The University of Chicago hosted a conference last weekend on academic freedom. Participants ranged from John Mearshimer to Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali. Don’t laugh yet. The event’s cause celebre, the Chicago Maroon reports, was Norman Finkelstein. The partipants lamented DePaul University’s denial of tenure to Finkelstein, and lectured, predictably, on the evils of right-wing pressure on the academy, and especially the insidious influence of the “Israel Lobby.”
I suppose I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Finkelstein’s a less-than ideal martyr, given his famed taste for invective language and continuing questions about improprieties in his reseach, but his tenure denial, explained as it was in terms of “respect for colleagues”, is troublesome. In that, it’s nice to hear that a DePaul Academic Freedom Committee exists, and that they’re mustering conferences, but their exertions seem focused towards the wrong target. It’s DePaul’s gutless administration that’s to fault for the haphazard Finkelstein tenure denial, not the phantom Israel lobby. DePaul has displayed a consistent disregard for academic freedom on any side of the Israel question. Their previous offense, you might recall, was the 2005 firing of adjunct professor Thomas Klocek – for putative anti-Palestinian comments. Doesn’t sound like the Zionists have completed their takeover yet. There’s no doubt that in cases such as Finkelstein’s, pro-Israel figures agitated prominently against him, but it’s very much unclear what influence they had in the actual university decision (the other allegation at the conference, that right-wing forces exercise influence over Middle Eastern studies departments, is simply ludicrous). In any case, the problem’s not that some want to lobby, but that universities might improperly give in. Those concerned about academic freedom would be better served in taking aim at the pusillanimity of University administrations rather than imagining Zionist lever-pulling conspiracies.