Vol. 22 No. 1 · 6 January 2000

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

Norman Finkelstein

4779 words
The Holocaust in American Life 
by Peter Novick.
Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp., £16.99, June 1999, 0 395 84009 0
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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 Two 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’.

Glazer also concluded that Israel ‘had remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry’. Membership of the Zionist Organisation of America dropped from hundreds of thousands in 1948 to tens of thousands in the Sixties. Early in 1967 the AJC sponsored a symposium on ‘Jewish Identity Here and Now’. Only 3 of the 31 ‘best minds in the Jewish community’ alluded to Israel; two did so only to dismiss its relevance. It’s ironic that just about the only Jewish intellectuals who openly associated themselves with Israel before 1967 were Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky. Only one in twenty American Jews had visited Israel. But as Novick makes clear, all this changed after the Arab-Israeli War in 1967: the Holocaust was ‘discovered’ by American Jews, the Holocaust industry began to materialise and American Jewish organisations began to identify more closely with Israel. Why?

Novick argues that Israel seemed ‘poised on the brink of destruction’ during the 1967 war, and so the Final Solution was ‘suddenly transformed from “mere”, albeit tragic history, to imminent and terrifying prospect’. The ‘discovery’ of the Holocaust came about because American Jews feared that it might be repeated: it related to a perception of the danger faced by Israel. Novick is less convincing here than in other parts of his illuminating book. He is right about the timing of the discovery of the Holocaust but wrong about the reason.

After all, Israel had been more plausibly ‘poised on the brink of destruction’ at the time of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, when ‘700,000 Jews’, in the words of David Ben-Gurion, were ‘pitted against 27 million Arabs – one against forty’ and the US joined a UN arms embargo on the region despite the fact that the Arab armies had a clear advantage in terms of weaponry. Even the CIA and the US Secretary of State George Marshall predicted Jewish defeat. Without a secret Czech arms deal, Israel would probably not have survived. After fighting for a year, it had lost 1 per cent of its population. Yet the Nazi Holocaust did not become a focus of American Jewish life in 1948.

Israel was similarly isolated during the Suez Crisis in 1956. But, as Novick senses, what really mattered to American Jewish organisations at this time was that the US figured prominently in the international consensus against Israel. It was Eisenhower who forced its virtually unconditional withdrawal from the Sinai, while US public support for Israel sharply declined. There was little talk of the Holocaust in America at this time. Jewish organisations did briefly back Israeli efforts to force American concessions, but ultimately, as Arthur Hertzberg recalls in Jewish Polemics, they ‘preferred to counsel Israel to heed’ Eisenhower rather than ‘oppose the wishes of the leader of the United States’. In 1957, Dissent condemned the ‘combined attack on Egypt’ as ‘immoral’. Israel was also taken to task for ‘cultural chauvinism’, a ‘quasi-messianic sense of manifest destiny’ and ‘an undercurrent of expansionism’.

In 1967, however, Israel was far stronger and won an easy victory. The US now treated it differently: military assistance began to pour in as Israel became a proxy for American power in the Middle East (and beyond). Jews now stood on the front line defending America – ‘Western civilisation’ – against the Arab hordes. Israeli soldiers were fighting and dying to protect US interests. And unlike American GIs in Vietnam, these Jewish ‘fighters’ were not being humiliated by Third World upstarts. ‘There were many jokes,’ Novick writes, ‘about turning the faltering American military effort in Vietnam over to General Dayan.’

Novick asserts that the ‘light’ of the June 1967 victory redeemed the ‘darkness’ of the Nazi genocide: ‘it had given God a second chance.’ Yet in standard Jewish accounts, not the June war but Israel’s founding marked redemption. Why then did the Holocaust have to await a second redemption? The ‘image of Jews as military heroes’ in the June war, he maintains, ‘worked to efface the stereotype of weak and passive victims which ... previously inhibited Jewish discussion of the Holocaust’. Yet for sheer courage, the 1948 war was Israel’s finest hour. And Moshe Dayan’s ‘daring’ and ‘brilliant’ hundred-hour Sinai campaign in 1956 prefigured the swift victory in June 1967. Why, then, did American Jews require the June war to ‘efface the stereotype’? The answer, as I see it, is that it was not Israel’s ‘terrifying weakness’ and ‘increasing isolation’ but its proven strength and strategic alliance with the US that led to the ‘centring’ of the Holocaust in American life after June 1967. The fact that the Holocaust industry sprang up at this time had much less to do with Israel on the verge of destruction than with its display of martial prowess. Nor will one find any convincing connection with the rise of Palestinian terrorism. The industry flourished in a climate of Israeli triumphalism.

Not everyone agreed that it was a wise move to turn Israel into America’s chief strategic asset in the Middle East. Arabists in particular felt that it was a mistake to ignore Arab interests and regimes and that it would do the US no good in the long run. Other observers argued that Israel’s subordination to US power and its occupation of neighbouring territory were not only wrong in principle but harmful to both American and Israeli interests. For Israel’s new American Jewish ‘supporters’, however, such talk bordered on heresy. Moving with the tide of US power politics, American Jews now began to regard Israel as a strategic asset, and to protect their asset, they ‘remembered’ the Holocaust.

Israel’s military prowess suddenly became a springboard for Jews to acquire more power in the US. In Making It, the memoir he published just before the June war, Norman Podhoretz makes only one allusion to Israel. After all, what did Israel have to offer an ambitious American Jew? In Breaking Ranks (1979), he remembers that after June 1967 Israel became ‘the religion of the American Jews’ and later he would boast of private meetings with the President to discuss the National Interest. In 1953, Lucy Dawidowicz had insisted that Israelis could not demand reparations from Germany while they evaded responsibility for displaced Palestinians: ‘Morality cannot be that flexible.’ After the 1967 war, however, she became a ‘fervent supporter of Israel’, acclaiming it in The Jewish Presence (1977) as ‘the corporate paradigm for the ideal image of the Jew in the modern world’.

In exploring the domestic factors which have encouraged the Holocaust industry, Novick points to the ‘culture of victimisation’. Again I would say that the Holocaust has taken hold among American Jews precisely because they are not victims. When Jesse Jackson said in 1979 that he was ‘sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust’, he was repeatedly criticised by Jewish organisations because of his espousal of the Palestinian cause. But it was not insignificant that Jackson represented domestic constituencies with which organised American Jews had been at loggerheads since the late Sixties. In this conflict the Holocaust was proving a potent ideological weapon.

Just as organised Jews remembered the Holocaust when Israeli power peaked, so they remembered the Holocaust when American Jewish power peaked. ‘Holocaust awareness,’ the Israeli writer Boas Evron observed in a 1983 essay, is ‘not at all an understanding of the past, but a manipulation of the present’. Novick reflects that Jews now constitute the ‘wealthiest, best-educated, most influential, in-every-way-most-successful group in American society.’ Forty per cent of American Nobel Prize winners in science and economics are Jewish, as are 20 per cent of professors at major universities, 40 per cent of partners in the leading law firms in New York and Washington, and so on. Obviously, Jews rose to pre-eminence in postwar American life only when anti-semitism no longer posed, in Novick’s words, any ‘significant barriers or disadvantages to American Jews’. By the Seventies and Eighties, ‘the last pockets of anti-Jewish discrimination disappeared,’ while popular anti-semitism fell to an unprecedentedly low level. Yet Norman Podhoretz alleged in the late Seventies that hostile media references to Jews had escalated ‘by a factor of ten or even fifty, or even a hundred’.

Novick dismisses the evidence for this alarm as ‘laughably trivial’ but it wouldn’t be too crude to say that it has been useful. With ‘success in fund-raising ... directly proportional to the level of anxiety among potential contributors’, Novick reports, ‘shrei gevalt’ agencies like the ADL and Simon Wiesenthal Center ‘bombarded Jews with mailings announcing new anti-semitic threats’. The main ulterior motive, however, lay elsewhere. As American Jews enjoyed increasing success, they moved steadily to the Right politically: ‘Jews had everything to lose and nothing to gain,’ Novick observes, ‘from the more equal distribution of rewards which had been the aim of liberal social policies.’ Although still left-of-centre on cultural issues such as sexual morality and abortion, Jews ‘ceased to be ... markedly more liberal than other Americans ... when it came to bread-and-butter issues like welfare, income distribution and aid to blacks.’ Neo-conservatism ‘was almost exclusively a Jewish affair’, and Commentary ‘became America’s best-known conservative magazine’.

Complementing the rightward turn was a turn inward. As Novick reports, no longer mindful of allies among the have-nots, Jews increasingly reserved their resources ‘for exclusively Jewish purposes’. ‘We have made clear,’ Nathan Perlmutter, the former head of the ADL, declared, ‘our opposition to programmes that are not related to the interests of Jews.’ The ‘real anti-semitism in America’, Perlmutter has also said, consisted of policy initiatives that were ‘corrosive of Jewish interests’, such as affirmative action, cuts in the defence budget and neoisolationism, as well as opposition to nuclear power and even electoral college reform.

Here, too, the Holocaust played a critical role. Historic suffering confers present-day licence: ‘insofar as Jewish identity could be anchored in the agony of European Jewry,’ Novick writes, ‘certification as (vicarious) victims could be claimed, with all the moral privilege accompanying such certification.’ Beyond that, the Holocaust precluded any possibility that animus toward Jews might be grounded in present-day conflicts. Invoking the Holocaust was a powerful way to delegitimise criticism of Jews.

In Novick’s words, the Holocaust has ‘mandated an intransigent and self-righteous posture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ and ‘allowed one to put aside as irrelevant any legitimate grounds for criticising Israel’. According to Nathan Glazer in the second edition of American Judaism, the Holocaust gave Jews ‘the right to consider themselves specially threatened and specially worthy of whatever efforts were necessary for survival’. To give one example, every account of Israel’s decision to develop nuclear weapons evokes the spectre of the Holocaust. A consistent feature of Holocaust literature is the space given over to the ‘Arab connection’. Although, Novick writes, the Mufti of Jerusalem didn’t play ‘any significant part in the Holocaust’, the four-volume Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (edited by Israel Gutman) gives him a ‘starring role’: ‘The article on the Mufti is more than twice as long as the article on Goebbels and Goering, longer than the article on Himmler and Heydrich combined, longer than the article on Eichmann – of all the biographical articles, it is exceeded in length, but only slightly, by the entry on Hitler.’

American Jewish organisations remember the Holocaust in a particular way. In the aftermath of World War Two, as Novick shows, the Holocaust was not cast as a uniquely Jewish – let alone a uniquely Jewish and a historically unique – event. On the contrary, American Jews in particular were at pains to place it in a universalist context. After 1967, the Final Solution was radically reframed. ‘The first and most important claim that emerged from the 1967 war and became emblematic of American Judaism’, Jacob Neusner writes in In the Aftermath of the Holocaust (1993), was that ‘the Holocaust ... was unique, without parallel in human history.’ The ‘Holocaust uniqueness’ dogma became, according to Novick, ‘axiomatic’, a ‘fetishism’, and a ‘cult’ in ‘official’ Jewish discourse.

Related to the claim that the Holocaust is unique is the claim that it cannot be rationally apprehended. Referred to by Novick as the ‘sacralisation of the Holocaust’, this mystification’s most practised purveyor is Elie Wiesel. For Wiesel, Novick observes, the Holocaust is effectively a ‘mystery’ religion: it ‘leads into darkness’, ‘negates all answers’, ‘lies outside, if not beyond, history’, ‘defies both knowledge and description’, marks a ‘destruction of history’ and a ‘mutation on a cosmic scale’. Only the survivor-priest (Wiesel) is qualified to divine its mystery. ‘Any survivor,’ he says, ‘has more to say than all the historians combined about what happened.’ To demystify the Holocaust is, for Wiesel, a subtle form of anti-semitism. To compare the Holocaust with the sufferings of others is, he argues in one of the pieces collected in Against Silence, a ‘total betrayal of Jewish history’.

The claim of Holocaust uniqueness is a claim of Jewish uniqueness. What makes the Holocaust unique is not the suffering of Jews, but that it was Jews who suffered. For Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, the Holocaust ‘was not simply one example of genocide but a near successful attempt on the life of God’s chosen children and thus on God himself’. Wiesel, who is always vehement about the uniqueness of the Holocaust, is no less vehement that Jews are unique: ‘Everything about us is different,’ he says. The Holocaust is interpreted as marking the climax of thousands of years of Gentile hatred of Jews; it attests not only to the suffering of Jews, therefore, but to Jewish uniqueness as well.

During World War Two and in its aftermath, Novick reports, ‘hardly anyone’ inside the US Government – and hardly anyone outside it, Jew or Gentile – would have understood the phrase ‘abandonment of the Jews’. Indeed, ‘almost all Americans, and certainly the majority of American Jews’, took pride in the role played by the US Armed Forces in defeating Hitler. A reversal took place after 1967. Phrases such as ‘the world’s silence’, ‘the world’s indifference’ and ‘the abandonment of the Jews’ became staples of ‘Holocaust discourse’. The claim in particular of American complicity in the Holocaust, Novick observes, created a ‘compelling obligation to expiate past sins through unswerving support of Israel’. The Holocaust dogma of eternal Gentile hatred served both to justify the necessity of a Jewish state and to account for any hostility directed at Israel. Cynthia Ozick, for example, writing in Esquire in 1974, explained criticism of Israel by saying: ‘The world wants to wipe out the Jews ... the world has always wanted to wipe out the Jews.’

Deploring the ‘Holocaust lesson’ of eternal Gentile hatred, Boas Evron observes in Jewish State or Israeli Nation (1995) that it ‘is really tantamount to a deliberate breeding of paranoia ... This mentality ... condones in advance any inhuman treatment of non-Jews, for the prevailing mythology is that “all people collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of Jewry,” hence everything is permissible to Jews in their relationship to other peoples.’

Anti-semitism, the argument runs, is not only ineradicable but also always irrational. Thus in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Goldhagen construes anti-semitism as a Gentile mental pathology; the ‘host domain’ is ‘the mind’. By conferring total blamelessness on Jews, this dogma immunises Israel and American Jews from legitimate censure – from Arabs, say, or from African Americans. Wiesel on Arab hostility to Israel: ‘Because of who we are and what our homeland Israel represents – the heart of our lives, the dream of our dreams – when our enemies try to destroy us, they will do so by trying to destroy Israel.’ Wiesel on African American hostility to American Jews: ‘We helped the blacks ... There is one thing they should learn from us and that is gratitude ... We are forever grateful.’

Every questioning of the uniqueness of the Holocaust is taken by organised American Jews to be an example of Holocaust denial. In a society saturated with the Holocaust, justification for yet more museums, books, college courses, films and television programmes is sought by conjuring up the ghost of denial. In fact, the only Holocaust deniers around are, in Novick’s words, ‘a tiny band of cranks, kooks and misfits’. But Denying the Holocaust, a book by Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, takes these deniers very seriously indeed. She casts her net wide. To suggest that Germans suffered during the bombing of Dresden, or that any state except Germany committed crimes in World War Two; to question a survivor’s testimony; to denounce the role of Jewish collaborators – this is all evidence, according to Lipstadt, of Holocaust denial. The most ‘insidious’ form of Holocaust denial, she suggests, is ‘immoral equivalencies’: that is, denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

The dogma of uniqueness is validated by the dogma of inveterate anti-semitism. If the Holocaust marked the climax of Gentile hatred of the Jews, the persecution of non-Jews in the Holocaust was merely accidental and the persecution of non-Jews in history merely episodic. How to regard the other victims of Nazi persecution? The question of who to memorialise was the main political issue which confronted the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – one of the hundred Holocaust institutions in the US. During the museum’s planning stages, Elie Wiesel led the offensive to commemorate the Jews alone. ‘As always, they began with Jews,’ he intoned. ‘As always, they did not stop with Jews alone.’ Yet not Jews but Communists were the first political victims, and not Jews but the handicapped were the first group to be cleansed by the Nazis.

The main challenge was to justify the marginalistion of the Gypsy genocide. The Nazis systematically murdered as many as half a million Gypsies, with proportional losses roughly equal to the Jewish genocide, but, it seems, one simply couldn’t compare the loss of a Gypsy and a Jewish life. Ridiculing the call for Gypsy representation on the US Holocaust Memorial Council as ‘cockamamie’, executive director Rabbi Seymour Siegal doubted whether Gypsies even ‘existed’ as a people: ‘There should be some recognition or acknowledgment of the Gypsy people ... if there is such a thing.’ Acknowledging the Gypsy genocide meant the loss of an exclusive Jewish franchise over the Holocaust, with a commensurate loss of Jewish moral capital. Moreover, if the Nazis persecuted Gypsies and Jews alike, the notion that the Holocaust marked the climax of thousands of years of Gentile hatred of Jews was clearly untenable. Likewise, if Gentile envy spurred the Jewish genocide, did envy also spur the Gypsy genocide?

The Holocaust was mired in politics from the start. While allocating hundreds of millions of dollars for the Holocaust Museum, Congress has baulked at proposals for a museum documenting the African American experience. ‘Blacks were well aware of the irony,’ Novick writes, ‘that it was American Jews’ wealth and political influence that made it possible for them to bring to the Mall in Washington a monument to their weakness and vulnerability.’ With a re-election campaign looming, President Carter initiated the project to placate Jewish supporters (‘Jewish money’ makes up half of Democratic Party campaign funding), who had been outraged by his recognition of the ‘legitimate rights’ of Palestinians.

Before serving as the Museum’s director, Walter Reich wrote a paean to Joan Peters’s book, From Time Immemorial, which claimed that Palestine was literally empty until Zionist colonisation. John Roth’s appointment as a sub-director of the Museum was cancelled after it was discovered that he had, in the past, been critical of Israel. The chair of the US Holocaust Memorial Council, Miles Lerman, said, in repudiating a book by a prominent Israeli historian critical of Israel: ‘To put this museum on the opposite side of Israel – it’s inconceivable.’ The Museum falsely claims that organised American Jews called on the War Department to bomb the death camps, and it silently passes over the US recruitment of Nazi war criminals at the end of the war.

The Museum’s permanent exhibition closes with the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Novick quotes the director of Yad Vashem’s archive that most survivors’ testimonies are unreliable: ‘Many were never in the places where they claim to have witnessed atrocities, while others relied on secondhand information given them by friends or passing strangers.’ Because survivors are revered as secular saints, one doesn’t dare question them.

The term ‘Holocaust survivor’ originally designated those who suffered the trauma of the Jewish ghettos, concentration camps and labour camps. The number of Holocaust survivors at the end of the war is generally put at a hundred thousand. The number of those still alive cannot be more than a quarter of that figure. But because enduring the camps became a crown of martyrdom, many Jews who spent the war elsewhere presented themselves as camp survivors. Another strong motive behind this misrepresentation was material. The postwar German government provided compensation to those non-German Jews who had been in ghettos or camps. A number of Jews fabricated their past to meet this eligibility requirement, a subject not touched on by Novick. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office recently stated that there were nearly a million living survivors. Perhaps this is because it would be difficult to press massive new claims for reparations if only a handful of survivors remained. ‘If everyone who claims to be a survivor actually is one,’ my mother, a former concentration camp inmate, used to exclaim, ‘who did Hitler kill?’

There are a vast number of institutions and professionals dedicated to ‘keeping alive’ the memory of the Holocaust. Novick cites numerous instances of its vulgarisation and I would be hard-pressed to name a single political cause (pro-life, pro-choice; animal rights, states’ rights) which hasn’t conscripted the Holocaust. Decrying the tawdry purposes to which it is put, Elie Wiesel declared: ‘I swear to avoid ... vulgar spectacles.’ Yet Novick reports that ‘the most imaginative and subtle Holocaust photo op came in 1996 when Hillary Clinton, then under heavy fire for various alleged misdeeds, appeared in the gallery of the House during her husband’s State of the Union Address.’ She was flanked by their daughter, Chelsea, and ... Elie Wiesel.

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Vol. 22 No. 3 · 3 February 2000

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.

William Rubinstein
University of Wales, Aberystwyth

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.

Paul Drabkin
Richmond, California

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.

Rob Ferguson
Royal Holloway College
University of London

Vol. 22 No. 4 · 17 February 2000

‘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.

Ivor Kraft

Vol. 22 No. 5 · 2 March 2000

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.

Joseph White
University of Pittsburgh

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