American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

Dir: David Ridgen, Nicolas Rossier

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Typecast Releasing

88 Minutes

If you listen to the mainstream media, it is a generally unpopular opinion to favor the formation of a separate Palestine state. Our country considers Israel a prime ally, and we have given them military and financial aid to quell uprisings on the West Bank and in Lebanon. This opinion, the liberation of Palestine from Israeli oppression, is even more unpopular if you are Jewish. Enter political scientist Norman Finkelstein.

Despite his best efforts to compare the current situation in the Middle East to the Holocaust (Israelis are the Germans now, mind you), Finkelstein has been called a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite and a rabble rouser. Even though Finkelstein makes some valid claims in his argument to stop Israeli oppression, his bag of rhetorical tricks make him come off as harsh, piercing, petty and close-minded. Rather than actively debate, Finkelstein is more likely to shout down his opponent than listen. Raised by two Holocaust survivors (a fact he has no problems using as leverage in debate), Finkelstein is a fascinating figure. Author of books such as Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History and The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, travels the globe with his passionate call to stop Israeli aggression in the Middle East.

American Radical traces the roots of Finkelstein’s ideology when he realized Jews evoked the Holocaust during the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon war to distract from their own atrocities. Infuriated by this veiled truth, Finkelstein befriended historian Noam Chomsky, another crusader for truth, and began his obsession with the topic. While most of American Radical is centered on the fights Finkelstein picks, we are granted glimpses of the man behind the rhetoric. Finkelstein appears to live alone, spending hours alone reading or in front of his computer. Numerous photos hang on the walls of his home, but they appear to be photos of himself or from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. The few friends interviewed in the film seem to distance themselves from Finkelstein’s radicalism and even further when he accuses lawyer Alan Dershowitz of an obscure plagiarism, a charge that eventually costs Finkelstein tenure at DePaul University.

Directors David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier appear to take pains not to paint American Radical with their opinions of Finkelstein. He is presented as both a highly intelligent and shrill individual. At a Canadian lecture, he shouts down a young student for crying during her rebuttal, calling her sadness “crocodile tears.”

It is easy to see why some people agree with Finkelstein’s assessment of the Middle East but also just as easy to call him an opportunist, utilizing the Holocaust as a shield in the same way as those he criticizes. American Radical wisely presents both sides of the issue, interviewing scholars, Jewish leaders and Palestinians. Unfortunately, the film seems to get stuck during its middle portion. Even after we have a good understanding of Finkelstein’s conceit, Ridgen and Rossier pile on scene after scene of more or less the same rhetoric. Listening to Finkelstein can be grating and at times infuriating. Only towards the end, when Finkelstein travels to Lebanon, does the film get back on track.

If for nothing else, Finkelstein’s commitment to his cause is admirable. Even though his tactics may be questionable and the man himself unlikable, Ridgen and Rossier bring us a fascinating, if somewhat repetitive film, about one of the most confusing conflicts of our time.

by David Harris
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