The divide grows daily
American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein
There’s a long-standing joke in Jewish quarters: whenever anything of note is discussed amongst a gathering of Semites, someone will get a laugh by wondering, “yes, but is it good for the Jews?” Many things (the Holocaust, Palestinian terrorism, Bernie Madoff, Brett Ratner) are not good for the Jews. To this, add author, professor and borderline nut-job Norman Finkelstein. Not only is Finkelstein bad for the Jews, but those who subscribe whole hog to his theories are bad for the Jews, also. One’s feelings towards Finkelstein are inevitably intertwined with one’s feelings towards David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier’s American Radical. Because, while this may be straightforward, politically neutral, documentary filmmaking, its makers have chosen an incendiary subject who pisses most people off the moment he opens his mouth. Indeed, a single whiff of Finkelstein’s most controversial theories is the very definition of self-incrimination. So think of American Radical as a plainly told, carefully measured and well-assembled biography of a political (mad) scientist and college professor whose most incendiary views on Judaism have made him a hated figure in some academic circles. Interest is limited to scholars, documentary lovers and anti-Semites.
To the outside world, the New York-born Finkelstein is defined by his theories, the most heinous of which claims that Jews continually propagate the memory of the Holocaust to foment anti-Semitism in order to draw attention away from their “torture and brutalization” of the Palestinian people. Those who learn about him through this documentary will understand that the story of Norman Finkelstein is really the story of a boy and his mother. Maryla Finkelstein grew up in Warsaw, witnessed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and survived the Majdanek Concentration camp. After settling in New York, the elder Finkelstein developed a seething disgust for all wars, including Vietnam, which greatly influenced her son. Contemporary shots of Norman sitting silently in a town car while his mother speaks in dusty voice over add psychological layering to a film that is otherwise just the learned ravings of a self-hating Jew. As Norman became more radicalized in his opinions, he admits his mother “did not like what I had become.” He took her natural and understandable aversion to armed conflict and twisted it into what can only be called anti-Semitism. This process began in earnest during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in the tragic deaths of thousands of Lebanese civilians. Norman became a vocal critic of Israel’s policies and spent multiple summers with a Palestinian family in an effort to understand the Intifada “from the ground up.”
Ridgen and Rossier effectively recount Finkelstein’s rise to fame, and infamy, within Jewish and academic circles and how those communities aligned themselves with or (overwhelmingly) against his theses. His most influential friend is MIT linguistics god Noam Chomsky, who had warned Finkelstein that his withering critique of Joan Peters’ 1984 anti-Palestinian tract From Time Immemorial would ruin his career. Peters’ book has been, if not totally discredited, besmirched to the point of irrelevancy. So Finkelstein cannot be blamed for taking it on. But the religio-political philosophy that motivated Finkelstein’s debunking of Peters became weaponized with his 2000 firebomb The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. Finkelstein has never stopped defending this book, even on subsequent book tours. During stops at Canadian universities, Ridgen and Rossier show us appearances that devolve into near-chaos as audience members yell through their tears at his claim that the Holocaust “has become a straight out extortion racket.“
Part of Finkelstein’s appeal is that he’s a Jew speaking out against Israel, which earns him cache amongst, well—you know who you are. But there’s a line to be drawn between criticizing Israel and people like Finkelstein. Informed criticism of your country is a patriotic duty and demonizing citizen outrage is the sign of an immature and paranoid nation. Indeed, many Israelis question their country’s actions during the 2009 rocket assault on Gaza. And they have that right, no matter how deeply held their Zionist beliefs. But Finkelstein’s anger oozes from a deeper, more psychologically suspect place. Some of it bares the imprint of the mentally ill, many of whom cling to their version of reality to the exclusion of all outside evidence and influence. But in Ridgen and Rossier’s judiciously evenhanded presentation, it would have been instructive to know what Finkelstein’s concept of Judaism is. Does he derive any pride from being Jewish? Other than advocating the two-state solution, does he have a plan to save Israel from the problems he claims it has? Despite being a “devout atheist,” is he a Zionist? Answers to these questions would have helped us decide if Finkelstein is an anti-Semite, a boy who took up his mother’s cause to a pathological degree or a white-hot critic of Israeli’s political policies (or all three).
His detractors, though, certainly have their theories. Finkelstein’s bete noir is author and attorney Alan Dershowitz, who takes mighty swings at his opponent. But Dershowitz is on the defensive here. Ridgen and Rossier quote liberally from a radio debate between Finkelstein and Dershowitz during which Finkelstein accuses the Harvard Law professor of plagiarizing From Time Immemorial for his own book, The Case for Israel. Finkelstein’s accusations have pushed Dershowitz a bit over the edge: he threatened to prevent the publication of Finkelstein’s book, Beyond Chutzpah, which included a response to The Case for Israel. He also lobbied for DePaul University to deny Finkelstein tenure, furthering the opinion that Dershowitz, while one of the most visible and effective American figures promoting the Israeli cause, can unleash opprobrium on the level of his hated rival. But Finkelstein can easily lap the missteps of his enemies. In fact, I almost wish Ridgen (whose 2007 documentary Mississippi Cold Case earned him an Emmy nomination) and Rossier had not called their blood-boiling, very good, documentary American Radical. While “radical” separates Finkelstein’s opinions from the majority of his countrymen, I’m an American and I’d prefer to minimize what he and I have in common. Anyone who believes Israel is “the main terrorist in the world today” and that Hezbollah “represents the hope” for Palestinians (as he did during a 2008 Palestinian book tour) is no ally of Israel, America or anyone tired of overheated and divisive political rhetoric.
Distributor: Typecast Releasing
Directors/Producers: David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier
Running time: 84 min.
Release date: February 11 NY
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