New York, July 25, 2000
Charles Glass, The London Desk
WHEN I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was drinking illegally in the Irish bars of Los Angeles. That was some 30 years ago, when tough guys used to collect money for the Irish Northern Aid Committee, NORAID. In some of those bars, like Molly Malone's on Fairfax Blvd., Irish bands stirred the tribal blood by playing rebel songs. I remember joining in "Bold Fenian Men" and "Wild Colonial Boy." Good drunken stuff, just like the donations to "the cause" of killing British soldiers. Jaysus, you'd a thought the famine was still on and the Black and Tans were a rapin' the countryside again. Officially, the money went to help Catholic families displaced by the Protestant ethnic cleansing of Belfast and Derry after Bloody Sunday. Unofficially, the boyos with the money boxes swore we were helping the IRA.
NORAID's bag men cynically exploited historic injustices to support the contemporary IRA, an organization that has had some genuine heroes in its ranks but also many extortionists, thugs and murderers. Many in the Irish Republic denounce the IRA, but no one calls them self-hating Irishmen. Or tries to censor them. Or stops them from getting jobs. Perhaps Norman Finkelstein, who just came to London to promote his new book, The Holocaust Industry, should have been born Irish. A few pints of Guinness, a verse of "Risin' of the Moon" and a punch in the nose would set his world to rights. But poor Norman is defiantly Jewish, and he's having a devil of a time with some of his kith and kin.
When Norman arrived in London the other day, the targets of his criticism had already mobilized against him. Jonathan Freedland wrote in the liberal daily The Guardian, "It is perhaps easy to write off a critic like Finkelstein as a self-hating Jew, but it is striking to hear someone who appears to have nothing but contempt for his own people." In the ludicrously reactionary Daily Mail, Tom Bower accused Finkelstein of giving succor to the enemy: "The emotional denunciation by a Jew of his fellow Jews is, for anti-Semites, an unexpected windfall..." Stephen Howe, in The Independent, the daily belonging to Ireland's Tony O'Reilly of Heinz ketchup fame, called the book an "unimpressive little volume" and added, "The standard accusation will be that he is a self-hating Jew. There will be efforts to silence him." Howe does not explicitly accuse Finkelstein of self-hatred, but he condemns both the book and its author: "His obsessions, and the fury they invoke, also tell us something about the spirit of the age - something pretty unpleasant." Not to be outdone, Jay Rayner wrote in the once-respected and now ignored Sunday paper, The Observer, "Norman Finkelstein, the son of concentration camp survivors, has launched a personal pogrom with The Holocaust Industry, attacking almost every orthodox tenet of the study of the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis. And a lot of people now hate him for it."
JAYSUS, what did Finkelstein do to antagonize the Bold Zionist Men? I read the book, which is excellent, and went along to a debate the other night between Finkelstein and a director of the Imperial War Museum's Holocaust Exhibition. The venue was the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) on the Mall that runs between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square. While Norman prepared to discuss his book to a packed house inside, patriotic Britons outside were celebrating the 100th birthday of the Queen Mother. History lives in this town. Finkelstein went first, taking 15 minutes to summarize the book. His thesis is that Jewish suffering has been exploited to shore up American support for any and all Israeli policies since 1967, to enable various organizations to control the money gained from the German state and Swiss banks rather than distribute it all to the real survivors, and to help some in the elite of Jewish society to assimilate into the upper echelons of American society.
He said in the ICA debate that things went wrong when the Nazi holocaust became The Holocaust. As anyone who has studied philosophy knows, using the definite article "the" means "there is one and only one," in this case, holocaust. Finkelstein believes there were many, with differences and similarities to the genocide of Europe's Jews: the genocide of Armenians, Roma (Gypsies) and American Indians. I'd add Tasmanians and Tutsis in Rwanda. Admitting that others suffered does not diminish the Jewish tragedy, but Finkelstein says the "ideology" of Holocaust studies relies on this "uniqueness doctrine." Its other pillar, he said at the ICA, is the "doctrine of eternal Gentile hatred of the Jews." Norman concluded the doctrine was "devoid of scholarly value, but it has political utility."
He's had a few supporters in the press here, notably Victor Sebestyen in the Evening Standard, and the ICA audience for the most part applauded him loudly. During the questions, many of which were hostile, Finkelstein received the most support from Israelis.
One surprising aspect of the debate is the assertion in several British newspapers that The Holocaust Industry has caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Alas, not yet. Other than New York Press, Finkelstein's publishers Verso tell me that the rest of the American press has virtually ignored it. In London, people may be kicking Norman Finkelstein, but they are also kicking his ideas around. What's going on in New York?
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New York, July 25, 2000