Norman Finkelstein’s ‘The Holocaust Industry’ and the Fight To Make All Suffering Count

Finkelstein’s book is a call for Jewish suffering to be seen as part of the larger history of suffering under colonialism.

Max Ajl May 17, 2016

Jews captured by German soldiers during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.

In the sum­mer of 2014, Ta-Nah­e­si Coates, in an essay for The Atlantic, argued for repa­ra­tions for the crimes inflict­ed on the Black pop­u­la­tion in the mak­ing of the Unit­ed States. Coates craft­ed a com­pelling case for com­pen­sa­tion for slav­ery, Jim Crow and ongo­ing oppression.

Césaire noted that “there is room for all at the rendezvous of victory.” He was right. But in order to achieve that victory, we have to expose the lies about history of those who seek to exclude others from that rendezvous by writing them out of history.

Coates did not dis­cuss oth­er crimes which might deserve repa­ra­tions. He did, how­ev­er, refer to what he called a suc­cess­ful case of repa­ra­tions: the mon­ey which went from post-war Ger­many to post-inde­pen­dence Israel. Coates claims these funds, to a coun­try which had just fin­ished expelling most of the native Pales­tini­ans, per­haps pro­vid­ed a road map for how a great civ­i­liza­tion might make itself wor­thy of the name.”

In addi­tion to around $7 bil­lion to the Israeli state, the self-appoint­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive of glob­al Jew­ry, Indi­vid­ual repa­ra­tions claims fol­lowed — for psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma, for offense to Jew­ish hon­or, for halt­ing law careers, for life insur­ance, for time spent in con­cen­tra­tion camps.”

It is too bad that Coates did not check these claims against those in Nor­man Finkelstein’s The Holo­caust Indus­try, recent­ly reis­sued by pure coin­ci­dence as the debate on repa­ra­tions ripped through nation­al polit­i­cal discourse.

Before pro­ceed­ing, per­haps it is nec­es­sary to clear up a few things. First, I do not agree with Finkelstein’s advo­ca­cy of a two-state solu­tion to the Israel-Pales­tine con­flict. Two, I do not agree with his remarks on the Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) movement.

Is that out of the way? Good. Let us dis­cuss the book under review.

First, recall the moment. This book orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the 1990s, when state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments were pres­sur­ing and suing Swiss banks, launch­ing com­mis­sions of inquiry, call­ing for inter­nal audits of 1940s-era bank­ing records, can­vass­ing dor­mant accounts, and labo­ri­ous­ly trac­ing trails of mon­ey long-since gone cold.

Recall also the indi­vid­ual. Finkelstein’s par­ents were sur­vivors of the Nazi death camps. And then recall some of the recip­i­ents of these extract­ed funds: Jew­ish lead­ers,” com­mu­nal insti­tu­tions” and lawyers jostling to grab a cut of the pro­ceeds. Sur­vivors often died wait­ing for their share of the reparations.

It is against this tableau that Finkel­stein aims to restore the integri­ty of the his­tor­i­cal record and the sanc­ti­ty of the Jew­ish people’s martyrdom.”

After expert­ly demol­ish­ing the notion that these repa­ra­tions” actu­al­ly ben­e­fit­ed very many actu­al sur­vivors of the Nazi atroc­i­ties — most went to var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ty insti­tu­tions and lead­ers with no plau­si­ble con­nec­tion to those crimes except for shared reli­gious iden­ti­fi­ca­tion — Finkel­stein makes a series of broad­er argu­ments. The main one is that post-1967 U.S. polit­i­cal cul­ture has pro­duced The Holo­caust, an ide­o­log­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Nazi holocaust.”

The lat­ter was a bru­tal mass mur­der, tar­get­ing gyp­sies, Com­mu­nists, the dis­abled, Jews and oth­ers. The for­mer is real enough but has only a ten­u­ous rela­tion­ship to his­tor­i­cal truth. Instead, its cen­tral dog­mas sus­tain sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal class interests.”

Finkel­stein was aware that the Nazi holo­caust was scarce­ly dis­cussed in the post­war Unit­ed States. As he writes, Amer­i­can Jew­ish elites for­got’ the Nazi holo­caust because Ger­many — West Ger­many by 1949 — became a cru­cial post­war Amer­i­can ally.” Fur­ther­more, amidst the post­war anti-Com­mu­nism that suf­fused U.S. cul­ture, Remem­brance of the Nazi holo­caust was tagged as a Com­mu­nist cause.”

It was only in 1967, after the mil­i­tary defeat of the core Arab nation­al­ist states, that Israel’s mil­i­tary élan point­ed in the right direc­tion — against Israel’s ene­mies.” Against the sug­ges­tion that a mil­i­ta­rized Spar­ta stuck smack in the mid­dle of the Arab world was a dan­ger to U.S. inter­ests, he argues that “[o]nly an Israeli Spar­ta behold­en to Amer­i­can pow­er would do, because only then could U.S. Jew­ish lead­ers act as the spokes­men for Amer­i­can impe­r­i­al ambitions.”

He says this hap­pened through the ide­o­log­i­cal con­struc­tion of The Holo­caust. It is built on two foun­da­tion stones: one, that The Holo­caust marks a cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly unique his­tor­i­cal event,” hav­ing noth­ing to do with the crimes of colo­nial­ism. And two, The Holo­caust marks the cli­max of an irra­tional, eter­nal Gen­tile hatred of Jews.”

This unique sta­tus long shield­ed Israel, espe­cial­ly with­in those states that nev­er did enough” to defend the Jews dur­ing World War II. As he notes, Holo­caust unique­ness — this claim’ upon oth­ers, this moral cap­i­tal’ — serves as Israel’s prize ali­bi.” Of course, those who make this claim make it selec­tive­ly. Such crimes sud­den­ly stop being so unique amidst attempts to link Arab lead­ers to Nazism, from Nass­er to Nasrallah.

Finkel­stein then rais­es sev­er­al ques­tions about this unique­ness. The first is the role of The Holo­caust in U.S. intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal cul­ture. Does it crowd out or cov­er up oth­er crimes? Where, he asks, is the muse­um ded­i­cat­ed to the crime which was the colo­nial set­tle­ment? Who else suf­fered at Nazi hands?

In rais­ing such ques­tions, he means to estab­lish that Jews were part of the shared his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence of vic­tim­hood. He refus­es to let Jew­ish vic­tim­hood dis­place the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers. Nazi geno­ci­dal bru­tal­i­ty did not exclu­sive­ly tar­get Jews, as the muse­um implies — Com­mu­nists were the first polit­i­cal vic­tims, and not Jews but the hand­i­capped were the first geno­ci­dal vic­tims, of Nazism.”

A sec­ond move is com­par­i­son. Finkel­stein first sum­ma­rizes Germany’s record, hav­ing paid out $60 bil­lion. Then, he “[c]ompare[s] first the Amer­i­can record.” After Viet­nam, where the Unit­ed States napalmed and oth­er­wise mur­dered per­haps 3.8 mil­lion peo­ple, Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter insist­ed that the destruc­tion was mutu­al.” (About 58,000 U.S. troops died dur­ing the war.) He also repeat­ed­ly dis­cuss­es what David Stan­nard calls the Amer­i­can Holo­caust, the destruc­tion of this country’s native peo­ples. As Finkel­stein writes, Man­i­fest Des­tiny antic­i­pat­ed near­ly all the ide­o­log­i­cal and pro­gram­mat­ic ele­ments of Hitler’s Leben­sraum pol­i­cy. In fact, Hitler mod­eled his con­quest of the East on the Amer­i­can con­quest of the West.”

Finkelstein’s coda brings the sto­ry back to the Unit­ed States: In June 1996 the Native Amer­i­can Rights Fund filed the largest class action law­suit in U.S. his­to­ry on behalf of Elouise Pepi­on Cobell of Montana’s Black­feet tribe, and 300,000 – 500,000 oth­er Native Amer­i­cans.” U.S. respon­si­bil­i­ty for death and mate­r­i­al loss dur­ing the set­tler-colo­nial expan­sion dwarfs U.S. respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Nazi crimes. Yet their whole­sale slaugh­ter has lit­tle place in U.S. his­tor­i­cal memory.

Finkel­stein high­lights how the U.S. colo­nial set­tle­ment ought to be brought with­in the same frame as Israel. When the book was ini­tial­ly pub­lished, such a com­par­i­son was not com­mon. And even con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sions of U.S. set­tler-colo­nial­ism sel­dom raise up First Nations’ polit­i­cal strug­gles, includ­ing for mate­r­i­al reparations.

His method is most­ly com­par­a­tive, jux­ta­pos­ing one crime against anoth­er in a foren­sic decon­struc­tion of U.S. hypocrisy. Per­haps for this rea­son, one latent point is how the unique­ness dog­ma walls off the Nazi holo­caust from the myr­i­ad crimes of the post-1492 Euro­pean expan­sion, includ­ing its loot­ing of Latin Amer­i­ca, Africa and Asia, and their com­mon tap­root in Euro­pean accu­mu­la­tion. After all, con­cen­tra­tion camps first emerged as com­po­nents of colo­nial counter-insur­gency in the Philip­pines, Cuba, South Africa and Namib­ia — a lin­eage which impe­r­i­al apol­o­gists have been eager to erase.

The great Mar­tiniquean poet Aime Césaire saw quick­ly and pre­scient­ly the uses and mis­us­es to which Europe and the U.S. were putting the acts of the Nazis. In 1950, Césaire argued in A Dis­course on Colo­nial­ism that those crimes were colo­nial­ist pro­ce­dures” vis­it­ed upon Europe. But it was the loca­tion and not the act that was the trans­gres­sion. The issue was that the Nazis had bro­ken the shop-win­dow of Euro­pean human­ism and laid bare what lay behind it. Césaire sug­gest­ed that to build a mau­soleum only big enough for the mem­o­ry of Jew­ish suf­fer­ing and of Nazi crimes did not rep­re­sent a real reck­on­ing with Euro­pean his­to­ry. To set up a memo­r­i­al only for Jew­ish vic­tims could sug­gest that only Jews had been vic­tims. It rep­re­sent­ed one more colo­nial pro­ce­dure of refus­ing to solve the prob­lems it cre­ates,” and of choos­ing to close its eyes to its most cru­cial prob­lems,” brand­ing Europe, as Césaire did, deca­dent” and strick­en.”

As he con­tin­ued, So-called Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion … as it has been shaped by two cen­turies of bour­geois rule, is inca­pable of solv­ing the two major prob­lems to which its exis­tence has giv­en rise: the prob­lem of the pro­le­tari­at and the colo­nial prob­lem.” The colo­nial prob­lem, of course, was a prob­lem of racism.

Finkel­stein is clear that the Nazi holo­caust belongs to the same fam­i­ly of crimes as the U.S. crimes against the Viet­namese and Native Amer­i­cans. In rais­ing repa­ra­tions of many kinds with­in the same frame, he brings togeth­er Black suf­fer­ing, indige­nous geno­cide, Nazi crimes and U.S. war-mak­ing abroad. He does not explic­it­ly rais­es ques­tions of reorder­ing soci­ety. The book is foren­sic schol­ar­ship, not a manifesto.

Césaire, on the oth­er hand, did write a man­i­festo. He called for a pol­i­cy of nation­al­i­ties,” or a pol­i­cy of sub­stan­tive decol­o­niza­tion. To car­ry it through, he wrote, was a mat­ter of the Rev­o­lu­tion.” Some may dif­fer on what they call the prag­ma­tism of this pro­pos­al. Be that as it may — and has any rev­o­lu­tion been the mak­ing of prag­ma­tists? — the nation­al debate on repa­ra­tions, and how great civ­i­liza­tions might make them­selves wor­thy of the name, could use a bit more inclu­sive­ness, espe­cial­ly these days when polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion” is on everyone’s tongue.

Such a debate could also touch on how repa­ra­tions must be mate­r­i­al to be sub­stan­tive — the posi­tion of groups like Black Youth Project 100 and Mal­colm X Grass­roots Move­ment. It should not be caught in ster­ile book chat that sets repa­ra­tions against social democ­ra­cy, the col­o­nized or enslaved sub­ject against the pro­le­tar­i­an. It is about, in the words of the recent­ly dead biol­o­gist Richard Levins, keep­ing the long view” in mind and dis­cov­er­ing the com­mon ground between dif­fer­ent strug­gles for jus­tice when they seem to con­flict because each asks too lit­tle.” BYP 100, for exam­ple, demands repa­ra­tions for chat­tel slav­ery,” while also call­ing for a guar­an­teed income for all.” And even if they did not call for the lat­ter, the demand for repa­ra­tions is plain­ly just.

So if we are to have a nation­al dis­cus­sion on repa­ra­tions — and we should — such a dis­cus­sion would ben­e­fit from keep­ing in mind that calls for repa­ra­tions need not be seen as part of an imag­i­nary zero-sum games. It is not as though if Blacks get repa­ra­tions for slav­ery, sud­den­ly the sup­ply of jus­tice runs out for the white worker.

But such a con­ver­sa­tion should also not strength­en false nar­ra­tives of Ger­man repa­ra­tions to the Nazis’ vic­tims — espe­cial­ly when the cacoph­o­ny of those sto­ries over­whelms Pales­tini­ans’ anti-colo­nial claims. Césaire not­ed that there is room for all at the ren­dezvous of vic­to­ry.” He was right. But in order to achieve that vic­to­ry, we have to expose the lies about his­to­ry of those who seek to exclude oth­ers from that ren­dezvous by writ­ing them out of his­to­ry — claim­ing for one or anoth­er rea­son that they do not count, a famil­iar pro­ce­dure of those who seek to exclude, repress, mur­der and elim­i­nate. And it is in this task, in fight­ing against the warp­ing of his­to­ry that jus­ti­fies the exclu­sion of the Pales­tini­ans and so many oth­ers, that cre­ates wor­thy and unwor­thy vic­tims, that The Holo­caust Indus­try tru­ly excels.

Max Ajl is a doc­tor­al stu­dent in devel­op­ment soci­ol­o­gy at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty and an edi­tor at Jadaliyyah.
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