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Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine: An Interview with Matthew Abraham

Matthew Abraham's new book, Out of Bounds: Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine, examines intellectual freedom and the Israel-Palestine debate in America. Illinois Academe editor John K. Wilson conducted this interview via email with Abraham, who has served on the Illinois AAUP Council and Committee A.

1) You devote a lot of the book to the case of DePaul University denying tenure to Norman Finkelstein. Why is that case so important, and why do you think that the AAUP failed to investigate Finkelstein's case, and did not adequately defend him?

MA: I really think that the Finkelstein case demonstrates how, when the stakes are high enough, institutions will employ very underhanded means to deny an active and outspoken scholar tenure. Finkelstein's long-term presence on the faculty was a veritable disaster for DePaul's long-term institutional growth, from the perspective of DePaul's administration. "Long-term institutional growth" is a code phrase for "fundraising." I'm sure DePaul's administration quickly realized having Finkelstein onboard for a thirty-year career would be ruinous for fundraising efforts, particularly when the institution was in the midst of a large capital campaign, substantial real estate acquisitions, and seeking to take the university to a higher level of academic excellence.

In my mind, the case is one of the most significant academic freedom cases in the last fifty years, as it demonstrates the substantial pressure outside parties can place on a mid-tier religious institution when the perspectives advanced by a controversial scholar threaten dominant interests. In this case, the parties are obvious enough--the Israel Lobby and its many affiliates that extend deep into American civil society. Alan Dershowitz's role in the Finkelstein case has been well documented. Dershowitz's reputation stood to suffer an even more significant blow than it did after the publication of Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah: The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History with the University of California Press, if Finkelstein had been granted tenure. However, Dershowitz was just one of many parties possessing an intense interest in the outcome of the case. Of course, Israel's power within American civil society has been well documented by James Petras, Walt and Mearsheimer, Peter Grose, Warren Bass, and so many others, that the Finkelstein denial should not really have come as a surprise.

I think the AAUP was pretty helpless in the midst of the national outrage around Finkelstein's tenure denial. I think a convenient mythology has been constructed in the wake of the controversy to suggest that the AAUP was more helpful than it really was. I remember writing to many people at National in the months leading up to Finkelstein's denial that something really terrible was afoot. The response was always, "Well, if he's denied tenure, he should file an appeal, etc. etc." National wrote some letters after a substantial national outcry, objecting to DePaul's insistence that its handbook did not provide for an appeal of a tenure denial. Well, at that point, National said, "What? You don't have an appeals process?" You'll have to ask Finkelstein if AAUP National was really helpful to him. Of course, all of this did not really matter for Finkelstein. DePaul was not going to grant him tenure, regardless of how farcical the tenure process was. As I have demonstrated, DePaul sought to justify the tenure denial by arguing that Finkelstein's scholarship was at odds with DePaul's institutional mission as a Catholic, Vincentian institution, seeking to create a legally-justifiable grounds for dismissal. If the case went to court, I'm guessing DePaul would have won as a private institution on these grounds.

I suspect that's the reason Finkelstein decided to accept a settlement and not fight it. After the settlement, AAUP stated that it would not conduct a Committee A investigation after the complainant reaches an agreement with the institution.

2) Your book reflects a very pessimistic position on the possibility of academic freedom for critics of Israel. Do you think that the same is true for academic freedom in general, or is it Israel in particular that leads to harsh punishment for dissent in academia? Do you see academic freedom improving, or getting worse?

MA: I definitely think the Israel-Palestine conflict presents a unique set of challenges for those seeking to mount a principled defense of academic freedom. Clearly, given the number of pro-Palestinian scholars who have been subject to intense surveillance, and even termination, over the last ten years, one may wonder if conditions for open debate are getting better or worse. The academy can't always stave off external attacks from powerful interest groups connected to AIPAC. I think the discourse around Israel-Palestine has opened up considerably, especially since the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September 2011. I think what can be discussed and considered within the American mainstream about Israel-Palestine has shifted. People recognize, I think, that there's been a cover-up with respect to what they are being told by the mainstream media about the Middle East, Israel's role in the formulation of US foreign policy in the region, and the plight of the Palestinians.

3) You write that for critics of Israel, "academic freedom does not exist for them as either an individual right or within the context of institutional, disciplinary, or professional norms."(81) Despite getting some warnings that supporting Finkelstein might hurt your academic career, you did receive tenure at DePaul. Many critics of Israel who have faced attacks have not been punished for their views. And while the critics of Israel may have received punishment more often, isn't it the case that pro-Israel scholars have also encountered attacks for their views? There have been efforts to disinvite some speakers from campuses, and DePaul even fired a pro-Israel adjunct professor, Thomas Klocek, who engaged in a heated argument with Palestinian students at an extracurricular event. So, doesn't that indicate that academic freedom often does protect critics of Israel, while supporters of Israel are also vulnerable to attacks?

MA: Well, tenuring me did not present a problem for DePaul's fundraising efforts. No one really cared if I got tenure. No powerful external parties were saying, "Don't tenure Matthew Abraham, or we'll hurt you financially." Yes, I was outspoken about the Finkelstein case in various venues, but ironically being in Finkelstein's corner may have actually protected me from being denied tenure. DePaul did not want any further controversy around the Finkelstein case, so tenuring me may have been a way to actually avoid further controversy, as minor as it would have been. Let's be clear: I did possess a strong and tenurable record. Furthermore, I am not a scholar of the Middle East, as Finkelstein is, so I don't think anything I was writing at the time (prior to being tenured) particularly threatened anyone. There were undoubtedly some scary moments and a lot of uncertainly, but everything worked out in the end. Nadia Abu-Haj, a Palestinian anthropologist at Barnard, and Joseph Massad, a Palestinian Middle East scholar at Columbia, withstood campaigns to derail their tenure bids. A number of Zionist alumni sought to disrupt the normal tenure processes in these two cases.

I don't think Klocek is a good example of a pro-Israel scholar who was attacked because of his views. Klocek was a math instructor and never on the tenure-track; I don't believe he actually ever wrote anything about the Middle East. As far as his telling Palestinian students in the DePaul Student Union several years ago that he did not see them because they don't exist, that was just not very smart on Klocek's part and simply recites long-ago discredited Zionist propaganda. Furthermore, I understand that Klocek's firing was not entirely about his exchange with Palestinian students and that other factors figured into it. Pro-Israel scholars are rightfully attacked for their views, but there is little or no evidence that they have incurred serious material penalties for these attacks. The only person who insists that pro-Israel scholars are at risk is Alan Dershowitz, who claimed in his The Case for Israel and The Case for Peace that pro-Israel professors are afraid to speak up on campus for fear of being retaliated against. Is anyone able to cite a single assistant professor who was denied tenure, terminated, or really experienced intimidation because of his or her advocacy for Israel? I can't think of a single case. Sounds like agit prop to me.

4) There is a very marginalized left-wing approach against academic freedom, arguing that academic freedom only protects a privileged class and therefore the concept of academic freedom should be abandoned and the left should use any means possible to silence their political enemies. You seem to agree that academic freedom often is sharply limited, but what would be your position about this viewpoint?

MA: I'm not quite sure what it would mean to "abandon" academic freedom since it largely serves as a rhetorical device anyway. I'm familiar with this critique, but I don't think it tells us anything. If the stakes are high enough, academic freedom will be redefined to protect the powerful, as it clearly was in the Finkelstein case. The privilege of academic freedom is highly contextual and is only operative, according to figures such as Stanley Fish, in professional contexts. As he has pointed out, and as I'm sure he'll explain in his forthcoming book on academic freedom from Oxford, as the claim for freedom in the concept of "academic freedom" gets larger and larger, the claim that one is performing an "academic" task becomes smaller and smaller. In other words, there is a dialectical relationship between "academic" and "freedom" in the concept of "academic freedom." I think this is an important point, one worth reiterating and remembering. Academic freedom is defined and delimited by professional and disciplinary norms.

5) The American Studies Association resolution in favor of an academic boycott of Israel sparked an enormous backlash, including letters from college presidents denouncing the ASA and legislative proposals to punish the ASA. What do you think of this controversy, and does it indicate a threat to academic freedom? What is your response to the AAUP's position criticizing both academic boycotts and attempts to punish academic boycotters?

MA: I think it's important to remember that the ASA simply endorsed the call from Palestinian society to boycott Israeli universities. Frankly, I think the controversy was really a manufactured one, enabling pro-Israel forces to claim that academy has been infiltrated by anti-Semites and Israel haters. Of course, nearly two hundred college and university presidents were able to display their pro-Israel credentials by condemning the ASA resolution, but that is not surprising.

I don't really understand the AAUP's position on boycotts. Ever since the Bellagio conference fiasco, I'm not quite sure AAUP has displayed either the backbone or the leadership to help us understand the relevant issues. Boycotts have long been used by oppressed populations to resist colonial occupations and racist regimes, as they were during the fight against apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s. The AAUP wants to avoid dealing with the boycott issue with respect to Israel-Palestine altogether; its position statement (if that's what it can be called) is a convenient way to do that.

I found some of the AAUP leaders' responses to the special issue of The Journal of Academic Freedom on academic boycotts that Bill Mullins and David Lloyd put together nearly comical. I think Matthew Finkin ended up resigning from the editorial board over the whole flap. After the issue came out and was deemed hostile to Israel, several response pieces were included to "balance" out the presentation. Of course, anti-Israel partisans hijacked the issue! I'm being facetious, of course, but I think you get my point: on what other issue do we see such desperate attempts to create "balance"?

6) Your book has a very pessimistic (or perhaps realistic) view of academic freedom. What do you think that colleges, faculty, and organizations such as the AAUP can do to better protect academic freedom?

MA: The concept of academic freedom remains a selling point for the American university. University administrations continue to insist that it is a fundamental and much-valued principle of scholarly life. As I have written elsewhere, no university has ever admitted to violating a faculty member's academic freedom; when a scholar with controversial views is terminated, it's always for some "other reason," supposedly unrelated to their speech or scholarship. Professional misconduct is loosely defined, so much so in fact, that being controversial and upsetting people can be interpreted as unprofessional conduct.

DePaul's University Board on Tenure and Promotion stated that Finkelstein did not comport himself in a manner consistent with the broader expectations guiding the conduct of DePaul faculty. What was Finkelstein's supposed transgression? He upset Israel's staunchest supporters such as Alan Dershowitz with "reputation-demeaning attacks." The most humorous explanation I received came from DePaul's Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, who stated that one can freeze out others through their scholarship by tearing down the individual and deterring others from participating in the "scholarly" conversation. One would think only a journal editor would have the power to freeze someone out of a scholarly conversation. Clearly, the Dean had the Finkelstein case in mind. The President of DePaul, in his letter denying Finkelstein tenure, stated that Finkelstein's scholarly analyses were not "subtle and layered" enough. What does that mean? It means that Finkelstein's scholarly conclusions about the Israel-Palestine conflict did not conform to the necessary doctrinal constraints, e.g. refusing to join the international consensus for a just resolution of the Question of Palestine; providing ideological cover for U.S. and Israel rejectionism; and rejecting the Palestinians' national aspirations.

University legal counsels are quite skilled in crafting the arguments for dismissal and exclusion, ably sidestepping academic freedom protections when the stakes are high enough. If keeping a scholar on the faculty is going to extract an exorbitant cost in terms of fundraising and institutional growth, it's likely that the scholar is going to face serious challenges in disseminating his or her work. Outside really prestigious places like the University of Chicago, Columbia, MIT, most universities seek to cut off any controversy that is going to have serious repercussions for the institution's reputation. The University of Colorado's handling of the Ward Churchill case and the University of South Florida's quick termination of Sami Al-Arian prove that.

Your last question about how faculty and staff can support academic freedom is interesting, but the answer is fairly straightforward. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was with my colleagues at DePaul, who chose to remain silent during the administration's persecution of Norman Finkelstein. I asked so many tenured colleagues, full professors even, to get involved in speaking out against what was being done to Finkelstein. As usual, lame excuses and the "duck and cover" mentality prevailed for the most part. Here was the most important academic freedom case in recent memory developing on our campus and these faculty were more concerned about appeasing the Dean, not rocking the boat, and toeing the institutional line. It was a low point in my academic career, confirming that you cannot always trust colleagues to act on, or speak out in the defense of, principle--even on something as important as academic freedom. I know many faculty members at DePaul who made a conscious choice to stay far away from the Finkelstein case to solidify their bona fides for administrative positions, departmental funds, and general political gain. One day I'll name specific individuals.

One can't shame one's colleagues into supporting and defending academic freedom. People act when there is something at stake for them. For example, if you were to threaten to take away the number of course releases senior faculty believe they are entitled to as program directors, publishing scholars, department chairs, etc., you can be sure those faculty will be the first to invoke academic freedom to protect those privileges. So, academic freedom is frequently invoked, but rarely defended in the way we would like to think it is. In short, academic freedom means many things to many people. Alan Dershowitz, for example, insisted that the Finkelstein case was not about academic freedom at all, but about academic standards. How does one respond to this kind of argumentation? It's really breathtaking.