How the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 gave birth to a memorial industry

Norman Finkelstein

  • The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick
    Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp, £16.99, June 1999, ISBN 0 395 84009 0

The Holocaust is more central to American cultural life than the Civil War. Seventeen states either demand or recommend Holocaust programmes in their schools; many colleges and universities have endowed chairs in Holocaust Studies; hardly a day goes by without a Holocaust-related story appearing in the New York Times. Polls show that many more Americans can identify the Holocaust than Pearl Harbor or the atomic bombing of Japan. Consider the media attention given to Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, published in 1996 and hailed as Time’s ‘most talked about’ book of the year. It has become an international bestseller and its author has become a ubiquitous presence on the Holocaust ‘circuit’.

In A Nation on Trial, a book written with Ruth Bettina Birn, I sought to expose the shoddiness of Goldhagen’s book. Birn, an authority on the archives Goldhagen consulted, first published her critical findings in Cambridge University’s Historical Journal. Refusing the journal’s unprecedented invitation for a side-by-side rebuttal, Goldhagen instead enlisted a London law firm to sue Birn and Cambridge University Press for ‘many serious libels’. Demanding an apology, a retraction and an undertaking that Birn not repeat her criticisms, Goldhagen’s lawyers then threatened that ‘the generation of any publicity on your part as a result of this letter would amount to a further aggravation of damages’. Soon after my own critical findings were published in New Left Review, Henry Holt agreed to publish both essays as a book. The forward warned that Holt was ‘preparing to bring out a book by Norman Finkelstein, a notorious ideological opponent of the State of Israel’. Alleging that ‘Finkelstein’s glaring bias and audacious statements ... are irreversibly tainted by his anti-Zionist stance,’ the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, called on Holt to drop publication of the book: ‘The issue ... is not whether Goldhagen’s thesis is right or wrong but what is “legitimate criticism” and what goes beyond the pale.’ ‘Whether Goldhagen’s thesis is right or wrong,’ one of Holt’s senior editors Sara Bershtel replied, ‘is precisely the issue.’ Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, pronounced Holt’s decision a disgrace: ‘If they want to be garbagemen they should wear sanitation uniforms.’ ‘I have never experienced a similar attempt of interested parties to publicly cast a shadow over an upcoming publication,’ Michael Naumann, the president of Holt, later recalled.

Even after our book’s publication, the assaults did not relent. Goldhagen alleged that Birn, who has made the prosecution of Nazi war criminals her life’s work, was a purveyor of anti-semitism, and that I was of the opinion that Nazism’s victims, including my own family, deserved to die. Such a reaction is typical of the way that American Jewry now approaches the Holocaust.

Until the late Sixties, however, the Holocaust barely figured in the life of America, or of America’s Jews. As Peter Novick remarks, between the end of World War Tow and the late Sixties, only a handful of books and films touched on the subject. Jewish intellectuals paid it little attention. No monuments or tributes marked the event. On the contrary, major Jewish organisations opposed such a memorialisation.

Fear of alienating Gentiles by emphasising the distinctiveness of Jewish experience was always a problem for American (as well as European) Jews, and during the Second World War had inhibited efforts to rescue Jews in Europe. ‘Throughout the Fifties and well into the Sixties,’ Novick reports, the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and other groups ‘worked on a variety of fronts’ to dispel the image of Jews as disloyal. The priority for these organisations was not to provide reminders of the Holocaust or to voice support for Israel but to support the US in the Cold War.

Although they eventually embraced the Zionist-led campaign for Jewish statehood in the aftermath of World War Two, mainstream Jewish organisations closely monitored signals coming from Washington and adjusted to them. Indeed, it seems that the AJC supported the founding of Israel mainly from fear that a domestic backlash might ensue if the Jewish displaced persons in Europe were not quickly settled. From early on, these organisations harboured profound misgivings about a Jewish state. Above all they feared that it would lend credence to the ‘dual loyalty’ canard. Moreover, in the years after its founding in 1948, Israel did not figure prominently in American strategic planning. To secure US interests in the Middle East, successive administrations balanced support for Israel and for Arab élites. Israel was only one of America’s several regional assets and Jewish organisations kept in step with US policy.

Novick convincingly argues that American Jews ‘forgot’ about the Holocaust because Germany was an American ally in the Cold War. The editor of Commentary urged the importance of encouraging Jews to develop a ‘realistic attitude rather than a punitive and recriminatory one’ towards Germany, which was now a pillar of ‘Western democratic civilisation’.

In contrast, Israel’s allegiances in the Cold War were less clear-cut. American Jewish leaders voiced concern that Israel’s largely East European, left-wing leadership would want to join the Soviet camp. Although Israel soon aligned itself with the US, many Israelis in and out of government retained strong affections for the Soviet Union. Predictably, Jews in America who weren’t on the Left preferred to keep Israel at arm’s length.

From the start of the Cold War, the mainstream Jewish organisations were eager for the fray. Faced with a stereotype of Jews as Communists or Communist sympathisers, they did not shrink from sacrificing fellow Jews on the altar of anti-Communism. The AJC and ADL provided government agencies with access to their files on alleged Jewish subversives and played an active part in the McCarthy witch-hunt. Before she became the doyenne of Holocaust studies, Lucy Dawidowicz kept tabs on Jewish Communists for the American Jewish Committee. Of the Rosenbergs she wrote in New Leader that one could not support the death penalty for Hermann Goering and oppose it for Jewish spies. The AJC stood aloof from the campaign to grant the Rosenbergs clemency. Anxious to boost their anti-Communist credentials, the majority of Jews who could expect to have their opinions listened to turned a blind eye as former members of the SS entered the country.

Conducting a survey on ‘American Judaism’ in 1957 the sociologist Nathan Glazer reported that the Holocaust made little impression on the lives of American Jews. Novick is right to give short shrift to the standard explanation for this: that, traumatised by the event, Jews ‘repressed’ the memory of it. In fact, as he says, those Jewish survivors of Hitler’s Europe who had arrived recently ‘wanted to talk about their Holocaust experiences and were discouraged from doing so’.

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