Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 8, 2010

American Radical: the trials of Norman Finkelstein

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,middle east — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.

This observation by Frankfurt school luminary Max Horkheimer would serve as an epigraph to the new documentary on Norman Finkelstein that opens on February 11th at the Anthology Film Archives Theater in New York. While the trials of Norman Finkelstein are interesting enough in and of themselves to warrant attending this powerful film, what stands out above all is the force of Finkelstein’s personality that is captured by co-directors David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier. In an age of banality and anti-heroes, Finkelstein is virtually Byronesque even if rendered with a Yiddish accent.

I first got a sense of Finkelstein’s on-screen charisma in a 2009 documentary titled Defamation that included a scene with Norman at his building out in the Coney Island neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he upbraids the director for suggesting that Norman tone down his rhetoric, especially when it comes to likening Israeli leaders to Hitler. With biting irony, Finkelstein reminds him that all Israeli politicians call each other Nazis when the opportunity arises. But it his facial expressions, hand gestures and ringing voice that make the scene as memorable as his words. If an actor such as Dustin Hoffman auditioned for a role playing Norman Finkelstein, I doubt that he could be half as compelling as the former professor himself.

The question of “going too far” runs like a red thread throughout the new film. Although the directors, veterans of leftwing documentaries, are obviously sympathetic to Norman’s views, they make sure to include interviewees who openly question some of his decisions. For example, Noam Chomsky states that it was probably a mistake to focus on Dershowitz’s plagiarism rather than the issues of Israel and Palestine. In my view, his decision to pursue this line of attack had a lot to do with his outrage over Dershowitz’s much ballyhooed academic reputation, which could only be a painful reminder of his own problems merely getting a tenured position. We learn that in 2001 Norman Finkelstein was only making $18,000 per year at Hunter College in New York. When he came out with “The Holocaust Industry” that year, Hunter demanded that he take a reduced workload and lower pay. After refusing, he took another job at Depaul University in Chicago where pressure from Alan Dershowitz and the Israeli lobby resulted in his being refused tenure, despite the overwhelming vote in favor from the faculty.

The movie fills in just enough biographical detail so that Norman’s tendency to stick his neck out becomes understandable. He says that he takes after his mother who, like his father, was a concentration camp survivor and a participant in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Unlike many such survivors, the experience left her politically engaged and vehemently anti-war. When the war in Vietnam began, she used to explode at the senselessness and brutality of the war continuously. Her outspokenness obviously had a big impact on Norman who was radicalized during the war.

In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon for the first time, the 29-year-old Princeton PhD graduate began demonstrating at the Israeli embassy in New York on a daily basis. You can see a photo of him in the film with a poster likening the invasion to Nazi barbarism, a first sign of the militancy that would turn him into a target of the Zionist movement in the U.S. From this early gut reaction against Israeli aggression, he turned into a scholarly critic of Zionism with a critique of a book by Joan Peters that essentially denied that the Palestinians lived in the land that Israel conquered. Chomsky contacted him at the time and developed a warm and supportive relationship with Norman that lasts until this day. Finkelstein states that Chomsky helped him with the conceptual framework for his Middle East analysis, if not his willingness to speak truth to power.

Although the movie does not spend any time at all on biographical material, except obviously for the role of his parents’ experience in Nazi death camps in shaping his worldview, you get a strong sense that his politics are all-consuming, even to the point of fostering a monastic existence. He lives in one of the most untrendy neighborhoods in all of New York, but one that he loves. His life revolves around research and traveling to campuses far and wide, where he gives talks on Israel to audiences that are sure to include people determined to shout him down. Things have reached a point that the Jewish Defense Organization, a crypto-fascist outfit, has plastered leaflets around his building demanding that his landlord evict him.

With his strong Yiddish accent and glowering but affectionate disposition, Finkelstein is a true prophet of the Jewish people. Refusing to bow down to officialdom, he speaks tirelessly on behalf of the Palestinians, who, as they were in the time of the fictions depicted in the Old Testament, are regarded as little more than vermin by the tribe that calls itself “the chosen people”.

As a modern day Jeremiah, Finkelstein is reminding Israel of something the prophet said long ago:

For thus hath the LORD of hosts said: hew ye down her trees, and cast up a mound against Jerusalem; this is the city to be punished; everywhere there is oppression in the midst of her.  As a cistern welleth with her waters, so she welleth with her wickedness; violence and spoil is heard in her; before Me continually is sickness and wounds. Be thou corrected, O Jerusalem, lest My soul be alienated from thee, lest I make thee desolate, a land not inhabited.

Norman Finkelstein website

Movie website


26 Comments »

  1. Great post. I caught a screening of the film several months ago in Amsterdam. I too was disturbed by the last bit of the film that describes how the Jewish Defense Organization is trying to get him evicted. Such a group may cloth itelf in self-righteousness, but their tactics–posting leaflets and villifying Finkelstein–most closely resemble those of European anti-Semites.

    Comment by Greg — February 9, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  2. Does the film also address Finkelstein´s advocacy for Hezbollah, and therefore his opposition
    to the Left? I guess this is why the film uses the generic term “radical” rather than “Left”, since he supports the Lebanese right-wing?

    Comment by schalomlibertad — February 9, 2010 @ 9:44 am

  3. Finkelstein is a moral and intellectual force. I’ve been at two of his lectures – one before, one after the tenure saga – and found his command of his material to be quite impressive.

    Well worth hearing is his lecture on Gandhi, which can be found on his website.

    Comment by jp — February 9, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

  4. Could you explain “The left”? Can you explain criticism of Hezbollah. For instance: was the left in Lebanon not fighting with Hezbollah in 2006? What did it actually do?

    Comment by Bob — February 9, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  5. Good questions. I think one would have to stretch the category of “the Left” pretty far for it to include support for Hezbollah’s in the war. Guess that’s why the label “radical” is so attractive – everything fits in it.

    Comment by schalomlibertad — February 10, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

  6. Your answer is pretty empty. You could portray his reasoning and comparisons. And then tell about the scope of his support. And some info on the left in Lebanon would be welcome.

    I am writing this because of an article at Indymedia about Noam Chomsky by Venezoalan anarchists that was an all out attack without any arguments in the text and a sick caricature that stated that Chomsky supported Pol Pot.

    Show me some reasoning and proof.

    Comment by Bob — February 11, 2010 @ 10:09 am

  7. Your argument with Venezuelan anarchists and Noam Chomsky has nothing to do with this thread.

    Finkelstein’s solidarity and respect for Hezbollah is widely known. You can see him expressing his full subservience and dogmatic reasoning here in this interview for example, where he begins by saying: “I was of course happy to meet the Hezbollah people … and I have no problem in saying that I do want to express solidarity with them.” (source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDe65-nF3FQ)

    I expect his support for Hezbollah is already known by his fans.

    If the “We are all Hezbollah” mob wants to criticize sections of the Left for too easily accommodating itself to arguments about “humanitarian interventionism” and the like, why shouldn’t they be just as critical of war-mongering “resistance” movements?

    I don’t think leftists should satisfy themselves with contradicting their principles just to have the illusion that they are making alliances, and to sacrifice emancipatory objectives in the alliance with reactionary groups under the label “radical.”

    Comment by schalomlibertad — February 11, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  8. It was my understanding that Finkelstein’s support of Hezbullah was limited to their resistance to the Israeli invasion and the continued occupation of Lebanese land. One of the reasons it may be hard to find Finkelstein expounding on these views is the fact that Lebanese politics is of little interest to him. His work has focused primarily on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. Any attempt to make his comments on Hezbullah (which may indeed be regrettable) the focus of attention is simply a distraction.

    Comment by Greg — February 11, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

  9. A distraction from what? During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Leftists struggled to find a position, or at least an adequate understanding. Taking a position of solidarity with Hezbollah’s — or with Israel’s — involvement in the war, closes off such possibilities, of developing a left analysis, which are sorely lacking in regards to the “Arab-Israeli conflict.” I don’t think we should settle for sensationalist stories about the hardships of so-called “radicals.” I think we should work harder to develop emancipatory positions rather than accept or be “distracted” by Finkelstein.

    Comment by schalomlibertad — February 11, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

  10. I think the film is really good but where the filmmakers were not very good is when they misrepresented Finkelstein’s analysis of Hisbollah.
    Finklestein said three things about Hizbollah that are not in the film.

    – He admitted he would not do well living in a country under their leadership.
    – He does not care about them as a poltical organization – the lebanese people should decide about them!!
    – He cared about them because they were able to defend Lebanon’s invasion from Israel (in 2006 90% of Lebanese supported Hizbollah in the first 3 weeks of the Israels’invasion). So he sees them as balancing force to Israel’s might and considers that only that will refrain
    Israel from continuing agressions in the region.

    Comment by Moshe — February 11, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  11. “He does not care about them as a poltical organization – the lebanese people should decide about them!!”

    And how does he treat the interviewer, who offers a different opinion, saying that the war could have been avoided? In a patronizing way, saying that she doesn’t have any self-respect, etc. He believes there is no alternative to war, and therefore plays into the heroic narrative of militarism. How does he then respect the Lebanese? How does he let them decide on their own? He already said that the only respectable Lebanese are those who “die on their feet.” He justifies this fatalist position by referring to WWII and red army. These comparisons don’t make any sense. He rambles on about the Lebanese becoming the “slaves of the Americans and Israelis” if they don’t go to war. Since when do such arrogant and reductionistic positions, pushed by Western “radicals” becoming legitimate in the eyes of Leftists?

    “He cared about them because they were able to defend Lebanon’s invasion from Israel”

    If Hezbollah was able to defend Lebanon, than how come so much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed, and how come such high numbers of civilian casualties? Such defense is much more of a myth than a reality. Unless you really believe that the Americans and Israelis wanted (in Summer 06) to “turn the Lebanese into slaves.” That kind of hyperbole doesn’t help anyone. Which is why I think Finkelstein’s contributions to the Left, or to the Lebanese for that matter, are highly problematic.

    Comment by schalomlibertad — February 11, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

  12. “He admitted he would not do well living in a country under their leadership.” then, in my book, it’s strange to support them. and about having “the people” decide over them – I mean, come on – the Iranians chose Chomeini instead of the communists, or the American people chose Bush over Gore & Kerry. should people not from Iran or USA shut up about that, too? where does this idea come from that your passport makes you more or less insightful about the politics of a certain country?

    I think this strategic tip-toeing about, always looking for the lesser evil, some other enemy’s enemy, withholding critique because it could hurt “the cause” is wrong

    Comment by PfromGermany — February 11, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

  13. For people puzzled by the intervention of schalomlibertad and PfromGermany, they are manifestations of a the pro-Israel “anti-German” current on the German left that has been explored in some depth here:

    http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/2006w24/msg00284.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — February 11, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

  14. no, I’m not. I do support neither Israel, nor the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Comment by PfromGermany — February 11, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  15. Why should one be puzzled to see leftists criticizing alliances with nationalist, militarist movements? And why should one think that critiques of nationalism stem from the relatively recent emergence of the anti-Germans? Leftist critiques of nationalism are a little bit older than a couple decades, wouldn’t you say?

    Comment by schalomlibertad — February 11, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

  16. Leftist critiques of nationalism are a little bit older than a couple decades, wouldn’t you say?

    Maybe so, but it is singularly mischievous to put Israeli nationalism and Palestinian nationalism on the same plane. Marx defended Irish nationalism against the nationalism of the British Empire. Lenin generalized this approach in his various post-1914 writings.

    You, of course, are free to stake out a different position.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 11, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

  17. Who was speaking about Palestinian nationalism?

    Comment by schalomlibertad — February 11, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  18. Oh please, schalomlibertad (btw, it is spelled shalom), your website is littered with garbage from Workers Liberty, a British sect that is infamous for its defense of Israel, including opposition to boycotts, etc.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 11, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

  19. Why are you throwing the discussion into the trash, sidetracking it with accusations about which movement I or other posters might be part of, making accusations about a supposed equalization of palestinian and israeli nationalisms, and now insinuating that I am part of Workers’ Liberty, simply because I posted an interview of theirs with Moishe Postone? Why not stick to the topic?

    Comment by schalomlibertad — February 11, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  20. Marx defended Irish nationalism against the nationalism of the British Empire. Lenin generalized this approach in his various post-1914 writings.

    I know that. but I’m critical if it’s the right approach.

    take China, for example. bascially, the Chinese communists decided to to introduce capitalism because they thought it would be better for their ambitions of national greatness – in the End, they put the Chinese nation above the goal of a communist revolution. and I believe that to be the logical outcome if communist movements allgin themselves with national movements.

    you can’t have your cake and it eat. either “The workers don’t have a fatherland.” or they do!

    I think history has repeatedly shown that this classical Marxist-Leninist approach doesn’t work

    Comment by PfromGermany — February 11, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  21. It’s clearly and demonstrably a superior approach to that of yourself and ‘schalomlibertad’ which is to pretend that the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressor are the same, and then mumble a few phrases from Marx to justify yourself. It’s harder to think of a more puerile and self-indulgent form of posturing to pretend that a racist, expansionist state like Israel is no different from those forces resisting it.

    Comment by James O — February 12, 2010 @ 1:46 am

  22. That´s your approach? To reduce a multifaceted political conflict to a battle between a “nationalism of the oppressed” and a “nationalism of the oppressor.” And to wave the flag of the “oppressed nationalists.” Wow, very thoughtful.

    Comment by schalomlibertad — February 12, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  23. Sometimes Finkelstein is brilliant and sometimes he is just controversial for the sake of it because he likes to be a contrarian.
    That is his right but it is just not really helping the cause of a two state solution. So I would say he is sadly not Palestine’s best advocate.
    Once you are in a niche you can’t get out really. I wish he had a personal advisor. Maybe even if he had he would
    not really follow any advice.
    Having said that his contribution to the field are major and recognized by the best.

    Comment by Moshe — February 12, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  24. I do not find Finkelstein to be at all a contrarian – he is extremely consistent in his viewpoint.

    Comment by jp — February 12, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

  25. I think people like Finkelstein (the angry arab blogger comes to mind) who are supporting a struggle to “free” (the kind of freedom one would get from hamas or hezbollah – really so much better than the zionist occupation?) all of palestine are delusional. at this moment in time, the palestinians can’t do better than have a state behind the green line. trying everything else will only lead to more deaths on the palestinian side. advising palestinians to support groups that launch rockets into israel amounts to recommend suicide

    Comment by bigmouth — February 13, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  26. Pardon me bigmouth,

    You give a false representation of Finkelsteins standpoint on a solution of the occupation. He supports a two state solution on the green line. He points out that Irael never proposed a reasonable solution based on the priciples of international law (forbidding acquiring territory through aggression, moving population into occupied territory, changing the economic system, recognizing the right of return of refugees). But what is there to talk about when Israel even denies the basic principles?

    And he supports the right to resist. But not in the way you portray. Violence is not a strategy to him. And you could have known that. So why did you portray it in that way.

    Comment by bob — February 13, 2010 @ 1:02 pm


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