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Introducing you to the Holocaust Industry
February 16, 2004 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to introduce you to Norman Finkelstein. A Jew whose parents were survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and various concentration camps, he is one of a handful of modern Jewish scholars who wants to "maintain the integrity of the history of the Nazi holocaust". I was introduced to him when I read his book The Holocaust Industry, which reminds us that "its central dogmas sustain significant political and class interests. Indeed, The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable ideological weapon." Indeed.
posted by taumeson (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Oh man, here we go. Anyone care to place bets on how my replies before somebody calls someone an anti-semite?
posted by keswick at 8:22 PM on February 16, 2004


I'm wondering what people think of the phrase "holocaust denier" and what people's perceptions of the event truly are.
posted by taumeson at 8:37 PM on February 16, 2004


Though, Finkelstein isn't a holocaust denier, right? I mean, from my reading through his website he doesn't seem to be denying the holocaust.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:41 PM on February 16, 2004


keswick hates jews! =)

Seriously though: the fundamental argument, that the holocaust has been somewhat overexploited for various political things, is probably true. Nonetheless, everything about this guy just strikes me as unpleasant (I haven't read his book). He seems like he has a virulent personal problem with the organizations he's attacking, and every academic quoted in this Ha'aretz article seems to have a fairly low opinion of his work. Further, the fact that his book appears to have sold primarily to the german right wing troubles me very much (and him apparently quite little - which is awful). Further, the episode with Elie Wiesel simply makes me angry - who the hell would publicly call Elie Wiesel a liar and profiteer?

In short - Finkelstein seems to have seized on a nugget of truth that has been explored before, and exploited it for his ugly personal vendettas.

[On a side note, Finkelstein's story about his mother getting only $3,500 in compensation is unfortunate and unjust, but is hardly the universal experience. My grandfather, for example, has been getting holocaust compensation checks from the German government for years.]
posted by kickingtheground at 8:46 PM on February 16, 2004


On an essentially unrelated note, I'm right now reading Hannah Arendt's book, "The Origins of Totalitarianism": it is an amazing and astonishing account of the any social, political, economic, and intellectual streams that combined to generate the Holocaust. If you're interested in the Holocaust I recommend it, it's great (and a classic).
posted by josh at 9:11 PM on February 16, 2004


There's no such thing as overexploiting the Holocaust. We should only stop talking about it as soon as we're sure it will never happen again.

Ignorance of history is quite possibly the weakest cop-out of any purported scholar.
posted by PrinceValium at 9:15 PM on February 16, 2004


The holocaust has happened again, many times. The Rwandan massacre killed -- what? -- a tenth as many people, but it gets far less than a fiftieth the attention.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:37 PM on February 16, 2004


The plight of the European jews desperately trying to flee Nazi oppression was not the primary concern of the European World Zionist Organization and - although later "The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable ideological weapon.", earlier :

"[ David ] Ben Gurion... informed a meeting of Labor Zionists in Great Britain in 1938: "If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Israel, then I opt for the second alternative."

This obsession with colonizing Palestine and overwhelming the Arabs led the Zionist movement to oppose any idea of rescuing the Jews who were facing extermination, because this would have impeded the ability to select and divert manpower to Palestine."

So - in this context - if I take Finkelstein's words at their face value :



"Yet, because the animus Palestinians direct toward Jews seemed rational, it also seemed susceptible to rational melioration.  Act decently and, hopefully, this decency will be reciprocated.  As it turned out, although the fact that I was a Jew was a controversial novelty during my first couple of stays in Palestine, it eventually ceased to be a subject of interest - and accordingly a subject of reflection in this memoir.  Palestinians would simply remark, "Norman's back."  Just as many blacks in the American South welcomed white supporters of the Civil Rights movement, so many Palestinians welcome Jews from around the world demonstrating solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.  It merits notice that perhaps as many as a third of the courageous International Solidarity Movement volunteers who daily risk their lives to protect Palestinians from Israeli depredations are Jewish - a fact that deeply touches me.  Although it would be naïve to believe that all residues of mistrust simply vanish in the face of these acts of solidarity, it would be equally mistaken to believe that Palestinians blindly loathe Jews.  Israeli elites (and their repellent supporters in the U.S.) have a stake in portraying Palestinians as driven by an irrational and ineradicable anti-Semitism: how else to justify subjugating them?  But Palestinians have no stake in believing that all Jews are evil.  My experience has been that if a Jew forthrightly acknowledges the colossal wrongs done, shows compassion, and demonstrates solidarity, then mutual respect and understanding, even friendship alongside disagreement, are possible.  Whereas Jews showing solidarity with Palestinians often stand accused of betraying their "people," it is probably closer to the truth that they are vindicating the name of the "Jewish people" who, in the eyes of so many Arabs - as well as non-Arabs - have come to symbolize arrogance and heartlessness.  They are also vindicating the memory of the Nazi holocaust which has been polluted by Israel's exploitation of it: Jews who show solidarity in the name of Jewish suffering show Palestinians that Jewish suffering needn't be discounted."

Any insinuations of anti semitism ( a very real and pervasive occurence ) do not seem to fit Finkelstein's words, in my opinion.

What a miracle it would be to decouple the words "Jewish" and "Israeli". They are not equivalent.   
posted by troutfishing at 9:42 PM on February 16, 2004


It's kind of wierd that unlinke almost any other event in history, to attempt to gather specific information about the Holocaust is a thought crime.

Your never suppose to investigate or question. No matter what the claim, you must treat it as if it is totally beyond any investigation, fact checking or reproach.

Apparently even bringing up this issue will label me an ati-semite.
posted by soulhuntre at 9:46 PM on February 16, 2004


It's kind of wierd that unlinke almost any other event in history, to attempt to gather specific information about the Holocaust is a thought crime.
Huh? The Holocaust is probably one of the most researched historical events ever.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:49 PM on February 16, 2004


What a miracle it would be to decouple the words "Jewish" and "Israeli". They are not equivalent.

Truer words have never been spoken...
posted by dejah420 at 10:09 PM on February 16, 2004


Word.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 11:13 PM on February 16, 2004


Further, the episode with Elie Wiesel simply makes me angry - who the hell would publicly call Elie Wiesel a liar and profiteer?

well, I guess one is free to consider -- with all due respect -- mr. "God is a Terrorist" Wiesel's opinions with a grain of salt, after all. look, the problem with Finkelstein is that he touched a very painful, sensitive issue -- the use by certain groups of an unthinkable atrocity like the Holocaust as a battering ram for not always plesant political ends. hence, he has been often smeared as, what else, a self-hating Jew, anti-Semite, and -- most atrociously -- Holocaust denier.
sadly, legitimate criticism of a certain government's actions is often smeared as anti-Semitism. because, as we all know, attacking Bertie Ahern's policies makes one anti-Irish, disagreeing with Silvio Berlusconi makes one anti-Italian, etc etc -- a famous totalitarian tactic if there ever was one.

Finkelstein certainly does not come across as a guy you'd happily go out to dinner with (nor does, say, Hitchens or Goldhagen anyway). but finally who cares? he's interesting enough.

Nonetheless, everything about this guy just strikes me as unpleasant (I haven't read his book).

of course I've actually read his books, so who am I to express an opinion? ;)

at least he's entertaining.
Finkelstein on Hitchens:

Kosinski no doubt had a good time of it until, outed as a fraud, he had enough good grace, which Hitchens plainly lacks, to commit suicide.
...
Although Kissinger affected to be a "solitary, gaunt hero," Hitchens says, in reality he was just a "corpulent opportunist." It sounds familiar.



ouch.
posted by matteo at 12:03 AM on February 17, 2004


A friend was visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington. An older Jewish man asked him if he had relatives in the camps. My friend pointed to a pink triangle and said "my people wore this". The old Jewish man replied "YOUR people got what they deserved!".

The thing about the Holocaust that has bothered me is how it tends to be discussed as something that only happened to the Jews.
posted by Goofyy at 12:10 AM on February 17, 2004 [7 favorites]


Jesus Christ, Goofyy.

What a miracle it would be to decouple the words "Jewish" and "Israeli".

Decoupling "Jewish," "Israeli," and "Zionist" would be even better.
posted by Tlogmer at 3:26 AM on February 17, 2004


Must be the goddamn Finkelstein shit kid.
sonofabitch!
posted by pekar wood at 5:09 AM on February 17, 2004


haven't read this book, but peter novick's was pretty interesting (and i second the recommendation for arendt).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:40 AM on February 17, 2004


The thing about the Holocaust that has bothered me is how it tends to be discussed as something that only happened to the Jews.

On a historical footnote, I think the term 'Holocaust' was devised to describe what happened to Jews, by the World Zionist Congress in either the late 1950s or early 1960s. (I'm not sure of the specifics though). Before that, no-one had an agreed-upon word to describe what had actually happened to the Jewish (or other) victims of the Nazis. So in a sense Jews do have ownership of the term; but there are plenty who will apply it to non-Jewish victims of the Nazis as well.
posted by carter at 6:57 AM on February 17, 2004


Thanks pekar wood, that thought entered my mind. Poor Chong!

Interesting view, carter. I always took the word as the whole death-camp thing, not just as applied to a single group. It is worthy to note that the museum in Washington seems to record it in the more broad sense of the term.

Just to inject a touch of refreshment: The Dalai Lama urges against a boycott of China, for fear some Chinese person would come to harm as a result. I find this remark highly appropriate here. Not a derail, just a little light against the horror.
posted by Goofyy at 7:12 AM on February 17, 2004


I ran across this link this morning, and thought it pertinent to the discussion: Who is anti-Semitic, and who is not by Uri Avnery IHT
posted by dejah420 at 7:41 AM on February 17, 2004


kickingtheground: The Holocaust is probably one of the most researched historical events ever.

Researched, yes, but still very misunderstood. Some of the primary mistakes made when studying or teaching the Holocaust:

1) The total historical context, above and beyond WWII. For example, at times, Jews had been persecuted and mass slaughtered in Europe by the Russians, Germans, French, English, Spanish, etc. In fact, nobody liked the Jews, throughout the "Christian" world. (Moslems decided they hated Jews later.)

2) Gradualism. The Nazis didn't seize power one day and start herding Jews into death camps the next. They lied to the public, to their victims, and to the outside world about the whole thing. At first, their "concentration camps" tried to parody American "concentration camps."
Even the use of camp ovens was for "sanitary reasons", to dispose of prisoners who had "died of disease."

3) Unevenness. The further East the Nazis went, the more brutal they became. Camps in Germany were careful to try to conceal their brutality. The Nazis were "public relations" conscious, at least as far as Germans went.

4) Inefficiency. A great truth about the Nazis is that they *weren't* efficient. From the top down, Hitler wanted confusion, cross responsibility, uncertainty and apprehension throughout the regime. They relied on cooperation and acceptance from the populace, even for the most outrageous demands. This "cooperation" is still the rule of thumb in Germany. Authority must be obeyed because it is the authority.

5) Industrial Homicide. One of the most striking facets of the Holocaust was the appearance of the "assembly line" nature of mass murder. The irony of soulless "mass production" turned into mass destruction. The giant machine of death. But this is only partially true. The reality, at least in Germany, in a place like Dachau, is not surreal, but perversely normal.
The city of Dachau is something of a suburb to Munich, and it looks suburban. The camp itself takes up about the same space as a large high school campus. Like other military facilities in Germany, it is not well marked nor obvious. You could drive right past it and not pay it much mind.
A far different place would be an eastern camp, like Buchenwald. Prisoners are shipped in on buses and trains. It is in an isolated, rural setting. Quotas, not concealment, is the priority. But even here, mass murder *as such* only begins in earnest in the last year or two of the war. Granted, thousands have been dying of starvation and disease; but the order to start mass killings comes late.

6) Murder becomes the rule. The mass murder of Slavs by Einsatzgruppe follows the advancing Wehrmacht east. The army itself only sees what has been done in their rear area when it is forced to retreat.
Before, when the German army had encountered atrocities, such as the massacre of Poles by the Russians at Katyn Wood, they were shocked and appalled. But now it is a case of "destroy the evidence." The word quickly spreads. Murder is done by fear more than by hate.

7) The Holocaust really isn't special. To say so doesn't diminish its horror, any more than the brutality against the other peoples killed in their millions throughout the 20th Century. It should be remembered, like the others. What should ALSO be done is to remember who did it, and what shallow and terrible philosophies they embraced.

And that the steps that CAN be taken to prevent similar horrors thus have some legitimacy, even if war is undertaken in their cause. War is not always a bad thing.
posted by kablam at 8:01 AM on February 17, 2004 [2 favorites]


gooffy, if you you are interested, my original reference was to a "This American Life" radio broadcast, entitled Before It Had A Name. Transcripts of interviews with holocaust survivors before they had the word holocaust to describe their experiences here.
posted by carter at 8:17 AM on February 17, 2004


Goofyy. Sorry.
posted by carter at 8:18 AM on February 17, 2004


kablam, it's rare for me to agree with you, but I do here. Yes, the Holocaust has been massively researched and mind-boggling amounts are known about it, but what a specialist scholar knows and what the general public knows are two different things. To take one obvious example, Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews has been the standard work for over forty years, universally acknowledged as "the landmark study of the Holocaust." Hilberg dug through all the records, analyzed census records and population studies, and came to the conclusion that approximately five million Jews were killed. Yet everyone talks about "the Six Million," and if you dare to mention that it's an exaggerated figure, you get accused of Holocaust denial—as if Holocaust deniers would accept a figure in the millions! In one sense, what does it matter? Five million, six million, it's an unimaginable crime and an unimaginable number either way. But the attitude does matter: this is a sacred, untouchable subject that is beyond analysis and concern for accuracy.

Incidentally, if you want to get a feel for what Nazi Germany was like for the Jews trapped in it, there's no better way than reading the diary of Victor Klemperer. I can't imagine anyone being able to deny what happened after reading his account of the years from 1933 to 1945, beginning with German pride and more or less equal contempt for Hitler and for Zionists ("just like the Nazis"), and much concern with building a house in the suburbs and his wife's aches and pains, and gradually being consumed with the growing horror, everyone around him being sent to camps and killed. (He knew about Auschwitz in early '42.)

My friend pointed to a pink triangle and said "my people wore this". The old Jewish man replied "YOUR people got what they deserved!"

And there we have much of history in a nutshell.
posted by languagehat at 8:32 AM on February 17, 2004


"Huh? The Holocaust is probably one of the most researched historical events ever."

Yes, it is... but to do research on it on a personal level is not going to be tolerated in a lot of ways or times. The information above is correct... if you speak of the number being maybe, possibley less than 6 million (in the 5 range) you are attacked for instance.

To have an urge for accuracy and to try and find out what, if any, of the number may have been inflated for political purpose will get you attacked. Even mentioning that there may BE a political advantage to inflating the numbers is thought to be anti-semetic.
posted by soulhuntre at 2:12 PM on February 17, 2004


soulhuntre: personally, I am very suspicious of people who seek to question numbers. Why? Because in my personal experience, those people often turn out to be neo-nazis seeking for ways to rehabilitate their ideology by discrediting the very event itself. Such people are drawn to any small matters of debate they find, because those grey areas offer a "thin end of the wedge" to allow doubt to be case on the whole thing.

You are quite right, and languagehat is quite right, to point out that questioning and research can be legitimate scholarship, and that exercising your rights to question and research will offend many otherwise rational people. The reason you will nonetheless get attacked is that people with thinner skins than me have good reason to suspect you of ulterior motives. If for no other reason than practicality, going the extra mile to explain your motivations would be a good idea.

I am glad to see you qualify inflation with "if any".

I also personally am not very interested in accuracy. Millions is enough. Attaining greater accuracy can lead to "my atrocity is bigger than your atrocity" competitions which are as susceptible to political exploitation as fuzziness.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:13 PM on February 17, 2004


those grey areas offer a "thin end of the wedge" to allow doubt to be case on the whole thing

That's exactly why it's so important to be as accurate as possible. To say "I personally am not very interested in accuracy" is to give aid and comfort to those who would say "You see? They're not interested in the truth!" I trust you're not afraid that the accurate truth about the Holocaust is somehow not horrible enough.

And if you'll excuse my saying so, urging people that "going the extra mile to explain your motivations would be a good idea" could be taken as quite insulting.
posted by languagehat at 5:12 PM on February 17, 2004


Hmmm. Point taken on the accuracy issue. I was saying that I personally am not interested, not that an accurate accounting is not a worthwhile endeavour. Indeed work like Hilberg's can be construed as a respectful attempt to ensure that no death goes uncounted. However, I never managed to finish reading Hilberg because I felt ill and distressed after the first volume and just couldn't manage it.

Explaining motivations?That was meant to be advice, on the grounds that people will question your motives as soon as you are engaged in this area, so you might as well get in first. It was not meant to cast aspersions on the motives of anybody posting here. It is a real shame that Nazi apologists have made it hard for others to be engaged in this area, but their attempts to commandeer scholarship are frequent enough to cast suspicion on everyone.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:37 PM on February 17, 2004


On a historical footnote, I think the term 'Holocaust' was devised to describe what happened to Jews, by the World Zionist Congress in either the late 1950s or early 1960s.

I know it's taken from the old testament, where it actually refers to a sacrifice, a burnt offering... and of course, these days many jews refer to it as the "Shoah" (or catastrophe) instead.

It's interesting to ponder why other catastrophes do not become so entrenched in our cultural awareness, but I think the fact that it happened within our own culture (that is, european/american, 1st world, etc), that the victims once freed were completely free (unlike, eg, american slaves, who were free by law but constrained by other factors - dangers - of their environments), that the survivors included a significant number of well-educated writer / artist / intellectual types (who went on to speak about it), and that the horrors did reach some new levels of truly inhuman post-industrial war, all contributed to auschwitz's primacy in our cultural consciousness.
posted by mdn at 7:34 PM on February 17, 2004


The Holocaust isn't the only issue with this sort of dynamic.

I wonder how much of a chilling effect there is on our understanding of evolution when every critique of current theory is seized upon by creationists as "proof" that "even evolutionists acknowledge evolution isn't true!"
posted by straight at 7:55 AM on February 18, 2004


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