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DVD Review: ‘American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein’

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American Radical

“You don’t know what Norman Finkelstein is. He’s poison. He’s a disgusting  self-hating Jew. He’s something you find under a rock.” – Leon Wieseltier

“It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth. Those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed.” – Raul Hilberg

“You know the famous joke? A journalist goes around and asks a Russian, a Pole, and an Israeli the same question. He first goes to the Russian: ‘Excuse me, what’s your opinion on the meat shortage?’ The Russian says: ‘What’s an opinion?’ The reporter then goes to the Pole: ‘Excuse me, but what do you think of the meat shortage?’ The Pole goes: ‘What’s meat?’ He then goes to the Israeli: ‘Excuse me. What’s your opinion on the meat shortage?’ The Israeli replies: ‘What’s “excuse me”?’” – Norman Finkelstein

This joke introduces American Radical, a documentary by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, and in many ways defines both the film and the man within. It is pitch-black, and one only hears Finkelstein, who eventually fades in, inflecting and de-emphasizing select words, offering the right pauses, then ending it all on a smirk. It is not an arrogant smirk, nor is it a happy one. Rather, it is melancholy. Bitter. For a man whose work –  despite claims – is so rational and un-emotive, this is one of the few places where emotion has an outlet. Bergman once said: “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.” By contrast, Finkelstein lives in his work – plodding, mechanic, in the best sense of such words – and bleeds in his life.

Prior to going any further, I must write that I’m slightly acquainted with the subject of this documentary. I’ve met Norman Finkelstein on a few occasions, had an e-mail correspondence, and even spent a few hours at his apartment, having grown up in the same neighborhood (albeit forty years apart). I am both an admirer of his work, as well as intrigued – for better or worse – by the man, himself, as it is his plight, rather than his accomplishments, which might interest future generations when the Israel-Palestine Conflict is merely yet another name, another time, like so many others that have come and go, and will continue to do so for as long as we’re recognizably human.

Finkelstein is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They eventually moved to New York, where Finkelstein was born, and taught him the sense of justice that he credits for his work. First coming to prominence in the early 1980s, Finkelstein exposed the hoax that is Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, a then-popular book which argued Palestinians had little to do with Palestine, but rather had fabricated themselves into its history. This drew the ire and respect of scholars, readers, and wackos of all stripes. Yet it was nothing compared to the backlash when he wrote The Holocaust Industry, which examined the mis-use of the Holocaust’s memory by profiteers such as Elie Wiesel and Jewish groups that he claims care remarkably little for Holocaust survivors. After several books and a handful of infamous feuds later, he has lost two academic positions (despite accolades from students, scholars, and faculty), and is barred from entering Israel “for ten years.” Yet remains one of the most popular lecturers and writers on these subjects.

The film, directed by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, does a good job of presenting Finkelstein’s work, and has a number of experts – I use the term loosely – evaluating both man and accomplishment, pro and con. For example, he is accused of Holocaust denial, even as the premier Holocaust scholar, Raul Hilberg, is a supporter of his work, despite disagreeing with his political views. Then, there are those who accuse Finkelstein of inciting violence against Jews, even as there are interviews with the alleged Palestinian evil-doers who claim that they, in fact, have realized that not every Jew is bad or out to destroy them, and admire Finkelstein for using his “smarts” and “diplomacy,” a skill they claim they are now re-learning, thanks to him.

Yet, it’s not so much his work itself that intrigues, but how he behaves within it, which is what’s given most screen time in the documentary. In a particularly telling moment, during his feud with Alan Dershowitz – the de facto villain of the film – he says: “There’s a Yiddish expression, schmata. Schmata is a rag. You use a schmata to do the dusting. If Dershowitz’s book was made of cloth, I wouldn’t even use it as a schmata.” Just then, he begins to laugh, quite eerily, as music crops up all around, and it takes him quite a while to come-to. When he finally does, he mutters and giggles as if coming off an ecstasy, then suddenly sobers up, turns to the camera, and enunciates without emotion: “But, he got his yesterday, and he knows he’s in trouble now.” The joke is the life-blood. The final comment moderates it, reins it in, as per his work, and the mechanic of his words.

In another scene, Finkelstein is at the end of a lecture, and takes a question from a girl in the audience. Suddenly, she turns red and tears over the fact that he, at some point, calls Israeli politicos and military commanders Nazi-like in their tactics. Amidst heckles and applause, Finkelstein says with some force:

I don’t respect that anymore. I really don’t. I don’t like and I don’t respect the crocodile tears… I don’t like to play before an audience the Holocaust card. But since now I feel compelled to, my late father was in Auschwitz. 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’s precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silenced when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians. And I consider nothing more despicable than to use their suffering and their martyrdom than to justify the torture and the brutalization and the demolition of homes that Israel daily commits against the Palestinians. So I refuse any longer to be intimidated and brow-beaten by the tears. If you had any heart in you, you would be crying for the Palestinians, not for what you are.

In the next shot, you see the girl, again, holding her head with her forearms and elbows, as if to cover her own ears, like a woman in Bedlam, hearing voices in the gurgle of a sewer. It is a trite symbol (albeit well done, at that) of 21st Century neuroses, of people’s inability to separate fact from emotion, while tying their inner lives, almost to the point of psychosis, to whatever identity they happen to take umbrage in. It is these little moments that stand out in the documentary, even as the reasons for such are likely quite different from what anyone in the film suspects.

The film also gives a glimpse into Finkelstein’s feud with Dershowitz. It started in 2003, when Finkelstein, in a debate between the two men, revealed a host of factual inaccuracies in Dershowitz’s The Case For Israel, and – more problematically – accused him of plagiarism. The former is clear, while the latter is not, and that’s wherein the trouble lay. At one point, a childhood friend wonders why Finkelstein went along and did this, concluding that he must have a self-destructive streak, for he knew the outcome of such even before picking the fight.

True as that may be, one does get a certain satisfaction watching Dershowitz squirm. He twitches, raises his voice to the cracking point, and gives nervous smiles at the camera, both in the debate and during the film, making one wish there were more Finkelsteins to call “scholars” out on their academic dishonesty, even at personal cost to themselves.

At one point, Dershowitz claims that Finkelstein had never addressed the substance of the book, but merely cried “plagiarism.” Yet, this is clearly a lie, for the entire thrust of Finkelstein’s argument is towards the substance, with accusations of plagiarism thrown in merely for a little fun. In that way, Dershowitz becomes like every other self-serving academic – apologist, even –  in history, down to the look in his eyes. Finkelstein, in turn, is infected by the same fatalism the film probes, and such collision is difficult to watch.

In an interesting aside, Finkelstein credits Noam Chomsky with much of his work ethic and beliefs. Yet, this leads to two observations. The first is that his beliefs actually came from his parents, two Holocaust survivors that participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and instilled a sense of justice in the boy which he still credits for his work. Indeed, Finkelstein’s parents utterly saturate the film, at times, and it’s clear they are the center of his moral universe, not Chomsky, who merely had the output and the reputation, and could thus serve as solid ground on which to build an academic career.

The second is that Finkelstein, for all the admiration he has for Chomsky, is clearly the better and more articulate thinker. Yes, Finkelstein has unfortunately ghettoized himself “merely” as the speaker for the Israel-Palestine Conflict, and thus can never be creative in the sense that a great artist is, but handles himself with such force, pith, and concision that one does not mind. He is, in effect, the master of his own domain – even if that domain is a tiny island unmoored from a far wider world.

By contrast, Chomsky (who has loftier goals) communicates poorly on a far wider range of subjects, and has zero presence, even if his knowledge is vaster and less specific. Dershowitz, when he does appear alongside Chomsky, simply bullies him, despite being an ignoramus. Yet Dershowitz fears Finkelstein, who can wipe the floor with him in any interaction, big or small. Indeed, if one were to compare Finkelstein and Chomsky, it could be said that one is mere brain, and the other has his teeth bared. This is not, alas, a difference of cosmic import, but basic primatology, and why people will gravitate more to one than the other long after the both of them are dead.

Yes, Finkelstein has had to suffer, as the film makes clear. He has lost his academic credentials – in the strict sense of the phrase – and is subject to everything from attacks upon him and his family, to death threats the world over. At one point, his apartment complex is vandalized by anti-Finkelstein groups, and letters are written to his building superintendent to get him evicted. In a particularly vile move, Dershowitz even launches a campaign to keep Finkelstein’s book from getting published, threatening “expensive” lawsuits and attempting to recruit then-governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to his cause.

Yet, there is no doubt Finkelstein has it better than most. He is a popular speaker, reached a settlement with his university, and has little trouble releasing books. No, he is no longer ensconced in academia, but academia – as his and others’ experiences show – is a scam and mere puffery, anyway, and Finkelstein is lucky to have gotten the hell out. He is hated, no doubt, but such is the price for rectitude, for as much as society puts “the truth” upon a pedestal, the fact is that no culture, in human history, has ever whole-heartedly given a damn about the truth unless it was of service to it. Honest people are systematically destroyed, and future generations shake their heads at such, even as they continue to do the same, in their own time, ad nauseam.

But, to his credit, Finkelstein rarely complains in the film, and exhorts others to not wallow in self-pity, quoting Paul Robeson: “Some come crippled, some come lame/ We all bear our burdens in the heat of the day.” The idea is that everyone must suffer, some more than others, and that he’s comparatively well-off. One respects this kind of maturity, even as Finkelstein tells others not to put him on a pedestal, as they will be disappointed.

At end, Finkelstein muses on his life, and wonders whether it was all worth it. And, perhaps, that is the central question the film asks: whether such service – limited, as it is – is worth one’s total consumption, and the historical oblivion that inevitably comes with it. Finkelstein does not have an answer to this query, but merely says: “Speaking as a devout atheist, thank God that in His almighty wisdom, he made us mortal.” The film ends on a devastating note, with a black-and-white photo of Finkelstein as a child with his family in Coney Island, as a cover of Marky Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days” wells into the credits.

Despite its moments, however, American Radical is not a great film. It is merely a good one, for the very nature of its subject is reflexive, and has remarkably little to do with the outside world, even as its players – for good or ill – try their best to be a part of it. There is a ceiling, then, the film tries to resist. It often fails, yes, but when it succeeds, one notices a force that even its participants are not privy to, a fatalism that attracts, repels, and leaves one with an ambiguous impression of both man and work, and how they play within the deeper drama that unfolds.

The DVD, put out Typecast Releasing, features a theatrical trailer and some deleted scenes. Two scenes show Finkelstein opining on the final look Charlie Chaplin gives in City Lights (“mixture of fear, hope, anticipation, dread: what is she going to do?”) and visiting his childhood home, with a spare, poetic end to the meeting. There is no commentary, although this is the kind of film that would certainly benefit from such, probing, as it might, into the mind of someone that simply does not reveal the whole picture.

In his books, Norman Finkelstein swallows a huge amount of data, and generates elegant arguments from the sum. He cleverly uses words against their speakers, and if one looks closely at his work, there is a row of traps, of nooses, that his enemies slip into, and quite willingly, at that. It is marvelous to watch, partly because Finkelstein’s cause is honest, and so many others are not. Yet, the work – for all its pluses – centers on a temporal conflict, just one of a thousand other temporal conflicts with the same villains, heroes, and meddlers, now forgotten, and thus cannot last. In between dust and perpetuity, however, there is art (albeit very modest art) like American Radical, that will let such players live, as people who’ve long forgotten the specifics can dream their dreams once more, and try to understand, centuries later, how much waste, how much stupidity this generation has engendered.

Perhaps I am biased, here, and feel undue affinity with the subject, since – unlike so many other artists in the world – I am a blank slate. Or rather, I used to be. I was pulled, prodded, numbered, branded, and otherwise owned and passed like so much chattel by everything from politics, to Latin, to powerlifting and drawing. I was going to be great, a visionary, in anything that I’d ever touch, whether that meant being a politician, or one of the few fluent Latinists in the world. I was going to be all of these things until art finally pulled me in, and grew me.

I could have been Norman Finkelstein. Some unionist. A yogi. Perhaps this is why I’m sympathetic. But, something didn’t let me, for I knew how such stories end. Every time I see it unfold – for it will continue to unfold in others forever – there is some nascent part of me that understands the mindset, the consummation, and even feels nostalgia in it.

Yet, as if this is the drama of some parallel dimension I’ve long left behind, I can no longer reach out my hand and make it stop. Perhaps my hand, at this point, would not even understand it.

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About Alex Sheremet

I'm a poet, critic, and novelist living in NYC, and the author of "Woody Allen: Reel To Real." You can contact me at my arts website.