Academic Freedom and the Israel Lobby

David Klein

(excerpted from: "Why is Norman Finkelstein not Allowed to Teach?")

Academic freedom, as an abstract principle, is universally applauded by university administrators.  Any American university president, with occasion to talk about it, will exalt Galileo and decry Pope Urban VIII for sentencing the astronomer to house arrest.  Yet, presidents and their subordinates slide easily to the other side of the fence when confronted with the closely analogous cases involving Norman Finkelstein, and other scholars critical of U.S. Middle East policy.

Finkelstein is only one of many targets of academic censorship, and the presidents of DePaul University and CSUN are far from alone in heeding the ideological directives of the Israel lobby. A high mark in subservience was achieved by Fr. Dennis Dease, President of the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when he withdrew an invitation to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at his university. The episode was reported in a series of articles starting in October 2007 (Snyders, Jaschik, Shellman, Furst).

In April 2007, members of the Justice and Peace Studies program at St. Thomas succeeded in booking the Nobel laureate for a campus speaking engagement for the following spring. But the Zionist Organization of America opposed the invitation, and Julie Swiler, a spokeswoman for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, informed the university that, "In a 2002 speech in Boston, [Tutu] made some comments that were especially hurtful" (Snyders). In that speech Tutu criticized Israel for human rights violations against Palestinians.  After consultation with members of the Jewish community, President Dease announced that Tutu would not be allowed to speak on campus.

Following the president's decision, the chair of the Justice and Peace Studies program, Cris Toffolo, sent Tutu a letter informing him of the administration's decision and expressing disagreement with it.  When they also received a copy, St. Thomas administrators removed her as chair of the program.

Dease was denounced by faculty and students within the university, and became the focus of international criticism. A National Book Award-winning poet, Lucille Clifton, canceled her visit to St. Thomas in protest. Even more alarming, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, sent a letter to Dease in which he wrote,

"While Archbishop Tutu is not a friend of Israel, we do not believe he is an anti-Semite.  As you rightly point out in your letter, his words have often stung the Jewish community.  However, while he may at times have crossed the line, we believe that he should have been permitted to speak on your campus."

Contradictory directives from leading Jewish organizations put President Dease in an awkward position.  He reversed his decision and re-invited Tutu to St. Thomas. However, Tutu made acceptance of the offer conditional on Toffolo's reinstatement as chair of the Justice and Peace Studies program.  But while the world-renowned peace activist, Desmond Tutu, may have been too prominent a target, Toffolo was not.  The administration did not reinstate her as chair, and true to his word, Tutu declined the second invitation. 

Although Toffolo was already tenured and was not stripped of her rank of associate professor, her treatment by St. Thomas, to some degree, parallels DePaul University's treatment of Mehrene Larudee.  Larudee was 19 days shy of becoming the director of DePaul's program in international studies when she learned she had been denied tenure, despite unanimous decisions in her favor by faculty committees and her dean.  Her firing in 2007 was widely perceived as retribution for her public support of Norman Finkelstein.

Harvard University has also disinvited speakers for their criticisms of Israel.  J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and of African and African-American studies at Harvard describes three such incidents.  In 2002,

"Harvard’s Department of English invited Tom Paulin – Oxford professor and one of the finest living British poets – to speak, but promptly disinvited him after then-University President Lawrence H. Summers expressed disapproval of Paulin’s criticisms of Israel. Though the Department later voted to reverse the disinvitation, Paulin has never come to campus."

Also disinvited was Norman Finkelstein in 2005, who was previously invited to speak at the campus bookstore.  Then in 2007, Rutgers biologist Robert L. Trivers was invited to speak in honor of his receipt of the prestigious Crafoord Prize in biosciences from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.  But just hours before his scheduled speech, the invitation was abruptly rescinded. His erstwhile campus host said that he was ordered to do so by someone he would not name. "Also according to Trivers, Jeffrey Epstein later admitted ordering the cancellation and said that he had done so under pressure from Dershowitz. Epstein, a legal client of Dershowitz, had donated the funds used to establish [the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics] which, according to other sources, depends for its future effectiveness on further funding from him" (Matory).  Thus, at Harvard (and elsewhere) free speech by critics of Israel is for sale, and campus administrators protect it up to the level of its cash value.

Even faculty members who meticulously avoid publicity are not immune from attack if their scholarship deviates from a Zionist-approved agenda.  A case in point is the ordeal of Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard College. Hundreds of alumni funneled their potential for monetary donations into the service of censorship, demanding in 2007 that the assistant professor not receive tenure. Nearly 2000 people signed a petition to the campus president demanding her expulsion.  Dr. Abu El-Haj was guilty of writing a book entitled, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," that "looked at the role of archeology in what was essentially a political project: the Biblical validation for Jewish claims in what is now Israel" (Kramer 50).   She was eventually awarded tenure, but not before receiving hate mail in bulk, being the target of denunciations, and enduring mischaracterizations of her statements and beliefs.  As with Finkelstein, the principal (but baseless) argument was that tenure should be denied on account of low quality of scholarship.  The actual ideological motivations would have been less effective on account of the need of university administrators to at least pantomime support for the academic freedom for their professors.  In this rare instance, the presidents of Barnard and Columbia deserve mild praise for not caving in to the mob.

Noam Chomsky informed me by email of this example of intimidation:

"In the 1980s I was invited to a major US university for a week of lectures on philosophy, and of course added many other talks and meetings, in those days mostly on Central America.  A tenured professor (who taught part time at Tel Aviv) invited me to give a talk on the Middle East.  The next day I got a call from campus police asking if I would agree to have uniformed police with me the entire time I was on campus.  I refused, but was accompanied by undercover armed police the whole time – walking from the faculty club to a phil seminar, for example.  After I left there was a huge campaign of vilification, and an effort to remove tenure from the prof who invited me."

Tenure protected that professor, but it did not protect Sami Al-Arian, an associate professor of computer science at the University of South Florida.  He was suspended by the campus president after Fox TV's Bill O'Reilly accused him of having terrorist connections, two weeks after the 9/11 attack, and eventually fired.  In a December 19, 2001 statement by University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft, posted on the university web site, the president followed rhetorical norms when she wrote,

"Academic freedom is revered at USF . . . we respect the right of faculty to express their personal views on controversial subjects, with the understanding that it must be clear they are speaking for themselves and not for the University. In this case, I have recognized my great responsibility to fully consider both the welfare of the University Community and Dr. Al-Arian's rights of expression."

Moving past the fanfare, the point of the memorandum was this: "I have instructed our Office of Academic Affairs to notify Dr. Al-Arian of the University's intent to terminate his employment." No proof of guilt of anything, real or imagined, was offered, and academic freedom was tossed out the window.

Two years later in 2003, the Bush administration filed 17 trumped up charges against Al-Arian.  Then after years of imprisonment, and in spite of the government's best legal efforts, he was fully acquitted of eight of the charges, and the jury deadlocked on the rest, voting for acquittal by 10 to 2.  The verdict was a major defeat for the Bush administration, but Al-Arian's brutal treatment by his university and especially the government can only be regarded as a successful assault on First Amendment rights for Middle East activists and scholars.
By way of contrast, university administrations see no problem in retaining professors like John Yoo, Henry Kissinger, and many others who in a more just world might be tried for war crimes, or even crimes against humanity.  In such cases the principle of academic freedom is steadfastly upheld by campus presidents.

The Future

What accounts for the lack of courage and principle by those who preside over the academy, when it comes to the Middle East?  Clearly, it is the influence of the Israel Lobby, a small but powerful rightwing group that purports to speak for all Jews, and yet persecutes those Jews who dare to criticize the policies of Israel. 

The crackdown on dissent, obediently carried out by American university presidents exposes "the grave limits of academic freedom in the United States," as Professor Gendzier put it.  And it is not merely individual professors like Norman Finkelstein who pay the price for censorship.  The quality and stature of U.S. universities, as a whole, is compromised by the political Lysenkoism that muzzles critics of Israel.  Perhaps lowering the stature of American universities  through censorship, and the consequent upending of the lives of heretical scholars, is a price that university presidents are willing to pay in order to appease the Lobby, but there may be other unintended consequences to the stifling of debate about Israel. 

The Lobby succeeds in stifling criticisms of Israel by labeling critics as anti-Semites.  In the case of Jewish critics, the labels include "self-hating Jew," "Holocaust denier," and worse.  According to this propaganda, Jews who raise serious criticisms of Israel for the mistreatment of Palestinians, Jews such as Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Sara Roy, and many others, are, in short, "Bad Jews."  It is left to the "Good Jews" to neutralize such criticisms of Israel by tarring critics with these labels, thereby ending their employment, blocking speaking engagements, or generally attempting to destroy their credibility with the public – and with university presidents.  In this taxonomy, it is the "Good Jews" who claim to speak for Jews collectively.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is fundamentally about land.  Throughout its history, the land area of Israel has expanded, while the land area for Palestinians has contracted.  If Israeli expansionism in pursuit of a Greater Israel is ultimately to succeed, it will be necessary to impose negative growth on the Palestinian population over an extended period of time, either through exodus or gradual genocide.  Consistent with this purpose, Israel has inflicted misery through humiliation, the wholesale use of torture, demolition of homes, deprivation of water, power, and food, and through direct assassinations and indiscriminate attacks.

It is no longer possible to hide the darker side of Israeli policy, and mainstream voices have expressed concerns.  John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, and Stephan Walt of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government raised doubts about the value of the U.S.-Israel alliance in their book, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." Former President and Nobel laureate, Jimmy Carter, pressed forward moral questions about Israel's behavior in his book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid."  Predictably, all three authors were denounced by the Israel Lobby, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to marginalize all of Israel's critics. 

As the realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict enter public discourse with increasing weight, what will be the perception toward Jews by the rest of the population?  If  the Israel Lobby's "Good Jews" continue to represent all Jews, and "Good Jews" defend Israel's every action, all the while working to suspend academic freedom in universities, what ultimately will be the consequences? 

A far more enlightened path would be for universities to permit open discourse about the Middle East.  Excluding Norman Finkelstein, and others like him, from America's universities is misguided in the extreme.

Acknowledgments.  I thank Khaled Abou El Fadl, Noam Chomsky, Irene Gendzier, Harry Hellenbrand, Sara Roy, Avi Shlaim, and John Trumpbour for permission to use the quoted material attributed to them.  I am also indebted to Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Irene Gendzier, Sara Roy, and John Trumpbour for helpful comments and suggestions; to Laila Al-Arian for information about her father; and to Edie Pistolesi and others unnamed for critical readings and corrections. Finally, I would like to thank Edward Carvalho for his help in finding and organizing approrpriate citations.

Works Cited

Abou, El Fadl, Khaled. Letter to President Jolene Koester, 26 Feb. 2008.

Abu El-Haj, Nadia. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice  and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001.

Aguilar, Mercedes. "Visiting lecturer causes stir in Jewish studies program" Daily Sundial California State University, Northridge. 12 Feb. 2007: 1
Carter, Jimmy. Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Chomsky, Noam. Letter to President Jolene Koester and Provost Harry Hellenbrand, 21 Feb. 2008.
_____. "permission to quote"  E-mail to David Klein. 22 July 2008.
Finkelstein, Norman G. Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Berkeley: U of California P, 2005.
_____. "Biography." Official Web site of Norman G. Finkelstein. 2008. 01 Aug. 2008 <>.
_____. "Civility and Academic Freedom." California State University, Northridge, CA. 12 Feb. 2008.
_____. "The Coming Breakup of American Zionism." California State University, Northridge, CA. 13 Feb. 2008.
_____."A Critique of the Walt-Mearsheimer Thesis." California State University, Northridge, CA. 14 Feb. 2008.
_____. Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. London and New York: Verso, 1995.
_____. "Joint statement of Norman Finkelstein and DePaul University on their tenure controversy and its resolution" Official Web Site of Norman G. Finkelstein. 5 Sept. 2007 <>.
_____. The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P: 1996.

Foxman, Abraham H. “ADL Troubled By Implications Of Cancellation Of Tutu Speech” 10 Oct. 2007. <>.

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Gendzier, Irene. Letter to President Jolene Koester and Provost Harry Hellenbrand, 23 Feb. 2008.

Genshaft, Judy. "Statement of University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft." Office of Media Relations’ USF News & Online Guide <>.
Goodman, Amy. "'It Takes an Enormous Amount of Courage to Speak the Truth When No One Else is Out There'—World-Renowned Holocaust, Israel Scholars Defend DePaul Professor Norman Finkelstein as He Fights for Tenure." 9 May
2007 <>.
_____. "Noam Chomsky Accuses Alan Dershowitz of Launching a 'Jihad' to Block Norman Finkelstein From Getting Tenure at DePaul University." Democracy 17 Apr. 2007 <>.

Grossman, Ron. "Controversial professor denied tenure at DePaul" Chicago Tribune10 June 2007. Metro Section 2.

Hellenbrand, Harry. "Introductory Remarks for Norman G. Finkelstein's 'Civility and Academic Freedom'." California State University , Northridge, CA. 12 Feb. 2008.

Holtschneider, Dennis. Letter denying tenure and promotion to Norman Finkelstein, 8 June 2007. Copy posted on Official Website of Norman G. Finkelstein at:,Norman06.08.2007.pdf

Jaschik, Scott. “Desmond Tutu, Persona Non Grata.” Inside Higher 4 Oct. 2007 <>.

Klein, David. "Re: Letter to Holtschneider on denial of tenure to Finkelstein:" E-mail to Norman G. Finkelstein. 1 July 2007.
_____. "suggestion: institute professor" E-mail to Jolene Koester. 1 July 2007.
_____. "Norman Finkelstein" E-mail to Jolene Koester. 19 June 2008.
_____. "visiting professor positions and Norman Finkelstein" E-mail to Jolene Koester. 27 June 2008.

Koester, Jolene. "Re: visiting professor positions and Norman Finkelstein:" E-mail to David Klein. 1 July 2008.
Kramer, Jane. "The Petition: Israel, Palestine, and a tenure battle at Barnard" The New Yorker 14 Apr. 2008: 50–59.

Matory, Lorand J. "What Do Critics of Israel Have to Fear?" 5 June
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Mearsheimer, John J. and Stephen M. Walt. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.

Menetrez, Frank. "Dershowitz v. Finkelstein: Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?"  30 Apr. 2007 <>.

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Roy, Sara. Letter to President Jolene Koester and Provost Harry Hellenbrand, 28 Feb. 2008.

Rubin, Shelley. "Stinky Finky Coming to LA" Geeklog: The Official Jewish Defense League Blog. 7 Feb. 2007.

Shellman, Jeff. "Oct. 10: About-face: Tutu gets St. Thomas invite" [Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN] 22 Oct. 2007 <>; "Desmond Tutu rejects St. Thomas' invitation" [Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN] 27 Mar. 2007  <>

Shlaim, Avi. Letter to President Jolene Koester and Provost Harry Hellenbrand, 25 Feb. 2008.

Snyders, Matt. "Banning Desmond Tutu." 3 Oct. 2007 01 Aug. 2008 <>.

Trumpbour, John. Letter to President Jolene Koester and Provost Harry Hellenbrand, 28 Feb. 2008.