Unlike the last review, this one actually is relevant. American Radical: Trials of Norman Finkelstein is a documentary about one of America’s most prominent anti-Israel academics, Dr. Norman Finkelstein. Zach and I watched it last night because we don’t want it said we never expose ourselves to the other side’s point of view (even though we get plenty of that every day from the HP).
The film is fairly standard fare from a documentary point of view, it chronicles Finkelstein’s childhood growing up in New York City, then his education, his academic career and some of the controversies he’s been engaged in. For those of you not familiar with Finkelstein’s work, the film talks about three main controversies: his book “The Holocaust Industry”, in which he accuses American Jews of mining the Holocaust for monetary gain, his accusation of plagiarism directed at Alan Dershowitz and Finkelstein’s resulting dismissal from DePaul University, and his trip to Lebanon in 2008 to meet Palestinians in refugee camps and Hezbollah.
From a political point of view, the film is, in my opinion, quite balanced. Finkelstein himself speaks quite a bit, and so do his admirers (his brother, Noam Chomsky) and his opponents (Alan Dershowitz and other Israeli Jewish leaders). I would say the main message of the film, that all the individuals interviewed agree with, is right or wrong Finkelstein is a man of strong convictions and personal courage. He does what he thinks is right. The film seems less concerned with arguing Finkelstein is right or wrong and more interested in how people react to what he says and what his life is like.
On a personal level, the film seems to suggest, to me anyway, what makes Finkelstein tick. He talks at length about his mother and how she was a woman of strong conviction. She taught him “values” and through hell and high water he stuck to those values. But as the film goes on, we start to question the wisdom of that dedication. There’s a powerful moment in a car after one of Finkelstein’s speeches after he has been dismissed from DePaul where he responds to the accusation that he is attacking Israel for personal gain. He laughs it off, stating that if it was for personal gain it wasn’t working very well, since he was out of a job. But he turns away from the camera and looks out the window with a look of melancholy on his face. That moment made me think that Finkelstein attacks Israel so relentlessly and forcefully because of his dedication to his mother’s values, but what has it really gotten him? No serious academic respects him, most Jews who know his history don’t like him, and the people who do like him seem to only value him as a useful idiot. Finkelstein thought his whole life that if he remained true to what his mother taught him, he would be fulfilled. But at the moment in the car, I think he started to doubt himself. What if his mother’s values are wrong? What if calling Israel worse than the Nazis really isn’t the best way to solve a conflict? The movie leaves that question unanswered, but it made me think and if you watch the movie it’ll make you think too.
Finkelstein is portrayed as a lone figure. He is depicted on film in two places, alone on the podium speaking to adoring crowds, and walking alone through airports. At the end of the film, the viewer really gets the feeling he has been through trials, trials of his own making to be sure, but trials that are rough for anyone. The film is an informative, reflective look at surely one of the most unique figures of American academia in modern times.
As for Finkelstein’s politics, I’ll let Zach talk about that.