Critic of Holocaust groups creates controversy in London
By Richard Allen Greene
LONDON, July 26 (JTA) -- A controversial American academic has left England's capital -- but not before criticizing advocacy groups for Holocaust survivors.
Norman Finkelstein was in Britain to promote his new book, "The Holocaust Industry," in which he accuses Jewish organizations and elites -- the Holocaust industry, in his phrase -- of distorting the memory of the Shoah to extract money from Swiss banks, the German government and German industry.
"I completely support the right to compensation," said Finkelstein, an instructor at City University of New York and the son of two Holocaust survivors.
He claims that the numbers of prisoners held as slave laborers for German industry during the war had been "wildly inflated" to enable organizations claiming to represent survivors to "skim off the top."
Finkelstein, 46, is the son of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and several concentration camps.
He draws a distinction between "the Nazi holocaust," the historic event, and "The Holocaust," the ideological representation, and argues that the latter has overshadowed and twisted the former.
Finkelstein wrote the slim volume in a matter of months early this year. The book is based on a review he wrote of "The Holocaust in American Life" by Peter Novick. Novick, who has read Finkelstein's book, dismissed it as "trash."
Finkelstein's visit happened to coincide with Remembering for the Future, perhaps the largest ever academic conference devoted to the Holocaust.
French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann was also upset at the inclusion of Finkelstein on the cultural program of the conference.
Lanzmann, who directed the documentary "Shoah," withdrew himself and his new film, "A Visitor from the Living," from the program in protest.
Finkelstein launched a scathing attack on the Claims Conference, which has negotiated for compensation from the German government and others.
"Even when they extract monies, they never give them to survivors," Finkelstein claimed.
"I fought for around 20 years to get compensation for my mother from the Claims Conference," he said.
"The most revealing and ugly thing is that, when you speak to actual victims of Nazi persecution, they all share one common demand: They want the money to be distributed by the German government, not by Jewish organizations," he said.
"The irony is that they trust the German government more than 'their own' Jewish organizations," he claimed.
Greg Schneider, an assistant executive vice president of the Claims Conference, responded to Finkelstein's criticisms by saying, "any and all of the compensation programs administered by Germany were negotiated by the Claims Conference."
He said that, even when the Jewish press had been critical of the Claims Conference for failing to distribute compensation to survivors, there has been little criticism of the organization's methods.
"I believe in a radical redistribution of the world's wealth," Finkelstein said, "But I do not believe the memory" of the victims "should be used in a shakedown racket. It's a matter of respect for the dead."
The Claims Conference's Schneider said his organization distributed about $220 million to individual survivors and $85 million to programs benefiting Holocaust survivors in 1999 alone.