Noam Chomsky reveres him. Leon Wieseltier hates him. Alan Dershowitz called him an anti-Semite and applied successful pressure to deny him tenure at DePaul University. All of this will give you a rough idea of where political scientist Norman Finkelstein stands on the political spectrum, though “American radical” may be a misnomer for an intellectual whose life, thought, and rhetoric have been forcefully shaped by a mother whose concentration-camp experience turned her into a fiery booster for every available underdog.
Directors David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier mean to redress calumnies heaped on Finkelstein, author of the book The Holocaust Industry, which accuses Israel (whose existence he supports) and its Diaspora Jewish supporters of playing the Holocaust-victim card in order to divert attention from the oppression of Palestinians. Finkelstein is partly right, but American Radical shows—albeit with great reluctance—how a formidable intellect partnered with an absolutist disposition can get you absolutely nowhere.
With the eyes of a suffering fanatic and the rising squeal of a voice augmenting his hysteria, Finkelstein calls Jewish preoccupation with the Holocaust “an extortion racket” and announces to a delighted audience of Arab students that “it was a good thing Hezbollah delivered a huge defeat to Israel” in 2006. It never seems to occur to this born martyr that his overkill might lose him the support of Israeli peaceniks like Yoav Shamir, whose 2009 documentary Defamation shows sympathy for Finkelstein, until Shamir catches him on camera summing up Anti-Defamation League leader Abraham Foxman with a Nazi salute.