September 24, 2000
Profit and Loss
By Steven J. Zipperstein
THE HOLOCAUST INDUSTRY Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering By Norman G. Finkelstein Verso. 150 pp. $23
IMAGINE an old-style, sectarian rant, with its finely honed ear for conspiracy, with all the nuance of one's raging, aging, politicized uncle. Put it in a lovely, beautifully printed volume, place a respectable left-wing imprint on its title page and you have, in effect, Norman G. Finkelstein's new book.
What astonishes is not that the book exists -- Finkelstein has been writing on Zionism, the Holocaust and other Jewish matters for years in much the same vein, with a wild, episodic, furious style that has garnered him some sympathetic publishers. Far more surprising is that the book has been taken rather seriously in England, where it was released this summer to sometimes appreciative if quizzical reviews. Reviewers there appeared at times to admire the man's brio, the bravado of a badly behaved Jew who shouts, who cares not a whit about behaving well in public, and who says nasty things about his own, touchy people.
The Holocaust, as the English know well, especially after David Irving's recent, failed libel action against Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, is something about which Jews are deadly earnest. Finkelstein offers ribald, comic relief. He may be seen, in this respect, as the Howard Stern of Jewish studies, a sarcastic, loud-mouthed Jewish kid from Brooklyn, eager to tell anyone willing to listen his sanctimonious family's dirty secrets. Along the way, carried away by the pleasure of it all, he makes up a lot, too.
Finkelstein markets himself as a courageous, sincere voice, a purveyor of fresh, otherwise unspoken intellectual thrills. He is undoubtedly audacious. In a recent book, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, co-authored by Ruth Bettina Birn, he attacked the scholarship of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners without, as he readily admitted, being able to read the German sources on which the highly controversial book is built. He has also written extensively on the origins of Israel without a reading knowledge of either Hebrew or Arabic. He calls foes colorful, dreadful names: "half-fruitcake, half-mountebank"; advocates of Holocaust consciousness in the United States have "gone berserk." Rarely does he substantiate charges: He moves jerkily from point to point, linking one tiny, piece of data to another, nearly always intuitively, based on a deep sense of rage, ideological purity and unbending rectitude.
The thesis of this new book is simply this: Along the way, the Holocaust got hijacked. At first, the Jews who cared most about it were survivors, decent folks, like his own, good, left-wing parents. They talked little about it, and understood that it could be viewed only as part and parcel of the world's dreadful treatment of minorities. Such salt-of-the-earth Jews are the true purveyors of Holocaust wisdom, since they remain loyal to the progressive bromides that have sustained Finkelstein since he was a boy. "In the face of the sufferings of African-Americans, Vietnamese and Palestinians, my mother's credo was: We are all holocaust victims." He repeats, often, the charge that his mother, a survivor of the death camps, received only $3,500 in reparations, while the Jewish rich got richer on money owed her. Characteristically, he offers no documentation of this charge.
And the little his mother once had was stolen from her. Since the late 1960s, the Holocaust, too, was taken from Jews like herself, and it emerged, especially in the United States, as a powerful, destructive tool of the Jewish elite. How did the Holocaust become the most resonant contemporary metaphor of Jewish life? How did it become the subject of endless books ("shelves upon shelves of shlock," as he puts it) and, most ominously, an indispensable prop of Israeli propaganda?
To answer these questions, Finkelstein leans heavily (as he admits) on Peter Novick's important study, The Holocaust in American Life, a complex, copiously documented, sophisticated book. From it, Finkelstein draws data that he then pulverizes into a simple grid. His theory, to be sure, goes beyond simple anti-Zionism -- the charge, say, that the Holocaust was, in the wake of the '67 War, given undue prominence so that all practices, however heinous, of the Israelis might be rendered immune to criticism.
Finkelstein believes this, but he goes several steps further. The worst, most influential Holocaust users are not the Israelis, as bad as they are, or, for that matter, their sincere if morally bankrupt Jewish defenders abroad. Worst of all is the stupendously powerful, greedy Jewish elite -- whose combined, massive resources include, according to Finkelstein, The Washington Post. In an effort to insinuate itself into the American power structure, Finkelstein argues, this elite has capitalized on the Holocaust so as to render the United States's strategic use of Israel all the more secure. The Holocaust serves as a shield for a power-hungry elite that has claimed ownership of the catastrophe and its ostensible lessons to garner for itself a range of rewards, material and otherwise. Most recently, this elite brought the Swiss government to its knees in negotiations that will bring relief to no one but these same Jewish moguls and their allies.
Never in this book is there an acknowledgment of the awful, corruptive power of the Holocaust and its potential to scar those who survived it, its capacity to overwhelm their children and confound others by its proximity, and by its example of absolute, unadorned evil. This undeniable power to unsettle is not an invention of wily contemporary interpreters but rather an obvious reflection of the heinous actions of the Nazis themselves.
But as Finkelstein sketches it, the prevalence of the Holocaust as a metaphor today is the product of a corrupt, interlinked group that manipulates everyone, Jews included: "Consider . . . the pattern," Finkelstein writes. "Wiesel and [historian Israel] Gutman supported Goldhagen, Wiesel supported [Jerzy] Kosinski; Gutman and Goldhagen supported [Benjamin] Wilkomirski. Connect the players: this is Holocaust literature." They pay one another stupendous fees; they exalt only those who agree with them; and they care nothing for the Holocaust or the Jewish people: "If Israel fell out of favor with the United States, many of those leaders who now stoutly defend Israel would courageously divulge their disaffection with the Jewish state and would exoriate American Jews for turning Israel into a religion. And if U.S. ruling circles decided to scapegoat Jews, we should not be surprised if American Jewish leaders acted exactly as their predecessors did during the Nazi holocaust."
This, then, is more than simple anti-Zionism. Finkelstein's animus is born of far, far deeper resentments. To the extent that one might trace it back to actual causes -- rather than merely to his fervid, frenzied imagination -- it draws on anguished and sometimes not unjust criticisms leveled by some Jewish victims of Nazism against the wartime Jewish leadership. The fate of the Jewish leadership under the Nazis was, needless to say, an impossible one, and it has been examined extensively. The consensus among historians is that these dignitaries were mostly decent -- some, to be sure, were truly indecent -- and they were faced with utterly intractable challenges created by Nazis who, in nearly all cases, destroyed the hapless, powerless leaders along with their flock. For Finkelstein, predictably, this horrible saga is a clear-cut morality tale in which an immoral Jewish leadership under the Nazis produces, in turn, its own terrible heirs, who also continue to savage Jewish life today.
The Holocaust Industry is inspired, above all, by its relentless, blinding class resentments. It cries out -- like a politicized rant of the 1930s -- at the Jewish "alrightniks" with familial fury and self-righteous indignation.
Years ago, writing about Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth proposed that some of the shocked response to that wild, brilliant novel was based on its depiction of a Jew doing precisely what Jews weren't supposed to do. Roth managed to render neurosis as a potent, vivid metaphor, and a neurotic as an intriguing cultural totem. But real life is, so often, so much stranger and grayer than fiction. In real life, obsessions aren't thrilling, or liberating, or even interesting. Usually they're downright dull. And so is this awful book.
Steven J. Zipperstein is Koshland professor and director of the program in Jewish Studies at Stanford University. He is the author, most recently, of "Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory, History, Identity.
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