The Holocaust Industry,
Reflections On The Exploitation of Jewish Suffering
(Second, Updated Edition, 2003)
By Norman Finkelstein
(Verso paperback, NY, 286 pps. with notes and appendix)
Norman Finkelstein is a professor of Political Science at DePaul University in Chicago. His previous books are Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and, A Nation on Trial.
I’ll lead off with a quote from the author’s introduction (to the First Edition): “The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable ideological weapon. Through its deployment, one of the world’s most formidable military powers [Israel], with a horrendous human rights record, has cast itself as a “victim” state, and the most successful ethnic group in the United States has likewise acquired victim status. Considerable dividends accrue from the specious victimhood-in particular, immunity to criticism, however justified.” And not only immunity to criticism, Finkelstein adds later, but great profit, both personal and financial, has accrued to the groups and persons involved in the “Holocaust Industry.”
By “Holocaust Industry” (which I will refer to without quotes from this point on), Finkelstein means organizations-their leaders and attorneys, etc., who are demanding reparations from European Governments and Corporations (particularly Swiss banks and German Corporations) for the injuries done to the Jews in Europe just before and during World War 2. This Industry includes, says the author, academics, writers and historians who make a living from the Holocaust-most prominent among them, Elie Weisel, who Finkelstein refers to as the “CEO of the Holocaust Industry.”
There are some historians, most notably Hannah Arendt and Raoul Hilberg, who have seriously questioned and denounced (in Hilberg’s case) the motives of people who would ceaselessly invoke the Holocaust to further their personal or political agendas. In addition, many Rabbis, Jewish journalists, members of Israel’s parliament, and-even more to the point-leaders of actual Holocaust survivors groups, have denounced the actions of this Holocaust Industry. As an example-The author begins his book using the following quote from Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Hillel director at Yale: “It seems to me the Holocaust is being sold-not taught.”
So, there has been, and continues to be such criticism, but no one has been so aggressive and relentless as Finkelstein in identifying and denouncing what he calls “Holocaust Profiteers.”
Now of course, the author doesn’t need to explain his motives-he is free to attack or condemn anyone he likes. But obviously he had to be aware of the overwhelming initial reaction that many people would have upon reading such a book. And that reaction (the original edition has been in print for two years) was nothing if not predictable. Finkelstein has been denounced as a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite; disgusting, repellant, a lunatic, etc.
In fact, Finkelstein seems to take a perverse pleasure in cataloguing all the curses that have been heaped upon him. It apparently gives him the feeling that he must be doing something right if people he regards as thieves and hypocrites constantly denounce him.
Naturally, one wonders, why is a Jew attacking other Jews for looking for Reparations for the crimes committed during the Holocaust? The author tells us why in his introduction to the original edition-and later amplifies this in the second edition: His parents were survivors of the Nazi ghettos and concentration camps-and he regards the “profiteering and exploitation” of the Holocaust by groups such as The World Jewish Congress and authors such as Elie Weisel as a shameful debasement and dilution of the actual horrors his parents endured. This profiteering and self-aggrandizement, as far as Finkelstein is concerned. It is an insult to the memory of his parents (and all the survivors of the Holocaust) that some “professional Jews” won’t let the Holocaust alone-won’t stop using it for their own self-aggrandizement: “My concern” says the author, “is restoring the integrity of the historical record [of the holocaust] and the sanctity of the Jewish People’s martyrdom.”
And, as a subsidiary, but vital issue, Finkelstein thinks that The Holocaust is being used as a shield and an excuse for what he sees as Israel’s great crimes against he Palestinians. He wants all this dishonest destructive behavior to stop-and so he has written this book.
I suppose the three top “criminals” in Finkelstein’s Rogues Gallery are Edgar Bronfman, president of Seagrams and a multi-billionaire, Rabbi Israel Singer, the co-chair, with Bronfman, of The World Jewish Congress and Elie Weisel, holocaust survivor and most well-known memoirist of the Holocaust. Weisel, says Finkelstein, is a shameless profiteer and distorter of facts and truth. He milks the holocaust for all its worth, getting rich off his books and lectures and lending his authority to the most egregious lies and “thefts” of the Holocaust Industry.
Edgar Bronfman was the single largest contributor to Bill Clinton’s various campaigns and it was the Clinton administration-Clinton, Madeleine Albright, etc. al. that put enormous pressure on the Swiss Banks and German and Austrian Governments to fork over billions of dollars.
Rabbi Singer and members of his family, who are on the payroll of Reparations organizations, make hundreds of thousands of dollars in their efforts to win money for Holocaust Survivors. According to the author, Rabbi Singer is so manipulative, hypocritical and downright dishonest that he literally belongs in jail.
It is hard to argue with the case Finkelstein builds in this book. To date, at least 11 Billion dollars (from suits against Swiss Banks, The German Government and Corporations) have been raised by Reparations organizations like The World Jewish Congress, and a very very tiny portion of that has ever found its way to actual survivors-many of whom live in near poverty, lack decent health care, etc. In the case of the class action lawsuits against the German Corporations (led by lawyer Bert Neuborne], many billions were collected and the actual pay-out to each Auschwitz survivor was set at $7,500 dollars!
Officers of the various organizations that “represent” the survivors get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Lawyers, most prominent among them, the aforementioned Bert Neuborne, have made millions of dollars in fees, while seeming to claim that they are working pro-bono or for low fees. The World Jewish Congress has kept most of the money won and funded all sorts of other pet projects (however laudable). These projects were never mentioned as recipients in the original lawsuits and claims. All this money has been amassed and many real survivors, according to the author’s research, remain destitute and virtually unnoticed.
At one point, to celebrate a victory in the case of the suit against the Swiss Banks, Edgar Bronfman and his friends threw an expensive VIP black-tie dinner. Survivors were not invited.
Also-and this is a major point for Finkelstein-lot of the money won in the name of survivors goes “illegally” and “immorally” to Zionist causes and the furtherance of the “criminal” policies of the State of Israel.
Finkelstein also attacks, almost with a personal hatred, other historians who, he says, have used shoddy or deliberately distorted facts to milk the Holocaust for personal gain. This animosity is the kind you can only find when one academic/intellectual is pitted against another; a fight to the death with no quarter asked or given.
The historian who comes in for the most hatred is Daniel Goldhagen who wrote a best-selling book a couple of years ago. The book was a blanket condemnation of the entire German nation, called: Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Finkelstein says, that apart from the shameful
spectacle of people like Goldhagen making money and Academic prestige from such unnecessary and untrue rehashings of the Holocaust, the books these historians write serve to support the nefarious and dishonest “blackmailing” carried out by the Holocaust Industry.
The last-and by no means least-point that Finkelstein makes is against US Corporations, the US Government and the Government of Israel. He says the both the United States and Israeli Banks were recipients of thousands of large deposits from European Jews during the Holocaust and, so far, not a penny of this money has been accounted for. In point of fact, the total amount probably owed by Israel and the US to survivors is actually larger than that owed by the Swiss. But because of obvious political/religious entanglements and realities-not a thing is being done. Furthermore, many large US Corporations like IBM, Ford, etc. al. made a great deal of money from their German subsidiaries before and during the Holocaust. To date, none have admitted their guilt (Except for Ford in a minor way) and almost no money at all have been offered in compensation.
As a sort of parenthetical observation?
There is an inescapable irony in all of this. Mr. Finkelstein himself, whatever his motives and the putative rightness of his cause, has made a pretty successful career out of all of this. He has achieved a certain degree of fame-or notoriety-depending on who’s describing him, and he is a well-known media personality and lecturer-not to mention a best-selling author. I have no idea what Finkelstein earns as a speaker (In his book he denounces Elie Weisel for charging $25,000 per lecture) but I’m sure its not an insignificant amount, and the royalties from his books must also be substantial.
One fault I find with Mr. Finkelstein’s powerful, well-researched book is that his overwhelming zeal and indignation sometimes seems to drive him to almost hysterical extremes; to propel him into statements and points of view that tend to dilute his otherwise cogent arguments. One example: In defending Swiss Bankers in their battles with the Holocaust Industry, he refers to the bankers as “prey” and says they are the victims of a “smear campaign.” Its one thing to document and decry the underhanded manipulation of Swiss banks by the Holocaust Reparations Leaders, but its quite another thing to attempt to evoke sympathy for Swiss bankers, who in fact, have long made billions by housing the illegal and ill-gotten gains of criminals throughout the world-including the Nazis.
Swiss banks did illegally retain deposits of Jews, both survivors of the Holocaust and those who died in the concentration camps. They just didn’t do it on the scale that the Reparations people are claiming. The author must have understood that he had, perhaps, gone too far with on this issue, because, in the introduction to the new edition of his book, he defends his original statements about Swiss banks; almost over defends himself, as if the criticisms really did strike a tender spot in him. In fact-another irony-in the course of his defense, he almost immediately invokes the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust as a reason for his excesses-not too different than the people he attacks.
The author, in his rage at other Academics and “apologists” for Israel, even attacks universally accepted facts of classic European anti-Semitism. Here’s a quote from the conclusion: “The abnormality of the Nazi holocaust springs not from the event itself [my italics] but from the exploitative industry that has grown up around it.” Finkelstein says that it (anti-Semitism) may not have been completely irrational and all-pervasive in pre-war Germany, as charged (and documented) by Daniel Goldhagen, Raoul Hilberg, Lucy Davidowicz and hundreds of other scholars, historians-not to mention tens of thousands of survivors. Finkelstein’s zeal and moral outrage, the forces that drive him to attack and deflate the arguments of the Holocaust Industry, sometimes, in my opinion, carry him too far, almost to the point of denying the very real historical fact of Europe’s massive, irrational and violent antipathy toward Jews. In doing this he is, whether unconsciously or not, placing him on a particularly noxious continuum-whose extreme furthest point is total denial of the Holocaust.
There is one other general problem with the book, and its purely one of tone rather than substance. But it’s a tone that, for me, casts something of a cloud over the substance. Finkelstein burns with outrage over the “crimes” of his subjects. He fumes and fulminates when he recounts the disgusting misdeeds of The Holocaust Industry. And yet, for all this heat, there is, in his writing, a kind of coldness, a curious lack of humanity (in the sense of generosity or mercy). The author sees things as black or white, never in shades of gray. Granted, his subject involves great and terrible misdeeds, but in judging the culprits he displays a kind of Old Testament vengeance. It’s the very same attitude that many of the Reparations people have and it’s the very same attitude that prevails on both sides of the current Israeli Palestinian crisis.
Why the author should be this way is, naturally, a mystery, since he chooses to reveal very little about himself-concentrating only on external facts. As far as I’m concerned, there is no subject or issue or argument that exists purely in the realm of fact; personal background and emotions always enter into things. The following quote is from the dedication in his first book, Image and Reality of Israel-Palestine Conflict: To My Beloved Parents, Maryla Husyt Finkelstein, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Maidanek concentration Camp, and Zacharias Finkelstein, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz concentration camp. May I never forget or forgive.”
So-a final irony. Finkelstein, in The Holocaust Industry, wants Jews to leave the Holocaust alone-stop memorializing it, stop exploiting it. He wants them to let it rest in the past; let the dead bury the dead so to speak. Yet he himself is unforgiving. Nothing will ever rest in the past which is not forgiven.
In any case, whatever my questions about Mr. Finkelstein’s motives or my reaction to his over-the-top zealotry, I do strongly recommend this book. Finkelstein is a great documenter, researcher and debater-in the classical academic tradition. He was obviously trained, like most academics, to “defend” his dissertation, and he uses mountains of quotes, charts, graphs, statistical comparisons, etc. to document his case. I am not well versed enough in this field to confirm or deny his facts and figures, but they are impressive as they stand.
It may be shocking for people who have no idea about all of these events to see what Mr. Finkelstein has to say, but that’s something that often happens when a universally accepted sentiment or point of view is so aggressively challenged. And the book is, if nothing else, a textbook study of the all-too-human traits of political manipulation, exploitation, greed, and hypocrisy.
It only remains to say that If Mr. Finkelstein finds any of my comments off base, misinformed or objectionable, he’ll have a chance to tell me in person. I’ve invited him to be interviewed on my program* in November-and I’m awaiting confirmation from his publisher.
*(WBAI, 99.5 FM, Sunday mornings from 11:00am till Noon)
– Mike Feder (New York City – October 10, 2003)