I keep getting emails asking what I think about DePaul University’s denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein. The short answer is that while I certainly haven’t tortured myself by reading everything Finkelstein has written, I’ve read enough to broadly agree with Cathy Young’s assessment, which you can find here.
What I find irritating about the Finkelstein controversy it’s almost always portrayed as a lightning rod for controversy because he is “anti-Israel.” He certainly is anti-Israel, but the reason he attracts such enmity is that he uses rhetoric that is unmistakably anti-Semitic, including in contexts only tangentially related to Israel. Whether he’s actually anti-Semitic (yes, I know he’s ethnically Jewish; so?) or just uses anti-Semitism as a rhetorical prop in an attempt to stir the masses against the Jewish establishment in the hopes that this will ultimately weaken Israel, I don’t know.
By now some of you are thinking, “there goes Bernstein conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.” No, I’m conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Semitism. Writing that leading American Jewish activists “resemble stereotypes straight out of [Nazi newspaper] Der Sturmer” has nothing to do with criticizing Israel. Neither does claiming that American “Jewish elites” have “a mindset of Jewish superiority.” If Pat Robertson had made these remarks instead of Finkelstein, is there any doubt that many of Finkelstein’s staunchest allies would not hesitate to proclaim them anti-Semitic?
Both of these quotes can be found in his book, Beyond Chutzpah. But what about context? Here’s the context for the first quote:
Legitimate questions can surely be posed regarding when and if Jews are acting as people who happen to be Jewish or acting “as Jews,” and, on the latter occasions (which plainly do arise), regarding the actual breadth and limits of this “Jewish power,” but these questions can only be answered empirically, not a priori with politically correct formulae. To foreclose inquiry on this topic as anti-Semitic is, intentionally or not, to shield Jews from legitimate scrutiny of their uses and abuses of formidable power. In an otherwise sensible treatment of the new anti-Semitism, Brian King maintains that “it is a form of anti-Semitism” if an accusation against Jews mimics an anti-Semitic stereotype such as the idea of Jews being “powerful, wealthy . . . pursuing [their] own selfish ends.” Yet if Jews act out a Jewish stereotype, it plainly doesn’t follow that they can’t be committing the stereotypical act. Can’t they commit a vile act even if it conforms to a Jewish stereotype? It is perhaps politically incorrect to recall but nonetheless a commonplace that potent stereotypes, like good propaganda, acquire their force from containing a kernel—and sometimes even more than a kernel—of truth. Should people like Abraham Foxman, Edgar Bronfman, and Rabbi Israel Singer get a free ride because [Finkelstein’s italics] they resemble stereotypes straight out of Der Sturmer? [To give you some idea of how grossly offensive this is, here are some cartoons representing Jewish stereotypes in Der Sturmer.]
And heres the context of the second quote:
Jewish elites in the United States have enjoyed enormous prosperity. From this combination of economic and political power has sprung, unsurprisingly, a mindset of Jewish superiority. Wrapping themselves in the mantle of The Holocaust, these Jewish elites pretend—and, in their own solipsistic universe, perhaps imagine themselves—to be victims, dismissing any and all criticism as manifestations of “anti-Semitism.” And, from this lethal brew of formidable power, chauvinistic arrogance, feigned (or imagined) victimhood, and Holocaust-immunity to criticism has sprung a terrifying recklessness and ruthlessness on the part of American Jewish elites. Alongside Israel, they are the main formentors of anti-Semitism in the world today. Coddling them is not the answer. They need to be stopped.
If anything, the context of these quotes makes them look worse!
Those so inclined can turn Finkelstein into a free speech martyr if they wish. But, putting aside the merits of his claim to tenure, it’s fundamentally dishonest to suggest that he attracted notoriety and criticism simply because he’s a critic of Israel. I’m waiting for the first, honest, defender of Finkelstein to say, “yes, he’s guilty of anti-Semitism, and that anti-Semitism is directly related to the work on which his tenure relied, but I think DePaul should have granted him tenure anyway.” It’s certainly plausible to argue that the fact that one’s work on Jews and the so-called “Holocaust Industry” is tainted by anti-Semitism should not be a barrier to tenure if the work otherwise makes a significant contribution to the literature, but I’m waiting for someone to forthrightly make the case.