A weekend in the Big Apple has much to offer especially to the serious traveler who wants to swim in the intellectual, political and artistic currents of the city. My friend and I began ours by going to see a new documentary film called American Radical, based on the life of a scholar dedicated to the cause of justice for Palestinians, Norman Finkelstein. I have long admired this man. But many have called him a polemicist and a Jew-hater. I find such arguments amazing — for one thing, Finkelstein is the Jewish son of Holocaust survivors of Aushwitz and Majdanek, so how could he be a Holocaust denier?
American Radical explains the origins of such scurrilous attacks on Finkelstein. He is a scholar who became notorious with the publication of his book, The Holocaust Industry (Verso, 2000), and was denied tenure at DePaul University when a powerful pro-Israel, pro-Zionist law professor at Harvard University, Alan Dershowitz, denounced his work as Israel-bashing and non-scholarly. Never mind that at the time Finkelstein was already an established author with several books translated into over 40 languages. The film is not a hagiography by any means, since it includes the viewpoints of many of his critics, including those of Dershowitz. Instead, we get a picture of a real human being in all of his principled complexity, not some caricaturish self-hating Jew. He claims – and rightly in my opinion – that Jewish suffering in the Holocaust does not justify their inflicting similar injustice and suffering on others i.e. the Palestinians. On the contrary – as his mother always told him, it is the special duty of Concentration Camp survivors, of Jews everywhere — to help those who are oppressed. And it is this call to justice, to help ensure the end of suffering to others, especially at the hands of his fellow-Jews, that makes Norman Finkelstein the committed schol-activist that he is. I was moved to tears when I watched him recall his late mother who said to him: “You have taken my lessons too literally.” His mentor Noam Chomsky, a fellow anti-Zionist, says that one cannot fight all battles all the time. You cannot make an enemy of someone as powerful as Dershowitz by calling him a falsifier of history and a plagiarist — and expect that there would be no retaliation.
My friend agreed with these sentiments, but I heard the message in Finkelstein’s extraordinary stand: I am not naïve, I knew exactly what I was doing at all times. That is to say, he decided to fight those battles, while knowing he would probably lose the possibility of ever being hired and tenured by academia. How many of us can do that? To this day, now in his fifties, he lives in a small apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by shelves of books and a computer which is his best weapon against an unjust world.
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