Explaining the holocaust industry
Norman Finkelstein recalls how the official narrative on the Jews and Israel has changed over his lifetime. This is an edited version of a speech given to Communist University 2016
Let me begin with the origins of the holocaust industry and how itcame to be. There is a famous remark by the Hungarian Marxist, Georg Lukács - whose History and class-consciousness was mandatory reading when I was a student - which is helpful to me when thinking about these issues. He said that it is important to see the present as history.
This always leaps to my mind when I think about, or recall, the holocaust industry. When I was growing up, the Nazi holocaust - and this may sound strange to those who are not of my generation - literally did not exist in American consciousness: there was no Nazi holocaust. That might sound even stranger, given that both of my parents were survivors of the holocaust (and real survivors, at that - not like so many of those today who claim that they are second-generation or even third-generation survivors). If I ever went up to my mother and claimed to be a second-generation holocaust survivor then she would have smacked me in the face: and I would have probably deserved it!
But the fact is that there were very few survivors of the Nazi holocaust, for it was exactly as we are told it was: systematic and methodical assembly-line extermination. Very few survived. The serious estimates put the number of Jewish survivors at around 100,000. Being a survivor back then was understood as somebody who survived the ghettos, the labour camps or the extermination camps. In many cases it was all three.
My parents, for example, were in the Warsaw Ghetto until April 1943. There were about 20,000-30,000 people who survived the uprising, and they were among them. They were then transported to Majdanek, which was a death camp and a labour camp. My father was subsequently deported to Auschwitz and, as I understand it, was in seven other camps, because they continued to shift the inmates, as the Russian and American fronts advanced. My mother was then in two slave-labour camps.
This is what survival was understood to be: ghetto, labour camp and death camp. Very few survived because you had to be of a particular age cohort. Fundamentally, the Nazis wanted people who could work. If you were elderly, or a child, you would be sent to the gas chambers. Those that survived were roughly in their early 20s at the time.
This may come as a surprise, but it was a great shame to be the son of holocaust survivors back then, because the assumption was that if you survived the Nazi holocaust then you must have done something dirty. I recall my mother being rather indignant when invariably the question was asked, in complete innocence, “How did you survive?” She understood such a question as a dig! The assumption was either that she did something of which she ought to be ashamed, or that we - the Jews - went like sheep to the ovens. This was the other aspect of shame: the assumption that we did not resist or fight back and thus went like sheep to our deaths. To be the child of a holocaust survivor was a badge of shame, not of honour. It was never talked about.
When I was growing up back then, in the 1950s and 60s, Jews were beginning to make it in the US. I would not claim that things were terrible before, but there were aspects of discrimination against the Jews in US society up until the end of World War II. There were quotas at the best universities and law firms, for example. After World War II, for reasons which have not yet been adequately explained in the scholarship, all the quotas fell away.
Now Jews were making it in American society. And they were making it in a very ambitious and confident manner, in that, of course, the US is a meritocracy and we, the Jews, are the best! Nothing was going to stop us. In this sense, Jews were not looking back at how we had suffered. No. We were looking forward in an attempt to conquer American society, because we are the best: the most ambitious, the most intelligent and the most determined. As the American pop song put it, ‘There ain’t no stopping us now!’ The Jews were not interested in contemplating their past. They were looking to the future … a golden future.
So when I was growing up, I moved with the fast crowd: all my friends were remarkably intelligent. At that point in time the most respected profession was that of the doctor (no longer the case, of course) and - no exaggeration - 90% of my friends became medical doctors, some of whom were at the top of their profession (several teach at Harvard Medical School). My high school produced people such as the current senator for New York, Charles Schumer, who will probably be the senate majority leader if Hillary Clinton becomes president; Bernie Sanders and five Nobel laureates - all of them Jews. It is an incredible achievement.
So nobody bothered with the Nazi holocaust: that was just something in the past that had been forgotten. I can say, with no fear of contradiction, that, even though I hung out with the best and the brightest, and even though we lived in the highly politicised times of the 1960s and 70s, where everybody cared about history and politics, not a single friend - or a parent of a friend - asked a single question of me or my parents about what they had been through. Nobody was interested in it.
Some of you may accuse me of relying solely on personal anecdote, so let us take a look at the bigger picture. Up until the mid-60s, there were only two scholarly studies of the Nazi holocaust in the English language. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was written in 1963. If you look at her bibliography, she can only find two books in English: one by Gerald Reitlinger (The final solution: the attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe 1939-1945, published in 1953) and Raul Hilberg’s monumental study The destruction of the European Jews, which appeared in 1961). Two studies! It is estimated today that there are about ten thousand scholarly studies of the Nazi holocaust.
When Raul Hilberg set out to write his PhD dissertation, his advisor at Columbia University, the German-Jewish sociologist, Franz Neumann (author of Behemoth, which is still read today), famously remarked that writing a doctoral dissertation on the extermination of the Jews in World War II would be “your funeral”. Neumann was convinced that Hilberg would never get a job if he wrote on such a topic. Why? When I was writing The holocaust industry, I went through all of the standard Jewish publications of the time. Jews, after all, have a very literate and intellectual culture and had their own publications, which included most of the publications of the left. There were a number of magazines such as Commentary, Dissent and Partisan Review: 95% of the left and centre journals were Jewish. I went through them for the whole period from 1947-67, but the Nazi holocaust is never mentioned.
The most famous Jewish sociologist is Nathan Glazer. In 1957 he wrote a classic study entitled American Judaism, in which he remarked that the Nazi holocaust “had remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry”. I would even go as far to say that it had no effect. It simply did not exist. The only possible exception was that in grade school we read Anne Frank’s diary, but we did not read it as a Jewish story - rather as one of human suffering. For better or for worse, the Jewish element was extirpated. I should point out that I went to all-Jewish schools from grade school to college. I hardly met any non-Jews.
So why did Neumann think that Hilberg was effectively digging his own grave by choosing to write his doctoral thesis on the destruction of the European Jews? The answer is that it was highly political. After World War II, the US’s main ally in Europe was the Federal Republic of Germany. For perfectly obvious reasons, with the exception of Konrad Adenauer at the top, the German government was made up of former Nazi bureaucrats. After all, it is not possible to create a new government bureaucracy overnight.
It is the same reason why, tangentially, if Trump gets elected - or even if Sanders had been elected - the government would not look very different: there are simply not enough people who can take over, so that it is necessary to draw on the old elites with the knowledge and expertise. The same dilemma faced the Germans after World War II (although there is, of course, much debate over exactly how much of a dilemma it was).
The Soviet Union capitalised on the fact that the German government was made up of a large number of former Nazis by pointing out that the revanchist German regime was full of Nazis! One of the Nazis’ biggest crimes, of course, was the holocaust, and to bring up the question of the Nazi holocaust was to open yourself up to the accusation of being a communist, because it was the communists and the Soviet Union who kept reiterating the point that the US’s new ally, the Nazis, were the ones who killed the Jews! So to talk of the holocaust was to open you up to the charge of serving Soviet propaganda. And it is in fact true to say that many of the Jews who did raise the issue were left-wing communist Jews.
So the last thing Jews who intended to make it in the US wanted to be seen as were ‘communists’ who were ‘aiding and abetting the Soviets’ against the new German government. In quiet ways, US Jews would express their discomfort at the new German regime. One way in which they would do so would be to refuse to buy German products, such as the Volkswagen car. My parents felt very strongly about this. But the majority did not want to be seen as bringing up the holocaust, because they did not want to be seen as communists. And indeed, at this point in time the commemorations of the destruction of the Jews were organised by forces in and around the communist movement.
The Jews also had the fear of being tainted as communists because it was the McCarthy era and repression was forthright. My parents adored the Soviet Union for the role that it had played in defeating Nazism and to their last days dismissed any criticism of Stalin as opportunist. I respected them for that, because they felt a sense of gratitude for what had happened. But, when my father came over to the US, one of the conditions was agreeing to put your name to a statement saying that, in the case of war, you would fight the Soviet Union. He was very torn. In 1953, when Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were accused of being communist spies and were eventually executed, my parents wanted to sign a petition in defence of the Rosenbergs, but they were too afraid.
So for practical-political reasons, the Jews were looking forward to taking over the country … and they did. They are by far the wealthiest ethnic group in the US. If you look at the ruling establishment in the US, their success is a reality. Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of Hillary, married a Jew. Donald Trump’s daughter also married a Jew … an orthodox Jew. In both cases, the marriages were viewed as boosting their social status. The success of the Jews has been phenomenal. In US society now, of course, the new Jews are the Chinese, who are winning all the maths competitions and outcompeting the Jews in other areas of academic success.
But anyway the question is: what changed? How did this holocaust industry come into being if I am accurate in claiming that mention of the holocaust was close to absent in post-World War II American Jewish life? The answer shows once more the importance of having to understand the present as history. The answer, oddly enough, is Israel.
The founding of Israel in 1947, surprisingly enough, also played a very minor role in US Jewish life, at least until 1967. It did not figure at all in the life of US Jews, apart from as an object of charity: occasionally money would be raised to grow a tree there or some other such project. That was about it. Nathan Glazer, whom I quoted above, also claimed that Israel had almost no effect on US Jewish life.
Why this was the case was obvious. Historically, Jews have often been charged with so-called ‘dual loyalty’: ie, that they are loyal to the state in which they live, but they are also loyal to this entity called ‘world Jewry’. The assumption was that, if push came to shove, then the Jews would align themselves to ‘their people’ before they would align themselves with the people in the country where they exercised citizenship. Now, after 1947, with the creation of the state of Israel, the notion of dual loyalty was no longer a speculative one: it was a factual reality. Whereas the notion of ‘world Jewry’ was rather speculative, there was now a state which claimed to be the embodiment of the Jewish people.
American Jews now faced the very real problem that dual loyalty had become a reality. Who are you loyal to? The US (when it comes to American Jews) or this state, which claims to represent you? For obvious reasons, US Jews are obviously loyal to the US, because they are making it there! Israel, by contrast, is this strange backwater in the Middle East - very poor and very simple. True, while it appears to embody an ethos which many Jews just a couple of decades earlier strongly identified with - namely the kibbutzim and austere, communal ways of life, with many labour leaders modelling themselves as Bolsheviks. Ben Gurion and all the rest viewed themselves as Jewish Bolsheviks. So there was an appeal of Israel to the youthful sensibility of the Jews and the 1920s proletarian organisations and movements in which the Jews participated en masse.
But now we are in a different context. In post-World War II US society, the Jews are becoming professionals and suburbanised. They do not want to go back to the past. And so Jews had no interest in Israel in a double sense: neither a material one, nor in the sense that it was something from their past and their youthful flirtation with radical politics. But the depression is over; they are no longer living in lower East Side tenements, but are moving on up. For these reasons, Israel did not figure in US-Jewish life.
Just before the 1967 war, Elie Wiesel - the preposterous Israel apologist, who has just passed away - was asked what he thought about the fact that American Jews appeared to be becoming very secular and were losing connection with their Jewish identity; and how he thought that it would be possible to reach American-Jewish youth. He replied: “The Jewishness of Jewish youth can still be reached. But not through Israel. Perhaps through the problems of Jews in Russia, perhaps through questions about the holocaust, but not through Israel.”
Israel was a dead letter for American Jews. I do not recall a single conversation about Israel: I remember discussing the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam and so on. But I do not recall a single conversation about Israel. We were America! The most powerful country on earth! And we were going to take it over! Who wanted to talk about some country in the middle of the desert?
So how do Israel and the holocaust intersect? I think that the key turning point is the June 1967 war, because after this war Israel became the religion of American Jews. So what happened? And how is it connected to the Nazi holocaust?
Nasser and Israel
In 1967, Israel inflicts a major defeat on one of the US’s major adversaries on the world scene. The Middle East contains the most precious resource for the industrialised world. The US was controlling the region, except for the phenomenon of what came to be called radical Arab nationalism. This basically meant this weird idea, which had seized the distorted imagination of the Arab people, that the resources beneath their feet belonged to them! (There was obviously some sort of mass hysteria involved …)
The figure who embodied this phenomenon was Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. He was the galvanising force of this movement. Originally, the US tried to buy him off, making all sorts of overtures, including promising to finance the Aswan dam. Nasser proved not amenable to those overtures, to the extent that they had to attempt to constrain his ability to foment radical insurgencies in other parts of the Middle East. Nasser’s main antagonist was the Saudi regime and he played a very much similar role to that of Castro in the 1960s, but with much more serious consequences, because in Latin America there was no resource at stake of the same magnitude as in the Middle East.
Nasser was unwilling to tie his hands behind his back, when it came to spreading the notion of pan-Arabism, so by the time of the Kennedy administration the US gave up on any hope of weaning him away from his ‘radical’ ideas. Following that failure, the aim was to get rid of him. In 1956, the French, the British and Israel tried to dispose of Nasser. The Brits allegedly did so because he nationalised the Suez canal, but really they tried to do so because he was fomenting discord on British turf in the Middle East.
The French had a different reason. At the time, they were convinced that the insurgency in Algeria was being orchestrated and coordinated in Egypt. This was not true. Israel became involved due to its hatred of the Arabs and the hope that, were it to get rid of Nasser, then it could get its slaves back. The US opposed what was called back then the tripartite invasion of Egypt. However, the US president of the time, Dwight Eisenhower, and secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, opposed it only because of the timing: they were convinced that Nasser was too popular and so the forces that wanted to overthrow him had to bide their time. And, as it came to pass, it was not the US, the British or the French who took out Nasser, but the Israelis.
Through a concatenation of events which I think are poorly understood to this day, I think that the case for Egypt was infinitely stronger than Israel’s in 1967. The two basic facts about 1967 are that Nasser had no intention to attack, and that it was understood by everybody across the board that if he attacked - and even if he attacked in concert with the neighbouring Arab states - then, as Lyndon B Johnson told an Israeli representative visiting the US at the time, “You will whip the hell out of them”. This assessment was based on various information from a host of intelligence agencies at the time, and this is indeed exactly what happened.
It is known as the Six-Day War, but in fact it was all over in a couple of minutes, once the Israelis had knocked out the Egyptian air force. The only reason it lasted longer is because Israel wanted to take more territory: after taking Gaza immediately, it then proceeded to seize the West Bank and the Golan Heights. If it were simply a matter of defeating Nasser, then it was over in the blink of an eye.
So Israel had done the deed. It had accomplished a significant victory and had removed the 15-year threat posed by radical Arab nationalism. This secular movement was now finished and came to be replaced by radical Islamic movements. And now Israel became the US’s strategic ally in the Middle East.
This had a number of consequences. American Jewry no longer had to fear identifying with Israel, because it no longer posed a problem of dual loyalty: Israel now connoted super-loyalty to the US, because Israel had defeated the US’s main rival in the region. So now, if you were Jewish, you were proud to identify with Israel, because it was waging - and winning - American wars.
Remember, this was during the time of the Vietnam war, when the US was being humiliated by those diminutive Vietnamese, who were humbling the most powerful army in the world. And then along comes Israel, with general Moshe Dayan, who was seen as mainly responsible for the swift military victory. It is worth reading Isaac Deutscher’s last interview with New Left Review on Israel. Deutscher had an extremely sharp political eye, and describes wonderfully how now there suddenly emerges a Jew as the most revered general in the western world! Very strange, because the image of Jews was either that they went like sheep to the slaughter or some version of Woody Allen: bookish, nerdy ‘losers’, to use a term deployed in the great battle for American masculinity. And here was Moshe Dayan, sporting an eye patch and seducing women, left, right and centre. For a Jew, it was the greatest thing since sliced bread!
And there was no longer a conflict of interest for the American Jews. Dayan was being called in as an advisor on how to defeat the Vietnamese. This heroism was stamped with the Israeli brand, so that now it was not only safe to be pro-Israel: it was a bonus for Jews. There is a kind of irony involved here. Zionism began with the idea that they can never assimilate into western/European societies: Jews would never be accepted, because fundamentally there was a kind of physical repulsion that Gentiles felt for Jews. This was why we needed to found our own state. The irony was that the product of Zionism was Israel and, after 1967, this country actually facilitated American-Jewish assimilation. We now became real Americans, because we Jews were soldiers and fighters defending US interests.
When the Jewish survivors of the Nazi holocaust went over to Israel after the war and settled on the kibbutzim, they were given the nickname, ‘soap’. The reason for this was based on two widely-believed falsehoods: that the Nazis made lampshades from the skin of Jews and soap from their fat. And so the Israelis called the Jewish survivors ‘soap’ in order to humiliate and degrade them and portray them as weaklings. One of the reasons why the Israelis hated Raul Hilberg was that he claimed that it was true that there was no Jewish resistance to the holocaust: there was an element of heroism to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, but resistance? The Red Army could barely defeat the Nazi army, and now people are claiming that ghettoised Jews, who had been starved for years, are going to defeat the German army?
All of this was a myth created by the Israelis to enforce their martial values. There was a period when the Israelis were fighters, but now - and I have no problem saying this - they are the most cowardly army on earth. There is nothing as cowardly as the Israeli army. Who do they fight? When they were in Lebanon in 2006, they were terrified of engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the Hezbollah fighters. I have met some of these fighters … the Israelis were right to be terrified! These giants of men simply could not wait to fight the Israelis, as you can imagine, because they had been under occupation from 1978 to 2000. But the ‘heroism’ of the Israeli army mainly extends to their involvement in Gaza …
So where does the holocaust fit into this? Two things happened in 1967. Israel achieved what appeared to be a huge military victory, but it also entered into an occupation, and the international community was not prepared to sanction the occupation: in the United Nations there was a prolonged debate in 1947 about how to resolve this conflict: the longest-standing one in the history of the UN. The UN played the principal role in the first stage, which was the partition resolution, and the eventual creation of the state of Israel.
Now, after the 1967 war, we were into round two. And the international community, as embodied in the UN, was determined to resolve the conflict, and there ensued a high-quality debate over the issue, in which two major blocs emerged: the Latin-American bloc and the Afro-Asian bloc. The latter, which was pro-Soviet, argued that it was inadmissible for a country to acquire territory by war, as Israel had done. Thus, according to international law, the Israelis should withdraw. UN resolution 242 thus begins with the phrase, “Emphasising the impermissibility of the acquisition of territory by war …” So the position of this bloc, with the Soviet Union behind it, was that there has to be an unconditional and immediate Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.
The Latin-American bloc - and behind it the US, albeit not in a dictating role - was of the view that there had to be a quid pro quo. The US agreed to Israeli withdrawal, but this had to be conditional on the Arab states accepting Israel’s existence - namely as a member of the UN. According to law 2 of the UN charter, states are allowed to live in peace with their neighbours, and therefore Israel can no longer be the object of belligerency on the part of the Arab states. This view came to be encapsulated in the formula of ‘land for peace’.
As it happened, the Latin-American position won out at the UN. This did not mean that Israel could retain the territories it had acquired, but it did mean that the acquisition was conditional on the renunciation of belligerency by the Arab states. To cut a long story short, Israel simply had no intention of withdrawing; it did not care whether the Arab states recognised it or not. It claimed that - just as every other country had acquired its borders through war or through wars - we too will have our borders based on the territories we won.
In many ways, the international community felt that it had been duped, because it had deferred to the Israeli demand that it would not have to withdraw unless the Arab states recognised it. But it quickly became clear that Israel would not withdraw, even if the Arabs recognised its existence as a state. Israel, which had accumulated a tremendous amount of good will from the international community, was extremely lucky in this regard. The cold war had already begun in 1947, but by one of those great flukes of history, from which the Zionist movement benefitted, the Soviet Union and the US - despite being at loggerheads over pretty much everything - both voted for the partition resolution to create the state of Israel. Indeed, by far the most eloquent speech given at the UN on the occasion of Israel’s founding in 1947 was given by Vyacheslav Michailovich Molotov, Soviet foreign minister at the time. It talks of the suffering of the Jewish people and how they deserve a state. This is perhaps one of the few issues where the Soviets and the US were on the same side during the entire cold war.
But, after 1967 and its refusal to withdraw from the territories, Israel was alienating the international community and now started to invoke the holocaust: one claim in particular, which became the mantra of the Nazi holocaust, was that the Nazi holocaust was unique (or what came to be known in the popular literature as the ‘uniqueness doctrine’). This basically said that never before in the history of humanity has a crime been committed of the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of the Nazi holocaust. It belonged to a category all of its own.
The ‘uniqueness doctrine’ served a very specific and calculated political purpose: if nobody in the history of humanity suffered in the way Jews suffered, then ordinary standards of right and wrong should not be applied to them, because such norms are designed for ordinary circumstances and situations. But the Jewish situation is not ordinary, and therefore, you cannot hold ‘us’ - meaning Jews in general and Israelis in particular - to these ordinary standards. So, whenever Israel moved to commit another atrocity and gross violation of international law, the standard refrain became, ‘Remember the holocaust!’ And so the Nazi holocaust became an ideological weapon to delegitimise criticism of Israel.
The second aspect of this was that the Nazi holocaust was the climax of a millennial, irrational Gentile hatred of Jews. The Nazi holocaust was the mere culmination of anti-Semitism. So if the holocaust was irrational, anti-Semitism must be irrational. If anti-Semitism means dislike of Jews, then this must also be irrational - which means that anybody who criticises Israel must be doing so for irrational reasons. Thus any criticism of Israel is based on their hatred of us. As such, all of the criticism of Israel has nothing to do with the actions of the Israeli state: they hate us; they have always hated us and that is the real cause of the criticism of Israel. This leads to the ubiquitous claim that lurking behind any criticism of Israel - whether subtly or blatantly - is anti-Semitism.
This became a very convenient explanation of the holocaust and the thinking behind it - and an excuse for Israeli conduct: we are not doing anything wrong; it’s just that they hate Jews! The most vivid elucidation of that idea, which was quite popular in the 1990s, was by the semi-maniac, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Hitler’s willing executioners), whose main thesis was that all Germans wanted to exterminate the Jews, Hitler came along and gave them the green light to do so, and they did. In Goldhagen’s book, the Germans were really just a stand-in for the Gentiles and their desire to exterminate the Jews. Thus the Nazi holocaust became a weapon to delegitimise criticism of Israel.
Israel always had a holocaust industry - a little cottage industry by the name of Yad Vashem, its holocaust museum. It hardly had any impact and hardly anything was written about it. But now the huge resources and power of American Jewry - which is very substantial in key sections of public opinion, such as publishing, journals and Hollywood - were mobilised in order to turn it from a cottage industry in Israel into a global industry. I am not a huge fan of movies, but recently friends of mine got me onto Netflix. Go through the movies there: every third one is on the holocaust. Comedies: holocaust! Action: holocaust! Classics: holocaust! It’s crazy!