How the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 gave birth to a memorial industry
- 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’.
Vol. 22 No. 3 · 3 February 2000
From William Rubinstein
In his review of The Holocaust in American Life, Norman Finkelstein (LRB, 6 January) claims that the upsurge in interest in the Holocaust began with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In fact, it began with the Eichmann trial of 1960-62 – this is a commonplace in accounts of the historiography of the Holocaust.
Nor is there any demonstrable or obvious link between historians who have presented what might be described as the ‘orthodox’ view of the Holocaust as central and unique, and their views on Israel. For instance, two of the historians whom Finkelstein attacks most directly for their views on the Holocaust, Daniel Goldhagen and Deborah Lipstadt, have no expressed views on Israel or Zionism. Conversely, several historians who have dissented from the orthodox view on the alleged inaction of the Allies in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust, such as Yehuda Bauer, Lucy Dawidowicz and Martin Gilbert, are outspoken champions of Israel and Zionism. The two historians who did most to put the view that America ‘abandoned’ the Jews during the Holocaust, Arthur Morse and David Wyman, are not ‘Zionists’ and are, indeed, not Jewish.
That Finkelstein is liable to exaggerate the use of the Holocaust by scholars defending Israel may be seen – to take one example – in the references to Haj Amin Al-Hussani, the Mufti of Jerusalem, in The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. The Encyclopedia is a four-volume reference work consisting of 1704 pages. The article on the Mufti occupies four pages. One reason for his inclusion was that he was given an interview with Hitler in the middle of the war during which Hitler stated that when the German Army arrived in Palestine, the Jews would be ‘exterminated’ there. It doesn’t, however, present all the facts about the Mufti’s Nazi and anti-semitic connections. For instance, it fails to mention that he was due to present a paper at a giant International Anti-Jewish Conference to be held by the Nazis in Cracow in 1944.
University of Wales, Aberystwyth
From Paul Drabkin
Norman Finkelstein overlooks the fact that classes in Holocaust Studies in American universities have appeared in the wake of courses in Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Women’s Studies and Native American Studies, all of which were justified in part by appealing to the historical victimisation of their subjects and their under-representation in the history curriculum. As for the tendency for some writers, and many ordinary Jews, to ‘sacralise’ the Holocaust, if a billion or so Christians can find transcendent meaning in the suffering of one individual, surely Jews can be allowed the indulgence of incorporating this great historical trauma into our own tribal story, even to the point of giving it star billing.
From Rob Ferguson
Although Norman Finkelstein is right to argue that the American Jewish establishment’s ‘rediscovery’ of the Holocaust stemmed from a defence of Israel’s pride of place in US foreign policy after 1967, public awareness of the Holocaust prior to the Arab-Israeli war had grown to a far greater extent than his reference to ‘a handful of books and films’ suggests. The impact of The Diary of Anne Frank, Resnais’s Night and Fog and documentary archives was felt by the early 1960s.
This had nothing to do with conservative Jewish leaders. Indeed, consciousness of the Holocaust’s significance rose along with political radicalisation. Opposition to the postwar order brought the Allies’ wartime record into question. The employment of Nazi scientists on the space programme, the lack of public reference to the Holocaust, the Allies’ failure to impede the Final Solution, the hasty end of the Nuremberg trials, and above all the continued support for fascist regimes and right-wing dictatorships combined to form part of the Left’s day-to-day polemic.
Royal Holloway College
University of London
Vol. 22 No. 4 · 17 February 2000
From Ivor Kraft
‘The Holocaust is more central to American cultural life than the Civil War.’ Setting the tone of Norman Finkelstein’s review (LRB, 6 January), this opening sentence is a particularly ridiculous generalisation. Millions of non-Jews who live below the Mason-Dixon Line, in the West, and in many parts of the North as well, never give a thought to the Shoah. But the Civil War has an abiding presence in the lives of these millions of Americans, Jews as well as Gentiles, even if many of their memories are shallow and inaccurate.
Finkelstein is right to suggest that the Shoah was not unique because it was an example of genocide, since history records numerous well-documented genocidal events. He makes an unforgivable omission, however, when he fails to say that the Shoah was terrifyingly unique because of its scope, the technology and logistics involved and the zealousness with which it was conducted against particularly vulnerable people, as well as the fact that it so easily recruited implementers, aiders, abetters and apologists – and not only in Germany.
He is also right to say that the Shoah is being exploited for crass, cynical and even contemptible purposes. Very little gets done in the States that does not involve private greed, whether for commercial gain or personal notoriety, and it would be odd if Shoah museums, for example, were an exception. Can he cite even one catastrophic or heroic or glorious or famous phenomenon that does not lend itself to such exploitation? The fall of an empire, the birth of Jesus, the death of a princess, the landing on the Moon, the Civil War – all are fair game. It is meretricious to blame a so-called Holocaust industry for the exploitation of the Shoah. The Holocaust museums and Holocaust Studies departments in the States are not encouraging people to claim falsely that they are Shoah survivors, nor are they producing silly films on Shoah themes, and they certainly haven’t been urging the animal rights lobbies to make tear-jerk analogies between gas ovens for Jews and gas ovens for dogs and cats. Do we blame the commercial exploitation of Christmas on the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount?
The issue is not whether or how Finkelstein has been unfairly criticised for this or that book, or what motivates Elie Wiesel, Jesse Jackson, Abraham Foxman, or Chelsea and Hillary Clinton. It is beside the point whether a Holocaust industry is good or bad for Israel, whether the Shoah is used to justify or condemn the Cold War, whether Jew-hatred is increasing or decreasing in the USA. The issue isn’t whether rich Jews were influential in setting up Holocaust museums, nor whether Nazi genocide against the Roma or the handicapped was as heinous as that against Jews (of course it was). And the issue is certainly not whether US blacks under and after slavery suffered more than US victims of Jew-hatred. Beyond question African Americans suffered vastly and incalculably more.
The nub of the issue is this: are we right to make major efforts and investments to keep the memory of the Shoah alive among all peoples, everywhere, or should we start forgetting about it? The answer is absolutely clear. We must make dignified, bold, continuous efforts to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. We must tell the not so simple truths about it, while refusing to mystify it, or to exploit or analogise or moralise its meaning. Long after the last Jew has been assimilated into the vast sea of Gentile cultures, long after Israel ceases to exist as a Jewish state, long after the world knows and cares less about Jews than it now does about Hittites and Etruscans, it will be important for people to remind themselves that the Shoah is a part of its tragic cultural evolution.
Any intellectual or scholar or student of history who writes about the Shoah and ends up without saying what I have just said is someone who does not understand what it means to be a human being, or a Jew-hater (self-hater or other-hater), or simply a common asshole pretending to be an intellectual. I don’t know where Finkelstein belongs.
Vol. 22 No. 5 · 2 March 2000
From Joseph White
In his criticism of Norman Finkelstein, William Rubinstein (Letters, 3 February) asserts that David Wyman is not a Zionist. Wyman writes in The Abandonment of the Jews: ‘Today I remain strongly pro-Zionist and I am a resolute supporter of the state of Israel.’ Rubinstein also asserts that Daniel Goldhagen has ‘no expressed views on Israel or Zionism’. The whole point of Hitler’s Willing Executioners is that there was no way Jews and Christians in Germany could live together in peace and harmony before the creation of Israel. Zionists fully agree. Indeed, Goldhagen’s Zionist assumptions are the only thing that provides Hitler’s Willing Executioners with what little internal coherence it possesses.
University of Pittsburgh