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Book Review: Out of Bounds

Matthew Abraham, Out of Bounds: Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Reviewed by Steve Macek, North Central College

Israel, its close relationship with the United States and its brutal repression of the Palestinians have long been the proverbial "third rail" of American politics. To even broach the topic of Israel's awful human rights record or the illegality of its ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is almost unthinkable for a politician in this country with any aspirations for higher office. And the reason it is unthinkable is that powerful interests with deep pockets (Zionist organizations, rightwing hawks, conservative Christian fundamentalists, defense contractors, etc.) are willing to spend unlimited amounts of money to defeat any candidate who dares to criticize Israel or US support for Israeli aggression.

Theoretically, academia ought to operate according to different rules. The ivory tower is supposed to be a protected sphere where scholars are free to seek out and speak the truth on controversial issues, no matter how many powerful interests they happen to offend in the process. Unfortunately, as Matthew Abraham argues at length in his new book, Out of Bounds: Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine, this is not the case when it comes to the question of Palestine.

Abraham contends that figures like Juan Cole and Joseph Massad who have the temerity to reject the dominant, pro-Israeli understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and who raise troubling questions about the influence of pro-Israel lobbyist over US policy on the Middle East are routinely denied the academic freedom accorded to others. Indeed, he claims that "academic freedom and free speech have been redefined to explicitly classify criticism of Israel on college campuses as a form of harassment against Jewish students and faculty" (p. 50). Faculty who write and teach critically about Israel find themselves spied on, accused of anti-Semitism, charged with producing shoddy scholarship and subjected to coordinated attacks designed remove them from the "contemporary academic landscape."

At the heart of the book is Abraham's analysis of DePaul University's notorious 2007 decision to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein, a member of its political science department and a leading critic of Israel and Israel's academic apologists. At the time of the decision, Abraham was a member of DePaul's English Department and witnessed the case firsthand. Finkelstein is the author of at least five books but is perhaps best known for The Holocaust Industry: The Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2000), a strongly worded polemic that alleges that "American Zionist Jewry has used the Holocaust to immunize Israel against international criticism in its continued human rights violations against the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza" (p. 60). In 2003, he became involved in a bitter and long-running dispute with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz over claims made in Dershowitz's The Case for Israel (2003). Eventually Finkelstein published Beyond Chutzpah: The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (2005), "a near point-by-point rebuttal" of Dershowitz's book which purported to show that Dershowitz and other Zionists misrepresent the history of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors and obscure the apartheid practices Israel has implemented against Palestinians. The book also charged Dershowitz with massive plagiarism. As Abraham explains, Dershowitz repeatedly contacted Finkelstein's publisher, University of California Press, in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Beyond Chutzpah from being released.

According to Abraham, Dershowitz then turned his attention to a fairly unprecedented public campaign to undermine Finkelstein's job security. In 2004, he sent DePaul President Dennis Holtschneider a screed entitled "Literary McCarthyism" that suggested that "DePaul should fire Finkelstein because of his ad hominem attacks and unprofessionalism in leveling accusations of plagiarism against supporters of Israel" (p. 85). Dershowitz also contacted the chair of DePaul's political science department and attempted to contact members of the Board of Trustees. And just as Finkelstein's tenure case was about to be considered, Dershowitz sent many DePaul faculty members a dossier of materials designed to discredit Finkelstein.

When Finkelstein applied for tenure in 2007, he had what appeared on paper to be a very strong case: a distinguished publication record, countless high profile public lectures and excellent teaching evaluations. His department supported his tenure bid by a vote of 9-3 and his College supported the bid by a vote of 5-0. Yet, the Dean of Liberal Arts, Charles Suchar, refused to support Finkelstein's application. Ultimately, the University Board on Promotion and Tenure voted 4-3 to deny tenure citing concerns about Finkelstein's "inflammatory style and his personal attacks in his writings and intellectual debates." (p. 83). In his letter to Finkelstein explaining the tenure decision, DePaul President Holtschneider questioned whether Finkelstein respected the opinions and free inquiry of others. As Abraham demonstrates, it is clear this rationale and the reasons for denial offered by the University Board were taken wholesale from Dershowitz despite the President's protests to the contrary. What is especially perverse about this, Abraham explains, is that DePaul invoked the values of academic freedom (i.e. respect for free inquiry) in order to deny "basic academic due process to a dissenting intellectual" (p. 90) whose work is designed to protect the rights of a vulnerable and oppressed minority. He suggests that concerns about political backlash from the pro-Israel lobby and possible damage to DePaul's reputation (and ability to attract big dollar donations) were likely the real motives for the negative tenure decision.

The remainder of the book explores in some depth the way the academic conformism and "the guild structure of universities" (p. 201) silence or marginalize criticism of Israel and US support for Israeli militarism. He discusses the hostility and public attacks endured by postcolonial thinker Edward Said after 9/11. He devotes an interesting chapter to the inability of a group of critical rhetorical scholars participating in an online forum with Noam Chomsky and Finkelstein to engage with their empirically- and historically-grounded critiques of the myths surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict. He also details the angry way a group rhetoric and composition scholars reacted to a teaching award named after Rachel Corrie, a young American solidarity activist who was killed facing down an Israel Defense Force bulldozer while attempting to protect a Palestinian home slated for destruction.

An especially useful feature of the book is that Abraham includes in appendices much of the e-mail and listserv correspondence he analyzes in book.

In the end, Out of Bounds establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that "certain types of scholarship and political orientations toward the Israel-Palestine conflict are placed 'out of bounds' with respect to academic freedom protections" (p. 25) and placed "out of bounds" of polite academic debate.

But the book is not without some shortcomings. To begin with, the text is marred by considerable repetition of certain key facts, descriptions and whole phrases from one chapter to another. For instance, the various UN resolutions condemning Israel's seizure of the occupied territories are discussed at different points in several chapters using almost identical language and without adding much new information. Similarly, Norman Finkelstein's bone fides as a scholar and the list of books he has written are repeated in at least three different chapters. Given that at least six of the nine chapters incorporate material previously published as articles, such repetition is understandable but it does give the reader a feeling of déjà vu after a while.

The book would have also benefited from some more careful copyediting and basic fact checking in places. At one point, while discussing the Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Abraham writes that Israel made a "desperate attempt to link Abu Nidal's assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Schlomo Argov in London to the PLO" (p.138). But, as Abraham correctly points out later in the same paragraph, Argov was the Israeli ambassador to the UK, not Israel's Prime Minister, and in fact the assassination attempt failed (though Argov was in a coma for 3 months as a result of his injuries).

These minor issues aside, Out of Bounds is an eye-opening examination of the threat posed to academic freedom by the taboo on critical discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict.