American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein: A Review

By Robert Jordan

When a student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario accuses Norman Finkelstein of trivializing the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust, his answer pretty much sums up his personal history, politics and scholarly interests. Both his parents survived concentration camps during World War II, and, he says, “it's precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silenced when Israel commits its crimes against Palestinians. I consider nothing more despicable than to use their suffering and their martyrdom to try to justify the torture, the brutalization and the demolition of homes that Israel daily commits against the Palestinians.”

So begins American Radical, the biographical documentary of firebrand writer, lecturer and erstwhile professor Norman Finkelstein. The film follows Finkelstein on book tours in Europe, Canada and Japan, in which he lays out his contentious arguments against what he calls the “Holocaust Industry” – Israel’s exploitation of the Holocaust to enable its ruthless oppression of Palestinians. Through interviews with childhood friends, relatives, critics, colleagues and Finkelstein himself, the film also explores the roots of the professor’s steadfast conviction that Palestinians have the unquestionable right to self-determination.

Two things stand out about Finkelstein: his general intensity and his fierce commitment to his politics. His brow is almost always deeply furrowed, his jaw set, a scowl darkening his face; he looks like he is ready to defend himself, which makes sense given the constant controversy swirling around him. Finkelstein can even come across as self-destructive, as someone who is unable to keep from saying what he thinks even if he knows there will be hell to pay. And there certainly have been consequences: The film suggests that his vociferous criticisms of Israel have led him to lose a teaching position at Hunter College, to be denied tenure at DePaul University, and to be unable to find a new job since. After a speaking tour through Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 2008, he was banned from Israel for 10 years. As of the end of the film, a Jewish group was campaigning to have him evicted from his apartment in Coney Island, Brooklyn.

Yet, Finkelstein never backs down. Throughout his childhood, his mother, who greatly shaped his thinking, insisted that Jews – as the victims of the Holocaust – have a special responsibility to ease the suffering of others. As a result, he takes it personally when he feels that Israel is using the Holocaust to its own advantage. Moreover, Finkelstein believes his arguments are based in objective fact, to which he attaches the greatest value. Colleagues call him a careful scholar but also note that his powerful insights are sometimes weakened by his provocative and confrontational presentation.

Finkelstein often calls himself a radical, but of a particular sort. To him, radicalism is a question of degree; it’s about feeling more than the usual discontent with the world. “I see it as radically unfair,” he says. “Therefore, it has to be radically changed.” The substance of his ideas, however, is not especially radical: He supports self-determination and the right of self-defense against foreign invaders. He is not challenging the sovereignty of the nation-state, nor is he questioning Israel’s right to exist in the Middle East. Were his ideas considered in any other context, they would hardly be controversial – but because he is advocating for Palestinian self-determination and Palestinian self-defense, he is branded as an extremist and an “enabler of terrorism.”

Regardless of the content of his politics, Norman Finkelstein deserves respect for his enduring conviction and his willingness to take risks to further this struggle that he sees as essential. For the last three decades, he has tackled head-on one of the most treacherous and divisive issues in the world, regardless of the political and professional fallout that has resulted. “The truth is often a bitter pill to swallow,” he says. And he is a living example.

Produced and directed by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier
American Radical

Table of Contents