Muhlenberg alumni petition for professor’s removal

Administration pressured to fire Maura Finkelstein, Ph.D., for pro-Palestine sentiments.

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change.org petition to remove Finkelstein from the College's faculty

The Muhlenberg Weekly originally published this article on Nov. 2. It was met with strong responses and calls for retraction. We decided to take down the story to regroup and figure out our next steps. Now, we are republishing this piece with edits out of caution and concern for our student journalists. The Weekly strives to be neutral on this issue and report on what is happening without editorializing. We refuse to be used by either side of this issue to defend their stances. Thank you for your support of independent, student reporting. 

The Israel-Hamas conflict has amplified discourse throughout the College, with students, faculty and alumni calling on Muhlenberg to respond in different ways. One individual who has spoken out about the issue is Associate Professor of Anthropology Maura Finkelstein, Ph.D. In addition to her social media presence surrounding the conflict, Finkelstein sent out a written statement to the College faculty in response to the College’s words on the matter. In her statement, she noted, “These are terrifying times. But we cannot mourn without also acknowledging the fact that Israel is a settler colonial state, Palestinians have been living under occupation since 1948, and Gaza is an open air prison, the densest and perhaps most dangerous place in the world. On average, more than one Palestinian has been killed by the Israeli State each day this year. For Palestinians in Gaza, Israel’s acts of revenge will likely result in absolute annihilation.” 

Through her social media platforms, Finkelstein has been advocating for the Palestinian cause. On Oct. 16, Finkelstein created a post which linked to answers she had created in response to a set of questions posed by The Weekly for a previous article. The responses incited backlash, with students and alumni commenting criticisms. One Instagram user commented, “What a shame to not only spread lies about Israel but to also perpetrate more division (that’s code for ‘circulate/use/share’ ‘speak out’) during one of the heaviest and most devastating times in our modern day history.” A heated conversation ensued within Finkelstein’s comment section between students, alum and someone we will refer to as Professor Doe due to their desire to remain anonymous. Professor Doe was scheduled to give a lecture on campus but ended up withdrawing from the event. 

The Weekly spoke with Finkelstein regarding the canceled lecture and her own position at the College. She elaborated on Doe’s canceled event saying, “[Doe] saw the comments. And because I had been in a meeting and wasn’t looking at them, they engaged some of the comments. And because it was this flurry, they misread something.” Finkelstein continued, “They thought what they saw was ‘good luck with a world without Zionism or antisemitism,’ and they wrote, ‘that’s my dream world,’ and then realized that actually, the comment was ‘good luck with antisemitism and anti-Zionism.’”

Finkelstein expanded on the fallout that occurred after this “misconstrued” reply saying, “[Doe] reached out to those people individually [and] was like, ‘I think things got out of hand. I know we’re all hurting.’ They got what I would say are pretty ungenerous responses. And at that point we were like, ‘maybe we should move this event online.’” 

They eventually decided to cancel the event altogether. Finkelstein explained Doe’s feelings on the matter saying, “[Doe is] really interested in talking about [their] work. [They’re] not interested in talking about this. And it just seems as though the climate at Muhlenberg is just not something that [they] would find productive.”

Examining the campus’ political climate surrounding this issue, Finkelstein noted that Muhlenberg’s student body leans more pro-Israel. She said, “Your parents’ generation and my parents’ generation are pretty conservative and may be aligning as a demographic with the Israeli government right now. But your generation is actually able to see how this is about settler colonialism, racism and genocide. That’s not controversial with your generation in other places, but Muhlenberg is very conservative around this issue. And I know why.”

This is not a topic that Finkelstein has just begun speaking publicly about. On the contrary, Finkelstein noted, “I’ve always taught my class on Palestine, written about Palestine and spoken out about Palestine on campus and beyond.” In addition to a class on Palestine that Finkelstien teaches, she also instructs a course called “Special Topic: Borders & Boundaries” which is being offered next semester. In this class, Finkelstein covers the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict as well as other instances of mass migration and refugee crises. Despite this, Finkelstein has been criticized for her discussion of this topic, admitting that “I am not a scholar of Palestine… [and] this is not part of my scholarly ethnographic work.” However, Muhlenberg professors often teach outside their specific area of research.

As Finkelstein’s statements gained more attention, there have been calls for the College to remove her from the ranks of its faculty. On Oct. 29, a petition was posted to change.org demanding that the institution fire Finkelstein. The petition was created by Muhlenberg alumni including Jake Gordon ‘18, Dana Halpern ‘19 and Shira Gordon ‘18. The alumni claim that Finkelstein is glorifying the terrorist group Hamas, creating a harmful classroom environment, spreading misinformation and engaging in cyberbullying with Doe. 

In their petition, the alumni wrote, “Because of this dangerous rhetoric, we as Muhlenberg Alumni, demand Dr. Finkelstein is removed by President Harring at Muhlenberg to protect the students and the college from her radical and hateful views.” They continue, “If this is not addressed we will, 1. Not donate to the college or provide any form of support. 2. We will send this document to every Jewish High School in America to ensure that they know that Muhlenberg is not a safe place for Jewish students.” When claiming that Finkelstein is glorifying terrorism, the alumni are mainly referring to the section in her answers to The Weekly’s questions which she released on her own account, in addition to several other social media posts. One of the pieces of evidence that the petition writers cite includes, “So when Palestinians respond– both violently and peacefully– these are not unprovoked attacks. Any form of resistance is evacuated of historical context and framed by Israel and the US as terrorist attacks.” As of Nov. 7 the petition has over 6,000 signatures. 

Jake Gordon explained his support for the removal of Finkelstein, stating that her actions and rhetoric pertaining to the ongoing war in Gaza amounts to the glorification of terrorism, followed immediately by victim blaming. “Dr. Finkelstein crossed a line when she glorified terrorism by defending the violent actions of Hamas and subsequently blamed the victims of the attacks for the horrors they endured.” This is not the first time that Gordon has spoken out against pro-Palestine speakers. In 2018, in response to a talk given by Palestinian speaker Sa’ed Atshan, Ph.D., that Finkelstein brought to campus, Gordon published a critical op-ed in The Weekly. In the article, Gordon stated, “the [talk’s] narrative transitioned from historical and informational to a highly politically-charged, nationalist and one-sided presentation of the humanitarian struggle that ‘all’ of the Palestinian people face living in the occupied territory, and an examination of the atrocities that are allegedly being committed by the State of Israel.”

Shira Gordon discussed the importance of Finkelstein’s position as an educator with regards to this controversy. “It’s [her] responsibility as a professor to be honest and truthful and to create a comfortable and welcoming environment.” She stated that biased reporting and inflammatory speech pitted people against each other, contrary to what she considers to be the “responsibility as a professor… to make everyone feel equal.”

The issue of narrative versus fact became a clear point of contention for supporters of the petition. “Liberal arts means different perspectives,” said Halpern, “Dr. Finkelstein is putting out incorrect and biased information like it’s the only truth.” 

Provost Laura Furge, Ph.D., expanded on the concept of fact versus narrative noting that “There are no simple solutions to any of these complex questions. And we have been striving for a diverse community here at Muhlenberg, which we have, and part of having a diverse community means having differences in opinion, based on our lived experiences, our perspectives, the truths that we hold from the backgrounds that we hail from and how we live and work together.”

Some students contributed to the conversation, questioning the degree to which a difference in opinion may constitute a legitimate academic position. “It is the responsibility of Dr. Finkelstein as a professor at our school to have the capacity to acknowledge the difference between narrative and fact,” stated a current Political Science student who wished to remain anonymous. “To present a narrative as fact, as she has done repeatedly by claiming supporters of the Palestinian cause are under attack by ‘fascists’ or by stating that Israel has no right to defend itself but Palestinians have the right to utilize violence to further their political ambitions, is entirely counterproductive and sows further hatred between two already marginalized groups.”

Not all alumni are in favor of removing Finkelstein from her position. On the contrary, some are actively working to allow Finkelstein to hold onto her job, with a virtual letter being distributed available for those to sign who stand in solidarity with Finkelstein. One of these individuals is Annaliese Collins ‘23 who expressed their view on the matter saying, “Just seeing that many signatures when I know full well that zero of them have actually had a class with her or have even had the pleasure of meeting her. I think knowing that the alumni who sign the petition would want to prevent other students from having Dr. Finkelstein as a teacher is also what frustrates me. Her classes are impactful and changed the way I viewed learning and Academia for the better. She is a really important figure on campus for a lot of students with marginalized identities, especially students in the Queer community.”

Collins continued noting, “This is 100 percent about academic freedom but beyond that, it’s about Palestine. Our higher education institutions couldn’t even use the word Palestine when making a statement, and it goes beyond that. Just look at the statements made by teams in the NFL, Palestine is always omitted. And that’s on purpose; by removing the word we are able to ignore the genocide of the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel. We remain complicit through ignorance. Dr. Finkelstein is fighting this intentional ignorance and people aren’t happy. Removing Dr. Finkelstein on the grounds of this petition would be a huge injustice.”

The removal of Finkelstein from the College may not be as simple as many imagine. Finkelstein was awarded tenure by the College in 2021. Gaining tenure ensures that professors not only will have job security but also academic freedom to discuss and research topics at their discretion. When concerns regarding a tenured professor’s legitimacy arise, Furge notes that the College brings in a third-party entity, typically in the form of counsel, to investigate these claims. Furge would not, however, directly comment on the status of Finkelstein’s case. 

Finkelstein remarked on her tenured status, saying, “Regardless of whether I’m tenured or not, I think that…my understanding from the administration is that I have academic freedom and I’m being protected. Do I know that for sure? You know, I don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes and I am hesitant to speculate over whether or not I’m going to be protected or not.”

The College’s faculty handbook outlines the reasons that a tenured faculty member would be fired or suspended. These reasons include the failure for faculty members to fulfill their academic obligations, a disregard for the policies of the College or scholarly communities, a criminal conviction or an incapacity to conduct work. The handbook notes, however, that “Suspension, termination, or threat thereof, may not be used to restrain or interfere with faculty members, visiting faculty members, or adjunct faculty members in their exercise of academic freedom or rights of citizenship.” But whether or not the College allows the public to determine what qualifies as acceptable speech remains to be seen. 

Finkelstein expressed what drives her to speak about this issue saying, “I like to hope that it is sort of my responsibility as a Jewish person who is not a Zionist, and who, is in solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, that this is what I have to do, and I hope that I don’t get sanctioned over it.”

Additional reporting by Max Makovsky ‘24

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Katie is a Media & Communication and Political Science double major in the class of 2024. When she's not working on the paper you can find her blasting Taylor Swift, reading Jane Austen, or crying over Little Women (2019).

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