Finkelstein’s Follies: The Dangers of Vulgar Anti-Zionism
From New Interventions, Vol.10 No.2, 2000
NORMAN Finkelstein’s new book, The Holocaust Industry, does no service to the left, to Jews or to genuine anti-fascists of any variety. Objectively, this book, whose very title echoes the rhetoric of Holocaust denial rather in the way that the phrase ‘race relations industry’ is a hallmark of all British racists, provides considerable comfort to every Holocaust denier, neo-Nazi and anti-Semite on the face of the planet. It was no accident that the Evening Standard I bought on my way home from Finkelstein’s book launch in Bookmarks (where his presentation had somewhat disingenuously barely mentioned his third, longest and most controversial chapter) in July contained a ‘Diary’ item in which David Irving expressed his pleasure that Finkelstein had vindicated him against his critics.
To say that Finkelstein’s work, published in England in the immediate aftermath of the Irving trial and, despite the court judgement, and more importantly for someone claiming to be a serious historian, the conclusions of Richard Evans, Britain’s leading historian of modern Germany, both of whom Finkelstein ignores, containing some qualified praise for Irving, drawn at second-hand from the non-Jewish conservative historian Gordon Craig (pp.70-1), was bound to be seized upon by the far right, is not to argue that the predominant interpretation of the Holocaust in the USA, memorialised by the US Holocaust Museum in Washington and similar institutions, should not be criticised. Far from it. A memorialisation of the Holocaust that adopts a narrow Zionist focus rather than a universalist and anti-fascist one has many problems.
The questions that Peter Novick raised in his much longer and far more carefully considered work first published in 1999 in the USA as The Holocaust in American Life, and reissued a year later in Britain under the slightly misleading title of The Holocaust and Collective Memory, are perfectly legitimate ones, and deserve serious discussion. It is indeed very far from self-evident why the Holocaust, which only directly affected a very small fraction of the three per cent of the US population ultimately descended from European Jewry, should have assumed such a central place in American life, probably achieving greater cultural prominence than it has in either Israel or Germany, the two countries most directly affected by the event in terms of links with the victims in the former case, and the perpetrators in the latter. Moreover, it is doubly strange that this focus on the Holocaust should have occurred in the USA so belatedly, not in the late 1940s or early 1950s in the aftermath of the US liberation of Western Europe which brought the first pictures of Belsen and Buchenwald to the world, but in the last three decades.
Novick’s book is a serious and scholarly attempt to answer these questions, resting on years of research and reflection, in sharp contrast to Finkelstein’s hastily-written pamphlet which from internal evidence seems to have been cobbled together between January and April 2000 in response to Novick – whose book Finkelstein had reviewed for the London Review of Books (6 January 2000) – rather than out of some longstanding interest in the phenomenon. Some criticisms of Novick’s position, which is left-liberal and non-Marxist, or of his views on particular issues, can of course be made, and it could be argued that Finkelstein raises some intelligent, plausible but not necessarily conclusive objections to parts of Novick’s thesis in his ‘Introduction’ and his first chapter, ‘Capitalizing the Holocaust’, even if Finkelstein rapidly undermines these objections by the intemperate and patronising tone he adopts in debating with the more serious scholar, whom he dismisses as belonging ‘to the venerable American tradition of muckraking’ (p.4), as if Novick were a mere journalist.
Finkelstein intermittently poses as a rigorous Marxist theoretician concerned with ‘power’, ‘interests’ and ‘ideology’, contemptuously remarking: ‘Novick’s central analytical category is "memory". Currently all the rage in ivory towers "memory" is the most impoverished concept to come down from the academic pike in a long time.’ (p.5)
Finkelstein, who as brief asides in his critique of Goldhagen, co-written with Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (New York, 1998), showed, has always been contemptuous of the value of oral sources for the history of the Holocaust, seems to have next to no knowledge of the extensive literature on memory, whether collective or individual, that has been a by-product of the growth of oral history over the last 25 years or so, so this attack seems to be gratuitous abuse without any substantial theoretical or empirical underpinning. In any case, such lofty condescension about methodology ill-becomes Finkelstein, given that his own work soon degenerates into a journalistic rant that frequently lacks a coherent structure, particularly in the longest and worst chapter, ‘The Double Shakedown’, a bizarre paean to Swiss bankers and German industrialists that is notable for its lack of any real conceptual rigour, to which I will return in due course.
Novick discusses the role of the American Jewish organisations such as the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League in shaping views of the Holocaust in America over recent decades, and traces the interconnection between their attitudes to the Holocaust and their attitudes to Israel, especially after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. Without analysing Novick’s arguments at length – which would be inappropriate in what is intended as a critique of Finkelstein – it is striking that Novick never descends into conspiracy theory, accepting the place of unintended consequences in all historical developments, and situates the major shifts in American Jewish life in the much more general context of the recent trends in American culture that favour identity politics and a collective pride in the experience of victimisation that contrasts markedly with an earlier ethos that was much more universalist and assimilationist and which emphasised success and not showing one’s weaknesses.
A Crude Polemic
However, as the book progresses, any initial sympathy one might have had with Finkelstein as a leftist engaged in an unequal battle with the American Zionist establishment vanishes. My initial assessment – influenced by the views put forward by Alex Callinicos on behalf of the Socialist Workers Party, which having very publicly endorsed Finkelstein’s critique of Goldhagen two years ago at Marxism 1998, now felt some need to distance itself from him in the light of the Irving trial and the London nail bombings – that Finkelstein’s judgement of the European situation had been warped by his years with the Palestinians on the West Bank, which had led him to see Zionism as the main enemy rather than merely an enemy, and that his curt dismissal of the Holocaust deniers as an insignificant grouping whose importance had been inflated by Deborah Lipstadt and other writers close to the Zionist organisations (a dismissal in which he echoed Novick’s views) was a product of the very American ignorance of the link between Holocaust denial and the European fascist hard core, who attracted a far wider periphery with other forms of anti-immigrant racism, now strikes me as too mild. In short, I can no longer concur with the SWP view that Finkelstein is a comrade who is mistaken, and whose work was undertaken in good faith even if it ends up serving the enemy. Indeed, having enthusiastically promoted Finkelstein when he was pushing his largely legitimate critique of Goldhagen, the SWP is now recoiling from his larger project. Mike Simons’ review of The Holocaust Industry (Socialist Review, September 2000) shares many of my criticisms of it, but is written more in sorrow than in anger. The judgement of Finkelstein made by the Zionist intellectual Leon Wieselter, and reported by Finkelstein himself on page 66 – ‘You don’t know who Finkelstein is. He’s poison, he’s a disgusting self-hating Jew, he’s something you find under a rock!’ – became a lot easier to understand by the time I finished the book!
With ever increasing frequency, the overall tone of Finkelstein’s work becomes increasingly reminiscent of a neo-Nazi tract; no non-Jewish anti-Stalinist left-wing opponent of Zionism would ever dare to indulge in such blatant anti-Semitic stereotyping, at least in Europe and the USA, although such a discourse would be widespread in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and might find an echo in one strange British sect originating in the Stalinist milieu (whose rentier theoretician was once the youth organiser of the ultra-Stalinist New Communist Party) that has become notorious for its convoluted apologias for Irving and Le Pen. By citing the fraudulent Holocaust memoirs of Kosinski and Wilkomirski (the latter being the nom-de-plume of a Swiss Gentile masquerading as a Polish Jew) in a fair amount of detail (pp.55-62) immediately after making the general observation that ‘indeed, the field of Holocaust studies is replete with nonsense, if not sheer fraud’ (p.55), Finkelstein could easily lead the unwary reader to suppose (and one suspects this might be intentional) that all, or at least the vast majority, of survivors’ accounts are totally fraudulent, a notion that fits in easily with Irving’s view of survivors as fraudsters that was aired during his trial and in videos of his North American tour. There is no attempt by Finkelstein to convey the awkward fact that these two notorious hoaxes are an insignificant proportion of the dozens, if not hundreds, of perfectly straightforward reminiscences, whose literary and historical value vary widely in the same way as examples of any other autobiographical genre would, but are in no sense conscious falsifications, whatever distortions of memory they may contain. Incidentally, the willingness of respected authorities like Wiesel and Gutman (both of whom had survived the death camps) to give credence to Kosinski or Wilkomirski can be paralleled by the equal credulity of mainstream academics faced with the so-called Hitler Diaries, most notably Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had not only written The Last Days of Hitler, but was the author of a fine biographical study of a notorious forger. Therefore, one does not need to resort to an elaborate conspiracy theory as Finkelstein does when he writes, listing Jewish-sounding names like an anti-Dreyfusard pamphleteer in the grip of a paranoid frenzy: ’Consider, finally, the pattern: Wiesel and Gutman supported Goldhagen; Wiesel supported Kosinski; Gutman and Goldhagen supported Wilkomirski. Connect the players: this is Holocaust literature.’ (p.67)
If parts of the second chapter, ‘Hoaxers, Hucksters, and History’, start to induce nausea, the third chapter, ‘The Double Shakedown’, is impossible to stomach for anybody not already committed to an anti-Semitic world-view, and changes the overall balance of the text from a tract that might have been written by a sincere Jewish socialist whose awareness of a wider context in which his work might be misused is obscured by an excess of anti-Zionist zeal, to a truly pathological example of Jewish self-hatred the like of which has probably not been seen since early twentieth century Vienna. In his ‘Introduction’, Finkelstein claims: ‘The time is long past to open our hearts to the rest of humanity’s sufferings.’ (p.8) Most readers would naturally assume that this means opening our hearts to the wretched of the earth, and the book contains a fair number of references to the sufferings of native Americans, African Americans, Vietnamese and Palestinians, even if these people’s genuine woes are largely deployed to relativise the seriousness of Jewish grievances.
Defending Swiss Bankers
Similarly, Finkelstein’s humour reminds one of Irving or perhaps Le Pen, who can never resist a pun about gas ovens. Recounting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s joy at the American D’Amato’s victory over the Swiss, Finkelstein writes: ‘…"a triumph of the spirit". Pity he didn’t say "the will".’ (p.103) One does not have to have any liking for Netanyahu or D’Amato to find this reference to Leni Riefenstahl and the Nuremburg Rally offensive. Finkelstein excuses his Swiss heroes by a comparison with the Americans: ‘And, although swamped in size and resources by the United States, Switzerland admitted just as many Jewish refugees as the US (approximately 20 000) during the Nazi Holocaust.’ (p.104) Finkelstein conveniently forgets that, unlike the USA, Switzerland had a border with the Third Reich, and that, unlike the USA, the Swiss sent Jewish refugees back in the 1940s knowing that they would die, which is very different from the unintended medium-term consequences of the St Louis tragedy in early 1939.
Finkelstein’s appetite for anti-Semitic humour is as gross and insatiable as Irving’s or Le Pen’s: ‘Unsurprisingly, the Holocaust industry didn’t launch a campaign to investigate US banks. An audit of our banks on the scale of the Swiss audit would cost American taxpayers not millions but billions of dollars. By the time it was completed American Jews would be seeking asylum in Munich.’ (p.117)
Finkelstein’s phraseology is not just deeply anti-Semitic, but frequently echoes that of the Holocaust deniers, as the following sentences will demonstrate: ‘In fact, to believe the Holocaust industry, more Jewish slave labourers are alive today than a half-century ago.... By the Holocaust industry’s reasoning, concentration camp conditions couldn’t have been harsh at all; in fact one must suppose a remarkably high fertility and remarkably low mortality rate.’ (pp.126-7)
For Finkelstein, the world Jewish conspiracy is boundless, for in words reminiscent of The Protocols of the Elder of Zion, he announces: ‘The shakedown of Switzerland and Germany has only been the prelude to the grand finale: the shakedown of Eastern Europe.’ (p.130) Those assessing Finkelstein’s claims to be a Marxist should note the unproblematic way in which Swiss bankers become ‘Switzerland’ and German industrialists ‘Germany’. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a ‘Marxist’ who prefers Joseph Schumpeter’s half-baked anti-Marxist theory of imperialism to any Marxist analysis of the phenomenon just because it claims that the ‘majority of all wars’ (Finkelstein’s words, p.52) are as irrational as Hitler’s onslaught against the Jews. If this flippant approach to the history of imperialism were not enough, the superficial nature of Finkelstein’s ‘Marxism’ is of course further emphasised by his boundless enthusiasm for the work of Hannah Arendt, a prime source for American Cold War rhetoric about ‘totalitarianism’ that allowed the US government to suppress references to the Holocaust in the interest of maintaining good relations with the ‘anti-totalitarian’ West Germany against the ‘totalitarian’ Soviet Union. Indeed, for Finkelstein, Arendt, notorious for her ‘horizontal collaboration’ with the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, becomes a Christ-like figure. Employing a metaphor reminiscent of the oldest libel of the Christians against the Jews – blaming them for the Roman killing of Christ – he announces that ‘mainstream Jewish organisations crucified Hannah Arendt’. (p.15)
Blaming Jews for Anti-Semitism
Finkelstein appears not to have noticed the wave of anti-Semitism that swept across Eastern Europe the moment the Berlin Wall came down, long before any compensation claims were made against any Eastern European government. Since both Finkelstein and the vast majority of his American Zionist opponents, and to a lesser degree Novick, all subscribe to a blinkered Serbophobe interpretation of events in the former Yugoslavia, the fact that a rabid anti-Semite and Holocaust-denying historian in the Irving mode, the late and unlamented Franjo Tudjman, created a new state – Croatia – dressed in Ustaša livery and put ideological racism into practice from Zagreb and the Krajina to Mostar, escapes him. Tudjman was no obscure professor of electrical engineering in a minor American university like Arthur Butz; he held unchallenged state power with the backing of Germany and the Vatican, and sat beside sanctimonious and hypocritical Western leaders at the Whitehall banquet to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Allies’ triumph over Nazism. Any serious critique of the ‘Holocaust industry’ that transcended the parochial concerns of New York Jewry would have to ask why an English translation of Tudjman’s notorious text was not undertaken with extreme urgency by a team of translators from Serbo-Croat during the early 1990s. The problem was clearly not a lack of funding, but a lack of will. But then most Western leaders were willing to accept the obscene spectacle of Tudjman’s presence at the official dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington on 22 April 1993. Whilst this is not the place to explore webs of complicity amongst rabbis, cardinals and mullahs that overrode any memory of the common destiny of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies in Jasenovac, none of it fits Finkelstein’s model.
Finkelstein’s gross ignorance of Eastern European anti-Semitism is not limited to Croatia. He asserts that ‘public opinion has so far not been averse to the blackmailing of the Swiss bankers and German industrialists, but it might look less kindly on the blackmailing of starving Polish peasants’ (p.134). Finkelstein’s rhetoric would undoubtedly enable him to embark on a well-paid second career as a speechwriter for such Polish anti-Semites as former President Lech Wałęsa and Catholic Primate Cardinal Glemp, but like many Americans his grasp of geography outside the 50 States of the Union is a bit hazy; as Novick says, in 1998 ‘almost half of Americans couldn’t locate Mexico on a map’. Is he perhaps confusing Poland with Ethiopia, Angola or Bangladesh? Even Western television footage repeatedly belied heavily loaded and crassly emotive Western television commentary as at the height of the well-orchestrated CIA-backed, Mafia-funded, Papal propaganda campaign before 1989, the corpulent and frequently obese bodies of Polish peasants, living on an ill-balanced but abundant diet, offered a very stark visual contrast to those of the real wretched of the world, the emaciated bodies of starving children from Ethiopia and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, tortured by swarming flies, whose ghastly and hopeless state genuinely recalled that of the survivors of Belsen. Finkelstein’s absurd romanticism about Poles – so odd in a son of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, an uprising that the vast majority of non-Jewish citizens of Warsaw did nothing to assist, that even the most secular of non-Zionists cannot help seeing it as morbidly masochistic Jewish self-hatred – extends to a discussion of what Finkelstein calls ‘more colourful charges against postwar Polish governments’ (p.132). He thus ignores the appalling pogroms of 1945-46 against Jewish survivors fortunate enough to have obtained refuge in the Soviet Union during the war, the state-sanctioned anti-Semitism of 1968 utilised by the bureaucracy to nip a nascent student revolt in the bud, and the obsessive anti-Semitism of Wałęsa’s supporters, for whom every political opponent from Geremek to Kurón was either a Jew, a half-Jew or had a Jewish wife, regardless of the facts of the case.
Finkelstein’s feeble and unconvincing attempt to pose as a champion of genuine survivors against the ‘Holocaust industry’ – a claim accepted only by the increasingly desperate Gizella Weisshaus, an elderly survivor who, having been a pawn in the games of the Zionist organisations’ lawyers, has now become a pawn in Finkelstein’s publicity-seeking game – is undermined by this comment: ‘A prominent Israeli academic has suggested using some of the funds from the Swiss banks and German firms for the "compensation of Palestinian Arab refugees". Given that almost all survivors of the Nazi Holocaust have already passed away, this would be a sensible proposal.’ (p.138)
Regardless of the possible merits of the idea, it makes a nonsense of Finkelstein’s heated polemic about the way compensation for Jewish survivors has been devoted to other worthy or allegedly worthy causes by the Zionist organisations. Why is it right to give the money to Palestinians, but not to, say, Jews facing persecution by the Ayatollahs in Iran? In short, despite all his talk of a ‘double shakedown’, the only ‘shakedown’ that really concerns Finkelstein is that of his beloved Swiss bankers and German industrialists, not that of the elderly Jewish survivors.
To add insult to injury, on the very last page of his book, Finkelstein sides with the notorious revisionist Ernst Nolte in the Historikerstreit, claiming: ‘During a series of public exchanges in the 1980s many prominent German and non-German scholars argued against "normalizing" the infamies of Nazism. The fear was that normalization would induce moral complacency. However valid the argument may have been then it no longer carries conviction.’ (p.150)
Since the publication of Finkelstein’s slim volume, the neo-Nazi bombing of Jewish refugees near a Düsseldorf underground station has proved to be merely the beginning of yet another of the waves of racist violence that have swept Germany since reunification. Of course, Finkelstein, who has such an engaging habit of criticising Jewish organisations in the German press (see pages 128 and 130) regrets ‘the general German reluctance to openly criticise Jews’ (p.130), and engages in friendly personal correspondence with a right-wing (Christian Democrat) German deputy who is anxious to get the German government to acknowledge that Jewish organisations misled or defrauded the German state, a tactic that even if not strictly comparable to dealing with the far-right German People’s Union or National Democratic Party, is nonetheless a little hard to justify!
Conclusion: What is Genocide?
My earlier references the Irving trial and to Tudjman should have served to illustrate my argument about Holocaust denial, and this response to Finkelstein is not an appropriate context in which to elaborate it further. Nonetheless, it is worth attempting at this point to define what is meant by genocide, as it is a word that has been widely misapplied, and to understand why the Holocaust was unique. Whilst the sacralisation of the Holocaust, the placing of it outside history and beyond human comprehension, that is promoted by religious Zionists like Wiesel is patently absurd, arguments in favour of its uniqueness cannot be dismissed out of hand just because Katz’s ham-fisted advocacy of this thesis is tainted by religious Zionism and a lack of vigour in making comparisons that flows from a Judaeo-centric view of world history. The industrialised and bureaucratic nature of the Holocaust does distinguish it – or at least the central phase based on gassing in the death camps, as distinct from the mass shootings of 1941, or the death marches of 1944-45 – from the four other genuine twentieth century genocides whose racial motivation would otherwise justify comparison, namely, the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Croatian genocide of the Serbs in 1941-45, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the Indonesian genocide in East Timor. To avoid being caught between fanatical Zionists one the one hand and fanatical anti-Zionists on the other, it is probably necessary to make the obvious point that any rational, in other words, secular and non-Zionist, definition of the Holocaust would indisputably include the Gypsies, whose losses proportionally, although not absolutely, approach those of European Jewry, and who, just like the Jews, were murdered on an industrial scale and for racial reasons. Although what occurred in Cambodia in the late 1970s was a massive and carefully planned operation, it was not primarily racially motivated, even if non-Khmer minorities figured disproportionately among Pol Pot’s victims, so it seems debatable as to whether it can be included in the same category as the Armenian genocide. The various appalling episodes in Stalin’s and Mao’s dealings with peasants, often polemically described as genocide, were neither primarily racially motivated nor necessarily planned to result in mass death, any more than the IMF, WTO or World Bank consciously set out to kill a proportion of the world’s poor each year as part of their economic policies, which are no more rational than Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks or Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
Genocide did not start in the twentieth century. Earlier episodes of genocide obviously include the mass killings of the original populations of countries like the USA and Australia, but, like the Armenian and Rwandan genocides of the twentieth century, they lacked the Holocaust’s industrial and bureaucratic dimension. Finally, if we are ever going to restore rationality to discussions of the nature of genocide, the Lemkin definition adopted by the United Nations in 1948, which includes cultural oppression like forcing people to learn a new language, should be permanently consigned to the dustbin of history as so wide-ranging as to be utterly meaningless. Recent events in Kosovo should have reminded us of the need to distinguish between real genocide and a pogrom, deplorable as pogroms are.
The debate about both the uniqueness and the memorialisation of the Holocaust will clearly go on. The latter will not be confined to the American context explored by Novick. Next year will see the first British Holocaust Memorial Day. The new Holocaust Exhibition in the Imperial War Museum has met with a positive, if critical, response from sections of the British left. In their reviews of the exhibition, Ralph Levinson of the Jewish Socialist Group (‘In the Heart of the Beast’, Jewish Socialist, Summer-Autumn 2000) and Cathy Nugent of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (‘Some of the Truth of the Holocaust’, Action for Solidarity, 8 September 2000) both make some criticisms of the exhibition’s portrayal of the politics of the Weimar Republic, and in particular draw attention to the fact that Rosa Luxemburg is alluded to but not actually named. Levinson criticises the lack of emphasis on Jewish resistance, whilst Nugent complains about the lack of detail in reference to the Judenrat collaborators. Interestingly, they concur that on balance the exhibition, despite all its deficiencies, serves a useful purpose. Levinson concludes that ‘overall, the exhibition appears to work’, whilst Nugent, although emphasising that ‘many of the controversial, unpalatable and complicated parts of history have been edited out’, believes that ‘nevertheless it is a very good thing that there is a long-running, comprehensive exhibition about the Holocaust in Britain’.
Some may argue that the British curators may have learnt something from the Americans’ mistakes; others may claim it is easier to mount a much more balanced – albeit imperfect – exhibition on such a subject in a country where direct political lobbying by Zionist organisations is much less intense. Undoubtedly, memorialisation has taken different forms in different countries, and Novick’s book clearly raises legitimate concerns about the form it has taken in the Washington Holocaust Museum, where, for example, the opening sentence from Niemöller’s famous list – ‘First they came for the communists, but I was not a communist, so I said nothing.’ – is omitted, but Finkelstein’s intemperate attack on any kind of memorialisation makes no useful contribution to such debates, and merely plays into the hands of anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.