Drama at DePaul

by Jeff Fleischer

(World Jewish Digest, July 2007)


Housed on two city and four suburban campuses in the Chicago area, DePaul University is the nation’s largest Catholic university. With more than 23,000 students, it’s also one of the largest private schools in America and, in 2006, was honored by the Princeton Review for having the most diverse student population in the country.

These days, it’s also the site of two very different controversies about the role of Israel in the world and what constitutes legitimate discussion on a university campus.

In one, former adjunct Prof. Thomas Klocek is suing the university, saying he was wrongly terminated for a heated discussion with Palestinian students. In the other, the university recently rejected the tenure bid of Israel critic Norman Finkelstein, who has engaged in a public feud over his work with Harvard University Prof. Alan Dershowitz.

The Klocek case stems from a Sept. 15, 2004, incident on the Chicago downtown campus. On his way to get coffee near a student activities fair, Klocek stopped off at a booth run by Students for Justice in Palestine and read a pamphlet the group was distributing. He describes the pamphlet as showing a photo of Rachel Corrie (an American activist killed while trying to disrupt an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza strip) and demanding a right of return for Arab Palestinian refugees. Klocek says he felt the brochure oversimplified the situation and engaged the students in a discussion.

“After I read the literature, I came up to the SJP people and said, ‘You know, there’s another perspective on the Middle East that doesn’t seem to get much play,’” Klocek, who is Catholic, told World Jewish Digest. “‘The issues are complex, and extremely so, but the Christian perspective gets very little play. Christians had been in the Middle East for eight centuries before Islam was, and yet, they are rarely, if ever, heard from in the general sort of struggle between Islam and the State of Israel.’”

In the discussion that followed, he says, he told the students that the term “Palestinian” has only recently applied specifically to Muslim residents of the land, whereas it was previously used for Muslims, Christians and Jews. He says one of the students compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, a charge he argued against. He then continued to debate the SJP students as well as a group of students from United Muslims Moving Ahead seated at the next table.

The dispute comes over what happened next. Klocek says that, outnumbered 8-1, he saw “no point arguing with people whose minds were already made up” and walked away after about half an hour. The students told The DePaulia campus newspaper that he first threw their leaflets back at them and made an obscene gesture. They also said they asked him to leave several times and that when an official from Student Life, which organized the activities fair, asked him to leave a business card so they could continue the discussion at a later time, he refused.

Klocek denies the students’ charges and believes he is being punished for the content of what he said. (DePaul officials declined comment because the case is still in litigation.)

“On what subjects are we free to speak?” Klocek says. “The school said it was my behavior and not my speech. But there was no shouting, no obscenity. This was a heated conversation, but it was a conversation and not a fistfight.”

Within days of the incident, Klocek — who taught critical thinking, writing and research at DePaul for 14 years in the School of New Learning — was told by Susanne Dumbleton, dean of his department, that he would be suspended with pay for the winter quarter. He was informed in November that he could teach one class in the spring (instead of his usual two) if he agreed to have that class monitored and apologized to the students. He declined that offer and says he has never received a copy of the specific complaints against him.

Klocek, who as a long-term adjunct received university benefits but was contracted quarter to quarter, says the DePaul system lacked a process for him to appeal the decision to the university. He says the academic senate did ask if he’d be interested in a hearing there, but, because academic senate rulings apply to only one quarter at a time, he felt such an appeal would lack teeth and chose not to pursue one.

Instead, in June 2005, he filed a complaint against the university in Cook County court, seeking financial compensation. The charges were first upheld by a judge in May 2006, and six of the original eight counts were again upheld April 10 by circuit court Judge Daniel Kelley. Kelley upheld four counts of defamation against the university and three employees, and two counts of false light invasion of privacy. Klocek attorney Andy Norman says he plans to file an additional breach of contract count in the amended complaint and that he will request a trial date soon.

University spokesperson Denise Mattson said she cannot comment on the Klocek case because it is in litigation. But in 2005, she told the Associated Press, “We emphatically reject that this is at all a matter of academic freedom. For DePaul, it was about his conduct, not his content.”

With a trial date still pending, the Klocek case is unlikely to be decided until late this year or early next year.

However, a resolution came much sooner in the case of Norman Finkelstein’s denied application for tenure.

“They can deny me tenure, deny me the right to teach,” Finkelstein told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But they will never stop me from saying what I believe.”

The professor, whose parents were both Jewish Holocaust survivors, is best known for books such as “The Holocaust Industry” and “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History,” in which he argues that “Jewish elites” have exploited the Holocaust to defend the actions of Israel, enriched themselves at the expense of survivors and ignored the suffering of non- Jewish Holocaust victims.

“My parents often wondered why I would grow so indignant at the falsification and exploitation of the Nazi genocide,” Finkelstein, who is in his sixth year of teaching at DePaul, wrote in his 2000 book “The Holocaust Industry.” “The most obvious answer is that it has been used to justify criminal policies of the Israeli state and U.S. support for these policies. There is a personal motive as well. I do care about the memory of my family’s persecution. The current campaign of the Holocaust industry to extort money from Europe in the name of ‘needy Holocaust victims’ has shrunk the moral stature of their martyrdom to that of a Monte Carlo casino.”

Finkelstein has also called Nobel Prizewinning writer Elie Wiesel the “resident clown of the Holocaust circus” and has questioned whether all those seeking reparations from Swiss banks are actual survivors. He has publicly supported Hezbollah in some instances and compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to tactics of the Gestapo, saying that, as a Jew, he feels a particular responsibility to criticize Israeli policies he disagrees with.

Earlier this year, DePaul’s political science department approved Finkelstein’s tenure application 9-3, and it was then sent to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. A committee there passed it 5-0, but the dean, Chuck Suchar, recommended against tenure in a memo sent to the university-wide Board on Tenure and Promotion (which represented the next step in the process).

Suchar praised Finkelstein’s work in the classroom, noting positive course evaluations and the strong academic scores of his students, but argued that the “tone and substance” of his research and writing were insufficient for tenure.

“I find the personal attacks in many of Dr. Finkelstein’s published books to border on character assassination and, in my opinion, they embody a strategy clearly aimed at destroying the reputation of many who oppose his views,” he wrote. “I find this to be an unfortunate characteristic of his scholarship—one that threatens some basic tenets of discourse within an academic community—to conduct inquiry with civility and without undue or unnecessary personal injury or attack.”

The Board on Tenure and Promotion reviewed the application, and the university provost made a recommendation to DePaul President Father Dennis Holtschneider based on the board’s vote. The board voted to deny tenure, and Holtschneider chose not to overrule that decision, meaning Finkelstein’s position terminates next June.

“Over the past several months, there has been considerable outside interest and public debate concerning this decision,” the university president said in a statement. “This attention was unwelcome and inappropriate and had no impact on either the process or the outcome of this case.

“Some will consider this decision in the context of academic freedom. In fact, academic freedom is alive and well at DePaul. It is guaranteed both as an integral part of the university’s scholarly and religious heritage, and as an essential condition of effective inquiry and instruction.”

Harvard University Prof. Dershowitz ranks among those most often criticized by Finkelstein in his books, and the Harvard professor had urged DePaul to deny tenure.

“What surprised me is that the faculty committee voted against him, which made the president’s job much easier,” Dershowitz told World Jewish Digest. “This way, he could just say he was going with the committee’s decision. I don’t know what he would have done had they voted the other way.”

Dershowitz says he was asked to weigh in by former political science chair Patrick Callahan, and last fall he sent DePaul faculty a packet that responded to charges Finkelstein has leveled against Israel, Dershowitz and other Jewish writers.

“I showed that he made up quotes, made up sites, made up facts,” says Dershowitz, who also posted many of his charges on his Web site. “I challenged DePaul to show me where the scholarship is. We know what his personal attacks on individuals are, but what are the pages that constitute scholarship?”

While Dershowitz stressed that he was specifically asked for his opinion, Finkelstein and some of his supporters see this as a case of a professor wrongly injecting himself into an intra-school matter.

“I don’t know if there’s any precedent for it; it’s beyond unusual,” Finkelstein told World Jewish Digest about Dershowitz’s role, which he considers unsolicited. “And the magnitude of Prof. Dershowitz’s intervention is probably unprecedented in the history of higher education.”

One thing both professors agree on is that their public sparring began with a 2003 debate on Amy Goodman’s public radio program “Democracy Now,” when Finkelstein replaced scheduled guest Noam Chomsky. During that debate, Finkelstein accused Dershowitz of plagiarizing parts of his recently published book “The Case for Israel” (the book twice cites Finkelstein quotes as examples of anti- Israel argument). The accusations were based on his citing primary sources instead of secondary sources in his notes for “The Case.”

“I found out this is an old ploy, for him to accuse pro-Israel writers of plagiarism,” Dershowitz says. “Fortunately, I write everything by hand, so I was able to show Harvard the entire handwritten manuscript for ‘The Case for Israel.’ I invited them to see if there was any plagiarism, and they found none.”

Finkelstein again accused Dershowitz of plagiarism in his 2005 book “Beyond Chutzpah.” Dershowitz tried getting the University of California Press not to release the book, sending the publisher a handwritten copy of his own work and threatening legal action, though the book still went to press with those accusations. Finkelstein has also published a column titled “Should Alan Dershowitz Target Himself for Assassination?” and commissioned a cartoon (drawn by an artist who participated in Iran’s Holocaust cartoon contest) that caricatures the professor masturbating to images of dead Lebanese civilians in what’s labeled an “Israel peep show.” For his part, Dershowitz has called Finkelstein a “Holocaust minimizer” and accused him of calling his own mother a concentration-camp kapo. (Finkelstein had written only that he once asked her if she did anything she was ashamed of during the Holocaust.)

“In some ways, the decision’s not that important at all,” Dershowitz says. “He’s a soapbox orator, and he can still get a soapbox in Central Park and spew his drivel. It’s important only because of the attention the case has received and the way the media is misrepresenting the decision.

“DePaul didn’t deny him tenure because he opposes Israel; many tenured professors oppose Israel. They denied him because he isn’t a scholar.”

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for publications including Mother Jones, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New Republic, the Chicago Daily Herald, Chicago Magazine and Mental Floss.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,