The Economist reviews The Holocaust Industry
August 05, 2000
“The Holocaust Industry: Reflections On The Exploitation Of Jewish Suffering”
By Norman Finkelstein
Verso; 150 pages; Dollars 23 & Pounds 16
EXPLOITING for political purposes Hitler’s genocide of the Jews, the most evil single action in a century rich in evil, is a gut-wrenching thought. If the aim were to make it harder for bestial crimes to be committed against minorities, it would be right to rub our memories and our noses in the foulest of those crimes. But it is not, Norman Finkelstein argues in these explosive little essays, so simple. The exploiters are not interested in other crimes: they make a point of insisting that the Holocaust was unique. Their reasons for keeping it all alive, he contends, are personal, political and economic.
His own credentials are horribly impeccable. His family died in the Holocaust, save for his parents, who survived the Warsaw ghetto, slave labour and concentration camps. They were clearly remarkable people. However much they brooded in private, they refused to allow past horrors to intrude on their children’s lives. His mother, in particular, made her son understand that the suffering of the Jews, however great, was not unique, that vulnerable people the world over have been, and are being, savaged.
Mr Finkelstein’s first target is Jewish-America’s use of the Holocaust in defending Israel; he goes on to lob his grenades at the misuse of the compensation money that is being extracted from European banks and governments. His starting-point is Peter Novick’s scholarly book "The Holocaust in American Life", which questions the way the Holocaust has come to be interpreted in the United States. (Published by Houghton Mifflin and Bloomsbury, it was reviewed in The Economist on October 9th 1999). The intemperate Mr Finkelstein, who teaches at the City University of New York, believes Mr Novick to be too restrained: he himself shouts the unsayable. For many American Jews, there is a lot that is unsayable about the convoluted Israeli-Arab dispute. People who approach the subject with a modicum of even-handedness tend to find themselves in trouble. A handful of American politicians have had their careers ended and all have need to be alert to an implied slur on Israel and/or Jews: witness Hillary Clinton’s current difficulties over a nasty, casual insult allegedly delivered 20 years ago. And however much journalists may shrug off the irritation of being called anti-Semitic, their writing is often not unaffected. Yet, as Mr Finkelstein points out, American-Jewish protectiveness for Israel manifested itself only after Israel was no longer in need of such protection. When Israel was truly vulnerable, in its earliest days, American Jews tended to be ambivalent about the Jewish state, fearing the charge of dual loyalty. Sympathy for Israel was largely the province of frowned-upon left-wingers.
All this changed after Israel’s six-day war against the Arabs in 1967, which showed Israel to be an immeasurably better fighter than its Arab neighbours. It soon became America’s robust ally in the cold war. In the United States itself, anti-Semitic barriers were happily collapsing. But this was the time when memories of the Holocaust were reinvoked, largely, argues Mr Finkelstein, in a successful bid to deflect criticism of Israel’s continuing defiance of UN resolutions that ordered it to withdraw from occupied land. Israel itself has long since stopped playing the "vulnerable little Israel" game; it is right-wing supporters in America that still cry danger.
When he has done with Israel, Mr Finkelstein turns his attentions to the "outright extortion racket" which wrests money, officially for victims of the Holocaust, from Germany, Swiss banks, and elsewhere: Poland is next on the list. He argues that this avid quest for compensation has lost, along the way, all idea of genuine reparations but is driven by fat-cat lawyers and by politicians with an eye on the American Jewish vote. "If everyone who claims to be a survivor actually is one, who did Hitler kill?", asked his mother, who herself received only Dollars 3,500. By contrast, notes Mr Finkelstein, Lawrence Eagleburger, a former secretary of state, earns a salary of Dollars 300,000 as chairman of a commission to do with Holocaust claims.
The money is less now for victims of the Holocaust than for the rehabilitation of Jewish causes. The cash saved from lawyers goes, says Mr Finkelstein, to the pet projects of Jewish leaders, to Holocaust museums and to university chairs in Holocaust studies. Thus the Holocaust bandwagon rolls on, encouraging a much uglier phenomenon, Holocaust denial. But there is no evidence, he argues, that the deniers exert more influence in America than the flat-earth society.
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