There was this best-seller a few years ago [in 1984], it went through about ten printings, by a woman named Joan Peters—or at least, signed by Joan Peters—called From Time Immemorial. It was a big scholarly-looking book with lots of footnotes, which purported to show that the Palestinians were all recent immigrants [i.e. to the Jewish-settled areas of the former Palestine, during the British mandate years of 1920 to 1948]. And it was very popular—it got literally hundreds of rave reviews, and no negative reviews: the Washington Post, the New York Times, everybody was just raving about it. Here was this book which proved that there were really no Palestinians! Of course, the implicit message was, if Israel kicks them all out there's no moral issue, because they're just recent immigrants who came in because the Jews had built up the country.
Well, one graduate student at Princeton, a guy named Norman Finkelstein, started reading through the book. He was interested in the history of Zionism, and as he read the book he was kind of surprised by some of the things it said. He's a very careful student, and he started checking the references—and it turned out that the whole thing was a hoax, it was completely faked: probably it had been put together by some intelligence agency or something like that.
He went ahead and wrote up an article, and he started submitting it to journals. Nothing: they didn't even bother responding. I finally managed to place a piece of it in In These Times, a tiny left-wing journal published in Illinois, where some of you may have seen it. Otherwise nothing, no response. Meanwhile his professors—this is Princeton University, supposed to be a serious place—stopped talking to him: they wouldn't make appointments with him, they wouldn't read his papers, he basically had to quit the program.
They had the whole system buttoned up, there was never going to be a critical word about this in the United States. But then they made a technical error: they allowed the book to appear in England, where you can't control the intellectual community quite as easily.
Well, as soon as I heard that the book was going to come out in England, I immediately sent copies of Finkelstein's work to a number of British scholars and journalists who are interested in the Middle East—and they were ready. As soon as the book appeared, it was just demolished, it was blown out of the water. Every major journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review, the Observer, everybody had a review saying, this doesn't even reach the level of nonsense, of idiocy. A lot of the criticism used Finkelstein's work without any acknowledgment, I should say—but about the kindest word anybody said about the book was "ludicrous," or "preposterous."
Anyhow, by that point the American intellectual community realized that the Peters book was an embarrassment, and it sort of disappeared—nobody talks about it anymore. I mean, you still find it at newsstands in the airport and so on, but the best and the brightest know that they are not supposed to talk about it anymore: because it was exposed and they were exposed.
Well, the point is, what happened to Finkelstein is the kind of thing that can happen when you're an honest critic—and we could go on and on with other cases like that. [Editors' Note: Finkelstein has since published several books with independent presses.]
Still, in the universities or in any other institution, you can often find some dissidents hanging around in the woodwork—and they can survive in one fashion or another, particularly if they get community support. But if they become too disruptive or too obstreperous—or you know, too effective—they're likely to be kicked out. The standard thing, though, is that they won't make it within the institutions in the first place, particularly if they were that way when they were young—they'll simply be weeded out somewhere along the line. So in most cases, the people who make it through the institutions and are able to remain in them have already internalized the right kinds of beliefs: it's not a problem for them to be obedient, they already are obedient, that's how they got there. And that's pretty much how the ideological control system perpetuates itself in the schools—that's the basic story of how it operates, I think.
Noam Chomsky, The Fate of an Honest Intellectual, 2002
(...) By his own account [Norman Finkelstein], his academic career was bedeviled from the start by his politics: It took him thirteen years to wrest his doctorate from Princeton, since no faculty member would agree to advise him on his thesis, an analysis of Zionism. When he finally did earn the degree, none would write him a recommendation. He went on to take a series of adjunct posts—at Brooklyn College, Hunter, and NYU—rarely earning more than $20,000 a year.
At DePaul, where he arrived six years ago, his situation improved. But the success of The Holocaust Industry, which was translated into over two dozen languages and was a best seller in Germany, raised his profile, and the critics mobilized. Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz waged a fierce campaign against him, preparing a dossier of Finkelstein’s “clearest and most egregious instances of dishonesty.” Still, his department, and the college, recommended him for tenure. But the university’s promotion-and-tenure board voted 4-3 against him, and DePaul’s president refused to overturn the decision.
Take a minute before you conclude that the pro-Israel lobby is the sole culprit behind the witch hunt directed against scholars who criticize Israeli military rule over Palestinians. Consider Norman Finkelstein. If he had been on the faculty of an Israeli university, rather than DePaul University, he probably would be an associate professor by now.
I say that because several years ago I came up for tenure at Ben Gurion University of the Negev under similarly contested circumstances. As in Finkelstein's case, when I was recommended for tenure the president was promptly inundated with letters from outsiders seeking to influence the process. Like Finkelstein's, my sin was criticizing Israel's policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. All the calls for my dismissal emanated from America not from Israel. In one typical letter, the president of the Zionist Organization of America used ominous threats to urge the university to fire me. Yet, unlike in the Finkelstein case, ultimately intimidation failed.
Why, then, have such tactics succeeded in the United States? Why do Israeli scholars have more academic freedom than their American counterparts?
The answer is rooted in the fact that many American universities are being reconstructed as corporations whose major objective is to sell products, most obviously degrees to students. The corporatization of academic life means that faculty members are perceived as both producers and products. They are expected to come up with inventions and patents that can be sold to corporations, as well as with research funds and citations that have a pseudomarket value, since they help elevate the university's ranking. As saleable products, faculty members are valued according to a corporate calculus rather than an academic one. To put it bluntly: Finkelstein was considered a liability to the corporation; therefore he was sacked.
The remaking of universities as corporations has also altered accountability. Those at the helm have become more accountable to boards of trustees, shareholders (i.e., major donors), and customers (i.e., students, parents, and viewers of athletics events) than to the university's original mission (i.e., seeking truth and educating the next generation) and the faculty members who carry it out. Consequently administrators behave like corporate executives and are hardly invested in intellectual achievements or democratic processes.
In Israel, by contrast, all faculty members are unionized, and their salaries are determined according to rank and a series of relatively objective academic criteria. Law and business professors earn the same as their colleagues in literature and philosophy. That has a major impact on how we think about faculty members. They are not seen as no more than products, as Finkelstein seems to have been.