The Finkelstein Phenomenon: Reflections on the Exploitation of Anti-Jewish Bigotry.
Norman G. Finkelstein has emerged as the most popular Jew in the history of antisemitism. Celebrated by neo-Nazi groups all over the world and a bestselling author in Germany, Finkelstein has publicly announced his discovery that the field of "Holocaust studies" is "mainly a propaganda enterprise," so that "'The Holocaust' is in effect the Zionist account of the Nazi holocaust." (1) Such revelations should come as no surprise when uttered by the favorite disciple of Noam Chomsky, whose central contribution to the study of Nazism has been the assurance--offered while defending the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson--that there are "no antisemitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers." (2)
Attention naturally turns to Finkelstein's latest diatribe and with good reason. In Britain, every major newspaper devoted at least a full page to the book, which was serialized in The Guardian. In France, it received two full pages plus an editorial in Le Monde. In Germany, the reaction was explosive: some 200 journalists attended the book's press launch, while over 130,000 copies were sold in the first few weeks, and three volumes of commentary were issued within months. (3) On publication of the paperback edition, the book was scheduled for translation into sixteen languages, including Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese, Polish, Romanian, Turkish,Japanese, and--of course--Arabic. (4)
What is the source of this morbid fascination?
Finkelstein calls the Holocaust an "ideological representation" whose "central dogmas serve significant political and class interests" (3). He argues that American Jews are the class enemy, ruthless collaborators with capitalism and imperialism, who use the memory of the gas chambers to oppress their victims. The result is a gruesome parody of ethnic self-hatred: "Lording it over those least able to defend themselves: that is the real content of organized American Jewry's reclaimed courage" (38). Furthermore: "By conferring total blamelessness on the Jews, the Holocaust dogma [sic] immunizes Israel and American Jewry from legitimate censure" (52). The Holocaust "dogma" must be overcome, so that the Jews can once again be "censured" with impunity. If Arab extremists wish to annihilate the Israelis, then the Israelis clearly deserve it. If black racists blame the Jews for their problems, then the Jews must be at fault. "Ever chastised, ever innocent," he sneers, "this is the burden of being a Jew" (53).
It should be unnecessary to point out that like most examples of the genre, Finkelstein's tract is riddled with inconsistencies and evasions. He argues that American Jews discovered the Holocaust only after the Six-Day War (9-38), but then he adds that in previous years "the universalist message" of concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim "resonated" among them (54). He is enraged by the fake memoirs of Jerzy Kosinski and Binjamin Wilkomirski (55-62), but he neglects to cast his Gorgon's gaze upon similar fabrications by his comrades on the radical left, such as Rigoberta Menchu and Edward Said. What are we to think of a book which explains that "much of the literature on Hitler's Final Solution is worthless as scholarship" (55), only to announce that "[n]ot all" Holocaust denial is totally useless (71)? And how should we react to an author who can dismiss the work of Deborah Lipstadt (68-71), only to endorse the view that David Irving, the Holocaust denier who sued her in a British court and lost, plays "an indispensable part" in the "historical enterprise" (72)?
The book systematically falsifies quotes and references. Daniel Goldhagen allegedly thinks that Serbian crimes in Kosovo "are, in their essence, different from those of Nazi Germany only in scale" (70). In fact he is referring to Bosnia as well as Kosovo, both of which he explicitly distinguishes from the Holocaust. (5) Guenter Lewy is cited as authority for the claim that the Nazis "murdered as many as a half-million Gypsies" (76). In fact he rejects this figure as baseless. (6) Yehuda Bauer supposedly maintains that the Gypsies "did not fall victim to the same genocidal onslaught as the Jews" (76). In fact he has long held that the Gypsies were victims of genocide. (7) Elie Wiesel is mocked because he claims to have read the works of Kant in Yiddish, when they were never published in that language (82). In fact parts of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason were translated into Yiddish, as Finkelstein has now admitted. (8)
Finkelstein's best-known allegation is that Holocaust reparations are a "double shakedown of European countries as well as legitimate Jewish claimants" (89). It is a cruel argument because it plays on the fears of elderly survivors. It is also self-contradictory: if Jewish claimants have a right to the money, then it has not been stolen from European countries; but if European countries have a right to the money, then it cannot be stolen from Jewish claimants. Given that Finkelstein's "double shakedown" is a logical impossibility, one wonders why anyone takes it seriously. To sample his methods, consider his treatment of the so-called Gribetz Plan for the distribution of $1.25 billion from the Swiss banks ("Postscript to the Paperback Edition," 151-78). He announces a shocking discovery: hidden in the details of the Gribetz Plan is "the devilish reality" that"probably but a small fraction of the Swiss monies" will be paid directly to Holocaust survivors (155). The reader is primed to expect massive documentation of this "devilish reality." So where is it? Finkelstein concedes that from the $1.25 billion fund, $800 million will cover dormant bank accounts, with another $400 million for looted assets, slave labor and refugees. This might be thought to present a certain difficulty for his position. It is instructive to see how he resolves it.
On the $800 million, he says that the actual sum paid out on dormant accounts will be a tiny fraction of this amount, whereas the remainder will go to Jewish groups, not only because "the Holocaust industry" will have the final say, but also because the funds will not be distributed until few actual Holocaust survivors are alive (163-4). Thus Finkelstein admits that money will be paid directly to owners of dormant bank accounts, but speculates--without any evidence at all--that the rest will go to Jewish groups because of the wickedness of"the Holocaust industry." On the $400 million, he is enraged that the money will not be distributed until the relevant appeals are over. Does he seriously expect that money will be irrevocably surrendered while it is still subject to litigation? He predicts that Holocaust survivors will be so determined to appeal that few will be alive to benefit even if they win; meanwhile "the Holocaust industry," already the "main beneficiary" of the Gribetz Plan, can only gain from the delay (165). His guess becomes plausible only if we assume what he has to prove, that Jewish groups are run by heartless profiteers whose only concern is to swindle Holocaust victims, doubtless including their own relatives. The fact is that he has produced no evidence whatsoever.
By playing on these suspicions and innuendoes, Finkelstein is able to conclude (167) that upon "close analysis" the Gribetz Plan "confirms" his argument, i.e. that "probably but a small fraction of the Swiss monies" will be paid directly to Holocaust survivors. But where is the proof of this "devilish reality"--in the "probably"?
Historians furiously denounce the book. According to Professor Omer Bartov, it is "an ideological fanatic's view of other people's opportunism" by a writer who is "reckless and ruthless in his attacks." (9) According to Professor Israel Gutman, it is "a lampoon, which takes a serious subject and distorts it for improper purposes. I don't even think it should be reviewed or critiqued as a legitimate book." (10) According to Professor Hans Mommsen, it is "a most trivial book, which appeals to easily aroused anti-Semitic prejudices." (11)
Who am I to disagree?
(1.) Norman G. Finkelstein, "Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's 'Crazy' Thesis," New Left Review (July/August 1997): 83-4. Needless to say, these insights were removed from the doctored version published in Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (Owl Books, 1998). See also Finkelstein's earlier book, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995), which is distinguished by the exploitation of every conceivable opportunity to compare Israel with Nazi Germany. To take one of many examples, Finkelstein proposes to discredit the Israeli doctrine of "purity of arms" with the argument that its "closest analogue was, ironically, Nazism" (Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, p. 88).
(2.) W. D. Rubinstein, "Chomsky and the neo-Nazis," Quadrant, Australia, October 1981.
(3.) Ernst Piper, ed., Gibt es wirklich eine Holocaust-Industrie? (Pendo, 2001); Petra Steinberger, ed., Die Finkelstein-Debatte (Piper, 2001); Rolf Surmann, ed., Das Finkelstein-Alibi (Papyrossa, 2001).
(4.) Joseph Croitoru, "Holocaust Memories," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 14, 2001; Finkelstein, "Foreword to the Paperback Edition," Holocaust Industry, p. vii.
(5.) Daniel J. Goldhagen, "A New Serbia," New Republic, May 17, 1999.
(6.) Guenter Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 221-2.
(7.) Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (Yale University Press, 2002), p. 66.
(8.) Viktor Frike, "Shoah Business," Salon.com, August 30, 2000.
(9.) Omer Bartov, "A Tale of Two Holocausts," New York Times, August 6, 2000.
(10.) Yair Sheleg, "The Finkelstein Polemic," Ha'aretz Magazine, March 30, 2001.
(11.) Yair Sheleg, "The Finkelstein Polemic," Ha'aretz Magazine, March 30, 2001.
PAUL BOGDANOR is a freelance writer living in London. He has previously been published in the Jewish Chronicle.
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|Title Annotation:||The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering|
|Publication:||Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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