Monday, March 29, 2010

Movie Review: American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

(from the Spring 2010 issue of Illinois Academe)

Note: "American Radical" will be screened @ 6pm on Thursday, April 1, at Chicago's DePaul University in the Student Center room 314A and will include a panel of his former students who will discuss what happened during his tenure process at DePaul and it will follow with an open discussion on academic freedom. It is free and open to the public. “American Radical” will also be shown in Chicago as part of the Palestinian Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center. For more screening info, see the movie's website.

“American Radical” is a powerful new documentary about the limits of open debate in America and in academe. The tenure denial by DePaul University of political science professor Norman Finkelstein marked one of the disturbing attacks on academic freedom in recent years. DePaul openly declared that it was Finkelstein's lack of “Vincentian values” (his rudeness toward other scholars in his research) that led to the dismissal, followed by the ban on having Finkelstein teach in his terminal year.

However, academic freedom is only a small part of “American Radical.” The movie follows Finkelstein as he travels around the world, arguing with his critics.

Finkelstein is a fascinating figure, because of his extraordinary intensity and uncompromising attitudes. He is not always pleasant, at least not to his public critics. But his critics are equally vituperative toward him. He is routinely called “poison”, “self-hating Jew” and even a Holocaust denier despite the massacre of most of his family during the Holocaust.

Although sympathetic to Finkelstein as the focus of the documentary, the film is surprisingly even-handed and offers extensive time to his critics, in public debates and sit-down interviews. Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law Professor who ultimately got Finkelstein fired from DePaul, appears in the movie to declare, “Norman Finkelstein is a classic anti-Semite.” Finkelstein, to his credit, is willing to take on all critics and all arguments.

After one speech, Finkelstein says, “believe me, sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth it.” Today, Finkelstein is banished from academic jobs, and limited to giving speeches around the world. In 2008, Finkelstein was banned from entering Israel for 10 years due to “security concerns.” The Jewish Defense Organization has sought to have Finkelstein evicted by his landlord from his Coney Island apartment, putting up flyers in his neighborhood attacking him.

Finkelstein is only the most prominent of the scholars who have seen jobs disappear and speeches cancelled for their views on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ultimately, “American Radical” paints a complex picture of Norman Finkelstein, but a much more disturbing portrait of academia and the limits of debate.

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