The first thing to be said about the documentary "American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein" is that it is not as bad as it could have been. Given the politics of festivals like IDFA, I took my seat for the sold-out showing Sunday night expecting a fawning look at a man reviled by the American Jewish establishment and venerated by the left.
To my surprise, Finkelstein’s critics, most notably Harvard prof Alan Dershowitz, get plenty of face time. Which is not to say that the film isn’t sympathetic to its subject — Finkelstein generally gets the last word — but there is much to make any fair minded observer stop and think.
The filmmakers achieve this by largely sidestepping the content of Finkelstein’s views and focusing on the man — why is he the way he is, what costs has he paid for his beliefs. These are actually the most interesting questions about Finkelstein; nothing would be more plodding than a film that seeks to figure out which narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually right.
Admittedly, I’m biased because I made the same choice myself two years ago when I interviewed Finkelstein for New York magazine soon after his departure from DePaul. I sat in his Coney Island living room and listened to his self-pitying stories, his comparisons of himself with Jesus, even his awful rendition of a Negro spiritual. The film does the same: We see Finkelstein walking alone around Brooklyn at night, sitting ramrod straight at his desk on Ocean Parkway, and attempting in his wavering voice a terrible rendition of a Paul Robeson number.
Finkelstein himself considered my piece to be a hatchet job and I wonder what he’ll make of "American Radical." Because whatever else the film might suggest, at the end of the day it left me with one core conviction: Norman Finkelstein is a very strange man. And perhaps a very disturbed one too.
Finkelstein acknowledges that his was a "very peculiar household," and even his friends talk about his obsession with his parents and their Holocaust experience. One childhood acquaintance, who says Finkelstein was influenced by his mother "to an unhealthy extent," says he’s intent on effecting his own destruction and wonders aloud whether he’s a self-hating Jew.
Personally, I’ve long been skeptical of that charge. Finkelstein may have endured a painful childhood in the shadow of Auschwitz. His Jewish identity may be muddled and conflicted, but I see little to suggest that he hates his own Jewishness. On the contrary, he invokes it repeatedly as a cause for his own activism. All of which makes the film’s focus a particularly potent line of inquiry, as it zeroes in on the very factors that Finkelstein employs to deflect his critics.
One of the most compelling exchanges in the film (you can see it in the trailer below) occurs when a teary student confronts Finkelstein for his offensive remarks about Nazis. Watching this young woman break down as she formulates her question should evoke a measure of sympathy and recognition of the sensitivities of a difficult subject. But Finkelstein turns on her, accusing her of shedding "crocodile tears." This prompts her to descend into hysterics as her sadness morphs into shock and then public humiliation. But Finkelstein is undeterred.
"I don’t like to play before an audience the Holocaust card," Finkelstein begins, his voice rising. "But since now I feel compelled to, my late father was in Auschwitz concentration camp. My late mother was in Majdanek concentration camp. Every single member of my family on both sides was exterminated. Both of my parents were in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And it is precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silent when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians. And I condsider nothing more descipcable than to use their suffering and their martyrdom to try to justify the torture, the brutalization, the demolition of homes that Israel daily commits against the Palestinians. So I refuse any longer to be intimidated or browbeaten by the tears. If you have any heart in you, you would be crying for the Palestinians."
I was appalled by the scene. The audience at the IDFA screening laughed.
It should be said that Finkelstein’s mother drew an unorthodox conclusion from the Shoah. The dominant post-Holocaust Jewish narrative, one to which I think it’s fair to say a majority of survivors would subscribe, is that Jewish powerlessness was the root of the problem, to be rectified by the establishment of a Jewish state.
Finkelstein’s mother instead became an avowed pacifist, though in fairness the film suggests she might have reconsidered that view later in life. But that’s the lesson young Norman absorbed and all indications from the film are that he became unhealthily obsessed with it.
Finkelstein today is a man who remains resolute in speaking his mind on the Middle East despite the ever mounting personal costs. Nearing 60, he has no job and lives alone in the small Brooklyn apartment that once belonged to his father. He is either a man of tremendous courage and conviction, or one with a pathological and destructive fixation. But even on the plane of scholarship, where Finkelstein wishes to be judged irrespective of his personal demons, he appears in the film as wildly inconsistent.
At a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, he instructs his audience to be both "principled and reasonable." Later, he tells the camera he decided not to give them the whole "down with the Zionist entity" speech — both because he doesn’t believe it and because it would do no good.
But in the next frame, he visits with Hezbollah along the country’s frontier with Israel and tells them they are "the hope." Continue "kicking them in the head until they reach their senses," he says.
Telling Palestinians to fight to the death is pointless, but urging Hezbollah to do the same thing makes sense?
All of which results in a portrait more sad than indignant. Whatever one makes of his views, Finkelstein has always struck me as a man who deeply believes in what he is doing. Moreover, his scholarship, Dershowitz notwithstanding, is not entirely without merit. Though expressed in language probably more shrill than necessary (calling Abe Foxman a "hoodlum" and a "huckster" just isn’t a smart way to go), "The Holocaust Industry" makes a legitimate point about the appropriation of Jewish memory, one that Jewish writers far less scorned than Finkelstein have echoed.
In the end, Finkelstein comes off as sad, disturbed, strange, and pathetic. He is a more worthy object of compassion than of anger. Which is not a bad thing to keep in mind next time he publishes something inflammatory — which, given the modicum of pressures on his time these days, is surely right around the corner.