“Sometimes I feel that he’s a self-hating Jew,” says a childhood friend of Norman Finkelstein, the controversial author of 2000’s The Holocaust Industry and a fierce critic of what he considers grief exploitation. “He’s certainly a Jew-hating Jew.”
Other voices add to the complexity: an intellectual endorsement from former mentor Noam Chomsky (in a weird Kennedyesque photo, we see the two of them boating); a harsh slam from Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz, a sustained target of Finkelstein’s critiques. Then there’s the subject himself, the child of death-camp survivors. Unrepentant at the podium, he brings even mild-mannered Canadians to tears with his anti-Zionist screeds. He’s a bit of a showboat.
With impressive restraint, the fascinatingly thorny American Radical is less interested in the validity of Finkelstein’s ideas—seriously mounted, if inflammatory—and more in the topsy-turvy life of today’s professional academic. Amazingly, that choice doesn’t result in a boring movie: We see student protests at Chicago’s DePaul University in 2007 after Finkelstein is denied tenure (he’s bounced among five different schools) and sit with the man in the back of a car as he wearily suggests that if his polemics were just about money, he’d be smarter to change fields. His own worst enemy, Finkelstein has both trouble and tragic writ large on his brow.