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.
The book's defects appear on every page: misstatements of fact, faulty logic, abuse of evidence, and megalomania (Finkelstein dwells on the public reaction to his last book). To systematically vet this tirade would grant the book a legitimacy it doesn't deserve.
It's instructive, however, to examine the differences between Novick's work and Finkelstein's. Novick saw no malign motives in current attitudes toward the Holocaust. They stemmed organically, he suggested, from our era's emphasis on multiculturalism, changes in religious observance and Israel's security, the intensity of anti-Semitism in society, and much else. Rejecting this thoughtful argument, Finkelstein adopts a conspiratorial one: The Holocaust has assumed symbolic power because of the machinations of a coterie of sinister American Jews.
Finkelstein melds two strains of political paranoia. One, common to far-left thinkers, sees all global conflict as resulting from American imperialism. A second locates money-hungry Jews at the root of various international plots. The latter (uglier) conspiracy surfaces most blatantly during Finkelstein's discussion of the effort to win reparations for Holocaust survivors and reclaim assets Jews had deposited in Swiss banks before and during World War II. In his telling, the nefarious "Holocaust industry" runs an "outright extortion racket," shaking down innocent Swiss banks and German firms for loot.
Indeed, a conspiratorial worldview underpins this book. In trying to explain the rise in Holocaust writings after the Yom Kippur War, Finkelstein writes, in a typical sentence: "To increase Israel's negotiating leverage the Holocaust industry increased production quotas"--as if to change the political attitudes, scholarly interests, and everyday concerns of millions required just a signal from on high.
Likewise, he portrays the lawsuits against Swiss banks as the doings of the Jewish liquor tycoon Edgar Bronfman (eager to augment his $3 billion net worth) and New York Sen. Al D'Amato (courting Jewish money and votes). In Finkelstein's account, Bronfman's World Jewish Congress "working with...the gamut of Holocaust institutions mobilized the entire U.S. political establishment. From President Clinton, who buried the hatchet with D'Amato, ... through 11 agencies of the federal government as well as the House and Senate, down to state and local governments across the country, bipartisan pressures were brought to bear as one public official after another lined up to denounce the perfidious Swiss."
Jews call the tune, the world dances.
For good measure, Finkelstein quotes approvingly a critic of the lawsuits: "[I]t is easy to understand why many Swiss believe their country was the victim of an international conspiracy."
And so it goes, page after page. What this adds up to is pseudo-scholarship, extreme anti-Israel ideology and--there is no way around it--anti-Semitism. And it stinks.