"American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein" is a cautiously respectful documentary portrait of a political firebrand who presents himself as a beacon of moral truth in the murk of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A scholar, author and passionate advocate of the Palestinian cause, Mr. Finkelstein, 56, is a thorn in the side of the Israel lobby.
Early in the film, directed by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, Mr. Finkelstein is shown at a 1982 rally in front of the Israeli consulate in New York carrying a poster urging "Israeli Nazis" to "stop the Holocaust in Lebanon," referring to the Israeli invasion of that country. Until he was banned from traveling to Israel, he paid regular visits to Palestinian friends on the West Bank. He is a supporter of Hezbollah.
Mr. Finkelstein's inflammatory rhetoric has earned him many powerful enemies, most notably the civil liberties lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, whose book "The Case for Israel" Mr. Finkelstein has called a fraud, accusing the author of plagiarism. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, describes Mr. Finkelstein as "poison: a disgusting self-hating Jew." Even Mr. Finkelstein's political ally Noam Chomsky questioned his judgment in picking some of his fights.
Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Finkelstein explains in the film that he inherited his temperament from his mother, Maryla Husyt Finkelstein. Both Maryla and Mr. Finkelstein's father, Zacharias, were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and of concentration camps. His father was interned in Auschwitz, his mother in Majdanek.
From Maryla, Mr. Finkelstein says that he inherited the conviction that Jews have a special obligation to ease the suffering of humanity because of what was done to them, and that it is not enough to pay lip service to one's convictions; they must be acted on. A childhood friend remembers her emotional investment in left-wing humanitarian causes as bordering on hysteria. Mr. Finkelstein recalls that as his notoriety spread, she came to feel he had taken her too literally and become a "Frankenstein's monster" on a path toward self-destruction.
The film chronicles the controversies in which Mr. Finkelstein has become embroiled, beginning with his attack on Joan Peters's widely praised 1984 best seller, "From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine," which he denounced as a hoax. In a television interview after the publication of his best-known book, "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering" (2000), he declares, "A handful of American Jews have effectively hijacked the Nazi Holocaust to blackmail Europe" and "divert attention to what is being done to the Palestinians."
The cost of Mr. Finkelstein's outspokenness has been steep. In 2001 he left Hunter College, where he had taught for nine years, after his teaching load and salary were reduced. He was subsequently hired by DePaul University in Chicago, where he became an assistant professor of political science. But in 2007 his bid for tenure, opposed by Mr. Dershowitz — who called him "a propagandist" and "not a teacher" — was denied, despite strong on-campus support.
Because it is a film, "American Radical" can only begin to sketch the complicated historical and political debates that engage Mr. Finkelstein and his detractors, but it allows both sides to make their cases. In his more reflective moments Mr. Finkelstein demonstrates an acute analytical intelligence and even an inkling of humor. "Speaking as a devoutatheist, thank God in his Almighty wisdom that he made us mortal," he says.
But he also appears to be a man who reflexively rises to the bait: a strident polemicist who, however right or wrong, has chosen to travel a long, hard road.