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Cloud After Auschwitz | The Nation

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Cloud After Auschwitz

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You have "little trace," exclaimed Gershom Scholem in a letter he sent to the great Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, of "love for the Jewish people." It was the early 1960s, and Scholem, one of Israel's most prominent intellectuals, was responding to her analysis of Adolf Eichmann's trial. Scholem's attack was spurred by several assertions Arendt had made, including her allegation that the Jewish officials in the ghettos--the Judenrat--expedited the extermination machine; if they had not collaborated with the Nazis, Arendt wrote, fewer Jews would have been killed.

Scholem's criticism expressed the prevailing view held by Israel's elite. Not surprisingly, Arendt was censored in Israel, and it took thirty-six years before an Israeli press agreed to translate her writings. Although the recent appearance of Eichmann in Jerusalem in Hebrew has rekindled an age-old debate, it seems that Israelis can now relate to the Holocaust in a more mature way.

Corners of the Jewish establishment in the United States may not be ready to cope with similarly forceful criticism, though, judging from the response to Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry. A review put forth in the New York Times tossed it aside as "an ideological fanatic's view of other people's opportunism, by a writer so reckless and ruthless in his attacks that he is prepared to defend his own enemies, the bastions of Western capitalism, and to warn that 'The Holocaust' will stir up an anti-Semitism whose significance he otherwise discounts." There are two major problems with this line of criticism. First, it summarily dismisses Finkelstein's arguments without any attempt to engage his disturbing accusations. Second, instead of concentrating on the book, the reviewer goes after the author, implying that Finkelstein, the son of survivors, represents a neoteric breed of anti-Semite. In this way, it resembles the assault on Arendt.

On the book's first page Finkelstein distinguishes between the actual historical events of the Nazi holocaust and "The Holocaust," a term denoting an "ideological weapon." He notifies the reader that The Holocaust Industry deals only with the ideological component, which is used to cast both Israel and "the most successful ethnic group in the United States" as victims. Victim status, in turn, says Finkelstein, enables the Zionist state, which has "a horrendous human rights record," to deflect criticism, and US Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and others) to advance dubious financial goals.

Others have already shown that the holocaust has served to justify pernicious acts. Tom Segev, a leading Israeli journalist, said as much over a decade ago in his book The Seventh Million. In the early 1980s, Israeli scholar Boaz Evron observed that the holocaust is often discussed by "a churning out of slogans and a false view of the world, the real aim of which is not at all an understanding of the past, but the manipulation of the present." Thus, Finkelstein's contribution to the existing literature involves his concentration on US Jewish organizations. He attempts to go beyond Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life [see Jon Wiener, "Holocaust Creationism," July 12, 1999], which focused in part on abuses committed by Jewish organizations and intellectuals, by providing a much more radical critique. Finkelstein strives to show how the organizations have "shrunk the stature of [Jewish] martyrdom to that of a Monte Carlo casino."

The major claim of the first chapter, "Capitalizing the Holocaust," is that until the 1960s "American Jewish elites 'forgot' the Nazi holocaust," their public obliviousness induced by a fear of being accused of "dual loyalty." Finkelstein urges the reader to keep in mind that the United States opposed Israel's 1956 invasion of Egypt and did not become an ardent champion of the Jewish state until the mid-1960s. Accordingly, he avers, Jewish elites were apprehensive about accentuating the holocaust for fear that this would be interpreted as favoring Israel over the United States.

The reader is also reminded that after World War II, Germany became "a crucial postwar American ally in the US confrontation with the Soviet Union." It was, I believe along with the author, a sad moment in Jewish history when organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League "actively collaborated in the McCarthy-era witch hunt." The crux of Finkelstein's argument in this context is that Jewish organizations "remembered" the holocaust only after the United States and Israel had formed a strategic cold war alliance. They suddenly realized that "The Holocaust" (in its capitalized form) could be employed as an ideological tool.

Finkelstein does not hesitate to use blunt language rather than euphemism; and although he usually applies words in a precise manner, at times he gets carried away in his analysis. For instance, at the very end of the first chapter, after discussing the dissolution of the longstanding alliance between American Jews and blacks, he claims that "just as Israelis, armed to the teeth by the United States, courageously put unruly Palestinians in their place, so American Jews courageously put unruly Blacks in their place." The book offers no support for the sentence's second clause; the analogy it sets up, too, is erroneous and can easily be used to discredit Finkelstein and thus his more serious charges.

The book's principal weakness, however, develops in its second chapter, "Hoaxers, Hucksters and History." Finkelstein dedicates this portion of the book to undermining two "central dogmas" that "underpin the Holocaust framework: (1) The Holocaust marks a categorically unique historical event; (2) The Holocaust marks the climax of an irrational, eternal Gentile hatred of Jews."

My criticism has nothing to do with Finkelstein's analysis of the second dogma, whose paradigmatic example is Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. The main thesis underlying Goldhagen's book--which has been acclaimed in some quarters but derided in many others--is that ordinary Germans were no less anti-Semitic than National Socialist Party members. Goldhagen's theory serves the notion that Jews can always fall prey to Gentiles, which makes them the quintessential and eternal victims. And if "'all people collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of Jewry,'" then, as Boaz Evron points out, "everything is permissible to Jews in their relationship to other people." Together with Ruth Bettina Birn, an international expert on Nazi war crimes, Finkelstein examined Goldhagen's references one by one, and in their book A Nation on Trial they concluded convincingly that Hitler's Willing Executioners is not worthy of being called an academic text.

My problem, rather, lies with Finkelstein's attempt to demonstrate that the holocaust was not a unique historical event. I disagree with Elie Wiesel, who for a "standard fee of $25,000 (plus a chauffeured limousine)"--in Finkelstein's aside--insists that "we cannot even talk about it," and I follow Finkelstein's admonition that it's helpful to compare it with other historical events. Yes, Finkelstein is right that Communists, not Jews, were the first political casualties of Nazism, and that the handicapped were the first genocidal victims. He is also correct that Gypsies were systematically murdered. But these facts do not prove that the holocaust was unique only "by virtue of time and location," in his formulation. Even though mass genocide has occurred elsewhere, death trains, gas ovens and Auschwitz have not. The holocaust, including the horrific experience of European Jewry, was unique.

Finkelstein's error is in conflating two issues: the uniqueness of the holocaust, on the one hand, and how this uniqueness is interpreted and put to use in manipulative ways, on the other. He fails to recognize that one need not debunk the uniqueness of an event in order to compare it and criticize its use and abuse.

Nonetheless, when it comes to analyzing how "The Holocaust" has been employed to advance political interests, Finkelstein is at his best. He shows how "The Holocaust" demagogues draw a link between "uniqueness" and "Jewish chosenness" and demonstrates how both are used to justify Israel's rightness, regardless of the context. His most notable contribution is in the third chapter of his book, "The Double Shakedown," where he couches as an exposé his view that "the Holocaust industry has become an outright extortion racket." The chapter deals with a few specific cases but mainly focuses on the circumstances leading to the compensation agreement between Switzerland and a number of Jewish organizations. In this disturbing affair the devil is in the details, and Finkelstein has done his homework.

The empirical evidence he supplies is alarming. He documents how Jewish organizations have consistently exaggerated numbers--of slave laborers or the amount of "victim gold" purchased by the banks--in order to secure more money. This sort of inflation was recently repeated in an October 23 letter written by Burt Neuborne--the lead counsel in the Swiss banks case--to The Nation. Neuborne claimed, for instance, that if one takes into account that there were "more than 2 million wartime accounts" whose records have been destroyed, then the $1.25 billion compensation provided by the Swiss "barely scratches the surface of the stolen funds." Neuborne fails to mention the findings published by the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, also known as the Volcker Committee, in its Report on Dormant Accounts of Victims of Nazi Persecution in Swiss Banks (1999). The committee established that approximately 54,000 dormant accounts had a "possible or probable" relationship to Holocaust victims, and of these only half had any real likely connection. Considering that "the estimated value of 10,000 of these accounts for which some information was available runs to $170-200 million," even Raul Hilberg, author of the seminal study The Destruction of the European Jews, infers that the "current value of the monies in the dormant Jewish accounts is far less than the $1.25 billion paid by the Swiss."

Hilberg himself has accused some Jewish organizations of "blackmail," and Finkelstein describes in detail how this economic strong-arming was carried out. While the high-powered lawyers representing the organizations haggled with the Swiss, the Jewish lobby launched an extensive campaign. This drive included the publication of studies--supported by the Simon Wiesenthal Center--that accused Switzerland of "knowingly profiting from blood money" and committing "unprecedented theft," and claimed that "dishonesty was a cultural code that individual Swiss have mastered to protect the nation's image and prosperity." Using its leverage, the lobby utilized these allegations in the House and Senate banking committees in order to orchestrate a "shameless campaign of vilification" against Switzerland, in Finkelstein's words. Simultaneously, it convinced officials in a number of states, including New York, New Jersey and Illinois, to threaten the Swiss banks with economic boycott. Finally, the banks bent in response. Call it what you will, ingenious lobbying or conspiracy theory, Finkelstein manages to disclose how this well-oiled machine has utilized abhorrent methods to fill its coffers.

The World Jewish Congress has amassed "roughly $7 billion" in compensation moneys. One reads that former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger earns an annual salary of $300,000 as chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims, while ex-Senator Alfonse D'Amato is paid $350 an hour plus expenses for mediating Holocaust lawsuits--he received $103,000 for the first six months of his labors. Most of the attorneys hired by the Jewish organizations earn around $600 an hour and their fees in total have reached several million. One lawyer asked for "$2,400 for reading Tom Bower's book, Nazi Gold." These attorneys might be demanding a smaller fee than is common to such litigation, but even a small percentage of a billion dollars is a lot of money. One should keep in mind that Finkelstein's mother received $3,500 for spending years in the Warsaw ghetto and in labor camps--the same amount D'Amato made in ten hours' work. These numbers plainly suggest that the "struggle," as much as it may be about paying damages to victims, has elements of an out-and-out money grab.

Finkelstein's analysis here boils down to three major criticisms: First, US Jewish organizations have been using shady methods to squeeze as much money as they can from European countries; second, while these organizations "celebrate" the "needy victims," much of the money gained in the process does not reach the victims but is used by organizations for "pet projects" and exorbitant overhead salaries; and third, that Jewish organizations' ongoing distortion of facts and emotional manipulation foments anti-Semitism. While his arguments are convincing, his attempt to be provocative leads to carelessness. His claim that the "Holocaust may turn out to be the greatest theft in the history of mankind" is preposterous, especially considering the history of imperialism. And yes, the "Holocaust industry" probably engenders some anti-Semitism; but Finkelstein should also clearly state that any misbehavior by Jewish organizations does not, and never can, provide an excuse for it.

Finkelstein does not spend all of his ire on his critique of Jewish organizations; he forcefully condemns US double standards as well. Why, for example, was a Holocaust museum built on the Washington Mall while there is no similarly high-profile museum commemorating crimes that took place in the course of American history? "Imagine," he says, "the wailing accusation of hypocrisy here were Germany to build a national museum in Berlin to commemorate not the Nazi genocide but American slavery or the extermination of Native Americans." Along the same line, the United States pressures Germany to pay compensation for its use of slave labor, but few in government dare mention compensation for African-Americans. Swiss banks are asked to pay back money taken from Jews but are allowed to continue profiting from the billions of dollars deposited by tyrants like Mobutu and Suharto at the expense of indigenous populations.

Informing Finkelstein's analysis is a universal ethics, which echoes Arendt's important claim that Eichmann should have been sentenced for his crimes against humanity rather than his crimes against the Jews. His book is controversial not entirely because of his mistakes or his piercing rhetoric but because he speaks truth to power. He, and not the Jewish organizations he criticizes, is following the example set by the great Jewish prophets.

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