Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Sufferingby Norman G. Finkelstein
In a devastating new postscript to this best-selling book, Norman G. Finkelstein documents the Holocaust industry's scandalous cover-up of the blackmail of Swiss banks, and in a new appendix demolishes an influential apologia for the Holocaust industry.See more details below
In a devastating new postscript to this best-selling book, Norman G. Finkelstein documents the Holocaust industry's scandalous cover-up of the blackmail of Swiss banks, and in a new appendix demolishes an influential apologia for the Holocaust industry.
“The most controversial book of the year.”—The Guardian
“His basic argument that memories of the Holocaust are being debased is serious and should be given its due.”—The Economist
“Finkelstein’s downright pugilistic book delivers a wallop.”—LA Weekly
“Breathtaking in [its] angry accuracy and irony.”—The Jewish Quarterly
“A lucid, provocative and passionate book.”—New Statesman
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Read an Excerpt
In a memorable exchange some years back, Gore Vidal accused Norman Podhoretz, then-editor of the American Jewish Committee publication Commentary, of being un-American. The evidence was that Podhoretz attached less importance to the Civil War "the great single tragic event that continues to give resonance to our Republic" than to Jewish concerns. Yet Podhoretz was perhaps more American than his accuser. For by then it was the "War Against the Jews," not the "War Between the States," that figured as more central to American cultural life. Most college professors can testify that compared to the Civil War many more undergraduates are able to place the Nazi holocaust in the right century and generally cite the number killed. In fact, the Nazi holocaust is just about the only historical reference that resonates in a university classroom today. Polls show that many more Americans can identify The Holocaust than Pearl Harbor or the atomic bombing of Japan.
Until fairly recently, however, the Nazi holocaust barely figured in American life. Between the end of World War II and the late 1960s, only a handful of books and films touched on the subject. There was only one university course offering in the United States on the topic. When Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, she could draw on only two scholarly studies in the English language Gerald Reitlinger's The Final Solution and Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews. Hilberg's masterpiece itself just managed to see the light of day. His thesis advisor at ColumbiaUniversity, the German-Jewish social theorist Franz Neumann, strongly discouraged him from writing on the topic ("It's your funeral"), and no university or mainstream publisher would touch the completed manuscript. When it was finally published, The Destruction of the European Jews received only a few, mostly critical, notices.
Not only Americans in general but also American Jews, including Jewish intellectuals, paid the Nazi holocaust little heed. In an authoritative 1957 survey, sociologist Nathan Glazer reported that the Nazi Final Solution (as well as Israel) "had remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry." In a 1961 Commentary symposium on "Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals," only two of thirty-one contributors stressed its impact. Likewise, a 1961 roundtable convened by the journal Judaism of twenty-one observant American Jews on "My Jewish Affirmation" almost completely ignored the subject. No monuments or tributes marked the Nazi holocaust in the United States. To the contrary, major Jewish organizations opposed such memorialization. The question is, Why?
The standard explanation is that Jews were traumatized by the Nazi holocaust and therefore repressed the memory of it. In fact, there is no evidence to support this conclusion. No doubt some survivors did not then or, for that matter, in later years want to speak about what had happened. Many others, however, very much wanted to speak and, once the occasion availed itself, wouldn't stop speaking. The problem was that Americans didn't want to listen.
The real reason for public silence on the Nazi extermination was the conformist policies of the American Jewish leadership and the political climate of postwar America. In both domestic and international affairs American Jewish elites hewed closely to official US policy. Doing so in effect facilitated the traditional goals of assimilation and access to power. With the inception of the Cold War, mainstream Jewish organizations jumped into the fray. American Jewish elites "forgot" the Nazi holocaust because Germany West Germany by 1949 became a crucial postwar American ally in the US confrontation with the Soviet Union. Dredging up the past served no useful purpose; in fact it complicated matters.
With minor reservations (soon discarded), major American Jewish organizations quickly fell into line with US support for a rearmed and barely de-Nazified Germany. The American Jewish Committee (AJC), fearful that "any organized opposition of American Jews against the new foreign policy and strategic approach could isolate them in the eyes of the non-Jewish majority and endanger their postwar achievements on the domestic scene," was the first to preach the virtues of realignment. The pro-Zionist World Jewish Congress (WJC) and its American affiliate dropped opposition after signing compensation agreements with Germany in the early 1950s, while the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was the first major Jewish organization to send an official delegation to Germany, in 1954. Together these organizations collaborated with the Bonn government to contain the "anti-German wave" of Jewish popular sentiment.
The Final Solution was a taboo topic of American Jewish elites for yet another reason. Leftist Jews, who were opposed to the Cold War alignment with Germany against the Soviet Union, would not stop harping on it. Remembrance of the Nazi holocaust was tagged as a Communist cause. Strapped with the stereotype that conflated Jews with the Left in fact, Jews did account for a third of the vote for progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948 American Jewish elites did not shrink from sacrificing fellow Jews on the altar of anti-Communism. Offering their files on alleged Jewish subversives to government agencies, the AJC and the ADL actively collaborated in the McCarthy-era witch-hunt. The AJC endorsed the death penalty for the Rosenbergs, while its monthly publication, Commentary, editorialized that they weren't really Jews.
Fearful of association with the political Left abroad and at home, mainstream Jewish organizations opposed cooperation with anti-Nazi German social-democrats as well as boycotts of German manufactures and public demonstrations against ex-Nazis touring the United States. On the other hand, prominent visiting German dissidents like Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, who had spent eight years in Nazi concentration camps and was now against the anti-Communist crusade, suffered the obloquy of American Jewish leaders. Anxious to boost their anti-Communist credentials, Jewish elites even enlisted in, and financially sustained, right-wing extremist organizations like the All-American Conference to Combat Communism and turned a blind eye as veterans of the Nazi SS entered the country.
Ever anxious to ingratiate themselves with US ruling elites and dissociate themselves from the Jewish Left, organized American Jewry did invoke the Nazi holocaust in one special context: to denounce the USSR. "Soviet [anti-Jewish] policy opens up opportunities which must not be overlooked," an internal AJC memorandum quoted by Novick gleefully noted, "to reinforce certain aspects of AJC domestic program." Typically, that meant bracketing the Nazi Final Solution with Russian anti-Semitism. "Stalin will succeed where Hitler failed," Commentary direly predicted. "He will finally wipe out the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.... The parallel with the policy of Nazi extermination is almost complete." Major American Jewish organizations even denounced the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary as "only the first station on the way to a Russian Auschwitz."
* * *
Everything changed with the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. By virtually all accounts, it was only after this conflict that The Holocaust became a fixture in American Jewish life. The standard explanation of this transformation is that Israel's extreme isolation and vulnerability during the June war revived memories of the Nazi extermination. In fact, this analysis misrepresents both the reality of Mideast power relations at the time and the nature of the evolving relationship between American Jewish elites and Israel.
Just as mainstream American Jewish organizations downplayed the Nazi holocaust in the years after World War II to conform to the US government's Cold War priorities, so their attitude to Israel kept in step with US policy. From early on, American Jewish elites harbored profound misgivings about a Jewish state. Uppermost was their fear that it would lend credence to the "dual loyalty" charge. As the Cold War intensified, these worries multiplied. Already before the founding of Israel, American Jewish leaders voiced concern that its largely Eastern European, left-wing leadership would join the Soviet camp. Although they eventually embraced the Zionist-led campaign for statehood, American Jewish organizations closely monitored and adjusted to signals from Washington. Indeed, the AJC supported Israel's founding mainly out of fear that a domestic backlash against Jews might ensue if the Jewish DPs in Europe were not quickly settled. Although Israel aligned with the West soon after the state was formed, many Israelis in and out of government retained strong affection for the Soviet Union; predictably, American Jewish leaders kept Israel at arm's length.
From its founding in 1948 through the June 1967 war, Israel did not figure centrally in American strategic planning. As the Palestinian Jewish leadership prepared to declare statehood, President Truman waffled, weighing domestic considerations (the Jewish vote) against State Department alarm (support for a Jewish state would alienate the Arab world). To secure US interests in the Middle East, the Eisenhower Administration balanced support for Israel and for Arab nations, favoring, however, the Arabs.
Intermittent Israeli clashes with the United States over policy issues culminated in the Suez crisis of 1956, when Israel colluded with Britain and France to attack Egypt's nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although Israel's lightning victory and seizure of the Sinai Peninsula drew general attention to its strategic potential, the United States still counted it as only one among several regional assets. Accordingly, President Eisenhower forced Israel's full, virtually unconditional withdrawal from the Sinai. During the crisis, American Jewish leaders did briefly back Israeli efforts to wrest American concessions, but ultimately, as Arthur Hertzberg recalls, they "preferred to counsel Israel to heed [Eisenhower] rather than oppose the wishes of the leader of the United States."
Except as an occasional object of charity, Israel practically dropped from sight in American Jewish life soon after the founding of the state. In fact, Israel was not important to American Jews. In his 1957 survey, Nathan Glazer reported that Israel "had remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry." Membership in the Zionist Organization of America dropped from the hundreds of thousands in 1948 to the tens of thousands in the 1960s. Only 1 in 20 American Jews cared to visit Israel before June 1967. In his 1956 reelection, which occurred immediately after he forced Israel's humiliating withdrawal from the Sinai, the already considerable Jewish support for Eisenhower increased. In the early 1960s, Israel even faced a drubbing for the Eichmann kidnaping from sections of elite Jewish opinion like Joseph Proskauer, past president of the AJC, Harvard historian Oscar Handlin and the Jewish-owned Washington Post. "The kidnaping of Eichmann," Erich Fromm opined, "is an act of lawlessness of exactly the type of which the Nazis themselves ... have been guilty."
Across the political spectrum, American Jewish intellectuals proved especially indifferent to Israel's fate. Detailed studies of the left-liberal New York Jewish intellectual scene through the 1960s barely mention Israel. Just before the June war, the AJC sponsored a symposium on "Jewish Identity Here and Now." Only three of the thirty-one "best minds in the Jewish community" even alluded to Israel; two of them did so only to dismiss its relevance. Telling irony: just about the only two public Jewish intellectuals who had forged a bond with Israel before June 1967 were Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky.
Then came the June war. Impressed by Israel's overwhelming display of force, the United States moved to incorporate it as a strategic asset. (Already before the June war the United States had cautiously tilted toward Israel as the Egyptian and Syrian regimes charted an increasingly independent course in the mid-1960s.) Military and economic assistance began to pour in as Israel turned into a proxy for US power in the Middle East.
For American Jewish elites, Israel's subordination to US power was a windfall. Zionism had sprung from the premise that assimilation was a pipe dream, that Jews would always be perceived as potentially disloyal aliens. To resolve this dilemma, Zionists sought to establish a homeland for the Jews. In fact, Israel's founding exacerbated the problem, at any rate for diaspora Jewry: it gave the charge of dual loyalty institutional expression. Paradoxically, after June 1967, Israel facilitated assimilation in the United States: Jews now stood on the front lines defending America indeed, "Western civilization" against the retrograde Arab hordes. Whereas before 1967 Israel conjured the bogy of dual loyalty, it now connoted super-loyalty. After all, it was not Americans but Israelis fighting and dying to protect US interests. And unlike the American GIs in Vietnam, Israeli fighters were not being humiliated by Third World upstarts.
Accordingly, American Jewish elites suddenly discovered Israel. After the 1967 war, Israel's military élan could be celebrated because its guns pointed in the right direction against America's enemies. Its martial prowess might even facilitate entry into the inner sanctums of American power. Previously Jewish elites could only offer a few lists of Jewish subversives; now, they could pose as the natural interlocutors for America's newest strategic asset. From bit players, they could advance to top billing in the Cold War drama. Thus for American Jewry, as well as the United States, Israel became a strategic asset.
In a memoir published just before the June war, Norman Podhoretz giddily recalled attending a state dinner at the White House that "included not a single person who was not visibly and absolutely beside himself with delight to be there." Although already editor of the leading American Jewish periodical, Commentary, his memoir includes only one fleeting allusion to Israel. What did Israel have to offer an ambitious American Jew? In a later memoir, Podhoretz remembered that after June 1967 Israel became "the religion of the American Jews." Now a prominent supporter of Israel, Podhoretz could boast not merely of attending a White House dinner but of meeting tête-à-tête with the President to deliberate on the National Interest.
After the June war, mainstream American Jewish organizations worked full time to firm up the American-Israeli alliance. In the case of the ADL, this included a far-flung domestic surveillance operation with ties to Israeli and South African intelligence. Coverage of Israel in The New York Times increased dramatically after June 1967. The 1955 and 1965 entries for Israel in The New York Times Index each filled 60 column inches. The entry for Israel in 1975 ran to fully 260 column inches. "When I want to feel better," Wiesel reflected in 1973, "I turn to the Israeli items in The New York Times." Like Podhoretz, many mainstream American Jewish intellectuals also suddenly found "religion" after the June war. Novick reports that Lucy Dawidowicz, the doyenne of Holocaust literature, had once been a "sharp critic of Israel." Israel could not demand reparations from Germany, she railed in 1953, while evading responsibility for displaced Palestinians: "Morality cannot be that flexible." Yet almost immediately after the June war, Dawidowicz became a "fervent supporter of Israel," acclaiming it as "the corporate paradigm for the ideal image of the Jew in the modern world."
A favorite posture of the post-1967 born-again Zionists was tacitly to juxtapose their own outspoken support for a supposedly beleaguered Israel against the cravenness of American Jewry during The Holocaust. In fact, they were doing exactly what American Jewish elites had always done: marching in lockstep with American power. The educated classes proved particularly adept at striking heroic poses. Consider the prominent left-liberal social critic Irving Howe. In 1956 the journal Howe edited, Dissent, condemned the "combined attack on Egypt" as "immoral." Although truly standing alone, Israel was also taken to task for "cultural chauvinism," a "quasi-messianic sense of manifest destiny," and "an undercurrent of expansionism." After the October 1973 war, when American support for Israel peaked, Howe published a personal manifesto "filled with anxiety so intense" in defense of isolated Israel. The Gentile world, he lamented in a Woody Allen-like parody, was awash with anti-Semitism. Even in Upper Manhattan, he lamented, Israel was "no longer chic": everyone, apart from himself, was allegedly in thrall to Mao, Fanon and Guevara.
As America's strategic asset, Israel was not without critics. Besides the increasing international censure of its refusal to negotiate a settlement with the Arabs in accordance with United Nations resolutions and its truculent support of American global ambitions, Israel had to cope with domestic US dissent as well. In American ruling circles, so-called Arabists maintained that putting all the eggs in the Israel basket while ignoring Arab elites undermined US national interests.
Some argued that Israel's subordination to US power and occupation of neighboring Arab states were not only wrong in principle but also harmful to its own interests. Israel would become increasingly militarized and alienated from the Arab world. For Israel's new American Jewish "supporters," however, such talk bordered on heresy: an independent Israel at peace with its neighbors was worthless; an Israel aligned with currents in the Arab world seeking independence from the United States was a disaster. Only an Israeli Sparta beholden to American power would do, because only then could US Jewish leaders act as the spokesmen for American imperial ambitions. Noam Chomsky has suggested that these "supporters of Israel" should more properly be called "supporters of the moral degeneration and ultimate destruction of Israel.
To protect their strategic asset, American Jewish elites "remembered" The Holocaust. The conventional account is that they did so because, at the time of the June war, they believed Israel to be in mortal danger and were thus gripped by fears of a "second Holocaust." This claim does not withstand scrutiny.
Consider the first Arab-Israeli war. On the eve of independence in 1948, the threat against Palestinian Jews seemed far more ominous. David Ben-Gurion declared that "700,000 Jews" were "pitted against 27 million Arabs one against forty." The United States joined a UN arms embargo on the region, solidifying a clear edge in weaponry enjoyed by the Arab armies. Fears of another Nazi Final Solution haunted American Jewry. Deploring that the Arab states were now "arming Hitler's henchman, the Mufti, while the United States was enforcing its arms embargo," the AJC anticipated "mass suicide and a complete holocaust in Palestine." Even Secretary of State George Marshall and the CIA openly predicted certain Jewish defeat in the event of war. Although the "stronger side, in fact, won" (historian Benny Morris), it was not a walkover for Israel. During the first months of the war, in early 1948, and especially as independence was declared in May, Israel's chances for survival were put at "fifty-fifty" by Yigael Yadin, Haganah chief of operations. Without a secret Czech arms deal, Israel would likely not have survived. After fighting for a year, Israel suffered 6,000 casualties, one percent of its population. Why, then, did The Holocaust not become a focus of American Jewish life after the 1948 war?
Israel quickly proved to be far less vulnerable in 1967 than in its independence struggle. Israeli and American leaders knew beforehand that Israel would easily prevail in a war with the Arab states. This reality became strikingly obvious as Israel routed its Arab neighbors in a few days. As Novick reports, "There were surprisingly few explicit references to the Holocaust in American Jewish mobilization on behalf of Israel before the war." The Holocaust industry sprung up only after Israel's overwhelming display of military dominance and flourished amid extreme Israeli triumphalism. The standard interpretative framework cannot explain these anomalies.
Israel's shocking initial reverses and substantial casualties during, and increasing international isolation after, the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war conventional accounts maintain exacerbated American Jewish fears of Israel's vulnerability. Accordingly, Holocaust memory now moved center stage. Novick typically reports: "Among American Jews ... the situation of a vulnerable and isolated Israel came to be seen as terrifyingly similar to that of European Jewry thirty years earlier.... [T]alk of the Holocaust not only `took off' in America but became increasing [sic] institutionalized." Yet Israel had edged close to the precipice and, in both relative and absolute terms, suffered many more casualties in the 1948 war than in 1973.
True, except for its alliance with the US, Israel was out of favor internationally after the October 1973 war. Compare, however, the 1956 Suez war. Israel and organized American Jewry alleged that, on the eve of the Sinai invasion, Egypt threatened Israel's very existence, and that a full Israeli withdrawal from Sinai would fatally undermine Israel's vital interests: her survival as a state." The international community nonetheless stood firm. Recounting his brilliant performance at the UN General Assembly, Abba Eban ruefully recalled, however, that "having applauded the speech with sustained and vigorous applause, it had gone on to vote against us by a huge majority." The United States figured prominently in this consensus. Not only did Eisenhower force Israel's withdrawal, but US public support for Israel fell into "frightening decline" (historian Peter Grose). By contrast, immediately after the 1973 war, the United States provided Israel with massive military assistance, much greater than it had in the preceding four years combined, while American public opinion firmly backed Israel. This was the occasion when "talk of the Holocaust ... `took off' in America," at a time when Israel was less isolated than it had been in 1956.
In fact, the Holocaust industry did not move center stage because Israel's unexpected setbacks during, and pariah status following, the October 1973 war prompted memories of the Final Solution. Rather, Sadat's impressive military showing in the October war convinced US and Israeli policy elites that a diplomatic settlement with Egypt, including the return of Egyptian lands seized in June 1967, could no longer be avoided. To increase Israel's negotiating leverage the Holocaust industry increased production quotas. The crucial point is that atfer the 1973 war Israel was not isolated from the United States: these developments occurred within the framework of the US-Israeli alliance, which remained fully intact. The historical record strongly suggests that, if Israel had truly been alone after the October war, American Jewish elites would no more have remembered the Nazi holocaust than they did after the 1948 or 1956 war.
Novick provides ancillary explanations that are even less convincing. Quoting religious Jewish scholars, for example, he suggests that "the Six Day War offered a folk theology of `Holocaust and Redemption.'" The "light" of the June 1967 victory redeemed the "darkness" of the Nazi genocide: "it had given God a second chance." The Holocaust could emerge in American life only after June 1967 because "the extermination of European Jewry attained [an] if not happy, at least viable ending." Yet in standard Jewish accounts, not the June war but Israel's founding marked redemption. Why did The Holocaust have to await a second redemption? Novick maintains that the "image of Jews as military heroes in the June war "worked to efface the stereotype of weak and passive victims which ... previously inhibited Jewish discussion of the Holocaust. Yet for sheer courage, the 1948 war was Israel's finest hour. And Moshe Dayan's "daring" and "brilliant" 100-hour Sinai campaign in 1956 prefigured the swift victory in June 1967. Why, then, did American Jewry require the June war to "efface the stereotype"?
Novick's account of how American Jewish elites came to instrumentalize the Nazi holocaust is not persuasive. Consider these representative passages:
As American Jewish leaders sought to understand the reasons for Israel's isolation and vulnerability reasons that might suggest a remedy the explanation commanding the widest support was that the fading of the memories of Nazism's crimes against the Jews, and the arrival on the scene of a generation ignorant of the Holocaust, had resulted in Israel's losing the support it had once enjoyed.
[W]hile American Jewish organizations could do nothing to alter the recent past in the Middle East, and precious little to affect its future, they could work to revive memories of the Holocaust. So the "fading memories" explanation offered an agenda for action. [emphasis in original]
Why did the "fading memories" explanation for Israel's post-1967 predicament "command the widest support"? Surely this was an improbable explanation. As Novick himself copiously documents, the support Israel initially garnered had little to do with "memories of Nazism's crimes," and, anyhow, these memories had faded long before Israel lost international support. Why could Jewish elites do "precious little to affect" Israel's future? Surely they controlled a formidable organizational network. Why was "reviv[ing] memories of the Holocaust" the only agenda for action? Why not support the international consensus that called for Israel's withdrawal from the lands occupied in the June war as well as a "just and lasting peace" between Israel and its Arab neighbors (UN Resolution 242)?
A more coherent, if less charitable, explanation is that American Jewish elites remembered the Nazi holocaust before June 1967 only when it was politically expedient. Israel, their new patron, had capitalized on the Nazi holocaust during the Eichmann trial. Given its proven utility, organized American Jewry exploited the Nazi holocaust after the June war. Once ideologically recast, The Holocaust (capitalized as I have previously noted) proved to be the perfect weapon for deflecting criticism of Israel. Exactly how I will illustrate presently. What deserves emphasis here, however, is that for American Jewish elites The Holocaust performed the same function as Israel: another invaluable chip in a high-stakes power game. The avowed concern for Holocaust memory was as contrived as the avowed concern for Israel's fate. Thus, organized American Jewry quickly forgave and forgot Ronald Reagan's demented 1985 declaration at Bitburg cemetery that the German soldiers (including Waffen SS members) buried there were "victims of the Nazis just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps." In 1988, Reagan was honored with the "Humanitarian of the Year" award by one of the most prominent Holocaust institutions, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for his "staunch support of Israel," and in 1994 with the "Torch of Liberty" award by the pro-Israel ADL.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson's earlier outburst in 1979 that he was "sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust" was not so quickly forgiven or forgotten, however. Indeed, the attacks by American Jewish elites on Jackson never let up, although not for his "anti-Semitic remarks" but rather for his "espousal of the Palestinian position" (Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab). In Jackson's case, an additional factor was at work: he represented domestic constituencies with which organized American Jewry had been at loggerheads since the late 1960s. In these conflicts, too, The Holocaust proved to be a potent ideological weapon.
It was not Israel's alleged weakness and isolation, not the fear of a "second Holocaust," but rather its proven strength and strategic alliance with the United States that led Jewish elites to gear up the Holocaust industry after June 1967. However unwittingly, Novick provides the best evidence to support that conclusion. To prove that power considerations, not the Nazi Final Solution, determined American policy toward Israel, he writes: "It was when the Holocaust was freshest in the mind of American leaders the first twenty-five years after the end of the war that the United States was least supportive of Israel.... It was not when Israel was perceived as weak and vulnerable, but after it demonstrated its strength, in the Six Day War, that American aid to Israel changed from a trickle to a flood" (emphasis in original). That argument applies with equal force to American Jewish elites.
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