Who is Norman Finkelstein?

January 24, 2012

In News

By Katherine Hall

Younger DePaul students may only know the name “Norman Finkelstein” as a buzzword for a controversy before their time at this university.

It’s a name associated with a debate about the line between free speech and discrimination so heated that students on both sides organized sit-ins and hunger strikes, and resulted in a much-admired professor resigning in 2007 amid claims DePaul had violated its own free speech policies.

But Norman Finkelstein was speaking out long before he ever came to DePaul.

The Princeton-educated son of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein first drew the attention of the academic community when his dissertation, debunking much of the Pro-Israel book “A Time Immemorial” by historian Joan Peters as false, was published.

Finkelstein went on to write another six books discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and arguing that a “Holocaust industry” had used the tragedy of World War II as “an ideological weapon” to drum up support abroad—both politically and financially—for Israel while also stifling criticism of the Israeli army’s engagements with Palestinians. Finkelstein believed that the Palestinians were now suffering at the hands of the Israeli army in much the same way his own parents suffered at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Finkelstein’s opponents have decried Finkelstein’s pro-Palestine stance (Leon Wieseltier, a literary critic for magazine, The New Republic, called Finkelstein a “disgusting, self-hating Jew” in 2007) and his strident, sometimes aggressive presentation tactics. A clip from his 2009 documentary “American Radical: the Trials of Norman Finkelstein” of Finkelstein lambasting a sobbing female student for her “crocodile tears” went viral on YouTube and only added to his volatile image.

When he was up for tenure at DePaul, the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences personnel committee voted 5-0 and the political science department voted 9-3 in favor of tenure, only to see the decision reversed after a minority report was filed. After several months of dispute, a private settlement was reached, part of which included Finkelstein’s resignation. DePaul acknowledged Finkelstein’s credentials, calling him a “prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher,” and while Finkelstein described the university’s decision as “a bitter blow”, he acknowledged that DePaul had provided “a scholarly haven”.

Of DePaul students, he said they “rose to dazzling spiritual heights in my defense, that should be the envy of and an example for every university in the United States.”