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?