Class struggle and the holocaust

In the light of the official marking of National Holocaust Day on January 27, Eddie Ford continues his discussion of Norman Finkelstein's The holocaust industry

Inevitably, my recent review of Norman Finkelstein's The holocaust industry overlooked many important dimensions of the 'holocaust question' (Weekly Worker December 21). Here I shall attempt to fill some of the gaps.

It is surely right to mock those who promulgate the absurd, if not semi unhinged, notion that Finkelstein is some sort of Jewish anti-semite, or that the primary function or effect of his highly combative polemics is to provide political and spiritual "comfort" to neo-Nazis. Naturally, if for some highly charged ideological reason somebody wants to see traces or signs of anti-semitism in Finkelstein's argumentation, then of course they will, and that is basically that.

It is, though, quite dispiriting when cheap and emotive point-scoring appears increasingly to be gaining ground over calm and rational analysis. For instance, I have in my possession a newspaper cutting from The Independent, which contains a review by David Goldberg, senior rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, of Elie Wiesel's memoirs, And the sea is never full. Some readers will know that Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, has been engaged in a lengthy and increasingly bitter struggle with Simon Wiesenthal as to who has the moral right to wear the crown of The World's Most Important And Saintly Witness To The Holocaust - or "The Event", as Wiesel always calls it, which he describes in his memoirs as "the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted".

In his review, rabbi Goldberg comments that Wiesel's "mock-modest tone of 'Aw shucks, fancy me, the yeshiva student from Sighet, here in the White House/Elysée Palace/Kremlin' soon wears thin" - calling the Nobel Prize winner "vain, arrogant, gullible and naive about international affairs". In conclusion, Goldberg writes: "[Wiesel] seems to spend his time touring the world with an entourage of Nobel winners, organising conferences like 'The anatomy of hate and conflict resolution'. Ferried first-class to five-star hotels, the great and the good deliberate at length and issue insipid declarations which Wiesel solemnly reproduces. How one would love to get on to the gravy train! Alas, this wanton review will have scuppered my chances" (August 31 2000).

I do not recall any protests about the rabbi's scathing remarks - no accusations of unconscious self-loathing and suchlike. Yet when Norman Finkelstein too attacks Wiesel for being part of the 'holocaust remuneration business' (or, if you prefer, the "gravy train"), there are howls of outrage - with even some who would consider themselves to be Marxists slamming Finkelstein for his "anti-semitic" language, "Jewish self-hatred" (possibly pathological in origins) and so on. Yet, there is not that much which separates rabbi Goldberg from Norman Finkelstein, at least in terms of moral outrage and general humanitarian intent.

Frankly, it is a bit shocking that so many are so easily shocked by Finkelstein and those who make a serious engagement with the ideas and contentions broadly outlined in The holocaust industry.

Given the worldwide 'collapse of communism' and the (temporary) absence of the working class as a real political force, it should hardly be surprising to find - as I put it in my original review - that "the ruling class and reactionary forces in general have managed to expropriate the 'memory' and discourse of the holocaust".

In my review, I referred to David Jonah Goldhagen, author of what The New York Times called the "landmark" Hitler's willing executioners, and how when Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn published their cutting riposte, A nation on trial: the Goldhagen thesis and historical truth, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League issued his threat: "The issue is not whether Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong, but what is 'legitimate criticism' and what goes beyond the pale."

However, what I did not emphasise was how there was a concerted attempt to silence Finkelstein and Birn, and generally intimidate those connected with their work (shades of Satanic verses). Ruth Birn has made the prosecution of Nazi war criminals her life's work and is the world's leading authority on the archives that Goldhagen consulted for his book. When she first published her critical evaluation in the (Cambridge) Historical Journal, Goldhagen immediately responded by hiring a big-shot London law firm to sue Birn and the Cambridge University Press for "many serious libels", even though the journal had given him ample opportunity to write a full rebuttal. Shortly afterwards, Finkelstein's equally scathing findings were published in New Left Review, and subsequently Metropolitan - an imprint of Henry Holt press - agreed to publish both anti-Goldhagen essays in book form (A nation on trial).

This prompted the influential American magazine, Forward, to pen a front-page story warning its readers that Metropolitan was "preparing to bring out a book by Norman Finkelstein, a notorious ideological opponent of the state of Israel". Foxman too called on Holt to drop publication of the book, as Finkelstein's ideas "are irreversibly tainted by his anti-Zionist stance". Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the Zionist New Republic, personally met the president of Holt publishers, Michael Naumann, to impress upon him the true nature of Finkelstein - "a disgusting, self-hating Jew", the sort of person "you find under a rock". Naumann refused to buckle under however and when the book was published, Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, damned Holt's decision as "a disgrace".

Not that it ended there. The Canadian Jewish Congress denounced Birn - who is chief historian of the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Section of the Canadian department of justice - for involvement in A nation on trial, claiming that Finkelstein was an "anathema to the vast majority of Jews on this continent". Piling the pressure on Birn's employer, the CJC filed a protest with the justice department, on the grounds that Birn was "a member of the perpetrator race" (i.e., Birn was born in Germany). Goldhagen then entered the bear-pit, denouncing Birn as "a purveyor of anti-semitism" and shouting about how Finkelstein was of the opinion that the victims of Nazism deserved to die (Finkelstein's parents were Auschwitz survivors). New Republic piously proclaimed that "there is a difference between censorship and upholding standards" - that is, A nation on trial should never have been published. Goldhagen was nominated for the post of holocaust chair at Harvard University.

The sorry episode described above illustrates the alarming climate of censorship that has been allowed to grow. It says it all that the Socialist Workers Party, former Finkelstein fans, issued a call for the works of David Irving to be prohibited from public libraries. If Finkelstein's views now come "dangerously close" to Irving's, as Alex Callinicos wrote in Socialist Worker (July 22 2000), then why not demand that The holocaust industry also be removed from public libraries?

As I suggested, 'The Holocaust' - as opposed to the Nazi holocaust - is largely a retrospective construction by those with various (and sometimes rival) ideological and 'special interest' axes to grind. Indeed, 'The Holocaust' would not have been recognisable to most people who went through World War II and Nazi rule. In some respects, an anachronism ('The Holocaust') is being introduced as an alternative to understanding contemporary responses to real events. Substituting for a rational examination of the specific historical dynamics that led to the Nazi holocaust, we have the mystifying fog of 'holocaust awareness'.

This is easily observed by the way that Martin Niemöller's famous mea culpa ("First they came for the communists ...") has been progressively doctored. Infamously, Time magazine's 'new' version promoted the Jews to first place and dropped both the communists and the social democrats. Al Gore publicly did the same too - and for good measure he dumped the trade unionists as well. Gore, Time and others have all added Catholics to Niemöller's list - even though he did not mention them. In the heavily catholic city of Boston, they were added to the 'quotation' inscribed on its holocaust memorial.

Naturally, the establishment-sanctified US Holocaust Museum airbrushes out the communists from its roll call of official victimhood (but, interestingly, the holocaust bureaucrats decided to retain the social democrats as authentic, bona fide victims). Others have decided to include gays - the fact that Niemöller did not was obviously a mere oversight on his part.

This footloose and fancy-free attitude to what should be a basic, easily verified and hence non-contested truth clearly demonstrates that the ruthless battle for the 'memory' of the holocaust is a form of class struggle - a handy barometer as to the current balance of class forces. Once upon a time, at least in the US, to 'harp on' about the Nazi holocaust was a sign of dangerous pinko-commie leanings. Now it is a badge of moral and bourgeois uprightness. Niemöller himself symbolises this shift in bourgeois ideology.

In the 1940s and 1950s the protestant pastor, who spent eight years in Nazi concentration camps, was regarded with grave suspicion by American Jewry in the shape of organisations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti Deformation League. Niemöller's instinctive opposition to the McCarthyite witch hunts made him persona non grata for America Jewish leaders who were desperate to boost their anti-communist credentials - to the point of joining, and partly financing, far rightist organisations like the All-American Conference to Combat Communism and even turning a blind eye to veterans of the Nazi SS entering the country. Indeed, the AJC enthusiastically joined in the establishment hysteria whipped up against the Rosenbergs, and its monthly publication, Commentary (November 1953), actually editorialised about how the couple - executed as Soviet spies - were not really Jews at all. (This tradition of toadying before the US establishment continues - the Simon Wiesenthal Centre made Ronald Reagan the winner of its 'Humanitarian of the Year' award in 1988.)

Another significant aspect to the debate is the so-called uniqueness of the holocaust, an idea heavily mooted in schools, colleges/universities, books, TV documentaries, films, etc. Banally speaking of course, every single event that has ever happened, and ever will happen, is 'unique'. The evangelists for 'uniqueness' have a different agenda though.

Take Deborah Lipstadt, occupant of the holocaust chair at Emory University, an appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and author of the widely lauded, Denying the holocaust: the growing assault on memory and truth. Lipstadt became a liberal hero for successfully slugging it out with David Irving last year in the British courts, after the Hitler-admiring historian filed a doomed libel suit against Lipstadt for branding him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for holocaust denial".

What was not mentioned in the mainstream press coverage of the time, and which throws a different and less salutary light on Lipstadt's motivations, is that she is on record declaring that if you do not accept the 'uniqueness' theory, you must be effectively classed alongside those who deny the very historical fact of the Nazi holocaust itself. We are all potential Irvings then. Thus, in Denying the holocaust, Lipstadt rages against the drawing of "immoral equivalences" with the Nazi holocaust - like the Armenian genocide. This has "intriguing implications", according to Finkelstein, who observes: "Daniel Goldhagen argues that Serbian actions in Kosovo 'are, in their essence, different from those of Nazi Germany only in scale'. That would make Goldhagen 'in essence' a holocaust denier. (The holocaust industry: reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering London 2000, p71).

Inconsistencies, contradictions and paradoxes may abound in the 'uniqueness' school of Wiesel, Goldhagen, Lipstadt et al - but it is strongly recommended that you make loud, approving noises if you want to find yourself with your feet well under the table, and if you are non-Jewish it could also mean that you are actually feted (always nice). Reject the doctrine, however, and purdah beckons - doubly so if you are Jewish and thus an abominable 'self-hater'.