Saturday, October 9, 2010

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

Radicalism in an unprepared world
Pradeep Sebastian

I am still haunted by a film I saw some six months ago.

Compelling: A still from 'American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein'It's about an embattled and beleaguered academic, scholar and political scientist called Norman Finkelstein who lost one teaching job after another for his radical views, who continues to be attacked from different sides, but who will not stop writing and speaking as an independent scholar.

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein  is a compelling and moving film that offers us a true radical in a world mostly depleted of them. I mean, how many genuine radicals are there left in the world anymore? Arundhati Roy is a radical. Here is someone whose radicalism often costs her.

Finkelstein's radicalism cost him dearly. Directed by David Ridgen and Nicholas Rossier, the film does a fine job of presenting Finkelstein without pushing only his side of things. And yet remains sympathetic and fair to Finkelstein.

A majority of critics reviewing the film dismiss Norman as a perfect example of a radical who loses the very cause he is fighting for by his radicalism. And yet, I ask
you, what else is the radical voice? Why is Norman Finkelstein such a figure of controversy?

Finkelstein, an American Jew who lost his family in the Holocaust, is deeply shamed and angered by Israel and its right wing supporters, and their treatment of Palestinians. Finkelstein has called Israel a terrorist state, and for this he becomes the first Jew to be banned from entering Israel.

In several books over the years Finkelstein has written about right wing Jewish organisations that exploit the Holocaust and Jewish suffering by claiming that anti-Semitism is still a widespread and burning issue threatening the existence and safety of Jews.

Norman does not see evidence of this. Wonders this scholar, some of these Jewish organisations also raise huge funds in the name of the Holocaust but where is the money going? 

Not just conservative, fundamentalist Jews revile Finkelstein but even liberals. He finds some supporters in anti-Zionist, leftist Jews who are also committed to a Palestinian state. But while leftist Jews are accepted, Norman is not. He is often described as not just anti-Zionist but as a self-hating Jew.

Finkelstein is often amused by this because he feels he is being more Jewish than most Jews - it is because he cares for his race that he feels so much shame and indignation at how the Holocaust has been exploited by the right wingers.

In book after book, he points out that Israel's human rights record is poorer than the Palestinian side. His scholarship seems impeccable, his integrity unflinching and whole. There is a scene in the movie that leaves you shaken and roused. Finkelstein is speaking to university students (as he often does) in Toronto.

In the audience are both, supporters and detractors. At the end of his impassioned talk, one student, a girl, is sobbing as she picks up the microphone to address him. How could you, she asks, call some people in the audience as Nazis?

Finkelstein who is seldom provoked, explodes here with barely controlled anger. 'I will not be anymore browbeaten by such crocodile tears,' he shouts back. 'If you have a heart at all, you will be crying for the Palestinians.'

While the girl looks shocked, there are cheers in the audience from Palestinian students and other supporters of the Palestinian cause. For Norman Finkelstein the lesson of the Holocaust was how to learn to love, not hate. His mother, Maryla, taught him that. A truly remarkable person, you see her briefly in the film, talking about the meaning of the Holocaust, which she survived, as being compassion. Norman grew up hearing that from her all the time. And then made a radical commitment to it, stunning even his mother who says jokingly that she 'created a Finkelstein's monster.'

It was while he was a graduate student at Princeton that Norman first began questioning the political beliefs and views of right wing Jews, both in Israel and America. Preparing for his thesis he came across a book called From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters which claimed a different demographics for Palestine: that there really wasn't a Palestinian majority as believed widely.

That there were as many Zionist immigrants at the end of the 19th century as there were Palestinians. The book instantly became a deeply influential bestseller, praised by several writers and intellectual such as Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuckman and Elie Wiesel.

Reading it closely, Finkelstein found error after error in her scholarship, and ended by concluding that the book was "a monumental hoax."

His findings drew the attention of Noam Chomsky who already held similar views, and who warned him of the consequences of exposing the book's dubious scholarship: "I warned him, if you follow this, you're going to get in trouble-because you're going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they're going to destroy you.'

Finkelstein published the thesis anyway. And as Chomsky had predicted, all hell broke loose in academic circles. His graduate research was his first expose of what he terms the "the corruption of scholarship on the Israel-Palestine conflict."

Finkelstein followed it with other books, two of the best known being: "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering" (Verso, 2000) and "Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history" (University of California Press, 2005). Even though Chomsky himself didn't go as far as Finkelstein in the way he challenged academia, for Finkelstein he remains an inspiration. It is from Noam Chomsky, Finkelstein has said, he learnt that it was "possible to unite exacting scholarly rigor with scathing moral outrage."

Because of his radical politics, Finkelstein, who had been teaching political theory in Hunter College for many years without tenure and on a small salary, was pushed into resigning. Later, he was denied tenure everywhere he went, and eventually any teaching position. Today he is an independent scholar, committed to meticulous, forensic scholarship that examines the Israeli-Palestine debate.

The filmmakers hold up Finkelstein's complex firebrandism as one example of radical advocacy, asking the question: When radicals collide, does it create understanding or self destruction? While the audience can decide for themselves, few will fail to be moved by Norman Finkelstein's courage, compassion and sense of justice. Like Arundhati Roy, surely a hero for our times.
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posted by u2r2h at 3:49 AM


Blogger bsananda said...

HEAR ! Hear ! (and here, here) !
I confess to having a weakness for all three; Roy, Noam, and Norman.

Thursday, August 20, 2015 at 3:20:00 PM PDT  

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