A half hour into David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier’s documentary American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein, Professor Finkelstein delivers a speech with the kind of goose bump-inducing intensity rarely heard in legal thrillers or evangelical congregations, let alone academic lectures.
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 concentration camp; my late mother was in Maidanek 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.
Finkelstein’s shrill voice is hardly appealing, but it takes on a kind of desperate authority as he raises it (along with one rhythmically pointing finger, as if he were trying to conduct some kind of musical piece out of the crowd’s hysterics) to be heard over the boos, shouts, and sobbing coming from his audience. Needless to say, it’s powerful stuff, made even more so by the comparative mundanity of its context: a response to a weepy, hoodie-clad student’s objection — during a Q&A session in an average, smallish lecture room at the University of Waterloo — to Finkelstein’s use of Nazi imagery during his preceding lecture (not shown).
I will not be silenced when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians, and I consider it despicable to use their suffering, their martyrdom, to try to justify the torture, the brutalization, the demolition of homes, that Israel daily commits against the Palestinians. So I refuse any longer to be intimidated by the tears. If you had any heart in you, you would be crying for the Palestinians.
The hoodied student breaks into sobs; the crowd makes a noise that’s both a boo and a cheer; and after he walks away from the podium, Finkelstein, so sincerely impassioned just a few moments earlier, turns confidentially to the camera with a gleeful grin. “I’ve never been in a crowd like this — they’re nuts!”
It’s a perfect summary of Norman Finkelstein in under four minutes, and it’s exemplary of how David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier’s elegant directing pirouettes unscathed through a shitstorm of controversy by focusing on what makes the film’s subject so compelling without diving too deeply into the content of his academic output (it’s no accident we don’t get to hear the remark that offended the student, or Finkelstein’s lecture itself) or the Israel/Palestine conflict itself.
That’s an impressive feat, considering Finkelstein’s research focuses on Israel’s human rights abuses and international law violations against the Palestinian territories, the US’s unwavering military and political support of Israel, and how the commemoration of the Holocaust has been manipulated to prop up both. While his work is well-respected in Europe and Latin America, it’s been controversial enough in the US to make sure that, despite his impressive bibliography, he’s never gotten tenure at a university. In Israel, it’s simply gotten him banned from entering the country. Ridgen and Rossier cover all of this, providing just the right balance of commentary from his fans (e.g., Noam Chomsky) and his detractors (e.g., Alan Dershowitz) to show they’re more interested in examining the nature of academic freedom and controversy than in changing your mind about politics.
And, as a champion of academic freedom, they couldn’t have chosen a better subject than Norman Finkelstein. The film doesn’t shy away from Finkelstein’s less endearing side. His crusade against Alan Dershowitz (a professor at Harvard Law School) for plagiarism, while not without evidence, seems less about copying and more an indirect way to get at Dershowitz for his support of Israel and the use of torture. And his expression of support for Hezbollah during a visit to the Middle East is sure to make jaws drop. But far from his Achilles’ heel, these cringe-worthy moments themselves are part of what makes Finkelstein heroic: how unconcerned he is with the personal consequences his pursuit (of whatever you decide it is he’s after) might have on him.