The Coney Island Exile of a Scholar Who Would Be Noam Chomsky, but Isn’t
By Ben Harris
New York Magazine
December 10, 2007
At 54, Norman Finkelstein is pretty much back where he started. This summer, the leftist scholar—who made a name for himself in 2000 with his book The Holocaust Industry, in which he called Jewish leaders a “repellent gang of plutocrats, hoodlums, and hucksters” intent on extorting war reparations from European governments—lost his job as assistant professor of political science at DePaul University. Fortunately, he kept the lease on his late father’s threadbare rent-stabilized apartment, on Ocean Parkway, and there he’s retreated.
“It’s like death,” Finkelstein says. “You keep saying you’re going to die, but you never really come to grips with it. And I can see I’m not going to get another job. I haven’t yet fully absorbed it.”
His days are now spent in solitary scholarly pursuits; his bookshelves buckle under the weight of tomes by Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Notes of support from his students sit on a piano; there’s a photo of him and Noam Chomsky (“my closest friend”) bare-chested on the beach at Cape Cod.
He was a Maoist revolutionary in his youth. By his own account, 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.
Afterward, Finkelstein says, he lost seventeen pounds. “People saw me wasting away,” he says. A student group held a hunger strike; Chomsky and others defended him. One of his colleagues made him a mix CD with tracks like “I Will Survive” and “What’s Goin’ On?” “I’m an old fan of the Negro spirituals,” Finkelstein says. “I was going around singing to myself, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there?’ That’s how I felt. I was being crucified by the end.”
The son of survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and Nazi death camps, Finkelstein was raised in Borough Park and later Mill Basin, where he attended high school a few years behind Chuck Schumer. His parents became atheists after the war.
His new building remains heavily Jewish. A friend of Finkelstein’s father once approached him in the lobby and urged him to tone it down. “Norman,” he told him, “you’re getting older, and all the old-age homes are owned by Jews. If you keep this up, you’re not going to have anywhere to go.”
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