Finkelstein and the Holocaust
By Alex Callinicos
A STORM has burst out over The Holocaust Industry, the provocative new book by the left wing New York historian Norman Finkelstein. His target is the now vast effort-reflected in a plethora of museums, institutes, courses, conferences and the like-to commemorate the Nazi murder of 5.1 million Jews.
For Finkelstein the Holocaust is an ideology. He believes that the dominant representation of the Nazis' crimes, particularly in the United States, has got in the way of any serious attempt to understand or remember it. In criticising this representation, Finkelstein follows the lead given by the liberal historian Peter Novick. In his recent book The Holocaust and Collective Memory, Novick argues that the Holocaust only became a major issue even for American Jews in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
For Novick, this shift came as a result of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. Leading American Jews believed that the state of Israel faced a danger comparable to Hitler. Invoking the Holocaust allowed defenders of Israel to portray their opponents as crypto-Nazis. Finkelstein dismisses this explanation, pointing out that Israel was in much greater danger in the 1948 war when the state was founded. He argues that it was Washington's decision after 1967 to treat the Zionist state as a major American strategic asset in the Middle East that was responsible for the change in attitude.
"It was not Israel's alleged weakness and isolation, not the fear of a 'second Holocaust'," he writes, "but rather its proven strength and strategic alliance with the United States that led Jewish elites to gear up the Holocaust industry after June 1967."
A second factor, Finkelstein argues, was the increasing prosperity of American Jews and their corresponding political shift rightwards: "Moving aggressively to defend their corporate and class interests, Jewish elites branded all opposition to their new conservative policies anti-Semitic."
This analysis provides the basis for Finkelstein's scathing attack on the "Holocaust industry". Thus he denounces Nobel Prize winning Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel for turning the Holocaust into "a 'mystery' religion" that he expounds for a standard fee of $25,000 per appearance. Equally dubious, for him, are the efforts by Jewish organisations to win compensation from countries like Germany and Switzerland. Finkelstein claims that in what he calls "the Double Shakedown" the compensation claims are inflated and little of the money reaches genuine Holocaust survivors.
It's hardly surprising, then, that Finkelstein has come under vicious attack. Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian on Friday last week that he was "closer to the people who created the Holocaust than to those who suffered it". Given that both Finkelstein's parents survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi camps, this is an odious accusation.
All the same, in his fury at the American Zionist establishment, Finkelstein does offer enormous hostages to fortune. How different is his assertion that "the field of Holocaust studies is replete with nonsense, if not plain fraud" from the Holocaust revisionist David Irving's rantings during his recent libel case?
Finkelstein manages to praise Irving's "'indispensable' contribution" as a historian. Worse still, he follows Novick in dismissing the significance of Holocaust denial: "There is no evidence that Holocaust deniers exert any more influence in the United States than the flat earth society does." But, whatever may be true in the US, Holocaust denial is a live political issue in Europe. When Jean-Marie Le Pen, who dismissed the Holocaust as "a detail of history", can win 15 percent of the vote in France, and SS sympathiser Jrg Haider can dominate the Austrian government, ignoring Holocaust revisionism is a dangerous luxury.
Worst of all, Finkelstein at times makes concessions to the idea that some Jews at least are partially responsible for anti-Semitism. Thus he approvingly quotes the claim that the World Jewish Congress, in pressing for reparations from East European governments, is "guilty of promoting...a very ugly resurgence of anti-Semitism".
This seems entirely the wrong place to start. To the extent that there is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe, its most obvious cause is the economic and political disruption caused by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes at the end of the 1980s. In this climate it's hardly surprising racists have sought out Jews and others-notably the Roma-as scapegoats, quite independently of the behaviour of these victims.
Finkelstein, like Novick before him, has raised legitimate questions. He has highlighted some ways in which Holocaust commemoration has become a tool of the powerful. But so exaggerated is his polemic that at times he comes, quite contrary to his own intentions, dangerously close to giving comfort to those who dream of new holocausts.