For those of you who thought one opinion column about Norman Finkelstein in the pages of The Badger Herald this week was enough, I apologize. That's because I'm about to add a second. I did not originally intend to opine on the controversial scholar who reached an agreement to leave DePaul University last week, but after reading the myriad of amusing statements in Herald columnist Kyle Szarzynski's tribute to Mr. Finkelstein Tuesday, I felt a rebuttal was needed. Because the inaccuracies contained in the Herald writer's "Israel lobby censors academic honesty" column are numerous, I've compiled a list of myths and provided commentary on each. I mean no personal disrespect to Mr. Szarzynski, but his opinions are of a kind too often unchallenged on university campuses these days. Hence, my rebuttal. Myth No. 1: Mr. Finkelstein has received the adulation of many "renowned scholars." A few academics have commended Mr. Finkelstein's work, which takes a virulent anti-Israel stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His supporters include Raul Hillberg, and more notably, Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately, a Middle East scholar approved of by Mr. Chomsky is kind of like a veterinarian endorsed by Michael Vick. Mr. Chomsky's contributions to the Middle East debate have included, among other things, writing an introduction to a book by a Holocaust denier. When this guy supports you, it says a lot. Also telling is another group of ardent, though decidedly non-scholarly supporters of Mr. Finkelstein: neo-Nazis. According to the Washington Post, "Norman Finkelstein [is] a writer celebrated by neo-Nazi groups for his Holocaust revisionism and comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany." Myth No. 2: Mr. Finkelstein has "highly regarded credentials." Mr. Finkelstein has been hired as a faculty member at — and departed from — Rutgers University, New York University, Brooklyn College, Hunter College and now, DePaul University. Just a casual observation, but if his credentials were truly acclaimed, you'd think at least one of those educational institutions would have found a way to keep him around. Myth No. 3: DePaul denied Mr. Finkelstein tenure after caving in to outside influences such as Alan Dershowitz and his anti-Finkelstein campaign. Mr. Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and longtime opponent of Mr. Finkelstein, publicly called for DePaul to deny tenure in this case. The university in turn made clear that Mr. Dershowitz's attempt to influence the matter was unwelcome. In a statement released Sept. 5, DePaul stressed that third parties had "absolutely no impact" on its decision to deny Mr. Finkelstein tenure this summer. Of course, only the members of the tenure committee know whether that's true or not. Publicly, they've offered a valid reason for their decision — Mr. Finkelstein, they say, too often engaged in vitriolic personal attacks that distracted from his scholarly ideas. Furthermore, an argument is made that DePaul's decision not to give Mr. Finkelstein tenure represented a breach of academic freedom. However, conduct matters. Behavior matters. Dedication to scholarly ideals matters. If Mr. Finkelstein behaved as a professional scholar, it would be extremely hard to let him go, despite his radical views. But Mr. Finkelstein's brand of scholarship often seemed more interested in castigating opponents than in thoughtfully advancing his own opinions, as the university noted. Such a rationale is viewpoint neutral and not in violation of any principles of academic freedom. Myth No. 4: Mr. Dershowitz is a leading figure of the "Israel lobby." There's a theory that's gained some traction in academia that a shadowy "Israel lobby" works behind the scenes to ensure the United States acts as some sort of Zionist puppet more concerned with Israeli interests than American interests. The lobby also supposedly seeks to silence anyone who dares to suggest Israel is ever in the wrong on any issue. Mr. Szarzynski seems to believe Mr. Dershowitz plays a leading role for the lobby. This concept is laughable. Mr. Dershowitz was born in Brooklyn. He has lived in the United States his entire life. He teaches at Harvard. He is a strong supporter of Israel, to be sure, but if that's the only criteria necessary for inclusion in the "Israel lobby," a majority of Americans must have spots on its membership rolls. America's alliance with Israel is based on its merits and its democratic support, not on a conspiracy theory about a powerful lobby insidiously executing the Jewish state's bidding. Myth No. 5: Mr. Finkelstein exposed Mr. Dershowitz's book, "The Case for Israel," as "plagiaristic and untruthful." Mr. Finkelstein did indeed intend to "expose" Mr. Dershowitz's book for being a borrowed bundle of falsities. Problem was, it wasn't. After Mr. Finkelstein's allegations became public, the dean of Harvard's law school requested Harvard President Derek Bok investigate Mr. Dershowitz's work. His finding: no plagiarism. A digression regarding "The Case for Israel" — read this book. Really. I'm not a shill for Mr. Dershowitz — I don't even agree with him on most other issues, but he nails this book and his arguments in support of the Jewish state's legitimacy are strong and well-researched. He also wrote a sequel to the book, "The Case for Peace," which details a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict, with a Jewish Israel and a Muslim Palestine. The plan is eminently reasonable, if still a ways off in practical terms. It's not exactly the stuff you'd expect from an "Israel lobby" kingpin. Myth No. 6: Mr. Finkelstein "has demonstrated courage that most intellectuals are rarely called on to rouse." According to a memo from DePaul Provost Helmut Epp, Mr. Finkelstein repeatedly "angrily confronted" other university staff members after being denied tenure this summer. He engaged them in "threatening and discourteous behavior," and on three occasions campus security officers needed to intervene, according to the memo, which was first reported by the Chicago Tribune. In one encounter, Mr. Finkelstein physically held open elevator doors so he could confront a DePaul dean. Such behavior isn't courage. It's not chutzpah. It's beyond chutzpah — it's idiocy. Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a first-year law student.
This article was published Sep 13, 2007 at 12:00 am, and last updated Sep 13, 2007 at 12:00 am.