Even for those likely to be sympathetic to his point of view, Norman Finkelstein can be a difficult figure to embrace. The scholar and advocate for Palestinian rights is so strident and shrill in his public speeches, so willing to make potentially dubious use of his familial history for rhetorical effect, and apparently so prone to launching petty vendettas against his opponents that his presentation seems designed more to gratify the converted than to influence the ongoing debate. But in his passionate advocacy and genuine commitment to fighting global injustice and his unique biographical position (his parents were Holocaust survivors who taught him to use the example of the extermination to prevent similar sufferings for other people) he remains a figure that demands to be listened to—not to mention an ideal subject for a documentary film.
Last seen stealing the show from ostensible star Abraham Foxman in Defamation, Yoav Shamir’s look at the dubious uses of anti-Semitism among American and Israeli Jews, the Holocaust Industry author now finds himself center stage in David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier’s American Radical. Devoting much of the screen time to the man himself, the film turns the mic over to Finkelstein as he discusses his Brooklyn childhood, his initial involvement in criticizing Israeli politics during the 1982 Lebanon War and his subsequently rocky career, as well as outlining his by-now-famous central argument: that Jewish leaders repeatedly invoke the Holocaust, thus fabricating an aura of anti-Semitic activity that serves to distract attention from Israel’s official policy toward the Palestinians.
If Ridgen and Rossier are finally sympathetic toward their subject, though, they also present him as a highly problematic figure, calling upon a generous selection of his opponent’s arguments in order to balance the picture. While mentor Noam Chomsky shows up to call Finkelstein a “very careful scholar,” longtime nemesis Alan Dershowitz instead derides his adversary as a mere “propagandist” and a childhood friend explains how Finkelstein’s simply gone too far. It’s hard to dismiss some of his detractors’ arguments—he makes as much use of the Holocaust as a rhetorical device as do the conservative Jews he attacks, he has a tendency toward over-simplification—while even his closest supporters question an ill-advised attack on Dershowitz in which he attempts to brand him a plagiarist. In addition, his public appearances, of which the film includes several hyper-intense examples, are seen to consist largely of a round of soundbite-style declamations and a counter-productive badgering of his opponents, the latter embodied in a Q&A session where he rudely dismisses a weeping and very offended college student as a purveyor of “crocodile tears.”
Still, if there’s one point the film makes most clearly, it’s that Finkelstein, far from being the opportunist that some of his detractors are quick to tar him as, is a passionately committed activist who has suffered great personal privation (his inability to gain tenure as a professor, the harassment of landlords) in order to put forth his message—all backed by a scholar’s careful research. His conclusions can be debated, his methods can be deplored, but as Ridgen and Rossier take pains to point out, a man so rigorously committed to putting an end to oppression ought not be so easily dismissed, even if coming to grips with such a challenging figure may be finally as difficult as getting to the bottom of the Arab-Israeli conflict itself.