One night about two weeks ago, while I was walking down Bleecker Street in New York City’s West Village, I crossed paths with Norman Finkelstein. He was wearing a light jacket and eating a banana, seemingly impervious to the bitter wind and heavy snowfall pouring from the sky. I told Finkelstein that a YouTube clip of him parrying attacks from Zionist student activists during a speech he gave at the University of Waterloo was gaining popularity online. “Well, that scene hasn’t been very good for me,” he remarked in a near whisper.
The YouTube clip was an excerpt from American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein, a riveting 2009 documentary that has just opened in US theaters. In the scene, a female student tells Finkelstein that his comparisons of the Israeli government to the Nazis are “extremely hurtful” before she breaks down in tears. Instead of offering the demonstrative young woman a token gesture of empathy, Finkelstein grows indignant, angrily dismissing what he called her “crocodile tears.” He then launches into a stentorian tirade about “the lessons of the Holocaust” he learned from his Holocaust survivor parents, booming above a chorus of heckles from pro-Israel students, “If you had any heart in you, you would be crying for the Palestinians!” While the young woman holds her head in hands as though she was bracing for an air raid, a substantial portion of the crowd leaps to its feet with wild cheers. Finkelstein may have regretted the spectacle he generates later on, but he seemed to be enjoying himself at the time.
With unfettered access to Finkelstein during the most dramatic stage of his career, American Radical directors David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier provide a compelling look at one of the most roundly vilified academics in recent American history. If the film had simply rehashed the tale of Finkelstein as a rabble-rousing iconoclast who defied the Jewish-American consensus to agitate for Palestinian civil rights, it would have been prosaic at best. But by giving equal time to Finkelstein’s critics, who proved unable to conceal their visceral disdain for him even though they have succeeded in isolating him from the intellectual mainstream, the film offers a devastating portrait of an academic establishment that will go to extraordinary lengths not only to rebut but destroy potent critics of Israel, even obviously idiosyncratic characters like Finkelstein. Even with his excessive tendencies and strident style on bold display, when seen in the shadow of his adversaries, Finkelstein appears more than odd — he becomes utterly sympathetic.
Finkelstein was raised in post-war Borough Park, Brooklyn, a community settled by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe whose sense of ambition and intellectual intensity far outweighed their interest in assimilating to American middle class cultural sensibilities. From her experience in the Warsaw Ghetto, Finkelstein’s mother, Mayla, developed ardently pacifist convictions — “with the first killing, you’ve already lost,” she stated. According to a family friend interviewed in the film, Finkelstein “was influenced by his mother to an unhealthy extent,” a critique even he acknowledged.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Finkelstein began to see the Palestinian refugees as victims of the same sort of brutality his mother endured. He is seen in American Radical protesting Israel’s occupation of Lebanon outside the Israeli consulate in New York City, holding a sign denouncing “Israeli Nazis” and invoking his parents’ enslavement in concentration camps. The film then detours to the West Bank, where Finkelstein made enduring friendships with several families in Hebron, deepening his commitment to the Palestinian cause in the process.
Finkelstein’s closest Palestinian friend, a pensive middle aged man named Musa Abu Hashhash, recalls being startled when Finkelstein cried openly after watching Israel troops shoot a boy to death for burning a tire. Another friend confesses on camera that Israel’s brutal actions against the Palestinians had caused her to hate Jews. But after Finkelstein befriended her, her perspective on Jews broadened, forcing her to rethink her resentment. She added with admiration that Finkelstein never attempted to disguise his Jewish identity while traveling through the West Bank. By presenting frank recollections from everyday Palestinians about their encounters with Finkelstein, American Radical subtly interweaves their struggle with his own.
While pursuing his PhD at Princeton, Finkelstein was mentored by his intellectual hero Noam Chomsky. Chomsky encouraged Finkelstein as he composed his thesis, which was intended to expose Joan Peters’ book, From Time Immemorial, as a hoax. Peters boasted that her work revealed the Palestinian cause as “a scam.” She claimed to have proven that Palestine was relatively unpopulated — “a land without a people,” as the saying goes — until Arabs flocked there from other regions during the 19th century. Cultural icons from Elie Wiesel to Barbara Tuchman hailed Peters’ book as a great revelation. “It was the book American Jews wanted to have because it whitewashed Israel,” the Israeli revisionist historian Avi Shlaim recalls in American Radical.
While Immemorial shot to the top of the bestseller list, a few small left-wing journals published articles poking holes in Peters’ claims. But it was not until Finkelstein’s dissertation was published (over the strident objections of Princeton faculty members) that mainstream intellectuals were forced to reckon with Peters’ shoddy research and ideological zealotry. Chomsky told Finkelstein that by dismantling Peters, he would inadvertently expose the “American intellectual community as a gang of frauds.”
He warned, “They’re going to destroy you.”
As Finkelstein’s public profile grew, he sought out rancorous conflicts with increasing intensity. In 2000, he published the work that would inflame his adversaries to the point of blind rage: The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. Finkelstein argued that American Jewish groups and an assortment of venal “hoaxers and hucksters” were using the Holocaust “as an ideological weapon” to stifle criticism of Israel and line their own pockets. He skewered Wiesel for his insistence that the Holocaust was a quasi-religious event that could not possibly be understood and for downplaying the Armenian genocide. Though the renowned Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg called Finkelstein’s conclusions “moderate,” Finkelstein incited his critics through characteristically strident presentations.
Finkelstein’s book was lambasted by an array of distinguished scholars. More predictably, he was condemned as a “disgusting self-hating Jew” by Leon Wieseltier, the literary critic of The New Republic. (“We’re the cops,” Wieseltier told journalist Eric Alterman regarding the magazine’s role in suppressing criticism of Israel (“Semites and Anti-Semites,” The Nation, 25 February 2010). Finally, Finkelstein’s employers at Hunter College reduced his course load and salary without explanation, forcing him to leave his hometown for Chicago, where he took a teaching position at DePaul University.
While providing a forum to Finkelstein’s most malevolent critics, American Radical suffers from the absence of Peter Novick, the University of Chicago professor who Finkelstein credited with providing “the initial stimulus” for The Holocaust Industry with the release in 1999 of his book The Holocaust in American Life. Novick had arrived at many of the same conclusions as Finkelstein would, however, when Finkelstein’s book appeared Novick dismissed it as “trash,” accusing its author of fabricating some of his findings. Pro-Israel “enforcers” like Alan Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School immediately appropriated Novick’s criticisms to undermine Finkelstein, praising Novick as a voice of moderation when they might have attacked him had Finkelstein’s book never appeared.
Why was Finkelstein targeted when Novick was not? Perhaps Finkelstein, the unabashed radical, was the more convenient target. Or perhaps his book was judged to be a greater threat to the Zionist narrative. The film could have benefited by wrestling with this issue rather than glossing over it as though Finkelstein was the first to publicly accuse anyone of exploiting the Holocaust for political gain.
None of Finkelstein’s conflicts disrupted his career as much as his apocalyptic battle with Dershowitz. Dershowitz first appears in American Radical seated beside Finkelstein in a studio of the progressive radio program Democracy Now!, looking like a deer in the headlights as Finkelstein accuses him of plagiarizing large portions of his book The Case For Israel from Peters’ Immemorial. Later on in the film, Dershowitz pontificates on what he sees as Finkelstein’s hidden motivations, charging him and other anti-Zionist Jews with “struggling with identity problems.” The plagiarism accusation had clearly shaken Dershowitz to his core, challenging his sense of inviolability by forcing him to defend his scholarship down to the last footnote.
However, some of Finkelstein’s friends were rightly concerned that he had underestimated his foe’s vengeful propensity. Chomsky had warned his former understudy not to attack Dershowitz’s book on the basis of plagiarism, but to dismantle his propagandistic portrait of Israel as an unfairly persecuted bastion of democratic tolerance instead. And John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago political scientist who was falsely accused by Dershowitz of quoting neo-Nazi sources in his book The Israel Lobby (see the scholar’s response in the London Review of Books, 11 May 2006), urged Finkelstein to “get all the hot rhetoric out of there.” Meanwhile, an Israeli friend of Finkelstein was convinced he had signed away his future. “He called Dershowitz a plagiarist and a liar,” she remarks in the film. “What did he expect him to do? Doesn’t he know the kind of connections he has?”
When Finkelstein was rejected for tenure at DePaul after a long and stormy battle that marshaled much of the faculty behind him in the name of academic freedom, the dean of the college, Charles Suchar, wrote a revealing letter blaming Finkelstein’s “personal and reputation demeaning attacks on Alan Dershowitz” and other Zionist intellectual figures. Having lost confidence in his public case against Finkelstein, Dershowitz had resorted to skullduggery, apparently tapping his connections to deliver the coup de grace to Finkelstein’s career as a professor. But as American Radical shows, antagonists like Dershowitz ultimately transformed Finkelstein from a gadfly into a victim hero, ensuring him an international platform for as long as the Israel-Palestine conflict continues.
For more information about American Radical: the trials of Norman Finkelstein visit http://www.americanradicalthefilm.com/
Max Blumenthal (http://www.maxblumenthal.com/) is a writing fellow with the Nation Institute and contributor to Al Jazeera English, Salon.com, Alternet, the Huffington Post, and the Washington Monthly. The winner of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Award for his investigative print journalism, he has produced numerous widely-recognized video reports that have garnered hundreds of thousands of hits on Youtube. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party,” was published by Basic Books in 2009.