Tragedy, hoaxes and Zionism

Norman Finkelstein Beyond chutzpah: on the misuse of anti-semitism and the abuse of history Verso 2005, £16.99, pp332

This week the establishment and its media are commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. From 1943-45 it is estimated that between six and eight million people were put to death by the Nazi extermination machine. They included communists, trade unionists, homosexuals, Roma, Slavs, but especially, in terms of the 'final solution', Jews.

A pathological Hitler and his crazy inner circle wanted to rid Europe of Jews and therefore set about organising a modern-day ethnocide. The medieval ideology of anti-semitism was combined with social Darwinism and the techniques of modern industry. The whole process of killing was industrialised and run according to strict bureaucratic principles. Big capital in Germany was no bystander: it actively cooperated and benefited from lucrative contracts and supplies of slave labour.

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) does not remember the counterrevolutionary nature of the Nazi regime and the fact capital helped put the Nazis in the saddle of power. HMD is half about a doctored history, half about promoting an establishment, multiculturalist, view of the present. Stephen Smith, chair of HMD Trust, says the event is an opportunity for people of all faiths "to learn from a salutary past and expose all forms of racism - including islamophobia and anti-semitism - xenophobia, discrimination and bigotry".

Despite that, the Muslim Council of Britain has decided once again to boycott HMD, on the somewhat inaccurate grounds that there will be no mention of non-Jewish victims of genocide and mass murder. In turn, some have suggested that the MCB's downplaying or denial of the supposedly "singular" or "unique" nature of the Nazi holocaust is evidence of some sort of latent anti-semitism.

Recently, the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, claimed that there is a "tsunami of anti-semitism which is taking place a long way from this country, but of which Europe seems unaware". Sachs went on to say: "Holocaust denial and hatred of Jews [are] circulating widely in best-selling books and prime-time TV" - and also made the brilliant observation that "the wars" in Chechnya, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc would "be happening even if Israel did not exist" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4573052.stm).

Perhaps in support of such contentions, the same BBC online article published figures from a two-year-old - and contested - report from the UK-based Community Security Trust, which monitors "anti-semitic incidents". For the CST, 2004 saw a "huge rise" in such incidents - some 532 in total - of which 83 were "physical assaults" (www.thecst.org.uk/).

So, seeing how we are in midst of an anti-semitic "tsunami", what could be more opportune than Norman Finkelstein's new book, Beyond chutzpah: on the misuse of anti-semitism and the abuse of history? This is a successor to The Holocaust industry: reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering, a work which made him less than popular in some quarters. Thus, one leftwing critic, Tobias Abse, ventured the idea that The Holocaust industry provided "considerable comfort to every holocaust denier, neo-Nazi and anti-semite on the face of the planet" (New Interventions autumn 2000).

As for our Socialist Workers Party comrades, they too were less than impressed - hence Alex Callinicos's suggestion that Finkelstein's work came "dangerously close to giving comfort to those who dream of new holocausts" (Socialist Worker July 22 2000). This was an assessment echoed by liberal journalist Jonathan Freedland, who opined that Finkelstein is "a Jew who doesn't like Jews" and who "does the anti-semites' work for them" (The Guardian July 14 2000). More straight- forwardly, Leon Wieseltier, a bourgeois Zionist intellectual and literary editor of the US journal, New Republic, slammed Finkelstein as the lowest of the low: "He's poison."

Or, to use the words of one critic at a question-and-answer session last year with Finkelstein at Yale University, he is a "Jewish David Irving" (www.normanfinkelstein.com/content.php?pg=19#vd).

Why such anti-Finkelstein animus? For the relatively simple reason that Finkelstein has steadfastly and remorselessly chronicled how the Nazi genocide became 'The Holocaust' - a retrospective, ideological construction that bears little or no relationship to the actual historical event(s). Unsettling though many find it, Finkelstein reminds us that there is a perpetual battle - a class struggle - for the memory of the Nazi holocaust or, as he refers to it, 'The Holocaust', which has become transformed into a categorically unique historical event, one that cannot be rationally comprehended. Indeed, according to some, so 'unique' is 'The Holocaust' that it is tantamount to anti-semitism or neo-Nazism even to attempt to make it the subject of rational or scientific inquiry, or to challenge accepted opinion.

The holocaust is unique because it is inexplicable, and it is inexplicable because it is unique: anti-semitism is seemingly lurking in the interstices of history, just waiting for any opportunity to burst out and exact bloody retribution. Here we have the mainstay of much of what passes for 'holocaust awareness' in the officially orchestrated, and highly ritualised, memorialisation of the victims of Nazism - like Holocaust Memorial Day.

Finkelstein's first extended counter-blast to this irrational nonsense was A nation on trial: the Goldhagen thesis and historical truth, which he co-authored with Ruth Bettina Birn. This work, enthusiastically championed by the SWP (before it did its volte-face and decided that Finkelstein's ideas were too ideologically subversive to handle), was a scathing attack on the author of Hitler's willing executioners, David Jonah Goldhagen, who argued that the German people were (and still are?) inherently anti-semitic and therefore the holocaust was an event just waiting to happen.

For Goldhagen Adolph Hitler's regime, or an analogous one, was inevitable. History has always had it in for the Jews and always will - to say otherwise is to slip inexorably into anti-semitism. In the now notorious words of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), responding to the assault of Finkelstein and Birn on Hitler's willing executioners, "The issue is not whether Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong, but what is 'legitimate criticism' and what goes beyond the pale" (Norman Finkelstein The Holocaust industry Verso 2000, p66).

Obviously, 'The Holocaust' - and its attendant industry - was and is a bourgeois weapon to justify Zionism, and the actions and policies of the post-1967 Israeli state. As Finkelstein argues, the "American Jewish elites didn't become enamoured of Israel until after the June 1967 war, when it became politically and personally expedient to be a Zionist. Likewise, they didn't discover the Nazi holocaust until after the June war, when it proved useful for deflecting criticism of Israel" (Beyond chutzpah Verso 2005, p225).

Indeed, the plain truth of the matter is that before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, talk of the Jewish, Slav, Roma and other national victims of Nazism was viewed - particularly in the USA - as evidence of distinct communist-pinko tendencies. It was precisely in order to present the post-1967 Israeli regional superpower as a victim state that the Nazi holocaust as a 'unique' event was invented, and the industry began for real. Ever since then, the remit of 'The Holocaust' has expanded and it has been vigorously adopted - and generously financed and patronised from on high - by the western bourgeois establishment, eager to expropriate the memory of the Nazi genocide.

One pernicious variant of 'The Holocaust' card, for Finkelstein, is the invention of the "new anti-semitism". Thus, when under pressure, Israel's apologists "mount yet another meticulously orchestrated media extravaganza alleging that the world is awash in anti-semitism" - echoes of the chief rabbi's comments? - and "this shameless exploitation of anti-semitism delegitimises criticism of Israel, makes Jews rather than Palestinians the victims, and puts the onus on the Arab world to rid itself of anti-semitism rather than on Israel to rid itself of the occupied territories" (ibid p16).

For a typical example of this "new anti-semitic" scaremongering, Finkelstein quotes a comment of Foxman: "We currently face as great a threat to the safety and security of the Jewish people as the one we faced in the 1930s - if not a greater one" (from Abraham H Foxman's Never again? The threat of the new anti-semitism New York 2003, p4).

Not that Foxman's views, and language, are entirely new, of course - it is part of a "long, ignoble tradition", as Finkelstein puts it. For instance, former ADL leaders Arnold Forster and Benjamin R Epstein published in 1974 a book entitled The new anti-semitism. In this Forster and Epstein attacked Norman Jewison's cinematic version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical, Jesus Christ superstar - ranting about how "from an anti-semitic stage production, he created an even more anti-semitic film". Furthermore, Jesus Christ superstar is condemned for perpetuating the lie that "the Jews, collectively, killed Christ", and for following "the old, primitive formulation of the passion play, the spirit of which was discarded by Vatican II" (quoted in Beyond chutzpah p22).

Then fast-forward to 2004 and you see Foxman and the ADL attacking Mel Gibson's film, The passion, on similar grounds. Here, Finkelstein points out the obvious hypocrisy involved: "But the primary target audience of The passion was exactly those christian fundamentalists with whom ADL has been aligned for years" (ibid p23). In fact, Ralph Reed of the fanatically pro-Israel Christian Coalition frequently addresses ADL meetings!

In which case, asks Finkelstein, "why the selective indignation against Gibson?" (ibid p23). Simple - here was a golden opportunity to "whip up hysteria about the new anti-semitism". Not only that: for the purveyors of this particular myth, "The crisis of The passion was a win-win situation: if Gibson caved in, it would broadcast the message not to mess with Jews; and if he didn't, it would prove the omnipresence of anti-semitism."

Of course, for the ideologues of the "new anti-semitism", their main and primary mission is to intimate that hostility to Israel, or just anti-Zionism in general, is in fact proof of actual anti-semitism. So in the United States, as argued by Forster and Epstein in The new anti-semitism, this "threat" emanates from the "radical left" - such as the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of the United States of America, the (Maoist) Progressive Labor Party, etc - "even if", as Finkelstein caustically notes, "their combined constituency could have comfortably fit into a telephone booth" (ibid p24). But, regardless of this fact, Forster and Epstein maintained that the left "represents a danger to world Jewry at least equal to the danger on the right" (ibid p25).

But the "new anti-semitism" does not end there - far from it. The former ADL leaders also declared that the "line had been crossed" (into the "new anti-semitism") with regards to the peace movement as a whole - especially the churches. Therefore, when the National Council of Churches called for "the recognition of the right of Palestinian Arabs to a "home acceptable to them", which "must now be a matter of negotiation", then it followed that this was incipient anti-semitism. Or when a Quaker publication asserted that "Egypt and Israel were equally guilty for the outbreak of the June 1967 war", then that too was a reprehensible sign of anti-semitism (my emphasis ibid p25). After all, 'plucky' Israel was an innocent victim of Arab aggression - as every reasonable, god-fearing, person knows.

Naturally, as Finkelstein remarks, "the occasional public mention of an American Jewish lobby mobilising support for Israel or, even more rare, of US hypocrisy in the Israel-Arab conflict was likewise adduced by Forster and Epstein as prima facie evidence of anti-semitism" (ibid p26).

With the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, this doctrine became even more 'hard-line' and intolerant - as made apparent by the appearance in the same year of Nathan and Ruth Ann Perlmutter's The real anti-semitism. In this work, the danger of 'right' anti-semitism has almost completely disappeared - now the greatest danger to Jewry comes from the left (essentially defined as anything to their left). Now, we are in a paranoid world where the 'real' anti-semitism was defined as any challenge inimical to Jewish interests - which for the Perlmutters are threatened by "a-semitic" governmental policies. If left unchallenged and unchecked, this "a-semitism" can lead to the re-emergence of "classical" anti-semitism - which is always waiting in the wings. Naturally, to criticise Israel in virtually any shape or form is symptomatic of "a-semitism"; therefore ...

Why this escalation of 'anti-leftism' from the promulgators of the "new anti-semitism" theory? Finkelstein convincingly argues: "Yet the likelier reason for this relative silence on the right was that American Jewish elites had now aligned themselves with - indeed, more and more belonged to - the right, apart from its lunatic fringe .... Domestically, as institutionalised anti-semitism all but vanished and American Jews prospered, the bonds linking Jews to their erstwhile 'natural allies' on the left and among other discriminated minorities eroded. American Jewish elites increasingly acted to preserve and protect their class, and even 'white' privilege" (original emphasis ibid pp28-29).

But the very real problem, and the very real danger - as often alluded to by Finkelstein in all his works - is the plain fact that the constant "mislabelling of legitimate challenges to Jewish privilege and power as anti-semitism" only helps to breed "irrational resentment of Jews" (ibid p30). Effectively, the likes of the ADL want to reverse cause and effect when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In Beyond chutzpah, Finkelstein's ire is particularly directed against the Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz - especially his influential apologia, The case for Israel (New York). Indeed, the very title of Finkelstein's new book is a pun, or word play, upon Dershowitz's 2004 autobiography, Chutzpah, where he stakes his claim to be a civil "libertarian" and a noble and upright defender of the truth.

The case for Israel - at least in Finkelstein's view - is the 'spiritual' successor to Joan Peters' From time immemorial: the origins of the Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine, published in 1984. This book received glowing praise from all and sundry and the first edition became a runaway national bestseller - reprinted to seven hardback printings. Peters' central thesis - "apparently supported by nearly 2,000 notes and a recondite demographic study" (Beyond chutzpah p1) - was that Palestine had been virtually empty on the eve of Zionist colonisation and that the Jewish settlers made the deserted and barren parts of Palestine bloom. So much so, in fact, that Arabs from neighbouring states and other parts of Palestine migrated to the Jewish areas and then pretended to be indigenous inhabitants. For Peters, Golda Meir was right - there were no such thing as Palestinians.

But, Finkelstein reminds us, Peters' work was a "colossal hoax" - the "cited sources were mangled", the "key numbers in the demographic study falsified", large parts had been "plagiarised from Zionist propaganda tracts", and so on. As with the holocaust industry proper, when it comes to works about the Israel-Palestine conflict, we have "sheer fraud masquerading as serious scholarship" - the mechanisms of "quality control function barely, if at all" (ibid pp16-17).

Dershowitz's The case for Israel is yet another addition to the "genre" of ideologically driven 'scholarship'. Not only is it one of the "most spectacular academic frauds ever published on the Israel-Palestine conflict": it is an extraordinary lazy one as well - seeing how Dershowitz "appropriates large swathes from the Peters hoax". Though, as Finkelstein ironically says, "whereas Peters falsified real sources", Dershowitz "goes one better and cites absurd sources or stitches evidence out of whole cloth" (ibid p2).

Dershowitz's central thesis in The case for Israel is certainly a grand one: "That no nation in the history of the world that has faced comparable threats to its survival - both external and internal - has ever made greater efforts at, and has ever come closer to, achieving the high norms of the rule of law. Yet no civilised nation in the history of the world ... has ever been as repeatedly, unfairly and hypocritically condemned and criticised by the international community as Israel has been over the years. The net result is that the gulf between Israel's actual record of compliance with the rule of law and its perceived record of compliance with the rule of law is greater than for any other nation in history" (original emphasis - quoted ibid p91).

This leads Dershowitz to conclude - don't laugh now - that Israel's human rights record is "generally superb" (quoted ibid p91). Incredibly, as Finkelstein informs us, despite making such an extraordinary claim "never once does Dershowitz cite a single mainstream human rights organisation to support any of his claims" (ibid p92).

And the reason? Simply, because to do so would immediately expose his claim to be utterly preposterous and self-evidently false. B'Tselem (Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc have all painstakingly detailed Israel's voluminous atrocities.

Here are a few brief snippets. For B'Tselem, "What renders Israel's abuses unique throughout the world is the relentless efforts to justify what cannot be justified" - indeed, Israel was "the only country in the world where torture was legally sanctioned". David Kretzmer, a professor at Hebrew University: "The Israel supreme court has "rationalised virtually all controversial actions of the Israeli authorities." Amnesty International: a 1997 ruling by the Israeli supreme court was "unprecedented in the world", in that it "legalised hostage-taking", and since 1967 Israel has "routinely tortured Palestinian political suspects". And so on (all quoted ibid p221).

Not that this prevents Dershowitz from haughtily declaring that Amnesty has "failed the test of even-handedness" - unfavourably comparing it with 'authentic' human rights organisations like the ADL, whose concern is "the universal rights of all human beings" (quoted ibid pp93-94).

In Beyond chutzpah, Finkelstein meticulously - almost tortuously - juxtaposes page by page, line by line, the findings of all the mainstream human rights organisations on Israel's record with Dershowitz's increasingly bizarre, and extremely distasteful, profusion of 'evidence' for Israel's saintliness.

When confronted by professor Dershowitz's cooked-up statistics and figures, Finkelstein's conclusion is hardly surprising: ""¦ it's difficult to find a single claim in his human rights chapters or, for that matter, any other chapter in The case for Israel that, among other things, doesn't distort a reputable source or reference a preposterous one .... The chasm separating these repressive accounts of Israel's record cannot be bridged. Either mainstream human rights organisations and independent experts have engaged in a vast anti-semitic conspiracy to defame Israel, or Dershowitz has egregiously misrepresented the factual record. No third possibility exists" (ibid pp222-223).

All in all, Dershowitz's book deserves to have "the same shelf life as the latest publication of the Flat Earth Society" - but, regrettably, the "systematic institutional bias" that exists in the United States "allows for books like The case for Israel to become national best-sellers" (ibid p224).

In the appendix, it is worth noting, Finkelstein provides an illuminating insight into Dershowitz's 'method' and nakedly pro-Zionist agenda. In The case for Israel, he devotes many pages to the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was the leader of the Palestinian national movement during the British mandate years. Yes, as is well documented, the mufti personally collaborated with the Nazis - up to a point. However, that is not enough for Dershowitz - he goes on to makes the assertion that the Nazis actually financed the 1936-39 Arab revolt - and, furthermore, that the mufti "was personally responsible for the concentration camp slaughter of thousands of Jews" and "bore significant responsibility for the holocaust" (quoted ibid p277).

Yet there is absolutely no evidence - scholarly or otherwise - for such a damning claim. True, Dershowitz cites Benny Morris's Righteous victims: a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict 1881-1999 (New York 1999) as his source material - but the only problem is that Morris does not mention any such thing about the mufti. In fact, the only source for the 'mufti story' is an opinion columnist, Sarah Honig, in the rightwing Jerusalem Post ('Fiendish hypocrisy II: the man from Klopstock Street', April 6 2001) - to which Dershowitz makes no reference or credit, even though that could have been the only place where he got his 'evidence' from.

However, what Dershowitz also does not mention is that in late 1940 the dissident rightwing Zionist organisation, IZL in Israel, sought an agreement with the Nazis on the basis of a "collusion of interests" between the "new Germany and the reborn volkisch-nationalen Hebraertum" and for the purpose of "the re-establishment of the Jewish state in its historic borders, on a national and totalitarian basis, allied with the German Reich. For this aim, IZL in Israel made repeated appeals to Nazis. Interestingly enough, a member of this group of would-be Nazi collaborators was a certain Yitzhak Shamir - who went on to become Israeli prime minister.

The high-profile lies and distortions peddled by the holocaust industry will continue to inflict themselves on the world - but, equally as sure, Norman Finkelstein will be there to swat them down.