Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
9 -15 November 2000
Issue No.507
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

November 2000

Books Supplement

December 1999
November 1999
October 1999
September 1999
August 1999
July 1999
June 1999
May 1999
Cairo Book Fair
January 2000
February 2000
March 2000
April 2000
May 2000
June 2000
July 2000
August 2000
September 2000
October 2000

Books is a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly appearing every second Thursday of the month. We welcome contributions and letters on subjects raised in this supplement. Material may be edited for length and clarity; and should be addressed to Mona Anis, Books Editor, Al-Ahram Weekly, Galaa St., Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt; Faz: +202 578 6089; E-mail:
For advertising call +202-5780233; Fax +202 394 1866

In his controversial book The Holocaust Industry, the Jewish American historian Norman Finkelstein deals with the business of the Holocaust and its relation to Israeli strategic interests. Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri reviews the book and Omayma Abdel-Latif interviews the author

Understanding the Holocaust

The Holocaust Industry
The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Norman G Finkelstein, London and New York: Verso, 2000. pp150
Western attitudes to members of Jewish communities have been characterised by an apparent dualism that borders on schizophrenia. Jews are seen not as different minorities with their ordinary human quota of good and evil, but as a collective entity called "Jewry," or the Jewish people, which is also a chosen, sacred, or spiritual people. However they have also simultaneously been seen as traders, money lenders, human matter that can be transferred from one place to another according to the needs of the ruling class -- in short, as a functional group.

This dualism has a long genealogy. The Catholic concept of the Jews as a witness people postulates that the Jews, being the vector for one of Christianity's holy books, have to be defended by the Church to the extent that the Church barred their forced conversion. However the Jews were viewed as an unintelligent people carrying an intelligent book. Their very survival in a mean and humble condition, which stood in contrast to that of the saved within the folds of Christianity, was considered to be living testimony to the greatness and glory of the Catholic Church.

The same dualism is manifest in the Protestant restorationist myth that postulated that the restoration of the Jews to the Promised Land was a precondition of the Second Coming and hence of the final salvation. But their restoration was also seen as a means to facilitate their conversion to Christianity, final salvation becoming final solution. The same dualism has coloured modern Western secular attitudes to the Jews, attitudes which inherited, in modified forms, the theological baggage of earlier times. The Jews were viewed in 19th-century Europe, for example, as a hard-working, talented, unique people, ein Volk, an organic people that had a distinct identity and that was organically related to their promised land. But, by that very same token, they do not fit in European society. Therefore, the argument ran, they should be transferred to Palestine, serving Western interests in the bargain.

Thus, ironically, the bestowal of the quality of sacredness upon "the Jewish people" -- this process of immanentisation (making the Jews unique and self-referential) -- has facilitated their instrumentalisation. The dualism colouring western attitudes to the Jews turns out to be more apparent than real, for to sacralise and immanentise someone is also to put him outside the pale of common humanity, and therefore to instrumentalise him becomes an easy matter. Philo-Semitism (Zionism) and anti-Semitism are revealed to be one and the same thing.

The same apparent dualism colours or determines the Western and Western Jewish attitude to an important event in the history of modern Western civilisation, namely, the extermination of millions of Western Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime. The event is referred to not simply as "extermination" or "genocide," but as "holocaust." The Greek word "holocaust" does not simply mean "destruction by fire" as is suggested by the Encyclopaedia Britannica . Rather, it means an offering to the Lord that is not partly burnt (then eaten by the servants of the Temple), but one that is completely burnt so no part of it remains. Theologically, a holocaust offering is considered the most sacred of all offerings, given in atonement for the sin of pride. In Hebrew the event is referred to not only using the term "shoah," which means simply burning, but also using the term "hurban," which means "destruction," a term used to refer to the destruction of the Temple. Thus, in the very choice of loaded terms, whether in English or in Hebrew, to name a historical event, the genocide of European Jews is set apart as something sacred.

But the same ironic instrumentalising of what has been set apart as sacred has happened with the holocaust. The term "holocaust" is used today in our secular, desanctifying times with self-defeating abandon. Zionists refer to the intermarriage of Jews and non-Jews as a "silent holocaust." Rabin described the film Schindler's List as not "holocausty enough." As a result of the total instrumentalisation of the holocaust to serve political agendas and economic interests, critics like Norman Finkelstein, register their protest and refer to "holokitsch," "holocash" and "holocaust mania." Finkelstein's book is a well-researched protest against the instrumentalisation of the Holocaust, its transformation into an industry designed to serve the political interests of American-Jewish elites acting in tandem with the US government's foreign policy interests. Drawing a distinction between "the Nazi holocaust" as a historical event and "The Holocaust," which is the ideological presentation thereof, he points out that the holocaust has been turned into something without parallel in human history, that "its uniqueness is held to be absolutely decisive" and, hence, it "cannot be rationally apprehended."

I call this iconisation, where a human phenomenon is stripped of its historical nature, then presented as sui generis, a mysterium tremendum to be discussed, if at all, only in the grandest of eschatological terms. Jewish death-of-God theologians, for example, not only interpret Jewish dispersion and extermination as analogues for Christ's suffering and crucifixion, but they view the establishment of the State of Israel as the analogue of the resurrection. Thus the sanctification of the Jewish people is transferred, via the Holocaust, with the lines between history and eschatology becoming fuzzier and fuzzier, to a colonial settler state.

In this way we move from historical time to cosmic timelessness. "If The Holocaust is unprecedented in history," Finkelstein writes, following the line of reasoning that underpins the Holocaust industry, "it must stand above and hence cannot be grasped by history." Denial of the sanctity of cosmic events is sheer blasphemy from the standpoint of the fervent believer: "Rationally comprehending The Holocaust amounts, in this view, to denying it. For rationality denies The Holocaust's uniqueness and mystery."

"Holocaust denial" becomes not simply "denying the Holocaust" altogether as some revisionist historians do, but, as the French intellectual Roger Garaudy, who was recently prosecuted for just this, learned, a blanket term to cover any number of responses or rational approaches to the historical Nazi holocaust. Garaudy never denied the Holocaust; he simply questioned the figure of six million dead (as some American Jewish and Israeli historians do). Finkelstein provides an almost exhaustive survey of what, according to those in whose interest it is that the Holocaust industry thrives, constitutes "Holocaust denial." Denying the absolute uniqueness and incomparability of the Holocaust is the one form from which all other forms of "Holocaust denial" follow like an avalanche: "To question a survivor's testimony, to denounce the role of Jewish collaborators, to suggest Germans suffered during the bombing of Dresden or that any state except Germany committed crimes in World War II -- this is all evidence, according to [the American historian] Lipstadt, of Holocaust denial. And to suggest that Weisel has profited from the Holocaust industry, or even to question him, amounts to Holocaust denial."

Finkelstein argues that the Holocaust could be approached in a more humane way. To this effect he quotes the words of Raul Hiberg, a leading historian of the Nazi genocide of Western Jewry: "If these people [Holocaust deniers] want to speak, let them... It only leads those of us who do research to re-examine what we might have considered as obvious. And that's useful for us." Such a level-headed approach cannot be maintained vis-a-vis the sacred, however. For to iconise something is also to dehumanise it, and once something is stripped of its humanity, it can be instrumentalised. And that is precisely what has happened to the mysterium tremendum it has become holocaust business.

As the industry grew, Finkelstein points out, the manipulators of the holocaust have juggled the figures of holocaust survivors in order to claim more compensation; but, as Finkelstein demonstrates, if the mathematics are worked out, in so doing they have wound up actually diminishing the number of those who were killed: the six million figure winds up becoming untenable. Finkelstein sarcastically says that the perpetrators of the holocaust industry are gradually becoming holocaust deniers.

They also manipulate facts. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, for example, "downplays the discriminatory US immigration quotas before the war, exaggerates the US role in liberating the concentration camps, and silently passes over the massive US recruitment of Nazi war criminals at the war's end." Finkelstein also refers to the museum's failure to underscore the Nazi genocide of the Gypsies, communists and handicapped. He also devotes a large section of his book to the issue of dormant Holocaust-era accounts in Swiss banks -- and then raises the question of similar accounts in American banks, about which there has been no uproar. Is, one may ask in the spirit of speculative enquiry, the US using Jewish organisations, via the question of dormant Holocaust accounts in European banks, to mount pressure on European countries so that they would be forced to help subsidise the Zionist state?

Finkelstein does not lapse into a mere small deconstructive "narrative" of events. Rather, he tries to provide a history and sociology of the holocaust industry, situating it firmly within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. "By virtually all accounts," he shows, "it was only after this conflict [the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War] that the Holocaust became a fixture in American-Jewish life." Before 1967 the Jewish establishment tended to downplay the Nazi holocaust in order to conform to the US government's Cold War priorities, which entailed support for a rearmed Germany and even recruitment of Nazi SS veterans. Moreover, "remembrance of the Nazi holocaust was tagged a Communist cause" because leftists opposed to the Cold War alignment with Germany kept "harping on it."

However, in the mid-sixties, things, as Finkelstein shows, began to change. The rise of identity or ethnic politics, on the one hand, and the culture of victimisation, on the other, coupled with the growing assimilation of the Jews into American society and their gradual moving from the left and the left-centre to the right, all helped to give prominence to the holocaust as a source of Jewish ethnicity that set the Jews apart from other ethnic or religious groups and also became a source of Jewish "moral capital" that bestowed a halo of secular chosenness on them.

Finkelstein views the total assimilation of the Zionist state into American international security arrangements and the "strategic alliance" between the USA and Israel as a decisive factor. I might also add that the growing rivalry between Europe and the USA put an end to any inhibitions regarding the manipulation and exploitation of the holocaust. The holocaust, as mentioned earlier, could be used as a club to blackmail some European countries into subsidising Israel. It could also be used as a way of justifying Israeli conduct vis-a-vis the Palestinians. As Peter Baldwin, quoted by Finkelstein, writes: "The singularity of the Jewish suffering adds to the moral and emotional claims that Israel can make... on other nations."

The same uniqueness also produces a smoke screen that hides other atrocities committed elsewhere by Western man, like, for (obvious) example, the genocide of the Native Americans, in the name of Manifest Destiny, which, Finkelstein writes, "anticipated all the ideological and programmatic elements of Hitler's Lebensraum policy." In connection with another American genocide, Finkelstein, in his conclusion to The Holocaust Industry, notes: "Hardly a week passes without a major Holocaust-related story in The New York Times. The number of scholarly studies devoted to the Nazi Final Solution is conservatively estimated at over 10,000. Consider by comparison scholarship on the hecatomb in the Congo. Between 1891 and 1911 some 10 million Africans perished in the course of Europe's exploitation of Congolese ivory and rubber resources. Yet, the first and only scholarly volume in English directly devoted to this topic was published two years ago." The destruction (for which the Hebrew term "hurban" could aptly be used) wreaked by the Americans on Vietnam during the same decade that saw the securing of US-Israeli relations -- and the inception of the Holocaust industry --

is also brought into the picture by Finkelstein: "Some 4-5 million men, women and children died as a result of the US wars in Indochina. After the American withdrawal, a historian recalls, Vietnam desperately needed aid. 'In the South, 9,000 out of 15,000 hamlets, 25 million acres of farmland, 12 million acres of forest were destroyed, and 1.5 million farm animals had been killed; there were an estimated 200,000 prostitutes, 879,000 orphans, 181,000 disabled people, and 1 million widows; all six of the industrial cities in the North had been badly damaged, as were provincial and district towns, and 4,000 out of 5,8000 agricultural communes.'" And, yet, former US President Carter flatly refused to pay reparations.

The Nazi holocaust, instead of deepening our understanding of the evil (and the good) within us, instead of being pursued as "a rational subject of inquiry" as Finkelstein counsels and instead of serving as a concrete image of what could happen to the human individual in a totalitarian society dominated by a materialistic, utilitarian set of "values," has thus been turned into an icon unrelated to man's suffering and into a smoke screen that conceals atrocities committed by man against man.

This is the veritable holocaust denial.

The business of Shoah: who dares speak?

Norman Finkelstein
Norman Finkelstein
Norman Finkelstein is no Holocaust denier. This fact, however, as well as the fact that he is himself Jewish, has not made him immune to charges of inciting anti-Semitism, which Zionists routinely produce whenever Israel's use of violence and ethnic-cleansing measures against the Palestinians are raised for public debate. Yet the cause of the current controversy surrounding this 49-year-old Jewish-American historian is not so much the Arab-Israeli conflict, but rather it is the nature of Zionism as an ideology and the nature of the Western world's most unquestioned "given" in its dealing with the Israeli state, the Holocaust.

Finkelstein says that he wrote his new book, "to revolt" against and to "settle accounts with" the Holocaust industry, which he says has corrupted his memory of his parents, both of whom themselves survived the Holocaust.

"I had a political motive to write the book because the Holocaust industry has exploited the Jewish people's suffering in order to justify flagrant human-rights violations by Israel against the Arabs, most notably the Palestinians," Finkelstein told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from New York. "I thought that there is a political responsibility to repudiate this political misuse of the Jewish people's suffering to justify and rationalize the suffering of others. I felt it important to try to restore the scholarly record on the Nazi Holocaust, which has been recklessly falsified by the Holocaust industry in its greedy pursuit of compensation money."

Despite negative reviews of the book in some American newspapers, most notably in The New York Times, Finkelstein's Web site contains hundreds of messages praising his courageous, insightful and illuminating work. However there has also been hate-mail, some messages accusing Finkelstein of "inciting anti-Semitism and encouraging physical attacks against Jews."

Finkelstein has chosen not to respond to these accusations. It "is not something that you respond to," he says. "I don't seek the approval of Jewish thugs and Jewish apologists who [have] committed crimes against the Palestinian people."

Such a defiant attitude has infuriated many of his critics, particularly those within American Jewish organisations. Finkelstein's argument is that the Holocaust is "an ideological construct": while he does not dismiss the fact that an "excellent scholarly literature on the topic" has been written, he believes that the events that took place in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War have been illegitimately "manipulated" in the recent past in order to serve contemporary interests.

Clearing out the Warsaw ghetto: the persecution and genocide of Europe's Jews were chapters in a tragedy for which another innocent people, far removed from the scene of the crime, were forced to pay the price
Finkelstein dates the process of constructing the "spectacle of the Holocaust" to the late 1960s. "The Nazi Holocaust was being placed in an ideological framework to serve the interests of the American Jewish elite in particular as they sought to immunise Israel from criticism," he argues. This ideological representation, Finkelstein says, was made through two related dogmas -- "the dogma of Holocaust uniqueness, that is to say that the Holocaust represents a categorically unique event in history, and secondly the dogma that the Holocaust represents a combination of gentile's hatred of the Jews or of Christian hatred of the Jews."

Both of these dogmas, Finkelstein comments, possess no historical value, having an ideological value instead. "If you claim that the Holocaust was categorically unique, and then claim that the victims are entitled to special moral dispensation, then you can claim that Israel should not be held to the normal standard of international law because -- after all -- their suffering was unique, and therefore they should have special entitlements that other people don't have."

"Israel, therefore, is not held to the normal standards of the United Nations resolutions because the argument maintains that -- in the final analysis -- the whole world is anti-Semitic, the whole world wants to kill the Jews, and therefore Israel cannot trust the United Nations -- already a non-Jewish body. These dogmas are used to immunise Israel, but they have no historical value to them."

It was after the 1967 war that Finkelstein believes that the business of the Holocaust industry was invented by American Jewish interests, when it became necessary to produce an image of Israel as a "victim-state." Even the recent images of shocking Israeli violence against Palestinian children has not been able to overturn this powerful ideological image. Despite these events, Finkelstein notes that Israel is still capable of casting itself as the victim of Arab hatred and terrorism, the reason lying in its efficient manipulation of the global media, and particularly in its exploitation of its image as victim-state.

"What you see in the Arab world, or even in Europe, is not what we see and hear in the media here [in the United States]. We are forced to see Madelaine Albright on the [the television programme] Meet the Press wailing that 'Israel is under siege.' But Israel is always under siege, because the Holocaust dogmas have told us that all gentiles want to kill the Jews, so whatever other images the media may show, whatever the record they may say, it does not in the least affect the overarching framework" of Israel as virtuous victim.

"Even when you have respected international bodies, such as Amnesty International, condemning Israel, they will say that 'of course they will do that because they are anti-Semitic.'"

Asked whether it is the Jewish lobby that promotes Israel's interests in the American administration, or whether it is the US administration that seeks to protect its own interests in the region and uses Israel as a tool, Finkelstein says that it is hard to make the distinction. "I think there is an element of both, but in the big picture I think it is the US which is protecting its own interests in Israel."

He dismisses the argument that the US Jewish elite is automatically loyal to Israel and to other Jews. "The record does not show that when the US kept Israel at arm's length, as it did from 1948 until 1967, the American Jewish elite did not follow suit." In fact, he says, before June 1967 the US Jewish elite showed very little interest in the state of Israel; it was not a topic of concern for American Jewish life. However when Israel became an important strategic ally to the US, it became useful to the American Jewish elite too. "Suddenly, the American Jewish elite discovered Israel, and they also realised that they could act as intermediary between the US administration and its strategic ally in the Middle East. Thus they could play the game of power."

Finkelstein thinks that the loyalty of the American Jewish elite to Israel is strictly pragmatic and utilitarian. "If Israel were tomorrow to severe ties with the US, or if the US were to decide tomorrow that Israel was not a useful ally any more, then American Jewish elites would very quickly forget Israel. This proves the utilitarian nature of the relationship on both sides. It is not only the US administration that has a utilitarian relationship with Israel, but American Jews also have a utilitarian relationship with Israel as well. I don't think they have any moral concern for Israel. So as long as Israel remains a useful asset to the US interest, the American Jewish elite will protect Israel, but if it becomes a liability to American policy, then the American ruling elite -- with no second thoughts -- will cut off Israel."

Falsification of the genocide undertaken by the Nazis in occupied Europe during the Second World War has, Finkelstein believes, taken place in many respects. First, there is the issue of numbers. No one seriously disputes the fact that between five and six million Jews were killed by the Nazis; however Finkelstein says that the Holocaust industry has recently sought to extract huge compensation by "wildly inflating the number of survivors of the Nazi genocide."

"I argue that if we start wildly inflating the number of survivors, then you end up wildly deflating the number of the victims, and so I say that the Holocaust industry has become the main Holocaust denier because they end up reducing radically the number of victims as they radically increase the number of survivors."

Secondly, the Holocaust industry is denying another essential aspect of the Nazi genocide, Finkelstein argues, by claiming that so many survived because it is -- in effect -- denying that Jews were systematically killed. If so many survived, then the extermination could not have been systematic. Thirdly, by insisting that the Nazi genocide was directed exclusively at the Jews, they are denying that the Gypsies and other groups faced exactly the same fate. "This is pure racism -- to separate out the fate of the Jews from that of the Gypsies. Their fate was the same."

The peace process, Finkelstein believes, has not given the Palestinians justice. "This so-called peace process was a farce. Israel was not going to give the Palestinians anything of substance," he says. Nevertheless, he offers an interesting reading of the reasons that have led to the current impasse.

According to this reading, the Palestinians had been offered nothing at Camp David II. Arafat was hoping, Finkelstein says, "that the Israelis would give him some sort of symbolic victory because -- for all practical purposes -- he had lost everything." However Israel would not grant him even a symbolic victory. "Arafat literally walked back with no material or even symbolic gains; therefore, Camp David collapsed. I think all this talk about Jerusalem being the main issue and the main obstacle in the negotiation is pointless. Even the use of such language means to accept the Israeli framework, because the real issue is not Jerusalem. The real issue is that the Palestinians are being offered a Bantustan [as in apartheid South Africa] ; they are being offered tiny plots of land surrounded by Jewish settlements with the Israeli army on all borders; economic life and all resources are controlled by the State of Israel -- that is [the real] issue."

Concerning the current Al-Aqsa uprising, Finkelstein is pessimistic. He does not think that the Palestinians will be able to maintain the momentum. "The record of all successful revolts against occupation tell you one crucial fact. That there is only one way that you can remove an overwhelmingly powerful occupier, and I am talking here about the example of South Lebanon and East Timor. They relied on the complete and total resources of the people, their willingness to give all in order to throw these occupiers out. It is people's willingness to make the maximum sacrifices to eliminate the occupier that really matters here. In the case of the Palestinians, they are too distrusting of their leadership to make the type of sacrifices they were willing to make in the 1988 Intifada. They were willing to make sacrifices then because the leadership came right from the people."

Given this situation, and given the furore that has greeted Finkelstein's attempts even to ask the question of the Holocaust in the United States and its relation to current Israeli interests, how can the Western consensus on unthinking support for Israeli violence and racism be broken? In answer to this question, Finkelstein draws up two scenarios. The first of these involves the American ruling elite reaching a consensus that Israel was a liability rather than an asset. Were this to take place, unlikely though it may be, then the media consensus would in turn change very quickly. The second scenario is a longer and harder one because it would be organised from the bottom rather than from the top. It would involve mobilising people for an altogether different agenda to the current one, which serves the interests of power, in order to serves the interest of the powerless.

The only way in which this might be done, Finkelstein says, is "to change the calculus of costs. Now the United States pursues its policies in the Middle East in a relatively cost-free manner; the only way you can change that calculus is by making the United States pay a price for its pro-Israel policies, and the only way to make it pay a price is by organising the powerless, and then things become more costly for those in power".

"Right now there is no opposition -- real opposition -- on the question of the Middle East, and therefore they are going to -- recklessly and ruthlessly -- pursue the policies that suit them. If an opposition develops, they will reconsider their priorities. I don't think support for Israel is particularly firm among the American people; I think there is a potential that can be tapped. It has never been attempted because the co-option of the PLO by the American administration has squandered the PLO's resources. All this talk about the all-powerful Jewish lobby is largely -- in my opinion -- an excuse for doing nothing. An excuse for the Arabs' own failure. They always say it is the lobby; they have never tried to transcend this lobby complex by reaching out to the American people and building up a counter consensus."

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
   Top of page
Front Page