With his clever, explosive and sometimes even wryly funny little book, “The Holocaust Industry,” Norman G. Finkelstein, the 47-year-old enfant terrible of Holocaust studies from Brooklyn, N.Y., hit a nerve. Such a big nerve, in fact, that it caused a blackout of virtually all intellectual circuits — at least in this country.
Finkelstein’s main and most devastating charge is that “American Jewish elites” and organizations are extorting billions of dollars from European countries and corporations in the name of “needy Holocaust survivors” in order to fund Holocaust programs, Holocaust memorials, Holocaust studies, Holocaust literature and, in general, “the Jewish community.” Together they form not just a cottage industry but a full-fledged “Holocaust industry” sustained by a persistent ideology of “Holocaust correctness” that serves “certain class and political interests.” Instead of helping the Jewish cause, Finkelstein goes on to argue, the Holocaust industry has become “the main fomenter of anti-Semitism in Europe” by spreading an image of greedy Jews.
While the book created a firestorm all over Europe, notably in England and Germany, in the U.S. a deafening silence has descended on it. Nobody wants to touch it. Whereas Finkelstein first got mostly negative and later mostly positive reviews in major European newspapers and magazines, and was given various opportunities to debate his adversaries, here he hardly got any reviews (in spite of the 250 review copies he helped his small publisher mail out to critics).
Well, the New York Times did one. It reserved a full page in its Sunday Book Review to compare the book to “The Protocol of the Elders of Zion,” a notorious anti-Semitic work, and called its author “indecent,” “juvenile,” “self-righteous,” “arrogant” and “stupid.”
“I’ve looked it up; this review is worse than the one of ‘Mein Kampf,’” says Finkelstein, in his high-pitched voice, full of moral indignation.
Finkelstein’s theory that the memory of the Nazi Holocaust is being abused for political, moral and financial blackmail could only spring from a deep-rooted anti-Zionism and/or his own personal psychological problems, most American intellectuals silently seem to agree. Not surprisingly, Finkelstein has received death threats from fanatics within the Jewish community and heard Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, say, “Mr. Finkelstein is full of shit” before the nightly television news in Germany.
Finkelstein, educated at Princeton and in Paris but now teaching his “comrades-students” about Marxism and Nazism as an adjunct political science professor at Hunter College in New York, is used to being trashed. In his 1998 essay, “A Nation on Trial,” he carefully took apart Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 bestseller, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” When New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier heard about it, he advised Finkelstein’s publisher, Michael Naumann of Henry Holt, that the author was “poison, a disgusting self-hating Jew, something you find under a rock.”
“I’m thick-skinned; I got that from my parents,” Finkelstein says, in his tiny apartment decorated with pictures of his father, who survived Auschwitz, and his mother, who survived Majdanek, on one wall and a poster of Charlie Chaplin on the other. “I try not to lose my sense of humor. When everyone keeps saying you’re ugly, first you think they’re jealous. But after a while you start thinking that you’re really ugly.”
Usually there are two sides in a controversy. But it seems you are the only one on yours.
I’m being censured. This is the Holocaust industry at work. Almost everyone I name is a beneficiary of the Holocaust industry. But I bet they feel like the ground beneath them is trembling.
Today I did get some positive feedback, though, from professor Raul Hilberg, an expert on the Holocaust and a conservative Republican at that, so since I am a person of the left, his support cannot be partisan. A Brazilian journalist asked him about my book. Hilberg said Jewish organizations have gone too far with their compensation claims and that they overestimate the number of Holocaust survivors. He calls this form of exploitation obscene. Now, I didn’t even use that word.
Your “J’Accuse” — or rant, depending on your viewpoint — doesn’t only target “corrupt” Jewish organizations like the World Jewish Congress and its leaders, such as billionaire Edgar Bronfman and real estate tycoon Israel Singer. You also attack Elie Wiesel. Why?
Elie Wiesel is such a ridiculous character. In private Elie Wiesel is the subject of much ridicule. The expression “There’s no business like Shoah-business” is literally coined for him. So it’s not as if I’m the first one to call the emperor naked, but in public — yes.
Isn’t it a cheap shot to attack him on his lecture fee of “$25,000, plus limousine”?
Why is that a cheap shot? He’s turned it into a business, where he casts himself as a person who’s doing all this from anguish and pain and personal sacrifice, while he has made a fortune out of it. If it were a cheap shot, he wouldn’t invest so much in denying it. With a cheap shot he would just have dismissed it. In the U.K. he was asked about it all the time and he was really — what I would call — in denial. [Laughs] He always tells people, after referring to his childhood in Buchenwald, that he is living very modestly in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He has his books. But of course he forgets to say that such an apartment is costing him thousands of dollars a month.
You’re calling him a liar because he says he read Immanuel Kant’s “Kritik der Reinen Vernunft” (“A Critique of Pure Reason”) in Yiddish, while you say there is no Yiddish translation of that book.
Wiesel claims to be a Kant scholar. He says that when he was a teenager, girls were running away from him because all he could do was talk about Kant. I suspect they had other motives, but leaving that aside for a moment …
But Wiesel claims that there is a Yiddish translation — a book called “Kant’s Etik,” published in 1929 in Warsaw. It’s on his bookshelf.
Absolutely correct! Now, I don’t want to pour cold water on your parade, but what was published in Warsaw in 1929 was Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason.” One chapter, 60 pages … I know that! My sources are: 1) the Widener Library at Harvard, 2) the Yivo Library in New York — the largest Yiddish library in the world — and 3) the Hebrew University Library. Everybody agrees on that. There is no dispute. The “Etik” comes from Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason.” Confusing the two Kant books is like a Tolstoy scholar having read one chapter of “Anna Karenina” and confusing it with the whole of “War and Peace.” That’s ridiculous!
On a more relevant note, Wiesel defenders argue that thanks to people like him, we understand more about genocides around the world.
Thanks to Elie Wiesel we have a distorted and disfigured and frankly meaningless version of the Nazi Holocaust and we only know about those genocides that serve the interest of the U.S. and Israel, and we forget the ones that don’t.
Don’t you think these personal attacks spoil your main argument?
Obviously, there is no accounting for taste. I think I lay out my argument really simply, in three parts. The first concerns the question of why the Holocaust came to the U.S. only after the Six Day War in 1967. If you agree that the Holocaust served as an ideological weapon in the Palestinian conflict, the next question is how. I mean, the Holocaust could also be used for other reasons. For instance, my parents used it to defend certain Palestinian rights. The second part deals with how the Nazi Holocaust is ideologically recast to serve certain political ends. Which is new, because I’m the first one, I think, to have established what I call a “Holocaust framework” — a distinction between Holocaust scholarship and Holocaust literature. This latter literature, to which Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” also belongs, has two dogmas at its core: the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the gentiles’ eternal irrational hatred of the Jews.
It’s a very small step from “Holocaust framework” to “Holocaust conspiracy.”
Why? If you come across a body of literature with no historical merit, the question arises, Cui bono? Who benefits from it? For example, if you look at 19th century literature on race, eugenics and so forth, once you’ve demonstrated that it has no scientific, historical or artistic value, you realize that it only exists to serve certain political and ideological goals. These are such obvious questions in any other context. It’s called the sociology of ideas.
Could the success of Goldhagen’s book also be at least partly due to an almost masochistic feeling of guilt in certain parts of Europe?
It could, but it’s not probable. And besides, the book was a bestseller in the U.S. too, and America had nothing to do with the Holocaust.
Let me give you a mental game. A large number of individuals claim that the success of Goldhagen’s book was due to the simplicity of its thesis: All Germans were anti-Semitic monsters waiting for Hitler to give them the green light to start killing Jews. Now let’s argue for the sake of argument that Goldhagen had said exactly the opposite: that the Holocaust was the work of Hitler and his henchmen, and that the whole nation was coerced into going along.
Now the title of his book would have then been “Hitler’s Unwilling Executioners.” Would the book have achieved the same success? No. Why? Because it was something about the way in which he carved out a simple thesis that made it so compelling. Even though reading the book feels like chewing on tinfoil, its thesis turned out to be ideologically very convenient. It is the same thing Cynthia Ozick said after the 1973 war [when Syria and Egypt attacked Israel]: Why does everybody hate Israel? Simple answer: All the world wants to wipe out the Jews.
If you see hidden motives everywhere, a conspiracy theory is around the corner.
The mechanisms of ideological control are very complex. This is what a close friend of mine, professor Noam Chomsky, calls the manufacture of consent. I’m not dealing with that. I ask myself: If this is an ideology, whose interest does it serve?
The problem with a conspiracy theory is that it can’t be falsified. Everything, or nothing, supports it.
I’m not sure why you’re invoking the conspiracy theory. Look, whenever you show patterns, whenever you go beyond the spontaneous actions of people, you hear conspiracy theory! I think that there’s more to history than just the spontaneous actions of people.
You’re a historian, right?
I’m many things.
If you’re a historian, why didn’t you write a serious study about the subject? Why didn’t you do research yourself? Interview people, etc.?
Why should I interview people?
To find the truth.
Elan Steinberg was enraged that I didn’t interview him. Why would I? I call him a master of disinformation. He has nothing interesting to tell me. I can easily do without him.
So what made you write this book?
This book is a result of 15 years of reflection. While I was working to get financial compensation for my mother, I listed on a piece of paper around 60 things that really bothered me about the Holocaust business. One of these was the whole notion of “survivors.” In the early days, I knew that a lot of Jews were stretching it a bit in order to be considered as “survivors” under the German reparation laws. If you were in the Soviet Union during the war, you weren’t eligible. So I knew people had falsified their papers — which was fairly easy because there was no way to prove it. The only numbers there were were from Auschwitz.
So for a piece I did about the reparations issue, I looked in the old agreements, from the ’50s, the Luxembourg Agreements. The German government paid in all about $50 billion. And in addition it gave $10 million a year between 1953 and 1965 to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — a billion dollars in current values. The Germans said that only 15 percent of this money went to the victims. The large chunk of the rest of it, according to Ronald Zweig, an expert on the subject, went to Jewish communities in the Arab world, such as Iraq, and institutions such as Yad Vashem in Israel.
You know why they didn’t give everything to the survivors? That’s what is so amusing. They said there weren’t any victims anymore. All their needs had been met. So the irony is, after misappropriating the money in the ’50s because there weren’t any more victims, now they claim all these needy Holocaust victims have languished in poverty all these years, because the Germans gave them no money. I find that funny.
Your mother received $3,500 from the German government right after the war. What happened?
In the ’50s my mother, a mathematician who worked for Chase Manhattan Bank, was diagnosed by a doctor — I believe it was a Jewish doctor — as having extreme hysteria, but this was not from her experiences in Majdanek, she was told, but from her difficulty with adjusting in the U.S. — which is, of course, a filthy diagnosis. The Claims Conference was exactly designed to pay out money to people like my mother, who were either unfairly or inadequately compensated by the initial reparations. Cases like hers were being corrected by giving a lump sum. But she didn’t get a penny. Only so-called outstanding Jewish leaders and rabbis got anything.
My father got injured in Auschwitz and was given a lifetime pension by the Germans. They delivered the money promptly and efficiently. I still remember the blue envelopes from Trier. My father had Alzheimer’s near the end of his life and I was his guardian. Every three months I had to go to the German consulate to pick up his checks and to prove that he was still alive. At the end of his life it came down to $600 a month. All in all, $250,000 during his lifetime.
All the survivors I talk to — the Finkelstein residence quickly became known as CCBC, Claims Conference Buster Central — say the same thing: We want the money that was distributed by the German government; we don’t want the money given to the Jewish organizations. I think that is one of the most devastating insights on the Holocaust industry — that the victims of Nazi persecution trust the German government more than they do the Jewish organizations.
On the one hand you complain about Jewish organizations claiming too much money; on the other you complain that people like your mother didn’t get enough.
Some people misinterpret my book as saying I’m against compensation. Oh no, I’m not! I’m all for compensation. But it should only go to the real victims, and not to pseudo victims or to Jewish communities and organizations.
Your parents are Holocaust survivors. Doesn’t that make you a second-generation survivor?
I think such a concept is repulsive. That’s simply an effort to milk the Holocaust for another generation. If I had ever said that to my mother, she would have given me a good smack in the face! And rightfully so!
You suggest but never state explicitly that only camp survivors are real Holocaust survivors. What about Jews who fled to the Soviet Union, came back and had nothing — why not call them “Holocaust survivors” as well?
Fine, then we should call Palestinians “Holocaust survivors.” If you make the definition so elastic, so flexible that it includes refugees, then you should count them all.
That wouldn’t be fair to the real survivors.
It’s not a question of fair. You can’t argue on the one hand that the Holocaust is fraught with moral meaning, and then trivialize the term “Holocaust survivor” by including everyone. There is a difference whether you spent the war on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, like Mr. Kissinger, or you spent it in Auschwitz.
Mr. Kissinger is not calling himself a survivor, is he?
Since Hitler targeted all of world Jewry, Israel Singer says, anybody who has survived is a Holocaust survivor. But I would say, what about all the Vietnamese people who suffered from the politics of Mr. Kissinger? Are they Holocaust survivors? No, no, we can’t call them that. Do you think the Vietnamese received one nickel of compensation? Forget it. The U.S. won’t even officially apologize.
You go a step further and argue that the “Holocaust industry” has become an even bigger Holocaust denier than the usual Holocaust deniers. How so?
The official number of Holocaust survivors the Israeli government now gives is a million. Or 960,000, to be exact. At the same time Jewish organizations have been claiming, since the early ’90s, that 10,000 die each month. So that would mean that in 1990 there were 2 million survivors left. In 1990, not more that a quarter could be alive from World War II. That means 8 million in May 1945. Well, there were fewer than 8 million Jews in all of Nazi-occupied Europe. In other words, if these numbers are correct, the Holocaust didn’t happen. As my mother used to say, if everyone who claims to be a Holocaust survivor actually is one, who did Hitler kill?
In 1998, Swiss banks restituted $1.25 billion to Jewish organizations for dormant Jewish accounts. Should they get their money back?
The case should have been handled by the international Claims Resolution Tribunal, instead of by the World Jewish Restitution Organization. They could have processed the claims and given out the money to those who deserve it.
By the way, nobody noticed one of the most interesting revelations in the book: that banks in the U.S. also sit on dormant Jewish accounts from the war. It’s not even my own finding. It’s on Page 2 of the Volcker Report [the $500 million audit report on Switzerland that came out in 1999]. It amounts to $6 million, of which only $500,000 is going to be paid. In other words, the American record is worse than the Swiss! That’s what Seymour Rubin, American delegate during the negotiations, testified to the House Banking Committee. Not a word reported anywhere. Not a word.
What American banks are involved?
Nobody knows. We have to do a $500 million research report just like the Swiss to find out. We might never. We would be on a slow boat to Munich.
You are totally opposed to the claims that are now being laid on property owned by the 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland. Your family is from Poland. You could get some money back after all.
No! It never occurred to us. We don’t want the money. My mother’s father owned a little tobacco store, my father’s father owned a little lumber mill. Jewish organizations are claiming back my grandparents’ property without asking our permission. We never gave our sanction! It’s grave robbery!
I say: Enough. The American Jewish community is rich enough. It doesn’t need to evict Polish peasants from their land, Polish tenants from their homes and Polish sick from the hospitals for more money. They have plenty of money. Mr. Bronfman just sold Seagram for $27 billion. That’s plenty. You don’t have to impoverish Polish people even more.
What if your grandparents’ lumber mill is owned not by a poor Polish family but by a wealthy former Communist apparatchik? Still not interested?
That wouldn’t make any difference.
Have you ever been to Auschwitz?
No. I’ve lived with the Holocaust for 40 years. That’s enough. I don’t need to have more of it. I’m not like one of those second-generation Holocaust victims that go lie in a gas oven.
Have you seen “Schindler’s List”?
I never had the nerves. I tried to see some of those films. I started with “Sophie’s Choice.” I left after 40 minutes. I thought it was vulgar. I didn’t see Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” but my parents saw it and they both liked it very much.
Your book is meant to preserve the legacy of your parents, who both died in 1995. Would they have been pleased by the book?
My mother was one of the smartest people I’ve known. I put a lot of her wisdom in the book, so I think she would have liked it. I don’t know about my father. He didn’t say much. Perhaps both of my parents, like most Holocaust survivors, would have had a little difficulty with my views on Israel, which is perfectly understandable.
Weren’t you afraid that your book would fall into the wrong hands and be used against exactly the causes you stand for?
I thought about that. I recognize that problems can arise from the book. I had to do a kind of moral balancing act. I asked myself: Which poses the greater danger now, the Holocaust industry or the Holocaust deniers? Actually, what I wanted to do is disarm the Holocaust industry and the Holocaust deniers at the same time.
How are you disarming the Holocaust deniers? Now they say: “Told you so.”
If David Irving [the British Holocaust denier] is saying, “Well, an Auschwitz survivor is born every day,” he can say that, because if you look at the numbers of the Holocaust industry, it’s true. The way you defang the deniers is by scrupulously preserving the historical record.
The only way we can learn from the Holocaust is by restoring it as a rational object of historical inquiry, and the only way we can do that is by putting the Holocaust industry out of business.