Holocaust Scholars Defend Professor
Norman Finkelstein's Fight for Tenure
May 9, 2007
The battle over political science professor
Norman Finkelstein to receive tenure at DePaul University is heating
up. Finkelstein - one of the country's foremost critics of Israeli
policy - has taught at DePaul for the past six years. His tenure
has been overwhelmingly approved at the departmental and college
level, but the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
has opposed it.
A final decision is expected to be made
in the coming weeks. Finkelstein has accused Harvard law professor
Alan Dershowitz of being responsible for leading the effort to
deny him tenure. In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Dershowitz
admitted that he had sent a letter to DePaul faculty members lobbying
against Finkelstein's tenure. Then last week the Wall Street Journal
published an article by Dershowitz titled "Finkelstein's
Bigotry." In it, Dershowitz accuses Finkelstein of being
an "anti-Semite" and says that he "does not do
'scholarship' in any meaningful sense."
Finkelstein's two main topics of focus
over his career have been the Holocaust and Israeli policy. Today
we are joined by two world-renowned scholars in these fields:
0. Raul Hilberg. One of the best-known
and most distinguished of Holocaust historians. He is author of
the seminal three-volume work "The Destruction of the European
Jews" and is considered the founder of Holocaust studies.
He joins us on the line from his home in Vermont.
0. Avi Shlaim. Professor of international
relations at Oxford University. He is the author of numerous books,
most notably "The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World."
He is widely regarded as one of the world's leading authorities
on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
AMY GOODMAN: The battle over political
science professor Norman Finkelstein to receive tenure at DePaul
University in Chicago is heating up. Finkelstein is one of the
country's foremost critics of Israeli policy. He has taught at
DePaul for the past six years. His tenure has been overwhelmingly
approved at the departmental and college level. A college-wide
faculty panel voted 5-0 to back his ten-year bid, but the Dean
of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has opposed it. A
final decision is expected in the next few weeks.
Professor Finkelstein has accused Harvard
Law Professor Alan Dershowitz of being responsible for leading
the effort to deny him tenure. In an interview with the Harvard
Crimson, Dershowitz admitted he had sent a letter to DePaul faculty
members lobbying against Finkelstein's tenure. Then, last week
the Wall Street Journal published an article by Dershowitz titled
"Finkelstein's Bigotry." In it, Dershowitz accuses Finkelstein
of being an anti-Semite and says he "does not do scholarship
in any meaningful sense." Professor Finkelstein's two main
topics of focus over his career have been the Holocaust and Israeli
Today, we're joined by two world-renowned
scholars in these fields. Raul Hilberg is one of the best known
and most distinguished of Holocaust historians. He is author of
the seminal three-volume work, The Destruction of the European
Jews. He's considered the founder of Holocaust studies. He joins
us from his home in Vermont. Avi Shlaim is a professor of international
relations at Oxford University in Britain. He is the author of
numerous books, most notably The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab
World. He's widely regarded as one of the world's leading authorities
on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
We'll begin in Vermont with Professor
Hilberg. Can you talk about Professor Finkelstein's contribution
to Holocaust studies with his book, The Holocaust Industry?
RAUL HILBERG: Yes. I read this book, which
was published about seven years ago, even as I, myself, was researching
actions brought against Swiss companies, notably banks, but also
other enterprises in insurance and in manufacturing. And the gist
of all of these claims, all of these actions, was that somehow
the Swiss banks, in particular, and other enterprises, as well,
owed money to Jews or the survivors or the living descendants
of people who were victims. The actions were brought by claims
lawyers, by the World Jewish Congress, which joined them, and
a blitz was launched in the newspapers. Congressmen and senators
were mobilized, officials of regulatory agencies in New York and
elsewhere. Threats were issued in the nature of withdrawal of
pension funds, of boycotts, of bad publicity.
And I was struck by the fact, even as
I, myself, was researching the same territory that Professor Finkelstein
was covering, that the Swiss did not owe that money, that the
$1,250,000,000 that were agreed as a settlement to be paid to
the claimants was something that in very plain language was extorted
from the Swiss. I had, in fact, relied upon the same sources that
Professor Finkelstein used, perhaps in addition some Swiss items.
I was in Switzerland at the height of the crisis, and I heard
from so-called forensic accountants about how totally surprised
the Swiss were by this outburst. There is no other word for it.
Now, Finkelstein was the first to publish
what was happening in his book The Holocaust Industry. And when
I was asked to endorse the book, I did so with specific reference
to these claims. I felt that within the Jewish community over
the centuries, nothing like it had ever happened. And even though
these days a couple of billion dollars are sometimes referred
to as an accounting error and not worthy of discussion, there
is a psychological dimension here which not must be underestimated.
I was also struck by the fact that Finkelstein
was being attacked over and over. And granted, his style is a
little different from mine, but I was saying the same thing, and
I had published my results in that three-volume work, published
in 2003 by Yale University Press, and I did not hear from anybody
a critical word about what I said, even though it was the same
substantive conclusion that Finkelstein had offered. So that's
the gist of the matter right then and there.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think, Professor
Hilberg, he was criticized and you were not?
RAUL HILBERG: Well, Finkelstein -- I believe
Finkelstein was criticized mainly for the style that he employed.
And he was vulnerable. And it was clear to me already years ago
that some campaigns were launched -- from what sector, I didn't
know -- to remove him from the academic world. Years ago, I got
a phone call from someone who was in charge of a survivors' group
in California who told me that Finkelstein had been ousted from
a job in New York City at a university -- actually, a college
there -- and this was done under pressure.
And then, again, I gave a lecture a year
and a half ago in Chicago, which is the place where Finkelstein
had been employed at DePaul University, and my lecture was about
Auschwitz, and it was based on the records, which we've now recovered
from Moscow, about the history of this camp. Not exactly a simple
topic. But there was a question period, and I awaited pertinent
questions, when someone rose from his chair and asked, "Should
Finkelstein be tenured?" Now, for heaven's sake, I said to
myself, what is going on here?
And whether he's being intimidated, whether
he is in a situation where, whatever else may be happening, the
employers are being intimidated, it's hard for me to say, but
there is very clearly a campaign, which was made very obvious
in the Wall Street Journal, when Professor Dershowitz wrote in
a style which is highly uncharacteristic of the editorial page
of this newspaper, which incidentally I read religiously. So I,
myself, cannot fully explain this outburst, but it clearly emanates
from the same anger, from the same revolt, that prompted the whole
action against the Swiss to begin with.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Professor
Avi Shlaim into this discussion, a professor of international
relations at Oxford University, has written numerous books, including
The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. Can you talk about the
significance of Professor Finkelstein's work?
AVI SHLAIM: Yes. I think very highly of
Professor Finkelstein. I regard him as a very able, very erudite
and original scholar who has made an important contribution to
the study of Zionism, to the study of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict and, in particular, to the study of American attitudes
towards Israel and towards the Middle East.
Professor Finkelstein specializes in exposing
spurious scholarship on the Arab-Israeli conflict. And he has
a very impressive track record in this respect. He was a very
promising graduate student in history at Princeton, when a book
by Joan Peters appeared, called From Time Immemorial, and he wrote
the most savage exposition in critique of this book. It was a
systematic demolition of this book. The book argued, incidentally,
that Palestine was a land without a people for people without
a land. And Professor Finkelstein exposed it as a hoax, and he
showed how dishonest the scholarship or spurious scholarship was
in the entire book. And he paid the price for his courage, and
he has been a marked man, in a sense, in America ever since. His
most recent book is Beyond Chutzpah, follows in the same vein
of criticizing and exposing biases and distortions and falsifications
in what Americans write about Israel and about the Middle East.
So I consider him to be a very impressive and a very learned and
I would like to make one last point, which
is that his style is very polemical, and I don't particularly
enjoy the strident polemical style that he employs. On the other
hand, what really matters in the final analysis is the content,
and the content of his books, in my judgment, is of very high
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Shlaim, what about
the whole issue of when you criticize the Israeli government,
being charged with anti-Semitism? What is your response to this?
You were born in Iraq. You're also an Israeli citizen and then
moved to Britain?
AVI SHLAIM: I am. I was born in Baghdad.
I grew up in Israel. I served in IDF. And for the last forty years,
I have lived in Britain, and I teach at Oxford. My academic discipline
is international relations, and I am a specialist in the Arab-Israeli
And I think that there is no -- that we
must be very careful to separate questions of anti-Semitism from
critique of Israel. I am critical of Israel as a scholar, and
anti-Semitism just doesn't come into it. My view is that the blind
supporters of Israel -- and there are many of them in America,
in particular -- use the charge of anti-Semitism to try and silence
legitimate criticism of Israeli practices. I regard this as moral
blackmail. Israel has no immunity to criticism, moral immunity
to criticism, because of the Holocaust. Israel is a sovereign
nation-state, and it should be judged by the same standards as
any other state. And Norman Finkelstein is a very serious critic
and a very well-informed critic and hard-hitting critic of Israeli
practices in the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians.
His last book, Beyond Chutzpah, is based
on an amazing amount of research. He seems to have read everything.
He has gone through the reports of Israeli groups, of human rights
groups, Human Rights Watch and Peace Now and B'Tselem, all of
the reports of Amnesty International. And he deploys all this
evidence from Israeli and other sources in order to sustain his
critique of Israeli practices, Israeli violations of human rights
of the Palestinians, Israeli house demolitions, the targeted assassinations
of Palestinian militants, the cutting down of trees, the building
of the wall -- the security barrier on the West Bank, which is
illegal -- the restrictions imposed on the Palestinians in the
West Bank, and so on and so forth. I find his critique extremely
detailed, well-documented and accurate.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Hilberg, like you,
Norman Finkelstein is the son of Holocaust victims, his mother
and his father both in concentration camps. Your final thoughts
on this whole dispute and whether Norman Finkelstein should get
tenure at DePaul University in Chicago?
RAUL HILBERG: Well, let me say at the
outset, I would not, unasked, offer advice to the university in
which he now serves. Having been in a university for thirty-five
years myself and engaged in its politics, I know that outside
interferences are most unwelcome. I will say, however, that I
am impressed by the analytical abilities of Finkelstein. He is,
when all is said and done, a highly trained political scientist
who was given a PhD degree by a highly prestigious university.
This should not be overlooked. Granted, this, by itself, may not
establish him as a scholar.
However, leaving aside the question of
style -- and here, I agree that it's not my style either -- the
substance of the matter is most important here, particularly because
Finkelstein, when he published this book, was alone. It takes
an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when
no one else is out there to support him. And so, I think that
given this acuity of vision and analytical power, demonstrating
that the Swiss banks did not owe the money, that even though survivors
were beneficiaries of the funds that were distributed, they came,
when all is said and done, from places that were not obligated
to pay that money. 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: Well, Professor Raul Hilberg
and Professor Avi Shlaim, I want to thank you both very much for
being with us. Raul Hilberg, speaking to us from his home in Vermont,
one of the best-known and most distinguished of Holocaust historians,
his three-volume work is The Destruction of the European Jews.
Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at Oxford University
in Britain, his book, his latest, The Iron Wall: Israel and the
Arab World. Thank you very much for joining us.