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America's Campaign to Smear Israel's Critics

In the U.S., scholars who contest the conventional wisdom about Israel all too often lose their reputations -- and their jobs.
 
 
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DePaul University canceled courses taught by Norman Finkelstein, the controversial political science professor known for his forthright criticism of Israel, just a week before classes resumed in June. Finkelstein, who taught at DePaul for six years, was denied tenure at the Chicago school but permitted to teach for the one year remaining on his contract.

In late August, however, the university decided to axe him and pulled his required books from the schools' bookstore. This was a break from the academic tradition that grants a faculty member who is denied tenure one last year (the "terminal year") in the classroom. Finkelstein initially vowed to protest his suspension, but later reached an agreement (including a monetary settlement) with DePaul to end his fight. However, even as he announced the agreement, Finkelstein charged his tenure denial was due "to external pressure resulting in a national hysteria."

Finkelstein's rough treatment followed a vigorous national campaign initiated by right-wing supporters of Israel to taint his name. They attacked Finkelstein for his scholarship, which has consistently excoriated the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the deceitful arguments of the Jewish state's uncritical supporters. And Finkelstein is just one of many public figures currently under attack for contesting the conventional wisdom about Israel.

Harvard law professor and avid Zionist Alan Dershowitz mounted a relentless public campaign to have Finkelstein dismissed. Surely it is no coincidence that Finkelstein's recent book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History , is a sustained, well-researched attack on Dershowitz and his ilk for their lurid distortions of history on behalf of Israel.

DePaul's political science department and a college-wide faculty committee overwhelmingly backed Finkelstein's tenure bid. Yet that was not enough to shield him from the national campaign to punish him for his acerbic criticism of Israel. An influential dean persuaded the tenure panel to reject him for the style and tone of his scholarship rather than its content.

Finkelstein's boosters argue that right-wing supporters of Israel are persecuting him for his strident opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for his criticism that they are unscrupulously exploiting the horror of the Holocaust to justify Israeli excesses. Finkelstein's previous book, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering , makes the case that many Holocaust scholars use the tragedy to justify Israel's existence and continue to utilize it to extort guilt money from various sources.

Finkelstein also provokes ire from Jewish groups because he is the son of two Holocaust survivors, which gives his critiques more credence. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has repeatedly accused Finkelstein of being a Holocaust denier, a baseless charge.

The former DePaul professor's supporters claim his tenure denial is completely unjustified and that his suspension violates academic ethics. The Chicago Tribune reported that the American Association of University Professors would soon launch a protest of Finkelstein's treatment as a violation of normal academic procedure.

Finkelstein thus joins former president Jimmy Carter, NYU historian Tony Judt, Harvard University professor Stephen Walt and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer (the latter two are co-authors of a new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy ) whose forthright criticism of Israel have earned them accusations of anti-Semitism.

Jimmy Carter is facing a firestorm of criticism from right-wing American Jewish organizations for his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid , which mildly condemned the Jewish state's occupation policies in the Palestinian territories.

Judt, a descendant of Holocaust victims who argues that power in Israel has tragically shifted to religious fundamentalists and territorial zealots, is another victim of this pressure. The history professor, who also speaks out against American Jewish groups' attempts to stifle honest discussion on Israel's policies, has been forced to cancel many speaking engagements because of pressure from Jewish organizations.

Similar reactions have greeted Professors Walt and Mearsheimer, who have co-authored a book arguing that the American-Israel lobby has pushed policies that are not in the United States' best interests and encourage Israel to engage in self-destructive behavior. The two respected scholars have been denounced as anti-Semites by ADL Director Abraham Foxman, among others.

These scholars are victims of a national campaign to punish scholarship that challenges media-made myths about Israel. This grave threat to academic freedom should concern American progressives, who often remain eerily silent.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a Crime and Communities Media Fellow of the Open Society Institute, examining the impact of ex-inmates and gang leaders in leadership positions in the black community.

 
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