Anti-Semitism--and Not Very Good Anti-Semitism at That

There's Holocaust criticism that opens our eyes anew--and then there's cliche and paranoia

The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering

By Norman G. Finkelstein

Verso, 150 pp.

Two years ago, no one had heard of Norman Finkelstein. He was a lonely left-wing professor at the City University of New York, exercised over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Then he wrote an essay in a book called "A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth."

Finkelstein's essay excoriated Harvard historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and his best-seller, "Hitler's Willing Executioners" (1996). Goldhagen's thesis--that ordinary Germans, not just Nazis, readily complied in the slaughter of European Jewry--had already undergone withering criticism by respected historians such as Omer Bartov. But Finkelstein had his own critique, which he advanced in an inflammatory review of "Executioners" for a left-wing British journal. Goldhagen's book, Finkelstein claimed, was pure Zionist propaganda; his aim was to tar all gentiles as murderous so as to bolster support for an immoral Jewish state.

As Goldhagen rocketed to renown, Finkelstein clung to his coattails. He repackaged his book review for an American audience; Henry Holt published it in "A Nation on Trial." When a few American Jewish leaders criticized Holt for endorsing what they considered anti-Semitic cant, Finkelstein parlayed the ensuing controversy into his 15 minutes of fame.


Now Finkelstein returns with "The Holocaust Industry," a variation on his anti-Goldhagen broadside. Again he has recycled a book review into a book (though at 150 small pages, some blank, not much of one). This time he goes after "The Holocaust and American Life" (1999), by the esteemed University of Chicago historian Peter Novick.

Novick's book--itself more polemic than history--had serious shortcomings but made some important points. In a tone more mischievous than bitter, Novick suggested that the Holocaust has become dangerously central to American Jewish identity. He argued that in today's culture of victimology, where suffering confers virtue, Jews have interpreted the Holocaust as a claim to a share of the multicultural spoils. While his argument carried some unsavory overtones, Novick was clearly writing from a desire to protect the memory of the Holocaust, not to discount it.

Not so Finkelstein. As before, he attempts here to piggyback on another man's ideas and celebrity to vent his own extreme views. In "The Holocaust Industry," he has taken the parts of Novick's treatise that support his own ideology--mainly its assertion that the Holocaust has been used politically--recast them in less temperate language, and discarded the rest. The upshot: a hate-filled screed against powerful "Jewish elites" who connive to exploit the Holocaust in order to succor Israel and line their own pockets.

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