Line. Now by emphasising withdrawal to the Green Line, he implies that there is something unacceptable about the occupation of land administered by Jordan and Egypt until June 1967 that was not unacceptable about occupation of land intended for Palestinian sovereignty in 1948, or indeed any part of Palestine for the purposes of establishing an ethnically exclusivist Jewish state. This is a widely held view and can make a kind of sense if you base your reasoning on what the UN may decide to do from time to time. Now in my view, the basis on which the UN recommended partition in the first place, and the inherent hypocrisy of the grounds expressed for admitting Israel to the UN in May 1949, and the backflips over the question of whether Zionism is racism, among many other things, all conspire to suggest that UN resolutions are not an appropriate starting point if your aim is to come to a conceptually coherent position, much less a just solution.

    Obviously, my criticism is political, not academic. That’s the point, actually. From what I can see, where he raises the refugee issue in Beyond chutzpah and in the Morris chapter in Image and reality, he doesn’t take a political position. He just scrutinises the claims and adduces the counterevidence. It’s kind of polemical, yes, but in a strictly academic way. It’s exactly the kind of thing that the defenders of ‘academic freedom’ always claim is precisely acceptable in academic discourse (see Of course they don’t really mean it. And that’s one of the reasons I think it’s important to support Finkelstein’s tenure. The reason they are even considering refusal is not that his scholarship isn’t up to scratch or even that he’s too polemical. It’s that he comes to uncomfortable conclusions.

  5. I notice that the links I put in the previous comment don’t look right. The first is to my post of 1 November 2006 entitled ‘I have a confession’ The one in the last paragraph is to a post entitled ‘Gone Fishing’ posted 24 July 2006

  6. Well, I still think you're being a bit harsh. It was a short, blog interview - my guess is that he wanted to talk about why Olmert was focusing on the refugee issue because there wasn't time for a historical analysis, but there was time for a political one.

    And if you're talking about 'public debates', then just take a look at his speeches. He almost never fails to mention the absolute right of the refugees to return.

    Yeah, Finkelstein supports the two-state solution, as do I. Once you start going beyond what the law says, your arguments are on much less solid ground.

  7. Ernie:

    Thanks for leaving the links at my blog. I have not had time to put them up in a proper post yet due to the Easter Holiday. But, I will do so later today.

  8. You may be right. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been accused of harshness. I’m sure Finkelstein can take it – he can certainly dish it out. I followed the link from lenin;s tomb and listened to his ‘debate’ with Dershowitz on Democracy now! from 2003 earlier today. And I can assure you he doesn’t mince his words. He could really have hammered Dershowitz on his assertion that Israel doesn’t do torture – Dershowitz left himself wide open – and let him off easy. The main point, however, is that one of the things that came up was the allegation that the refugees were ordered to flee and in that context he never mentioned anything about the right to return. It was a perfect opportunity to make the main point, which is that it doesn’t matter why they left, and he got distracted by a discrepancy between the number Dershowitz had claimed and the number from Morris that he purported he got it from.

    In any case, my understanding is that you emailed him questions and he took whatever amount of time he wanted for them. And he chose to gloss over the central issue. I don’t agree that it’s not a political issue, nor that his ‘political analysis’ of this question was in any way adequate, nor that you can segregate politics and history in the way I think you’re suggesting.

    One of the things I always argue is that partition actually solves nothing, so there is no two state solution, per se. In particular, if a significant proportion, indeed, any proportion, of refugees exercise the right of return, it will further undermine the tenuous claim that Israel makes to legitimacy as a Jewish state. Obviously, in my view, a Jewish state, i.e. one that privileges Jewishness or Judaism in any way, would be illegitimate even with 100% Jewish population. Even so, every extra gentile further reduces the legitimacy. So if Israel can’t be a Jewish state even with the non legitimacy it enjoys now with an 80% or so majority, what would be the point of creating another state that isn’t a Jewish state in tiny Palestine? And that’s before we even start talking about compensation. Olmert and the other Zionists who reject the right of return on the grounds that it would undermine the Jewish character of Israel are right about that. That’s why they reject it and that’s one of the reasons it is essential.