Peter Novick: Weighs in on the tenure case of Norman Finkelstein





[Jon Wiener started writing for The Nation in 1984. Since then he’s written more than 100 stories and reviews for the magazine, many about American history, university politics, and California life. He’s also professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and a Los Angeles radio host.]

Alan Dershowitz is at it again: First he tried to get California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop the University of California Press (UCP) from publishing a book highly critical of him, and now he's trying to get DePaul University to deny tenure to the author. The object of his fury? Norman Finkelstein, with whom Dershowitz has been feuding for years. The subject? Israel, of course.

Dershowitz has been telling anyone who will listen, as well as many who didn't ask, that Finkelstein's book Beyond Chutzpah--published by UCP in 2005 despite Dershowitz's efforts--is "wholly illegitimate" and "part of a conspiracy to defame" him. (In his book Finkelstein called Dershowitz's The Case for Israel "among the most spectacular academic frauds ever published on the Israel-Palestine conflict." For more, see my "Giving Chutzpah New Meaning," July 11, 2005. Disclosure: A Nation editor served as a freelance editor of Beyond Chutzpah.)

In the fall, before their vote on tenure for Finkelstein, members of the DePaul political science department received an unsolicited packet from Dershowitz containing his "dossier of Norman Finkelstein's most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions." This kind of intervention in a tenure case is virtually unprecedented. It's one thing to have over-the-top debates, especially on Israel and Palestine; we call that freedom of speech. But it's another thing when one of the parties tries to get the other one fired and publication of his book stopped--we call that illegitimate interference.

The procedures governing tenure review require that department chairs solicit evaluations by outside experts in the field. Freelance submissions by declared enemies are pretty much unheard of. DePaul's Faculty Governance Council objected to Dershowitz's intervention and, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, voted unanimously in November to write to administrators at both DePaul and Harvard, where Dershowitz teaches, expressing "the council's dismay at Professor Dershowitz's interference in Finkelstein's tenure and promotion case." Michael Budde, chair of DePaul's political science department, told the New York Times that Dershowitz's campaign "shows no respect for the integrity of our process and institution."

Tenure votes are among the most carefully guarded secrets in the academy, but not in this case. In separate meetings, both the political science department and a committee of the college voted to give Finkelstein tenure. The department vote, according to The Chronicle, was 9 to 3, and the College Personnel Committee's was 5 to 0. The confidential departmental report, according to The Chronicle, concluded that "while not all members of the department share a love of polemic and inflammatory rhetoric as practiced by Norman and his adversaries, there is clearly a substantial and serious record of scholarly production and achievement." But Charles Suchar, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, recommended against tenure. In what The Chronicle called "language similar to that used by Mr. Dershowitz," the dean wrote, "I find the personal attacks in many of Dr. Finkelstein's published books to border on character assassination and, in my opinion, they embody a strategy clearly aimed at destroying the reputation of many who oppose his views."

Among the numerous comments on the case, the most thoughtful come from University of Chicago historian Peter Novick, who has written the definitive book on the history of US Holocaust commemoration (see my "Holocaust Creationism," July 12, 1999). He's been a sharp critic of Finkelstein's writing, declaring that many of the assertions in Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry are "pure invention" and calling the book "a twenty-first century updating of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.'" But Novick objects to the way Dershowitz portrayed him--as an ally in the campaign to block Finkelstein's tenure.

At Dershowitz's suggestion, the political science chair asked Novick for "the clearest and most egregious instances" of Finkelstein's malfeasance. Novick replied that while inviting outside opinions on a candidate for tenure was common, soliciting "the dirt" was totally improper, and he wouldn't satisfy such a request. Novick then published key parts of his letter in The Chronicle to publicly disassociate himself from Dershowitz's tactics.

"Of course Finkelstein's work--like that of all of us--is 'flawed,'" Novick wrote. The question, he said, is "whether, on balance, the positive contribution of the totality of his scholarly work outweighs its faults." His own published criticisms of Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry "reflect my values, my sensibility, who I am...but I don't confuse those criticisms with holy writ." Novick then appealed for "pluralism" in the academy: "There are those who relish the adversarial role, who delight in combat, whose greatest joy is in advancing a cause... such people are often inclined to stretch evidence to the breaking point, and occasionally beyond.... Professor Finkelstein seems to be of that number, as does Professor Dershowitz." That was not his own style, Novick said. While it would be "disastrous," he wrote, "to have a university composed exclusively of people like Finkelstein and Dershowitz," it would be "equally undesirable to have a university composed exclusively of people like me."

Finally, Novick wrote that "Dershowitz's highly publicized intervention has, it seems to me, made it impossible for DePaul to reject Finkelstein's bid for tenure without everyone concluding that DePaul had capitulated to Dershowitz's bullying." If the administration denied him tenure on legitimate scholarly grounds, he said, they'd have to live with the fallout.

Novick told me that he thinks Finkelstein and Dershowitz "deserve each other." But he added that "it's not Finkelstein who's threatening Dershowitz's employment." DePaul's final decision, to be made by the university president, is expected in June.


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