Just like all other actions, speaking the truth has its reaction and indeed price.
A few months ago, I was honored to join two Middle East experts– Professor John Mueller and Professor John Quigley– in a panel discussion on Jimmy Carter’s “controversial” book (Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid).
As I, a small-time writer, was franticly searching for material to make me sound halfway intelligent, I came across numerous articles, essays, and reviews that offered little or no refutation of the content of the book and instead focused on the author’s alleged “anti-Semitic” motive.
Leading that ad hominem campaign was none other than Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard. No surprise there, as the long time civil-libertarian has lately turned into a blatant advocate of legalizing torture, executing collective punishment, and sustaining the brutal subjugation of the Palestinian people.
As I continued my search, I was distracted by a profoundly more caustic campaign of character assassination by Dershowitz and company aimed at Assistant Professor Norman Finkelstein of DePaul.
I must confess I became more intrigued when I discovered that the latter, albeit being attacked for “anti-Semitic” and “bigoted” views, happens to be the son of two holocaust survivors.
Dershowitz has been on this case for several years. And according to the New York Times, in recent years he lobbied professors, alumni and the administration of DePaul, a Roman Catholic university in Chicago, to deny Finkelstein tenure- a campaign that many faculty members at DePaul and elsewhere complained as being “heavy-handed tactics.” This to them could not be dismissed as an isolated episode of the incivility of modern politics.
So what is the impetus of this ferocious animosity?
Apparently, Finkelstein simply did the unthinkable – he dared to set the truth in motion. And, in a time of universal deceit, as George Orwell said, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
Like Carter, Finkelstein surrendered to his conscience and decided to swim against the political tides. He criticized the state of Israel for its brutal treatment of the stateless Palestinians. He also, in his scholarly researches, exposed how the Zionists exploited “anti-Semitism” (a real racist phenomenon) to camouflage the atrocities committed by the state of Israel, and how the holocaust tragedy was exploited and was made a “lucrative industry."
Any one who read his books or perhaps watched Finkelstein recently on the Doha Debates — one of the premiere debate forums moderated by Tim Sebastian, former host of the BBC HardTalk — as he lucidly argued in favor of the motion “This house believes the pro-Israel lobby has successfully stifled Western debate about Israel’s actions” would see why Dershowitz and company would go down as low as defaming Finkelstein’s mother.
In that debate, Finkelstein came across as someone who has reconciled with the fact that he would have to sacrifice a great deal as he fights this lonely and a fateful battle. He was hardly uncomfortable referring to himself as the oldest untenured Assistant Professor.
And though those who campaigned to block his tenure accuse him of academic deficiency, a great number of his peers express otherwise. They scream foul and argue that Finkelstein is being politically persecuted for his intellectual views.
Professor Avi Shlaim of Oxford University, a world renowned scholar and author of many books had this passionate appeal in a recent interview: “Israel has no immunity to criticism, moral immunity to criticism, because of the Holocaust. Israel is a sovereign nation-state, and it should be judged by the same standards as any other state. And Norman Finkelstein is a very serious critic and a very well-informed critic and hard-hitting critic of Israeli practices in the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians”.
He said Finkelstein has made “…an important contribution to the study of Zionism, to the study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, in particular, to the study of American attitudes towards Israel and towards the Middle East”.
To Shlaim it is important to separate “questions of anti-Semitism from critique of Israel”. And presenting himself as an example, he said “I am critical of Israel as a scholar, and anti-Semitism just doesn’t come into it. My view is that the blind supporters of Israel — and there are many of them in America, in particular — use the charge of anti-Semitism to try and silence legitimate criticism of Israeli practices. I regard this as moral blackmail."
Echoing a similar sentiment, a letter of support signed by hundreds of Finkelstein’s peers had this to say: “To challenge the status quo of Zionist historiography in the U.S., as Finkelstein has done in his scholarship, most certainly ignites controversy; but his ability to address the subject with thorough documented evidence that encourages readers to see the subject of Palestine and Israel anew is precisely why scholars around the world value his work” read a letter of support”.
In response to the news of his denial of tenure, he unapologetically reiterated his principled, indeed inspirational stand by saying: "They can deny me tenure, deny me the right to teach. But they will never stop me from saying what I believe."
In an era when intellectual freedom is routinely suppressed; and at a time when people of good character and moral integrity have become the unprotected endangered specie, here comes Finkelstein walking self-assuredly like a mammoth of moral rectitude.