He lost an epic tenure battle, then got barred from Israel. Now, Norman Finkelstein is back in Brooklyn, with a provocation or two up his sleeve.
The family photos in his father’s old apartment may be Finkelstein’s only comfort, with his career in shambles Michael Datikash
by Stewart Ain
It has come to this for Norman Finkelstein: Back home in the Brooklyn of his youth, living alone in his deceased father’s rent-stabilized apartment on Ocean Parkway, just a few blocks from where the white-hot controversial professor grew up.
No more loyal students, no more lectures to prepare, no more radio debates with his arch-enemy, Alan Dershowitz, no more national spotlight; Finkelstein is the man no one wants, and perhaps for good reason.
A year ago, DePaul University, where he taught political science for six years, denied Finkelstein tenure in one of the most bruising tenure battles in recent memory. The story made national headlines, fueled by Dershowitz’s crusade against Finkelstein’s scholarship.
Finkelstein’s supporters painted the Harvard law professor as an outside agitator encroaching on
an internal tenure process; some of his students went on a hunger strike in his support. No major university will touch him now.
“Who wants to go through what DePaul went through with a national hysteria,” Finkelstein says, shrugging. “To be told I was a Holocaust denier and a terrorist supporter — would you want me on your faculty?”
And Israel shut its doors on him in May, barring him from entering the country; it never gave him a reason, but news reports attributed it to his strong and highly vocal anti-Israel views, and for associating with elements hostile to the Jewish State. (Finkelstein says he met with leaders of the terrorist group Hezbollah during a trip to Beirut in January.) After 18 hours in detention at Ben-Gurion Airport, he was taken onto a plane and whisked out of the country.
It’s not hard to see why Finkelstein is anathema in most Jewish circles, simply beyond the pale. He has struck out — with a vengeance — at the twin pillars of postwar Jewish life: the Holocaust (which he calls “the Holocaust industry”) and Israel. The Jewish community, he argues, has exploited the Holocaust for financial gain, sullying the memory of the Six Million.
And he has cavorted with Israel’s enemies, meeting with and praising Hezbollah. During the height of Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon, as Hezbollah was raining rockets down on northern Israel and Israel was bombing Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut and targets elsewhere in the country, Finkelstein took the stage at a rally in Brooklyn and intoned, “We are all Hezbollah.”
So the Pariah of Ocean Parkway is at the low point in his life, his academic career in shambles. (The only offer of a job has come from a two-year college he declined to identify that offered a paltry salary for many hours of work.) Here he sits, in his father’s old apartment, surrounded by framed family photographs. The photos, along with glowing pictures and notes from DePaul students that sit on his piano, may be his only comfort as he tries to pick up the pieces of his career.
Finkelstein may be down on his luck, but the provocateur still seems to have some fight in him. He spends hours at the computer on his combative, over-the-top Web site — a video of him debating Dershowitz in a radio studio is interspersed with clips of Bruce Lee-like martial arts warriors fighting to the death.
Finkelstein says he’s content with things, that he wants to avoid further controversy. “I’ve had 15 minutes of fame and then a half-hour and then 10 hours; I don’t need anymore. ... I’m not worried about being a pariah,” he says. Yet the title of the new book he’s working on — “A Farewell to Israel: The Coming Break-up of American Zionism” — suggests that controversy may yet find him again, that Finkelstein may be bowed but not broken.
On a muggy late spring day, Finkelstein is walking the old neighborhood around Ocean Parkway and Avenue W. He grew up here in what was an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the late-‘50s and early ‘60s, his parents survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto. He may have absorbed a body blow from DePaul, but at 54 he is lean and trim in a blue T-shirt and khaki shorts, his salt-and-pepper hair tousled. He maintains a disciplined exercise regimen, jogging and swimming regularly.
He spent his first eight years in Flatbush and then moved to Mill Basin with his parents and two brothers until he was 17.
“My parents were devout atheists,” Finkelstein says. (They also had Communist leanings, according to Haaretz, as did many Polish Jews of their generation.) “You couldn’t discuss religion in my house even though my mother’s father was very Orthodox. She said he was like a rabbi. And my father’s, too.
“My parents were completely Jewish; that’s why they did not feel they needed to prove they were Jewish,” he says.
It was perhaps because of that that Finkelstein, who says he too is an atheist, said he never had a bar mitzvah.
“When I was 13, a bar mitzvah was like a coming-out party and to not have one was shameful,” he recalls. “It was terrible. People would ask me if I was having a bar mitzvah and I said I was having it in Israel. ... Not to have a bar mitzvah was a psychologically terrible ordeal, but it gave me character and taught me how to resist peer pressure.”
Both of his brothers — Henry worked for the city and Richard was a computer consultant — retired when they turned 50. “I used to joke that I am still waiting for my first job,” he says with smile.
His brothers are both married and Finkelstein has one nephew. “I don’t have any regrets not marrying,” he says as he walked by the bookshelves that line the entranceway to his apartment.
Among the books were several about Karl Marx, another about the Bolshevik Revolution called, “Ten Days that Shook the World” by John Reed, books about Hitler, and “Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s National Security and Foreign Policy.”
Finkelstein’s career, though it began with a doctorate in politics at Princeton University, has been checkered. His thesis sought to expose as a shoddy piece of research Joan Peters’ best-selling book, “From Time Immemorial,” which debunked the notion of a Palestinian population overwhelmed by Jewish immigrants in the Holy Land. His thesis, in turn, was criticized by many as politically driven, and was supported by few, including Noam Chomsky, the outspoken critic of Israel’s right to exist.
Finkelstein has had trouble holding a job, bouncing from Rutgers University to NYU to Brooklyn College and Hunter College.
Despite what he said were solid evaluations at DePaul — in formal public statements DePaul said Finkelstein is an outstanding teacher and a prolific scholar — Finkelstein says he saw the writing on the wall when he first accepted the position. It’s why, he says, he held onto his father’s apartment for the six years he was in Chicago so that he would not find himself out of work and out of a home.
“I had the best teaching record at DePaul University,” he insists, explaining that the evaluation is based upon student assessments and his writing. He even sailed through the early tenure committees, before the campaign against him was launched by Dershowitz. (In his book “Beyond Chutzpah,” Finkelstein had attacked Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel” as a fraud.)
“Now I can’t even get an adjunct appointment for one semester,” he says matter-of-factly. “I lectured in the past year at 40 universities and I would ask the faculty there about a position and was told it was out of the question.”
Finkelstein rises from his living room chair and points to the picture of his mother on the wall above the piano, as if to take his mind off his dismal job prospects.
“My mother was in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1939 until 1943,” he says, strongly denying that his mother was a Nazi collaborator — a charge leveled by some of his detractors. “She was also in Majdanek and in two slave labor camps and every member of her family was exterminated – her two sisters, a brother and mother and father.”
A job as a high school teacher is also out of the question, Finkelstein says.
“The way they do background checks is to Google your name. With me, they would get 30,000 Web sites, one-third of them saying I am a Holocaust denier, a supporter of terrorism, a crackpot and a lunatic. If 30,000 Web sites are saying that, the assumption is that where there is smoke, there must be fire. Would you take the time to look through 30,000 Web sites?”
“I save my complaints for my friends,” he says when asked his reaction to such Web sites.
“That’s why we have friends in the world — to chew their ears off.”
Peter Novick isn’t one of those friends. The author of “The Holocaust in American Life” has been critical of Finkelstein’s credibility and scholarship, saying that “a lot of [his writing] was pure invention” and that not all of his footnotes are accurate.
Novick said that in his own book he explored how “much of American Jewry has centered on the Holocaust ... for Finkelstein it’s a racket, with self-aggrandizing Jewish elites who use it to boost their own power; it is nasty and over-the-top stuff.”
He said he feels sorry that Finkelstein has been unable to secure another teaching job, but Novick said Finkelstein knowingly refused to do what it takes to get tenure: publish academically respectable material in academic journals.
“He was much more engaged in doing political rather than academic work, and that is not how you get a regular academic job,” Novick explains. “I’m not saying it in a way to blame him. He made his choice. ... He raises abrasiveness to a matter of principle.”
“On balance,” Novick continues, “would it be a good thing if he had a job? Yes. The idea of this guy in his 50s who has done this all his life now being cut off at the knees is sad.”
He may not have a job, but Finkelstein’s new book, yet to have a publisher, is certain to stir more controversy. Its premise is that American Jews who “embraced Israel [after the Six-Day War] in 1967 — seeing it as a liberal state — now are embarrassed by its use of cluster bombs [in Lebanon]. It’s no longer possible to justify support for Israel on conventional and elementary liberal principles — it’s impossible to justify the occupation.”
A number of surveys suggest that American Jews, especially 20- and 30-year olds, have grown increasingly distant from Israel, but not necessarily for the reasons Finkelstein offers.
“It’s claimed that Israel is searching for peace, yet it says to attack Iran, Syria and Iraq,” Finkelstein continues. “So it’s an embarrassment. Gradually, American Jewry will be bidding farewell to Israel, except in existential cases. And the under-40 generation is growing more and more indifferent” to Israel.
On a drive around his old neighborhood, the discussion turned to his book “The Holocaust Industry,” which claims Israel is an immoral power with a horrific human rights record that seeks to evoke sympathy for its position because of the Holocaust. Finkelstein spoke like a man whom time has vindicated.
“I don’t know if I’ve pushed the envelope,” he said of his claims about Jewish groups extorting money from European countries for Holocaust reparations. “[Famed Holocaust historian Raul] Hilberg supported me, so I’m not sure how much I’m pushing the envelope. Before I charged Jewish groups with a shakedown racket, Hilberg did interviews with the Swiss and German press and said that for the first time in history American Jews are making use of the blackmail weapon. So they were the ones who pushed the envelope by using the Holocaust as a blackmail weapon.”
As he reflected on the fate of some of the main figures in the effort to extract reparations for Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein smiled at the irony of recent events.
Israel Singer, the former secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, was fired after it “turned out he had a secret Swiss bank account he was funneling money to — unbeknownst to the World Jewish Congress — for what he called his pension,” says Finkelstein.
“Burt Neuborne, the lead counsel in the Swiss case, went around saying he was doing the work pro bono for his daughter who was studying to be a rabbi,” he continues. “But it turns out he got $5 million from the German settlement and was asking for $6 million in the Swiss case. Even the New York Times wrote an editorial denouncing him. And Mel Weiss [another lawyer in the case] was indicted [in an unrelated case] and pleaded guilty.”
“They’re all crooks,” Finkelstein says with obvious satisfaction. “The only one not in trouble is me. I’m unemployed, but at least I haven’t been indicted.”
Now, settled into his Brooklyn life, Finkelstein is preparing for what may be his biggest fight, albeit one he doesn’t relish. He plans to go to the Israeli Consulate in New York in September to seek an assurance that he will be admitted in December. Such assurance, he said, would allow all concerned to “avoid the spectacle of me applying under the Law of Return [which gives every Jew the automatic right to acquire Israeli citizenship]. ... It’s hard to see which side will find that more ridiculous.
“I don’t incite riots,” he continued. “I’m just going to see a friend in the occupied Palestinian territories. I’m not there to see Israel. I do not need for every facet of my life to be politicized. If Israeli authorities would just grant me a visa, I’ll move on.”
Finkelstein said he hopes to visit a Palestinian, Musa Abu Hashhash, who lives with his wife and children near Hebron. They first met in 1988 when Finkelstein went to Israel with a delegation from the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and Finkelstein dedicated one of his books to the man, who works for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. He stressed that his visit to Israel would be a “private” affair and that he had “no interest in turning this into a political issue. ... I don’t think they can deny me, and I don’t want to turn it into a test case for the Israeli High Court.”
As things stand now, however, Norman Finkelstein, the grand provocateur, waits in limbo for a shot at returning to the Promised Land, a land he has made a career of reviling.
This article was published in The Jewish Week