David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier’s docu on Norman Finkelstein, “American Radical,” promises to prove as controversial as the man himself. The son of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein, author of several provocative books such as “The Holocaust Industry,” has been an outspoken critic of U.S. and Israeli policy toward Palestine. For some, the docu will rep the endorsement of a self-hater spouting traitorous ideas; for others, it celebrates the courage of a reviled, truth-telling martyr to the cause of academic freedom. Opening Feb. 11th at Gotham’s Anthology, the docu will likely attract passionate detractors and supporters in equal number.
A professor of Middle Eastern studies, Finkelstein first came to national notoriety with a well-researched, well-reasoned demolition of a popular pro-Zionist book by Joan Peters that held that Palestinians never really resided in Palestine. His scholarly findings were no more appreciated at the time than they are today.
Finkelstein enjoys a certain prestige, even celebrity status, everywhere but in the United States. The filmmakers follow him to Germany and Japan for televised interviews and debates, to the Palestinian territories for meetings with longtime friends and leaders, to Lebanon for confabs with Hezbollah, and on an extended raucous trip through Canada (shades of Jonathan Demme’s “Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains,” about Carter’s book tour for his controversial tome on Palestine). Though touching upon his general approach, the pic focuses more on Finkelstein’s intensely emotional exchanges with angry adversaries and weeping supporters than on the arguments themselves. Indeed, the pic’s most egregious imbalance may be in showcasing the man instead of the specific ideas through which he essentially defines himself.
Spouting inconvenient truths without even Al Gore’s charm or ease to make them especially palatable, Finkelstein seems ill suited to the role of crusader. Awkward, with a somewhat high-pitched voice, he values spontaneous spilling of opinions over strategy or tact, often choosing his battles poorly. Even fervent supporters like Noam Chomsky tend to describe him as his own worst enemy.
Ultimately, the portrait that emerges from “American Radical” casts Finkelstein as an obsessive personality who pours his heart and soul into the cause of justice with the single-mindedness necessary to withstand vitriol and personal attacks. He has been denied entry into Israel and the Occupied Territories for 10 years, and the Jewish Defense Organization has plastered his apartment building with leaflets demanding his eviction.
Influential lawyer, Harvard professor and Israel apologist Alan Dershowitz, whose scholarship and intelligence Finkelstein has often impugned with impassioned hyperbole (most famously on a 2003 “Democracy Now!” telecast excerpted here), launched an all-out campaign to deny Finkelstein tenure at DePaul U., which succeeded despite enormous faculty support for Finkelstein.