Norman Finkelstein’s ordeal highlights a chilling trend

Joelle Ruby Ryan and Joelle Ruby Ryan

A frequent sacred cow in the world of academia is the notion of “academic freedom.” Academic freedom refers to the freedom of professors and students in academic contexts to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, to be able to freely discuss controversial topics in the classroom and to pursue a full range of academic projects and research without undue and oppressive restrictions. With the advent of neoconservativness like David Horowitz, academic freedom has come under increasing attack within the walls of the university. Horowitz, a fascist enemy of academic freedom, seeks to use his writing, speaking and political punditry to impede progressive academic exchange and replace it with conservative and reactionary propaganda.

However, Horowitz is not alone. Norman Finkelstein has weathered a torrent of hateful, vicious and spiteful ad hominem attacks against his personhood, his research and his academic integrity. Finkelstein is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Nazi Holocaust and the theory of Zionism. Finkelstein has penned multiple, highly-praised books which have been translated into many languages. Because he rightly and harshly criticizes the murderous and egregious treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government and military, he has become a focal point of hatred and hostility for pro-Israel, Zionist and right-wing groups in the U.S. and internationally. This has resulted in a vicious smear-campaign to discredit his scholarship, his ideas and to derail his career in academia.

Despite an extremely difficult trajectory in academia, Finkelstein landed a tenure-track position at DePaul University in Chicago in the Political Science Department. From 2006 to 2007, he was under review for tenure and promotion to the rank of Associate Professor by the university. Although Finkelstein’s department voted to give him tenure, DePaul President the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider reversed the decision and Finkelstein was notified in June 2007 that his tenure was denied.

One of the prime enemies of Finkelstein has been notorious O.J. Simpson-defender and media fiend Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard. Given Dershowitz’s virulent Islamophobia, Zionist sympathies and unabashed support for the military state of Israel, he has declared a personal vendetta against Finkelstein and his work for social justice, and done everything possible to have him removed from DePaul. He has attempted to turn Finkelstein’s colleagues and administrators against him and penned poisonous attack pieces in prominent publications.

Sadly, his tactics and those of his cronies worked, and then some. Mehrene Larudee was another DePaul professor denied tenure in 2007, and many believe the reason was because of her vocal and visible support for Finkelstein’s case.

It is customary that a professor denied tenure is given a “terminal” year. During this “terminal” year, they continue to receive a salary and benefits, teach one more year of classes, and often search for a new academic position at another institution. DePaul decided that denying Finkelstein’s tenure was not punishment enough. They recently canceled his last year of classes and ordered him to remove himself and his belongings from his office. When I heard of Finkelstein’s tenure denial I was angry and upset. When I heard about DePaul’s latest shenanigans, I was outraged and shocked. As far as I am concerned, when it comes to the issue of academic freedom, DePaul is rapidly becoming the laughingstock of universities and colleges all over the world. Whether you agree with some of Dr. Finkelstein’s more controversial or polemical positions is not the point. The point is that academic freedom is under assault by neoconservatives attack dogs like David Horowitz, Alan Dershowitz and many others and DePaul, rather than fighting such biased attacks, is caving in to the


As a student, do you want political ideologues telling you what is and is not permissible to discuss in the classroom? Do you want popular and internationally-renowned professors to face McCarthy-like tactics of intimidation and fear-mongering because their ideas fly in the face of the cultural zeitgeist? Academic freedom is not some obscure, arcane principle in the university; it is the very framework which enables open, critical and visionary inquiry into our world, our society and our culture.

What the Finkelstein affair reveals to me is quite simple: We must remain vigilant and we must remain pro-active in our defense of academic freedom. And we must support courageous, visionary, public intellectuals like Norman Finkelstein. Despite the ferocious campaign against him, Finkelstein has vowed to claim his office and teach his classes anyway, possibly resulting in arrest and a hunger strike. I take my hat off to this hero and to all other social justice warriors who dare to speak truth to power and fight for the rights of our world’s most oppressed peoples.

Postscript: Despite strong student support and an international outcry, given the poisonous atmosphere against him at DePaul, Finkelstein made the decision to resign from the school yesterday. So much for academic freedom.

Joelle Ruby Ryan is an American Culture Studies graduate student. Send comments about this column to [email protected]