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stockholm 11/10/2010 - 04:37AM

Reflections on an American Radical

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

On September 27, 2010, Cinema Politica Stockholm screened a documentary entitled American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein at the Stockholm University.

Given the ongoing peace talks between Israel and Palestine, the idea behind screening American Radical was twofold: to engage the student and the local community in a constructive discussion on the Israel-Palestine conflict through the documentary and the live discussion with Dr. Finkelstein and secondly, to inform the students about a fellow academic whose life and works can inspire us all to inculcate academic honesty and morality into our own works irrespective of our fields of study. We at Cinema Politica Stockholm hope that the screening went a long way in achieving both these goals. The screening was attended by roughly 150 people from Stockholm University, Karolinska Institute, KTH, and residents from the surrounding Stockholm area.

Dr. Norman Finkelstein is a political scientist and a respected author of six books on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is also an ardent critic of the Israeli occupation in Palestine. Previously, he has taught at Brooklyn College, Rutgers University, Hunter College and New York University. From 2001 to 2007, he was an assistant professor at DePaul University, a position he held until he was controversially denied tenure. That brings us to the documentary, American Radical, directed by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier.

While following Dr. Finkelstein on his various speaking engagements around the world, the documentary primarily deals with four things. Firstly, it investigates the reasons behind Finkelstein’s interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict and what he calls “The Holocaust Industry”. The documentary contains many excerpts from the time he spent with his late mother Maryla Husyt Finkelstein, who herself was a Holocaust survivor, that show how Finkelstein’s upbringing and the sense of right and wrong was influenced through experiences with her.

Secondly, the documentary reveals the impact and the controversies around the publication of his books. Be it The Holocaust Industry, in which he focuses on the inappropriate handling of funds to the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and the misuse of their suffering by various responsible agencies, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict, in which he reveals the gross inaccuracies in dealing with the notion of “a land without a people for a people without a land” put forward in the book titled From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, or be it Beyond Chutzpah that deals with the recent human rights violations by the Israeli army in the occupied territories while highlighting the mishandling of facts and references in The Case for Israel by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, Dr. Finkelstein has never been far away from the centre-stage of scholarly debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Thirdly, the documentary deals with the issue of Finkelstein’s denial of tenure at DePaul University and the role played by Mr. Dershowitz in the process. It also shows how Dr. Finkelstein, a “passionate educator”, is separated from the classrooms at the University and how he evolves into an independent scholar.

Fourthly, and importantly, a substantial part of the documentary is also devoted to his critics. Specifically, the documentary has interviews with David Olesker, the director of The Jerusalem Center for Communication and Advocacy Training, and Alan Dershowitz that provide the viewer with a glimpse of the other side of the coin.

It was an exciting day for Cinema Politica Stockholm and for the audience who came to watch the documentary and listen to him speak from New York via the Internet after the screening. What stood out the most during the interview was his enthusiasm to talk to the students. Dr. Finkelstein spoke to us for close to an hour and answered questions at length. The questions generally dealt with how the international community can be involved in non-violent ways in pursuing Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza and stop expanding its illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Dr. Finkelstein also informed us about the finer details of the 10-month settlement “slow-down” moratorium that Israel had decided against extending just the day before. Finkelstein also spoke at length about his life and his guiding principles in his struggle for the freedom of Palestine. The question-and-answer session was recorded and can be found here: [part 1] and [part 2].

On a personal note, I would like to add that I have read four of his published books and have been following his work for the last 3 years. In 2009, I travelled from Saarbrücken to Berlin, a journey of eight hours by train, to attend his lecture that never took place because of the sudden realisation by the left-leaning Rosa Luxembourg foundation of his controversial stature. I have known him as an articulate speaker, factually immaculate, but slightly provocative scholar. After watching parts of his inner self unfold on the screen and in the interview that followed, I add, oddly humorous to that list of adjectives that describe the investigative scholar that is Dr. Norman Finkelstein.

Cinema Politica Stockholm is thankful to Dr. Finkelstein for agreeing to talk to us from New York. His most recent book is titled, “This time we went too far: Truth and Consequences in the Gaza Invasion”. More information on Dr. Finkelstein can be found at his Web site.

Cinema Politica Stockholm organizes free movie screenings of independent political films for students at Stockholm University and the greater Stockholm community.

Sikander Hayat
Board member, Cinema Politica Stockholm