Fear and loathing on an American campus
04.14.2007 | The Independent
I have a desire to take Norm, Chuck and Al and bang their bloody heads together
by Robert Fisk
On the night of 11 September 2001, Al Dershowitz of Harvard law school exploded in anger. Robert Fisk, he roared over Irish radio, was a dangerous man. I was “pro-terrorist”. I was “anti-American” and that, Dershowitz announced to the people of County Mayo, “is the same as anti-Semitic”.
Of course I had dared to ask the “Why” question; Why had 19 Arabs flown aircraft into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania? Take any crime on the streets of London and the first thing Scotland Yard does is look for a motive. But when we had international crimes against humanity on the scale of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the first thing we were not allowed to do was look for a motive. How very odd. The 19 murderers came from a place called the Middle East. Was there a problem out there?
But Al would have none of this. And I got the message. To ask the “Why” question made me a Nazi. Which is why I subsequently received a flood of mail, much of it from Denver - what has Denver got against me? - telling me that my mother was Adolf Eichmann’s daughter. Thanks, Al. I’m sure you didn’t dream of the hate mail your silly diatribe will inspire. I guess Irish radio host Eamon Dunphy did. He pulled the plug on Al.
I’m recalling all this nonsense because Al has been back at work attacking his old nemesis, Norm Finkelstein, who has just applied for tenure at DePaul University in the US where he is an assistant professor of politics. Norm’s department has supported him but Al has bombarded faculty members with a blistering attack on Norm and all his works.
So let me just explain what these works are. Finkelstein, who is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors, has published a number of works highly critical of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and the use Israeli supporters make of the Holocaust of six million Jews to suppress criticism of Israel’s policies. He has accused Dershowitz of plagiarising portions of his 2003 book The Case for Israel. Finkelstein’s book, The Holocaust Industry, earned Dershowitz’s continued fury.
Now, I’ve known Norm for years and he is a tough, no-holds-barred polemicist, angry against all the traditional supporters of Israel, especially those who turn a blind eye to torture. Personally, I find Norm’s arguments sometimes a little overwrought. In radio discussions, his voice will take on a slightly whingeing tone that must infuriate his antagonists.
But Al is clearly trying to destroy Norm’s career, adding that the “dossier” he sent to DePaul academics - we remember that word “dossier” rather too well in Britain and, I should add, Al has absolutely no connection to DePaul University - contains details of “Norman Finkelstein’s … outright lies, misquotations and distortion”.
It will be a disgrace, says Al, for DePaul to give tenure to Norm. “His scholarship is no more than ad hominem attacks on his ideological enemies.” As if this is not enough, Al - who is also Jewish - takes a crack at philosopher and linguistic academic Noam Chomsky who has supported Norm and whom Al refers to as “the high priest of the radical anti-Israeli left”.
Enough, I hear readers shout. I agree. But Norm’s politics department give him top marks for scholarship and says he “offers a detailed argument that suggests that Dershowitz plagiarised or inappropriately appropriated large sections of others work in The Case for Israel”. Norm has a “substantial and serious record of scholarly production and achievement” and has lectured at the University of Chicago, Harvard, Georgetown and Northwestern Universities.
So far so good. But now up pops “Chuck” Suchar, the dean of DePaul’s College of Liberal (sic) Arts and Sciences, with an extraordinary recommendation that Norm should not be granted tenure. While acknowledging that “he is a skilled teacher” with “consistently high course evaluations,” Chuck has decided “that a considerable amount of [his work] is inconsistent with DePaul’s Vincentian values, most particularly our institutional commitment to respect the dignity of the individual and to respect the rights of others to hold an express different intellectual positions”. Norm’s books, according to Chuck, “border on character assassination and … embody a strategy clearly aimed at destroying the reputation of many who oppose his views”.
Now I have to say that scholars who read this column will be interested to know of Chuck’s own work. I gather it has absolutely nothing to do with the Middle East, though I’m sure his study of Gentrification and Urban Change: Research in Urban Society (1992) had American readers queuing round the block of their major bookstores in search of first editions. All I do ask is how a college dean could involve himself in the same kind of ad hominem attacks against one of his own colleagues that he has accused that same colleague of being guilty of.
I loved too, that bit about “Vincentian values”. That really does warrant a chortle or two. St Vincent de Paul - the real de Paul who lived from 1581 to 1660, not the de Paul of Chuck’s soft imagination - was a no nonsense theologian who was captured by Muslim Turkish pirates and taken to Tunis as a slave. Here, however, he argued his religious values so well that he converted his owner to Christianity and earned his freedom. His charitable organisations - he also created a home for foundlings in Paris - became a legend which Chuck Suchar simply dishonours.
All over the United States, however, Norm’s academic chums have been condemning Suchar’s tomfoolery; even in Beirut, where Norm has lectured, academics of the American University have insisted that he be granted tenure in his department, Arabs supporting a Jewish professor and son of Holocaust survivors.
Of course, I grant that all this is a little heavy for the real world and I do have a secret desire to take Norm, Chuck and Al and bang their bloody heads together. But what is happening at DePaul University is a very serious matter in the anodyne, frightened academic world that now exists in the US. Norm’s moment of truth comes up in May. As they say watch this space