There are many ways censorship works in Western liberal societies. Usually it’s very subtle – a kindly rejection from an editor, a journalistic or academic budget cutback, a media blackout of an issue or point of view etc. In the case of Norman Finkelstein, all of the above apply plus the added humiliation of being effectively fired after nine years in his job at Chicago’s DePaul University. Finkelstein’s colleagues voted 17-7 in favor of granting him tenure (giving an academic the right to not to have their position terminated without just cause). However, under immense pressure from a smear campaign largely lead by neo-conservative academic Alan Dershowitz, Finkelstein’s superiors denied him tenure and effectively forced his resignation.
His crime: criticizing Israeli aggression towards Palestians.
American Radical is a fascinating insight into the molding and work of one America’s finest dissidents. Finkelstein had both sides of his family exterminated in the Holocaust with only his mother and father surviving the Warsaw Ghetto. Finkelstein is therefore motivated by a deep sense of injustice and hypocrisy at what he sees as Jewish use of the Holocaust to detract attention away from the crimes they are committing against Palestinians.
Finkelstein’s understandable passion sometimes erupts in talks to students at universities, especially when some accuse him of being a “self-hating Jew” an anti-Semite or using the Holocaust to make money from the books he has written. To this latter point Finkelstein makes the point along the lines of, “It’s a strange kind of profiteering that I’m conducting when I’ve been fired from my job and made an exile from the city and university where my entire life is.”
Finkelstein speaks with amazing precision, clarity and passion. The documentary also provides an interesting insight into the non-academic side of him and the way he deals with criticism (largely laughing it off as much as possible). Sometimes however, you can’t help feeling that Finkelstein should argue a little more diplomatically. For instance, a girl bursts into tears during one of his lectures because of his use of the word “Nazi” to describe those Jewish people who use the Holocaust to deflect any responsibility away from the crimes of Israel. Finkelstein clearly has no sympathy with her and berates her for her “crocodile tears” (i.e. an insincere show of emotion) and says “If you had any heart at all, you would shed tears for the suffering of the Palestinian people.” While this received a great deal of cheering and support from the other students, I don’t think it does Finkelstein any favors in trying to win people over to his argument. Many people may interpret him as a heartless, arrogant academic who just drove a girl to tears and this detracts from his central message.
The same goes from his criticism of Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz is a very popular academic on the right who has led a smear campaign to destroy Finkelstein’s reputation. The main reason for this is that Finkelstein exposed him as a fraud in his book “The Case For Israel” in which Dersovitz defends Israeli aggression but as Finkelstein discovered, uses references and footnotes from another book that has been proved to fabricate the history of Israel and suggest that Palestinians suddenly appeared out of thin air and occupied Jewish land. Finkelstein’s insistence on labeling Dershowitz a fraud got him in very hot water, Dershowitz called some of his powerful friends, and Finkelstein soon lost his job. As Noam Chomsky says in the documentary, “I advised him to play down the plagiarism aspect – what was important was the content of Dershowitz book was false and that’s what he should focus on.”
Ultimately, the story of Norman Finkelstein tells us a lot about how censorship works in the “liberal” academic world. And when it comes to Israel, there are simply things that you are not allowed to say. Although it was released in late 2009, I’ve only just watched it now and it goes down as one of the most interesting and important documentaries I’ve seen this year. It should be essential viewing for anyone involved in academia or with an interest in Israel.
Many plaudits should go the way of makers David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier who let Finkelstein do the talking and the viewer be the judge.