The author of a controversial attack on the 'Holocaust industry' has reported to questionable evidence to support his case, argues David Cesarani.
The controversy generated by Norman Finkelstein's short, vitriolic polemic against the "Holocaust industry" has generated more heat than light. Few reviewers or profile writers have challenged the factual basis of his assertions. However, close examination reveals that Finkelstein is not only guilty of hyperbole: his argument, flimsy as it is, rests on the misinterpretation of history and questionable use of sources.
Finkelstein argues that prior to 1967 the Nazi persecution and mass murder of the Jews "barely figured in American life". Only a "handful of books and films touched on the subject". The event we know today as "the Holocaust" was actually a cultural construction engineered by "American Jewish elites" after Israel's victory in the six-day war of June 1967. Once Israel became a regional superpower useful for United States interests, American Jews felt emboldened to defend its conduct as an occupier of Palestinian land. Finkelstein argues that they manipulated sympathy for Jewish suffering under the Nazis to shield Israel from criticism.
At the same time, he claims, they used "the Holocaust" to "defend their corporate and class interests" at home. When black Americans challenged Jews for jobs or called for affirmative action, "Jewish elites" labelled this anti-Jewish and summoned abhorrence of Nazism to fortify their privileges. Although he never explains the mechanics of this, some Jewish scholars obligingly produced a dogmatic version of "the Holocaust" that supplied the "elites" with a suitable version of the past.
Citing a handful of writers and historians, Finkelstein identifies two chief elements of this dogma. First, that the Holocaust was the climax of a singularly irrational hatred of Jews and, second, that it was a unique event. He decrees that much, if not most Holocaust literature and historical studies are "worthless as scholarship... if not sheer fraud". But they are useful to support claims for compensation, which he describes as no more than a "shakedown". He protests that while genuine Holocaust survivors like his parents received paltry sums, Jewish organisations, bureaucrats and assorted lawyers lined their pockets from the campaigns against Swiss banks, German corporations and East European governments. The "Holocaust industry has become an outright extortion racket".
This is powerful stuff, but it is wrong. In order to highlight the profile of "the Holocaust" after 1967, and by implication its artificiality, Finkelstein exaggerates its previous "absence" and completely misconstrues its later prominence.
Between 1946 and 1966, East European Jews and survivors in New York campaigned for a memorial to the victims of Nazi mass murder. In 1947, 15,000 people attended a ground-breaking ceremony; the memorial was endorsed by the mayor and city officials. The project only foundered because the Nazi genocide was the "wrong atrocity" to recall at a time when the USSR was America's bête noire and West Germany its emerging protégé.
However, Nazi crimes and Jewish suffering were not forgotten. Throughout the 1950s the major US television networks broadcast live plays on what we would understand as Holocaust themes. According to cultural historian Jeffrey Shandler, they were shown at the rate of one every year and were written by such major playwrights as Paddy Chayefsky. A spate of feature films appeared including The Young Lions (1958), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Exodus (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and The Pawnbroker (1965), which invoked the plight of Jews under Nazism.
While there may have been only a "handful of books" about Nazism (few documentary sources were initially available) a small avalanche of publications appeared dealing with its roots. They included Paul Massing's Rehearsal for Destruction (1949), The Authoritarian Personality (1950) by Theodor Adorno et al , Anti-Semitism and Emotional Disorder (1950) by Nathan Ackerman and Marie Jahoda, Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eva Reichmann's Hostages of Civilisation (1952). Raul Hilberg and Fritz Stern published their path-breaking studies in, respectively, 1961 and 1964. Some of these universalised the Jewish catastrophe while others treated it as singular. But the notion that Nazi anti-Semitism was peculiarly irrational was already present in studies such as Joshua Trachtenberg's The Devil and the Jews (1943) and Norman Cohn's Warrant for Genocide (1967).
In 1961-62, the trial of Adolf Eichmann became one of the first global media events. Even Finkelstein recalls his mother watching it on TV. A Gallup poll in 1962 showed that 87 per cent of the US public had read or heard of the trial and 71 per cent agreed that the world should be reminded of Nazi crimes. Finkelstein produces evidence from 1957 and 1961 that Jewish thinkers were uninterested in recent tragic history, but after Arendt's controversial articles about Eichmann appeared in The New Yorker in 1963 almost every American Jewish intellectual had something to say on the matter, including George Mosse, Louis Harap, Norman Podhoretz, Alfred Kazin, Daniel Bell, Leon Abel and Midge Dector. Finkelstein is equally mistaken about the salience and the role of "the Holocaust" in the defence of Israel after 1967. Even if this was its intended purpose, it failed miserably. Israel and its supporters in Washington failed to block the sale of F-15 fighters to the Saudis in 1975 or 1978. The pro-Israel lobby could not thwart the Camp David agreement in 1978 or the consequent withdrawal from Sinai. It failed to block the sale of Awacs (airborne early warning system) to Saudi Arabia in 1981.
Israel may have received vastly increased US financial, diplomatic and military support since 1967, but this had nothing to do with history and everything to do with American interests. Moreover, the funds Israel received were often intended to smooth the way to concessions and withdrawals - a pattern evident in the latest wrangling at Camp David.
The US government promoted Holocaust memorialisation for the same reasons.Mark Siegel, former adviser on Jewish affairs to President Carter, admitted that the decision to establish the President's Commission on the Holocaust, which led directly to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), was intended to appease American Jews alienated by Carter's perceived pro-Arab policy. In other words, the prominence of the Holocaust and its function in relation to Israel signified Jewish and Israeli weakness rather than the other way around, as Finklestein alleges.
More troubling, Finkelstein takes issue with matters of fact. He claims that Jews have falsified the number of concentration camp survivors and slave labourers in order to extort money from the Germans and the Swiss. Here, too, he is mistaken.
Finkelstein's chief source is an exhibition brochure from the USHMM. This publication uses figures for the camp population given by Himmler in early 1945 and estimates for the number liberated in May 1945.
However, tens of thousands of Jewish survivors were liberated before January 1945 in Romania, Poland and Hungary. In the last months of the Third Reich, not even Himmler knew exactly who was where. By mid-1944 Buchenwald alone had 82 sub-camps, some with as few as 80 slave workers, others with up to 11,000. There were more than 800 Aussenkommandos and Juedische Zwangsarbeitslager. At the war's end thousands of Jews were freed from small, ephemeral labour camps and temporary barracks adjoining factories in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. For many of these appalling locations, barely a place name or factory address survives.
Had he wanted to, Finkelstein could have obtained an authoritative estimate of survivor numbers. He asserts on the basis of a rule-of-thumb calculation that there are not more than 25,000 survivors, whereas the German government, the Jewish Claims Conference, and the Israeli Ministry of Finance are between them paying pensions to at least 175,000 survivors all of whom have to undergo exhaustive checks. None will support an individual receiving assistance from one of the others.
Finkelstein also alleges on the basis of a "personal communication" from a German parliamentarian, as against the mass of published accounts, that the Jewish organisations receiving reparations from Germany have cheated. He claims that under the Luxembourg Agreement between Israel, the Jewish Claims Conference (representing the diaspora) and West Germany, $120 million out of the total of $450 million in reparations was set aside for the Claims Conference to award to individuals. He alleges that the conference misused this for communities or to help Jews migrating from Eastern Europe and Arab lands to resettle in Israel.
In fact, 75 per cent of the funds given to the Claims Conference were used for relief projects in Eastern Europe. Large sums were used to assist Jews to emigrate from inhospitable countries devastated by German occupation, which was hardly an illegitimate use of funds. Not a cent went directly to Jews from the Arab world. To put it charitably, Finkelstein misreads Ronald Zweig's history of the Claims Conference, which notes that the influx of German reparations money allowed the main American Jewish relief agency, the JDC or Joint Distribution Committee, to use elsewhere the resources it would otherwise have deployed in Europe.
Most remarkably, in the course of his relentless attack on the "Jewish elites", Finkelstein absolves the Swiss banks of serious misconduct towards Holocaust survivors and depicts them as victims of a Jewish terror campaign. To support this amazing argument he quotes a statement from the authoritative Report of the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons that "there was no evidence of systematic discrimination, obstruction of access,misappropriation, or violation of document retention requirements of Swiss law". Indeed, but these words come from an annexe.
The report also states that the auditors working for the committee "confirmed evidence of questionable and deceitful actions by some individual banks in the handling of accounts of victims, including the withholding of information from Holocaust victims or their heirs about their accounts, inappropriate closing of accounts, failure to keep adequate records, many cases of insensitivity to the efforts of victims or heirs of victims to claim dormant or closed accounts, and a general lack of diligence - even active resistance - in response to private and official inquiries about dormant accounts." This indictment fully justified the campaign that was necessary to wrest compensation from initially unapologetic and obdurate Swiss banks.
Selective quotation such as Finkelstein's and other misuse of evidence undermine the credibility of his polemic. Any serious points it raises, and there are a few, are distorted by a venomous dislike of the "American Jewish elites". Memory of the Holocaust has been abused and misused, but this book is part of the problem rather than its cure.
David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history, University of Southampton.
The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering
Author - Norman Finkelstein
ISBN - 1 85984 773 0
Publisher - Verso
Price - £16.00
Pages - 139