The Politics of Suffering

A historian examines who stands to benefit from the history of the Holocaust

"I sometimes think that American Jewry 'discovering' the Nazi Holocaust was worse than its having been forgotten. True, my parents brooded in private; the suffering they endured was not publicly validated. But wasn't that better than the current crass exploitation of Jewish martyrdom?"

So writes Norman Finkelstein at the beginning of The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso)--an inflammatory start to a wholly contentious book. A child of Holocaust survivors who works as an adjunct professor at Hunter College, Finkelstein has previously grappled with the legacy of the Holocaust in the well-reviewed A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (written with Ruth Bettina Birn), which questions the accountability of typical Germans for genocide. Another of his volumes is Friends Indeed: The Special Relationship of Israel and the United States. Together, these books may be seen as a prelude to The Holocaust Industry, which is filled with strong accusations against Zionism and Israel for exploiting the Palestinian people.

Challenging "Jewish martyrdom"? Historian Norman Finkelstein
Challenging "Jewish martyrdom"? Historian Norman Finkelstein

This latest publication is short and polemical, and though it employs no new source material or texts, it attempts nothing less than a sensational reinterpretation of the Holocaust. After outlining his parents' history, Finkelstein indicates that he never digested the full story, nor the meaning of the genocide surrounding it. His mother received $3,500 for being a slave laborer in the German concentration camps. What makes Finkelstein particularly indignant is the current compensation claims being debated in Europe and the United States.

These, he argues, are part of "the Holocaust industry"--a global conglomeration of interests determined to misuse a historical tragedy for isolated gains. He notes, with great anger, that "when Jewish elites rob Jewish survivors, no ethical issues arise: It's just about money." He seems singularly upset that Saul Kagan, executive secretary of the Claims Conference, collects a salary of $105,000. Finkelstein asserts that "Kagan rings up in 12 days what my mother received for suffering 6 years of Nazi persecution." This example reveals a wellspring of resentment that floods the rest of the book.

Finkelstein writes that the Holocaust was a "taboo topic" for American Jews during the postwar period. American Jews, and later the world, he believes, had no interest in the Holocaust until the weeks preceding and immediately after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. At the height of this conflict, Egyptian President Nasser promised to "push the Jews into the sea," which struck many Jews, and Israelis in particular, as evoking the imagery of the Holocaust. Finkelstein maintains that in the post-1967 period, "to increase Israel's negotiating leverage, the Holocaust industry increased production quotas." That is to say, Jewish groups amplified and augmented their accounts of previous suffering to justify greater fiscal and political support for Israel.

From a domestic point of view, Finkelstein traces the growth of the "Holocaust industry" to the emergence of "identity politics," which saw Jews identify with other victimized groups in the American landscape. The author's take, however, is that American Jews were not victims for the most part, but that the Holocaust was nonetheless used to create such an aura. In summary, the author thinks that the extreme interest in the Holocaust is to benefit Israel, a colonialist state, and its supporters, and is conspiratorial in nature. The Holocaust is a cloaking device of sorts to avoid peace with the Palestinians and the return of occupied lands.

The subjects who are party to this plan are, in Finkelstein's view, numerous and far-ranging. One of Finkelstein's targets as chief spokesman for the "Holocaust industry" is Nobel Prize-winning author and humanitarian Elie Wiesel. "Elie Wiesel's performance as official interpreter of the Holocaust is not happenstance," he writes. "Plainly he did not come to this position on account of his humanitarian commitments or literary talents. Rather, Wiesel plays this leading role because he unerringly articulates the dogmas of, and accordingly sustains the interests underpinning, the Holocaust."

Wiesel's pronouncements have, according to the author, created strange ethical problems. Finkelstein, for example, chastises Wiesel for endorsing Daniel Goldhagen's controversial book on the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, and Benjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments, a gripping story of children in a death camp that turned out to be an "invented" story by an individual who lived in Switzerland throughout the war. (The publisher withdrew Wilkomirski's memoir earlier this year.)

Finkelstein has a problem with the testimony of Holocaust survivors as well, especially accounts written recently. In this line of argument, he has a point. A great number of memoirs have appeared during the past few years, but few are enlightening reading. Many contain serious factual errors. Historical writing and forgetfulness shape the content of recent accounts, as opposed to testimonies taken immediately after the war, especially for the Nuremberg Trials.

The Holocaust Industry makes frequent references to The Holocaust in American Life, written in 1999 by University of Chicago historian Peter Novick. Unlike Finkelstein, Novick raises serious issues with an absence of polemic. Novick writes objectively about how the Holocaust, an event that happened in Europe, came to be commemorated in a wildly successful museum on American shores. He questions the function of this subject for teaching tolerance, and its misuse by American politicians. According to Novick, the worst example of this was President Clinton, who opened the Holocaust Museum in 1993 with bold moral pronouncements, yet stood by helplessly when genocide erupted in Bosnia and Rwanda.

Novick's book suggests the possibility for writers to widely question the proper role for the Holocaust in modern politics and culture. Certainly Israel has benefited from the use of the Holocaust, and certainly the Claims Commission is the subject of a lot of animosity from ailing and impatient survivors. So, too, there may be too much fascination or obsession with the Holocaust as a distinct occurrence. At the same time, it should be noted that the recent annals of Holocaust history have often been written by Christians--in papal encyclicals and anti-Nazi exposés--and in the instruments of pop culture, too. Neither could credibly be called an arm of "the industry."

Yet Finkelstein insists a monopoly is at work. "The time is long past to open our hearts to the rest of humanity's sufferings. This was the main lesson my mother imparted. I never once heard her say: 'Do not compare.' My mother always compared. In the face of the sufferings of African-Americans, Vietnamese and Palestinians, my mother's credo always was: 'We are all holocaust victims.'" If Finkelstein were paying attention, he might have noted the growing scholarly interest in genocide studies, which incorporate the Holocaust and examine cases of mass murder and inhumanity from the Crusades through Armenia and Rwanda. (I chair such an interdisciplinary center at the University of Minnesota.) Too, he may have noted the widespread support to establish a permanent international court to try war crimes.

Ultimately, The Holocaust Industry is a book with a few truths but even more contradictions. Finkelstein, it seems, has lost his sense of scholarship under a blanket of bias and anomie. And so he now unleashes an argument so flawed that it might ultimately give comfort to Holocaust deniers.

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