June 12, 2007

Surviving the Inquiry

DePaul University is doing its best to protect its brand in the wake of rejecting Norman Finkelstein's bid for tenure. Despite all signs to the contrary, it declares academic freedom is alive and well: "It is guaranteed both as an integral part of the University's scholarly and religious heritage, and as an essential condition of effective inquiry and instruction. On a daily basis, DePaul faculty and students explore the most important ideas of our time, including difficult and contentious issues, and they do so in ways that adhere to professional standards of academia and respect the dignity and worth of each individual."

That theme runs through the letter written to Finkelstein by the President, the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, who claims that Finkelstein's work is "deliberately hurtful." He adds that by taking the tone of advocacy, Finkelstein fails to meet the most fundamental requirements of sanctioned scholarship. Finkelstein should have done his work quietly, anonymously, without the overtones of engagement, as if "good" scholarship were to be left in the dark or pass without notice.

Finkelstein's contributions, however, are precisely those of public demonstration. His books are polemical and strident. A work like The Holocaust Industry, which is more of a pamphlet in tone, is glib and perhaps too casual. That is not to say that it, or any of his work, is wrong in fact, nor is it to say that the rhetorical style of his expression does not have a vital, and even necessary, place; particularly given the issues at hand. He is a trained historian working in the field of political science, after all. And yet DePaul, in the name of protecting its values and encouraging "diversity" [sic], apparently finds fault with openly approaching the ongoing circumstances of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict (as well as the echoes of the Holocaust that reverberate through our culture and shape responses to that conflict). It recoils at Finkelstein's willingness to make declarations, to undercut and expose the false claims of others, to lay bare functioning and pernicious myths, to arrive at and argue for conclusions based on that scholarship. It is true, he is impatient with the likes of Daniel Goldhagen, Joan Peters, and Tom Friedman. One might have argued that he was not sufficiently engaged in university service, that his many speaking engagements and New York residence kept him too far removed from the daily life of the campus. But those were not the criticisms. It was that his work was mean and political, that it was not to the level of quiet demanded by DePaul nor was it endorsed by the ADL.

The Reverend promises that the decision was made without taking into consideration such outside influences. Yet he too accuses Finkelstein of "ad hominen" attacks. That has been the key term in the public "debate" over Finkelstein engineered by Alan Dershowitz, another public figure whose work Finkelstein exposed. Its inclusion in the letter is perhaps an homage to Dershowitz, a way of acknowledging that the administration of DePaul seeks to be free of any retaliation for its prior affiliation with a man who dared challenge conventional and cliched commonsense, or what Finkelstein's analysis so often shows as simple non-sense.

The loss of tenure should not come as a surprise given the corporate concerns of the contemporary university, and while Finkelstein's reputation becomes the subject of media attention, one expects both he and his work will be better served by what comes next. As for those within the academy, watching the spectacle, DePaul's rejection might not be chilling for thought and scholarship (particularly on the Holocaust and Israel) but instead sharpen our own attention to the rhetorical dimensions of that scholarship, and the reach of inquiry in the face of inquisition. After all, it was Finkelstein's tone and posture on trial in this situation.

It is therefore tempting to list, side by side, quotations from the public writings of both Finkelstein and Dershowitz, but that would be a tired exercise. It is enough to ask who held to the "respect the dignity and worth of each individual"? Or perhaps we should say, who managed to use the space of a feud to further the insights warranted by the topics at hand, whether they be Holocaust survival and memory, Palestinian history, torture, human rights violations, international law, etc? There was only one. From Dershowitz there are the oft-repeated claims that Finkelstein is anti-Semitic and a collaborator with neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers; that he is the equivalent of David Duke; that even thinks his own mother was a Nazi collaborator; and that he argues for Dershowitz's assassination. This is the public tone of Harvard's distinguished professor of law.

On the other side, Finkelstein does call Dershowitz "prissy." He is also clearly dismissive of the open advocacy for torture and war crimes. As for the suggestion that Finkelstein calls for an assassination, one only need read the end of the article to see the rejection of such thinking for what it sanctions:

It is highly unlikely, however, that [Dershowitz] will ever be brought before a tribunal for his criminal incitement. But there is yet another possibility for achieving justice. Dershowitz is a strong advocate of targeted assassinations when "reasonable alternatives" such as arrest and capture aren't available. The conclusion seems clear -- if , and only if, -- one uses his standard and his reasoning. Of course, the preponderance of humanity, this writer [and CounterPunch, Eds.,] included, does not think this way. After all the hard-won gains of civilization, who would want to live in a world that once again legally sanctioned torture, collective punishment, assassinations and mass murder? As Dershowitz descends into barbarism, it remains a hopeful sign that few seem inclined to join him.
And of his mother's survival in the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp, Finkelstein writes with great sensitivity to the demands of survival, and the aftermath of memory. Dershowitz claims Finkelstein betrays her with an accusation. What amount of spite generates the distortion given this excerpt, wherein what we read, if we read, is only a humane response of wonder and awe to a mother's awful experience? Finkelstein writes:
Except for allusions to relentless pangs of hunger, my mother never spoke about her personal torments during the war, which was just as well, since I couldn't have borne them. Like Primo Levi, she often said that, being "too delicate and refined, the best didn't survive." Was this an indirect admission of guilt? Much later in life I finally summoned the nerve to ask whether she had done anything of which she was ashamed. Calmly replying no, she recalled having refused the privileged position of "block head" in the camp. She especially resented the "dirty" question "How did you survive?" with the insinuation that, to emerge alive from the camps, survivors must have morally compromised themselves. Given how ferociously she cursed the Jewish councils, ghetto police and kapos, I assume my mother answered me truthfully. Although acknowledging that Jews initially joined the councils from mixed motives, she said that "only scum," reaping the rewards of doing the devil's work, still cooperated after it became clear that they were merely cogs in the Nazi killing machine. When queried why she hadn't settled in Israel after the war, my mother used to reply, only half in jest, that "I had enough of Jewish leaders!" The Jewish ghetto police always had the option, she said, of "throwing off their uniforms and joining the rest of us" -- a point that Yitzak Zuckerman, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, made in his memoir. (It was always gratifying to find my mother's seemingly erratic or harsh judgments seconded in the reliable testimonial literature.) Still shaking her head in disbelief, she would often recall how, after Jews in the ghetto used the most primitive implements or even bare hands to dig bunkers deep in the earth and conceal themselves, the Jewish police would reveal these hideouts to the Germans, sending their flesh-and-blood to the crematoria in order to save their own skins. One of the first acts of the ghetto resistance was to kill an officer in the Jewish police. On a sign posted next to his corpse -- my mother would recall with vengeful glee -- read the epitaph: "Those who live like a dog die like a dog." Still, if she didn't cross fundamental moral boundaries, I glimpsed from her manner of pushing and shoving in order to get to the head of a queue, which mortified me, how my mother must have fought Hobbes's war of all against all many a time in the camps. Really, how else would she have survived?

June 8, 2007

All Reason Lost

This week's 40th anniversary of Israel's 1967 war has brought a barrage of retrospection. Instead of re-affirming the myth of the miraculous victory over promised annihilation, the date has forced an acknowledgment of, if not a full reckoning with, a generation-long occupation with disastrous consequences for both the state of Israel and the Palestinians who have been held captive ever since. With no end in sight, there is only the slow creep of the disaster, one measured slab by slab of the West Bank's dissolution into containment walls and barbed-wired settlements. It is hard to imagine now that Israel will find any peaceful way to relinquish what it cannot conquer, recalling Thomas Jefferson's famous quote about the U.S. and slavery: "As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is one scale, and self-preservation is in the other." Forty years after that comment, the country was on the eve of its Civil War.

In the U.S., Israeli-journalist Tom Segev's media tour has been the most prominent expression of this mood. He describes without qualification Israel's grave mistake in choosing occupation of the West Bank over all law, reason, national interest, or moral regard. Through interviews and an opinion piece in The New York Times (June 5, 2007) he outlines the signs the Eshkol government had for refusing the temptation of seizing East Jerusalem and the rest of the Jordan-controlled territories. That Israel gave into that temptation against its own intelligence was, he says with sad exasperation, an absolute "loss of reason." The push of euphoria, the seduction of fantasy, the bloody enthusiasm of victory turned the thrust of occupation into the myth of "liberation." Segev writes:

"[E]motions propelled the Israelis to act against their national interest. It may have been a series of threatening moves taken by Egypt, or it may have been the intoxication of victory, but in view of the results of the war there was indeed no justification for the panic that had preceded it, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it, which is what makes the story of Israel in 1967 so difficult to comprehend."

Segev's new book, 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East, may provide more nuance than his interviews in explaining the panic that preceded the conflict with Egypt. Nasser's rhetoric of annihilation certainly inspired fear in Israelis, but one cannot, as Segev suggests, simply cite the personal letters that came from Israel during that time as if those letters, outside government declarations, expressed some unvarnished truth. Those letters surely borrow from the Holocaust language that saturated the public discourse in May of '67. It was a language that tried to give measure to the threat by invoking Auschwitz, and with the specter of the Shoah, justify a preventive war. It turned the historical destruction into a borrowed drama to be played again. That facts that Egypt was incapable of carrying out its threats and Jordan could be rebuffed without taking the West Bank dissolved in the rhetoric that replaced politics with ecstatic visions of death and deliverance.

June 6, 2007


"Is there not a growing conviction, clearer today among innumerable people, that the dying of people with whom we have nothing in common -- no racial kinship, no language, no religion, no economic interests -- concerns us? We obscurely feel that our generation is being judged, ultimately, by the abandon of the Cambodians, and Somalians, and the social outcasts in the streets of our own cities."

--Alphonso Lingis,
The Community of those who have
nothing in common

June 5, 2007


There is a man who works in a local bakery. You do not know his name and what you learn about him, his person, is limited to the span of an order, the money exchange, the taking of the small, white bag; all the wrinkles of routine. He is a presence of energy. The smile is bold, and not for you. He wears his baseball cap at a particular angle, always. He is immaculate in movements and dress. After many exchanges you might see how the ring like a horseshoe matches a horse figure on his watch, the combination of gold and diamonds playing off each other. When he is in a good mood he is pure performance of that mood: effusive and electric and alert to the world, as though your presence and the presence of the folks lined up behind you -- and they will come all morning -- has no bearing on his feeling for what is and the work, which is for himself and his comrades there. Other days he is sour and tired and there is no false pleasantness. He scours, shakes his head at your request. People remember him for this avid presence. Something tells you he is a father of small children and undaunted.

Then one morning he is not there. On the door of the bakery is a poster with his picture and the dates: January 1969 - May 2007. Otherwise, nothing has changed. The street is filled on a wet, warm Saturday. There are people in the bakery ordering, laughing, gathering over croissants and coffee. The staff is bereft but the customers there that day don't see it, or cannot recognize the connection between the poster and the mood. Maybe it is their first time. They cannot know the degrees of difference. It is a business and it is open. That is all. Even you have not yet moved from seeing the poster to appreciating the irrevocable absence inside when everything looks the same.

A girl behind the counter tells you in a subdued voice of shock that he was shot, and died. It takes two days for the information to appear as a three-line "story" in the newspaper, one in a listing of three city shootings that night: a man from a certain address killed in a late-night altercation at a certain intersection. It is two blocks from where he lived on Chicago's South Side.

The funeral gathering is large but the church is larger. There are pockets of people ranging from the family and what must be old friends to customers of the bakery to the great number of the staff there. The space between these groups shows the different dimensions of his encounters, some trying not to make a wrongful trespass others held apart from the absolute void of his death by what is happening all around them, all these people.

But there is a difference between not knowing and refusing to acknowledge. The Reverend has never met him, and if anyone has told him about the reason for this service he has not appreciated what they tried to communicate. His words, if not his intentions, are indifferent. They are a lifeless litany of assertions that have nothing to do with the life led, the man's four children, his mother, the absence that is now itself a part of the neighborhood of the bakery, a scar on the corner where he lived and died. It becomes an advertisement for the Church itself, crassly absorbed in its own "lessons" -- which seem so apart from the violence of the man's death and the realities of the lives spread out in that church. The Reverend seems not to recognize anything of the living and the dead as he moves through his habitual recitations, absolutely lacking in counsel.

What matters is the physical presence of the gathering: one woman wailing, the men bearing the coffin, the family moving so slowly and weak in white, the density of the people together on the sidewalk outside, pressed together by the demands of ritual and brought into close, unspeaking contact by the reach of his presence, now gone.

With the bakery's neighborhood, our neighborhood, it is diffuse, without the gravity of focus; passersby, rhythms of the day, the intersections of movements. It contains him, in the shadows. As people move through the space he once inhabited and defined, many will come to it oblivious and innocent while next to them someone else will feel, often without notice, the loss, which is both the lessening of where we dwell and an appreciation and acknowledgment of what it holds and held. That dispersal of feeling, degrees of knowing without mention is the silent strain of what is called, perhaps without proper feeling for the feelings in it, collective memory.