DocEdge 2011: American Radical: the Trials of Norman Finkelstein

American Radical: the Trials of Norman Finkelstein
USA | 2009 | Dir. David Ridgen & Nicolas Rossier | English & Hebrew | 84 mins.

Norman Finkelstein is an American academic who has published seven books, held teaching positions and been awarded professorships at numerous universities (including NYU and Rutgers University), and given lectures in the US and around the world. He’s also a strident polemicist and an extremely controversial public intellectual: his divisive opinions have resulted in his being labelled a holocaust denier and “a disgusting self-hating Jew.”

David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier’s film profiles Finkelstein and travels with him on the lecture and media circuits and on several of his regular trips to the Middle East which came to an abrupt halt in 2008 when he was indefinitely denied entry to Israel for “security reasons.” The directors see their subject as “a complex firebrand, principled to the point of self-ruin, at the apex of several of the world’s largest conflicts”; this point of view is apparent in the film’s structure and tone, at times bluntly so. Interviews with supporters of Finkelstein, such as Noam Chomsky, and his opponents—among them Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz—are interspersed with some particularly bombastic excerpts from Finkelstein’s lectures around the world. Dershowitz, whose vitriolic campaign against Finkelstein resulted in DePaul University rejecting his application for tenure after a decade-long professorship, appears in only a couple of interview segments, and, as with a number of other interviewees, each instance is all too brief. Finkelstein’s opinions are often couched in inflammatory rhetoric and emotionally-charged language, which some see as obfuscating the real content of his argument, unnecessarily exacerbating the problems his critics have with him, and moving the spotlight away from the real discourse that could be had.

Among the most provocatively-titled of Finkelstein’s books is “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” in which he argues that the American-Jewish establishment has, in the words of Yair Sheleg of Ha’aretz, “exploited the holocaust for their own needs and in order to establish a line of defense for Israel.” “A handful of American Jews,” Finkelstein says, “have effectively hijacked the Nazi Holocaust to blackmail Europe divert attention from what is being done to the Palestinians.” Though he distinguishes between the ‘actual’ Nazi Holocaust and what he sees as a “persona” of the Holocaust invented by the media to aid the US Administration, his critique is no less powerful and, to some, even outright offensive. His arguments are, depending on which side you take, strengthened or weakened by his leveraging (or plundering) his parents’ personal histories: both his mother and father were Holocaust survivors.

Its first quarter is a sturdy biography, but though it later becomes something of an interesting travelogue/video-diary of Finkelstein’s book tour, the film does not penetrate or question its subject’s methods and motives and the accusations levelled at him as much as it could have, which results in a somewhat one-sided examination of the critical issues Finkelstein purports to be interested in.