Dec 22, 2010

A Jewish Prophet for a Christian Season

Off to the Tatras Mountains with my young friend, Mike, to spend Christmas with his lovely family - his somewhat gruff,  uncommunicative,  but rather sweet father (sporting the classic walrus mustache that is characteristic of virile men in Slovak and Poland), his gracious, friendly, effervescent mother who holds the only paying job in the family, and his saintly, bedridden grandmother who exudes an aura of holiness, peace and love to all who come to visit her. It is an atmosphere one breathes the moment one steps foot into her tiny bedroom with it's many icons of the Virgin on the wall. Even though I've only met her three times, she grasps my hand and holds it the entire time I'm in the room, as if I'm one of her long lost sons.  She searches my face and eyes for evidence of ... of what I don't know ... when she is speaking to me, but the intensity of her gaze convinces me that every person she encounters is God to her, whom she worships and adores. However, she knows that I am a religious man with a devotion to Our Lady of Litmanova and she hopes I will draw Michael into this  same sphere of  supernatural light. Goodness and holiness like this are so rare in this world, and this remarkable woman discovered her path to holiness through the folk religion of Slovak Catholicism, with it's passionate devotion to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

With Michael's parents Christmas last year, Liptovsky Mikulas, Slovakia.

On another note, as a prelude to Christmas, this evening I watched the documentary, American Radical, The Trials of Norman Finkelstein, a radical Jewish intellectual whom I much admire for his courageous criticism of Israel and the Israeli lobby in the US. He has suffered much for his views,  including losing tenure at De Paul University, despite the overwhelming vote of the faculty in his favor, but in that he is similar to another Jewish prophet from long ago, put to death amidst fanatical cries for his extinction. A simple google search will unearth a disturbing amount of hate directed towards him as a "self hating Jew, supporter of Terrorism, nasty piece of work." And on and on it goes, the hysteria, the fanaticism, the blindness - while Finkelstein himself keeps on plodding, witnessing to the truth as he sees it, the truth of a radically unjust world whose injustice demands radical solutions - with no teaching position now available to him.

One such bizarre example I discovered is a site for wine, with the following pithy comment about Finkelstein:
 Taken from Jewlicious

As you all know, I’ve caught a bit of flack for running an ad for Norman Finkelstein’s new book. Finkelstein is one of the most noxious anti-Israel voices out there, beloved of supporters of terror and a nasty piece of work in general. Today, running that ad has paid off!

How sad to see such blindness and how difficult to counteract it. The documentary was a sober reminder for me of the profound seriousness of this issue and puts into clear context all of our narrower concerns for the radical reform of Catholicism (though I don't think the policy of Catholic Charities to deny condoms to abused women in Africa is a small scandal).

For those not familiar with him, here is a link to the film's website and a review:

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.