Documentary Review: American Radical – the trials of Norman Finkelstein

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.


2 thoughts on “Documentary Review: American Radical – the trials of Norman Finkelstein

  1. ‘FRAUD’ The Name is: ‘Finkelstein/Chomsy’

    It was more than enough for me to see on Memri TV N. G. Finkelstein’s support for Hezbollah as “Lebanon’s honor.” That same organization [terrorizing all over the globe with attacks in: Argentina, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, France, Panama, etc.] whose head Hassan Nassrallah said in 2002 that he’s glad that all Jews are gathered in Israel so that it’s easier to go after them… the same al-Manar that invented the “4,000 jews” [conspiracy] lie a few days after the Islamic attack of 911, the same al-manar TV that is banned in [large parts of] Europe for spreading racism, hatred on Jews dehumanizing them (via Islamofascistic radical text/interpretation) referring to them as: as “apes and pigs.” The same Hezbollah that conspired with neo-Nazis in Argentina to massacre the Jews in AMIA in 1994.

    A pitiful creature no wonder he “criticized” J. Peter’s book, in fact as this anti-Jewish bigot (who happened to be born to Jewish parents) is ‘against” Peter’s book, it only CREDITS Peter’s credibility even further.
    Come to think of it, Why didn’t Zionist Jews object massive Arab immigration to Palestine (grandparents of today’s most Arab Palestinians) whereas racist Arabs violently pushed the British to order block of Jewish immigration? Isn’t impressive Jews’ tolerance was/is to aggressive violent Arabs far greater one realizes?

    Last but not least, this confused guy really thinks that Islamists (Hamas, Fatah – Mahmoud abbas’ terrorists ‘al-aqsa martyrs,’ Hezbollah, al-qaeda, etc.) would hesitate if his EXTRA-LIBERAL throat is in their bloodthirsty “freedom-fighting” hands/sword?

  2. 1. I am so frustrated with the way the gnteromenvs are handling Julian Assange and Wikileaks. It is a really great example of how US officials get away with what they do behind closed doors. They really have no morals when faced with a challenge. They slander, cheat, lie, and blackmail, all to force whatever they want to happen in secret. The US government is slowly making sure to financially cut off Wikileaks which I thought was interesting because it shows a clear connection to the US power and corporations such as Amazon and Mastercard.2. The way that spokespeople against Julian Assange and Wikileaks can threaten his life, but he can’t even host a website that let’s people speak freely, is completely a double standard. I don’t think prosecuting would be as effective as holding them accountable and publicly calling anyone who threatens Julian Assange’s life on it. He is being punished for something that is legal, ethical, and extremely supported by the people. The fact that he is being threatened is a clear example of how far from democracy we still are.4. Well, the idea of casting out everyone who won’t be alive when climate change’s huge consequences hit is tricky. On the one hand, it makes sense to have the ones who it will affect most – like the next generation or the underprivileged – have more power over the issue. However, saying that because of a person’s age they can’t try to help the issue is preposterous. So the best way would be to find a balance of power because the most important factor is someone’s determination to do something about the issue, not their age or privilege.The youth at the summit had a good point. The next generation does need much more of a voice in negotiations of Climate Change. I still think they were rash and overdramatic. I would have liked to see them make a statement that wouldn’t have gotten them kicked out of the conference.

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