American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein attempts to explain the motives of one of the most beloved, and hated, academics in recent memory. According to filmmakers David Ridgen and Nicholas Rossier, in order to understand Norman Finkelstein—heralded by some as a voice of moral clarity in the Israel-Palestine conflict, dismissed by others as a rabid, self-hating Jew—we need to turn his childhood.
Early in the film, a childhood friend describes how Finkelstein’s mother had an “extraordinary” influence on him. A Holocaust survivor, Maryla Finkelstein spent her life after the war trying to impart the lessons she’d learned in the Majdanek concentration camp to her children and others. “I am now strictly a pacifist,” we hear her tell an interviewer in her broken English, “and I believe that if you kill, you don’t achieve. With the first killing, you already lost.” Norman remembers how she would react to news reports about the Vietnam War with an almost “hysterical rage.” His brother, Richard, recalls her screaming at the television set.
Needless to say, this rage didn’t escape Norman. We see it in his fiery brown eyes, hear it in his loud, raspy voice as he talks to the filmmakers from his Ocean Parkway apartment. At one point in the film we see him erupt when a college student accuses him of being insensitive to Holocaust victims. “My late father was in Auschwitz, my late mother was in Majdanek concentration camp,” he tells an auditorium of students. “And it is 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 the Palestinians.”
In hopes of presenting a balanced picture, Ridgen and Rossier also give time to Finkelstein’s critics. We hear Alan Dershowitz accuse Finkelstein of being “a classic anti-Semite.” “I don’t think he is Jewish,” Dershowitz tells the camera; “as someone once put it, he’s Jewish only on his parents’ side.” The above-mentioned childhood friend says that she sometimes feels he’s a self-hating Jew. “He’s certainly a Jew-hating Jew,” she adds.
But as the film progresses, as we watch Finkelstein endure the character assassination that accompanied his tenure battle with DePaul University, as we follow him to Lebanon for a 2008 speaking tour, the total vacuity of his critics’ accusations becomes clear. For even if we disagree with Finkelstein’s politics—or, like John Mersheimer, with his “overly provocative” language—there can be no denying that this is a man driven, not by hatred, but by the profound moral sense instilled by his mother.
In one of the film’s most powerful moments, we watch him tell an auditorium of pro-Palestinian activists that “Israelis have the right to be there,” that they have “the right to exercise self-determination in what’s historic Palestine.” In another moving scene, we see him speaking at a Palestinian refugee camp, urging his audience, not to take up arms against Israel, but to take up the challenge of being “both principled and reasonable at the same time.” A young Palestinian later tells the filmmakers that, while he’s been “so concentrated on fighting Israel,” Finkelstein has reminded him of the value of diplomacy.
There are many other great scenes in American Radical, which, as should be apparent by now, I highly recommend. You can find a list of upcoming screenings at the American Radical website. Or you can rent a DVD from Netflix or purchase a copy from Amazon.com.