American Radical: The trails of Norman Finkelstein (Baraka Productions, 2009)


Noting "the respected intellectuals in virtually every society are those who are distinguished by their conformist subservience to those in power", US dissident Noam Chomsky argues honest intellectuals "who take elementary human responsibilities seriously tend to suffer overwhelmingly in one form of repression or another."

 

Produced and directed by the documentary filmmakers David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, American Radical provides a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of academic Norman Finkelstein, a man whose professional career is the living embodiment of his friend and mentor Chomsky’s truism.

 

Born to Jewish Holocaust survivors in 1953 in New York City, Finkelstein is best known for his unyielding criticisms of Israels policies towards the Palestinians and his thesis that certain groups and individuals have used the nazi Holocaust to suppress criticism of Israel. The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah are just three of the books that have brought him both critical acclaim and the wrath of the powerful Israel lobby.

 

Interviewing friends, academics, critics and the subject himself, Ridgen and Rossier follow Finkelstein between 2000 and 2008.  From his heated debate with Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz on Democracy Now! in 2003, through to his denial of tenure at Chicago‘s DePaulUniversity, Finkelstein is shown dealing with considerable intellectual and emotional pressure. Intimated in the film and now widely known, Dershowitz mounted a vigorous campaign against Finkelstein getting tenure, which effectively terminated his employment at DePaul university in 2007.  Following this academic witch-hunt, a year later Israel banned Finkelstein from entering Israel and the OccupiedTerritories for ten years, citing "security concerns".

 

Most interesting is the engrossing footage of his lively 2004 Canadian lecture tour, with Finkelstein mulling over each night’s event in the back of the car as he is driven away. "Sometimes I wonder whether it is worth it", he tells the camera crew after giving a particularly strong response to a tearful audience member in front of a hostile crowd.

 

Ridgen and Rossier seem intent on representing Finkelstein as a polarising figure, with supporting and opposing quotes placed carefully throughout the 90-minute documentary. But while his monotone, uncompromising delivery may grate, are his opinions – backed up by mainstream human rights organisations and NGOs –  really that controversial?  It seems more likely Finkelstein’s conclusions are broadly supported around the world, and it is only in the skewed North American political climate that his work is deemed contentious.

 

Also, as is the nature of the beast, the film has an unhealthy interest in Finkelstein’s personal life and motivations.  One childhood friend recounts how his mother had an "extraordinary influence" on him – "to an unhealthy extent".  Elsewhere Dershowitz argues he is "a classic anti-Semite".  But as Finkelstein asks, "What is the relevance of these claims? The only relevant question is whether what I’m saying is true or false."

 

Finkelstein comes across as a meticulous scholar and complex individual, unwilling to modify his arguments to make them more palatable to those who disagree with him.  As the film closes he gives the documentary its title by arguing the world "is a radically unfair place and it requires a radical change."

 

Still looking for a teaching position, Finkelstein continues to be a thorn in the side of the Israeli and US establishments, shining a light on the crimes that are daily committed against the Palestinians. He was instrumental in setting up the Gaza Freedom March (although he has subsequently withdrawn his support) and his recent summary of the damning UN inquiry in to Israel‘s assault on Gaza on Democracy Now! was yet more evidence that Finkelstein is indeed the honest intellectual that Chomsky had in mind.

 

The European premiere of American radical takes place at the Sheffield Doc/Fest on Friday November 6.  For more information visit: http://sheffdocfest.com/ or http://www.americanradicalthefilm.com/.

 

* Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK[email protected].

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