Finkelstein has written of his parents' experiences during World War II. His mother, Maryla Husyt Finkelstein, grew up inWarsaw,Poland, and survived theWarsaw Ghettoand theMajdanekconcentration camp, as well as twoslave labor camps. Her first husband died in the war. She considered the day of her liberation as the most horrible day of her life, since it first struck her then that she was alone, none of her parents and siblings having managed to survive. Norman's father, Zacharias Finkelstein, was a survivor of both the Warsaw Ghetto and theAuschwitz concentration camp.After immigrating to the United States, his father became a factory worker, while his mother stayed home with the kids. Finkelstein's parents, particularly his mother, had communist leanings, although they never officially belonged to any ideological movement. Both his parents died in 1995.
Finkelstein grew up inNew York City. In his forthcoming memoir, Finkelstein recalls his strong youthful identification with the outrage that his mother, witness to the genocidal atrocities ofWorld War II, felt at the carnage wrought by the United States inVietnam. One childhood friend recalls his mother's "emotional investment in left-wing humanitarian causes as bordering on hysteria."He had 'internalized (her) indignation', a trait which he admits rendered him 'insufferable' when talking of theVietnam War, and which imbued him with a 'holier-than-thou' attitude at the time which he now regrets. But Finkelstein regards his absorption of his mother's outlook — the refusal to put aside a sense of moral outrage in order to get on with one's life — as a virtue. Subsequently, his reading ofNoam Chomskyplayed a seminal role in tailoring the passion bequeathed to him by his mother to the necessity of maintaining intellectual rigor in the pursuit of the truth.According to theNew York Times, as his career progressed, his mother "came to feel he had taken her too literally and become a 'Frankenstein’s monster' on a path toward self-destruction."
Beginning with his doctoral thesis atPrinceton, Finkelstein's career has been marked by controversy. A self-described "forensic scholar," he has written sharply critical academic reviews of several prominent writers and scholars whom he accuses of misrepresenting the documentary record in order to defend Israel's policies and practices. His writings, noted for their support of thePalestiniancausehave dealt with politically-charged topics such as Zionism, the demographic history of Palestine and his allegations of the existence of a"Holocaust Industry"that exploits the memory of the Holocaust to further Israeli and financial interests. Citinglinguistandpolitical activistNoam Chomsky as an example, Finkelstein notes that it is "possible to unite exacting scholarly rigor with scathing moral outrage,"and supporters and detractors alike have remarked on the polemical style of Finkelstein's work.Its content has been praised by eminent historians such asRaul HilbergandAvi Shlaim,as well as Chomsky.