An American Radical: Norman Finkelstein
Published: Monday, May 24, 2010
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
Many seniors and juniors may recognize the name Norman Finkelstein as the professor who made headlines for being denied tenure at DePaul for the 2008-2009 school year. Finkelstein has radical views on the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestine conflict, which questioned the academic teachings of the professor. In an "American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein," a documentary that chronicles Finkelstein's life, he states that Jews exploit the Holocaust to justify their actions in Palestine. Many would think that Finkelstein's stance would be on the side of the Israelis since he is Jewish, but he instead sides with the Palestinians. He not only stands up for the Palestinians but also attacks Jewish leaders and figures throughout the film. This type of controversy and work ethic is one of the reasons Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul.
According to a letter Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider wrote to Finkelstein which is available on the former professor's official website, Finkelstein does not honor the obligation "to respect and defend the free inquiry of the associates." The letter also states that Finkelstein personally attacked his colleagues, which in this case would be Alan Dershowitz - a Harvard law professor, attorney and opponent of Finkelstein. According to the documentary, Dershowitz used his status and influence to help deny Finkelstein tenure.
Finkelstein is the son of Holocaust survivors who always instilled in their son the value of treating humanity as they should. During the documentary, Finkelstein says that once he became aware of the horrors brought onto the Palestinian people by the Israeli army, he became an advocate for Palestinians.
The documentary follows the professor around the world as he speaks to students and communities about his views. Throughout the film the audience gets to see how the world reacts to Finkelstein, how he defends himself, and how he responds to his critics and supporters. At one point Finkelstein questions himself, "is all this really worth it?"
The film provokes the audience to think outside their own identities as Finkelstein does for the sake of humanity. It also engages the audience with the controversial subject matter. Many audience members in the movie theater responded to Finkelstein's comments on screen both negatively and positively as if Finkelstein was directly speaking to them.
"I agree with some of the things that Finkelstein says, but I don't agree with how he gets his message across," DePaul student Maria Chaidez said. She referred to the moment when a student crying hysterically questioned and critiqued Finkelstein only to get berated by him when he said, "I have no sympathy for your crocodile tears" and "if there is any heart in you then you should be crying for the Palestinian people."
Finkelstein has no problem admitting that some Palestinians are terrorists as long as Israelis have no problem admitting that the leader of Israel is also a terrorist.
Directors David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier said the creation of the film was a slow process, taking about 10 years. They were attracted to a film on Finkelstein because he calls the world the way he sees it.
"He speaks his mind in a world where many are afraid to speak out and have to maneuver around corners and be politically correct," Rossier said. "He is rare but also very flawed and he brags about it as well, which is kind of unique. Often it undermines his activism. So we think he has all these sides that make him human, likable and unlikable."
Although the subject matter of the film is controversial, Rossier said the only precaution the filmmakers took was to be as honest as possible while representing many views.
"This is an emotional subject and so if we respect people's strong emotions and we need to represent them in a clean and unequivocal way and we did that with no regrets," he said.
The movie was viewed at film festivals all over the world, including ones in Lebanon, the UK, U.S., Canada, and Jerusalem as well as at many Jewish festivals. Audiences have been engaged in the film, either cheering and clapping or booing and hissing at what Finkelstein says.
"We touched many chords in the film that are common to all members of our audience," Rossier said. "When we speak about the horrors of the Holocaust and Finkelstein's parents we touch everybody in the audience.
According to Rossier, there are many messages in the film, and it's up to the viewers to find them out. However, he said there was a point to get out of the documentary. "For me, the central question is what do you do when you come from a long history of deep suffering and trauma?" Rossier said. "How do you deal with it personally and on the community level? Norman is a case study for this."
The filmmakers are busy developing future projects. Rossier is working on a documentary series on peace activists and his first narrative about a Native American chief. Ridgen is developing an animated project and a large-scale civil rights investigation with PBS and other partners.