By Mamoon Alabbasi - London
Professor Norman Finkelstein's admirers are familiar with his views, which they share to one degree or another. His critics are unhappy with the 'tone' in which he criticises Israel. As for his foes, they charge 'anti-Semitic' and 'self-hating Jew' - but backed by little evidence.
However, the newly released documentary film American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein sheds much light on the true character of the man who is often found in the middle of controversies.
He is seen as controversial because of the issues he raises and the way he raises them. Finally; a documentary that tells us why.
From early on in his academic life, he challenged the faulty conventional wisdom regarding the Middle East conflict in the US, by showing Joan Peters's widely praised best seller, "From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine", to be not much more than a work of fiction.
After reading Finkelstein's long and detailed review of Peters's book, Professor Noam Chomsky told the then young Norman: "[This article] is very solid. It's a very good topic to study. But if you go into it, do it with eyes open. You are not only going to undermine this book and show that it's a fraud but you're going to undermine the whole US intellectual community."
A pretty controversial start from the outset, one would argue. But why the harsh tone when criticising Israel?
The answer is in the fact that both of his parents were Holocaust survivors, whose family members were exterminated by the Nazis.
"It is precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silenced when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians," he said.
According to a Palestinian friend of his, "the most important thing that made Norman to be this exact person is that his mother telling him that it was so painful, so awful, that while they were going through this difficult situation, being face to face with death every moment in their life, nobody in the whole world cared."
And so Norman never stopped caring.
It's not clear on what do his foes base their accusations against him: he believes in the two-state solution in accordance with international law, and he not only does not deny the Holocaust but seeks to preserve its moral lesson by not allowing others to abuse its memory.
Shrugging off the character assassination attempts against him, Finkelstein makes a simple and to-the-point remark in response to his foes' multiple charges: "The only relevant question is whether what I'm saying is true or false."
But the documentary also shows that Finkelstein's activism has had a positive impact on how Palestinians perceive Americans, Jews and the struggle against Israeli occupation.
"It is very important to have Americans here who want to show that not all the American people are against the Palestinian rights," said one Palestinian refugee in Lebanon following Finkelstein's visit.
A Palestinian boy went even further.
"Norman has enlightened the Palestinian people. We have forgotten some things. We are so concentrated on fighting Israel, but Norman uses diplomacy and we've forgotten that way," he said.
"He gave me a different idea about the Jews. Now I know that not all Jews are Zionists. Not all Jews have the same goal: killing Arabs, among other things. That's the idea he gave me," the boy added.
His passionate compassion with the Palestinians and Lebanese has touched many of the victims of Israeli occupation, who, sensing his sincerity, began to trust him and to have hope in possible peaceful mutual co-existence in the future.
He also does not shy away from criticising some Palestinians which he sees are taking a course of action that would do disservice to their just cause.
Finkelstein's loyalties appear to be dedicated to high human principles, not race or faith. But it comes at a heavy price, not the least of which is his harmed career.
One consolation, though, is unlike Nazi-era Germans who sided with persecuted Jews, he does not have to wait till the war is over to be recognised as a hero. Among true Jewish heroes he may stand out (as do many others), but he certainly does not stand alone.
- Mamoon Alabbasi is an Iraqi news editor based in London. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: [email protected].