Though a slim monograph, this may well become one of the most controversial books of the year. Then again, the topic is so sensitive and explosive that mainstream media and polite society may simply condemn it with silence, leaving it to the scholarly and special-interest venues to carry on the counterattacks that are sure to come. In a way, that would be fitting: It's part of Finkelstein's argument that such is the power of The Holocaust as a symbol that anyone who doesn't simply condemn this book out of hand will be accused of anti-Semitism themselves.
"This book is both an anatomy and an indictment of the Holocaust industry," Finkelstein writes in the first sentence. He continues:
In the pages that follow, I will argue that "The Holocaust" is an ideological representation of the Nazi holocaust. Like most ideologies, it bears a connection, if tenuous, with reality... The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable ideological weapon. Through its deployment, one of the world's most formidable military powers, with a horrendous human rights record, has cast itself as a "victim" state, and the most successful ethnic group in the United States has likewise acquired victim status. Considerable dividends accrue from this specious victimhood?in particular, immunity to criticism, however justified.
Finkelstein's no "holocaust denier." Both his parents were concentration camp survivors. (I understand it was his publisher who suggested, wisely, that he move this personal datum from an afterword to the introduction.) Regarding holocaust deniers, he is, characteristically, disdainful of both sides: "All the hype notwithstanding, there is no evidence that Holocaust deniers exert any more influence in the United States than the flat earth society does. Given the nonsense churned out daily by the Holocaust industry, the wonder is that there are so few skeptics."
Finkelstein accuses Jews of exploiting The Holocaust, and the suffering of Holocaust victims, for undue gain, both as a group and as individuals. These gains range from political power to that "immunity to criticism" mentioned above to personal financial reward. His argument proceeds in three stages. First he seeks to describe how the Nazi holocaust, an historical event, became "The Holocaust," the immensely powerful ideological symbol. He argues that "American Jewish elites remembered the Nazi holocaust before June 1967 only when it was politically expedient." And, "Just as mainstream American Jewish organizations downplayed the Nazi holocaust in the years after World War II to conform to the US government's Cold War priorities, so their attitude to Israel kept in step with US policy. From early on, American Jewish elites harbored profound misgivings about a Jewish state. Uppermost was their fear that it would lend credence to the 'dual loyalty' charge... Although they eventually embraced the Zionist-led campaign for statehood, American Jewish organizations closely monitored and adjusted to signals from Washington."
After the 1967 war, "organized American Jewry exploited the Nazi holocaust... Once ideologically recast, The Holocaust (capitalized as I have previously noted) proved to be the perfect weapon for deflecting criticism of Israel... [F]or American Jewish elites The Holocaust performed the same function as Israel: another invaluable chip in a high-stakes power game."
Once The Holocaust had been established as political and moral capital, Finkelstein argues in the next stage, Jews sought to make it an exclusively Jewish holocaust, playing up their own victimization and playing down the victimization of Gypsies, gays and others whom the Nazis were equally intent on exterminating. To do this, Finkelstein contends, The Holocaust had to be cast as a unique event, distinct from all other genocidal events in the history of man. Why? Because this one was the product and culmination of the centuries of pathological anti-Semitism that infects all non-Jews, and especially in the Goldhagen thesis all Germans. Therefore this Holocaust was different from all other holocausts before and since. "[A]cknowledging the Gypsy genocide," Finkelstein reasons, would have "meant the loss of an exclusive Jewish franchise over The Holocaust, with a commensurate loss of Jewish 'moral capital.' ...[I]f the Nazis persecuted Gypsies and Jews alike, the dogma that The Holocaust marked the climax of a millennial Gentile hatred of Jews was clearly untenable." Once you've established The Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish tragedy, "Invoking The Holocaust [became] a ploy to delegitimize all criticism of Jews: such criticism could only spring from pathological hatred." To which Finkelstein scoffs, "If all the world wants the Jews dead, truly the wonder is that they are still alive?and, unlike much of humanity, not exactly starving."
It's for remarks like this that Finkelstein has been called "self-hating"; any non-Jew making the same sort of remark would be, of course, an anti-Semite and bigot.
But it's the third phase of his argument that should prove the most explosive. He is scathing in his denunciation of the institutions and individuals who have cropped up around the issue of reparations in the last several years. Rather than recompensing real holocaust victims for their suffering, he charges, much of the billions of dollars wrung from Swiss banks and the German government have fed the coffers of self-serving organizations and lined the pockets of corrupt rabbis, rapacious lawyers and sympathetic politicians. (Alex Cockburn reported on this aspect of Finkelstein's argument several months ago in his "Wild Justice" column.)
Not to mention greedy Jews in general. "The term 'Holocaust survivor' originally designated those who suffered the unique trauma of the Jewish ghettos, concentration camps and slave labor camps, often in sequence," he writes. "The figure for these Holocaust survivors at war's end is generally put at some 100,000. The number of living survivors cannot be more than a quarter of this figure now. Because enduring the camps became a crown of martyrdom, many Jews who spent the war elsewhere represented themselves as camp survivors. Another strong motive behind this misrepresentation, however, was material. The postwar German government provided compensation to Jews who had been in ghettos or camps. Many Jews fabricated their pasts to meet this eligibility requirement. 'If everyone who claims to be a survivor actually is one,' my mother used to exclaim, 'who did Hitler kill?'"
Germany to date has paid out $60 billion in claims. The more recent campaign against Swiss banks, meanwhile, has "degenerated into a libel of the Swiss people," Finkelstein says. In a publicity assault the hapless Swiss could not hope to defend themselves against (to do so would only have proven their anti-Semitism), they've been branded a "small breed of bankers...greedier and more immoral than most...behind the appearance of civility was a layer of obstinacy, and beyond that was solid egotistical incomprehension of anyone else's opinion...not just a peculiarly charmless people who had produced no artists, no heroes since William Tell and no statesmen, but were dishonest Nazi collaborators who had profited from genocide..." This is all quoted from an actual "report." Not surprisingly, the Swiss have so far agreed to pay out $1.25 billion.
Where has all this money gone? Finkelstein accuses organizations like the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, an umbrella group representing major players like the American Jewish Congress and B'nai B'rith, of earmarking the funds "not for the rehabilitation of Jewish victims" (except, he claims, rabbis and "outstanding Jewish leaders"), but for "pet projects." Meanwhile, the administrators of the claims organizations, along with spokespeople, legal counsel, armies of accountants and political consultants, are of course paid handsomely for their good work. Elie Wiesel gets $25,000 and a limo for every speaking engagement, while for his highly publicized efforts on this issue, Finkelstein bitterly notes, Alfonse D'Amato makes "in 10 hours what my mother received for suffering six years of Nazi persecution."
Finkelstein denounces this "Holocaust industry" for pulling off "a double shakedown," extorting blood money from the Germans and Swiss on the one hand, and defrauding actual victims on the other. In making these charges he has placed himself in direct opposition to enormously powerful interests. He is not completely alone in his criticisms; members of the Knesset and some other Jewish leaders have raised questions of their own. It will be extremely interesting to watch how "the Holocaust industry" responds to The Holocaust Industry. There's nothing those who have staked out the moral high ground hate worse than when some lone ranter attacks them from an even more lofty position.
Afterwords Looking Up: The fourth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City is out (Three Rivers, 1056 pages, $35). It's the first revision since the late 1980s, which seems an oddly long lapse given the popularity of the book and the nature of New York architecture (AIA is the American Institute of Architects). But at any rate the many changes and additions in the new edition?by Norval White; his co-author Elliot Willensky died in 1990, which may explain something?bring it as up to the minute as a listing on the giant eyesore Baruch College is currently throwing up across the street from where I live. Disturbingly, White seems to like that hideous pile. But then he doesn't have to get up every morning and look at it. This hints at a possible flaw in this sort of all-embracing survey. In architecture, familiarity can definitely breed contempt for a building the mere passerby might find a "bold architectural statement" or "fanciful use of space." On the positive side, if White really does admire that postmodern puzzle palazzo, you can't say he's an old fuddy-duddy.
The Guide was one of the first city reference books I was handed when I moved here 10 years ago, and it remains among the handful of essential ones. Anyone who goes around New York City with eyes open can find the Guide a handy reference. If you've ever looked at a building in the city and wondered what its story was, you might even find consulting the Guide addictive. One of my few complaints with it is that, exhaustive a survey as it is with its more than 5000 listings spread across the five boroughs, it doesn't (couldn't?) cite every single building in the city. There have been a few times over the last decade when I've seen an interesting structure, gone to look it up in the Guide?and it's not listed. Very frustrating.
Still, it's a great resource. I enjoyed finding out that a certain oddly ugly apartment building in my neighborhood was originally called the "I Love You Kathy" building, referring to "the developer's emotional life"; that when the Cubists held their famous Armory Show of 1913 two blocks from me, Teddy Roosevelt condemned them as "a bunch of lunatics"; and that at one point Madison Square Garden "was to be demolished and moved two blocks west to make room for a high-rise office tower in the form of a fish by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry. Too bad the plan fell through." (To their undying honor, the Guide's coauthors were among the architects who picketed in 1962 when McKim, Mead & White's old Penn Station was torn down and replaced with the current Big Bagel Bldg.)
You Heard It There Last: In another timely coup, The New York Times discovered "cell phone rage" last week (in an op-ed on July 5). I believe New York Press scooped them on this by maybe four years, but that aside, is this not a column that every editorial or opinion columnist in every daily newspaper and weekly magazine in the Western hemisphere had already written? What, are a lot of people talking on cells everywhere you go? Is that getting on your nerves?
Friends & Family: Here's to me and my good taste in writer friends. Knipfel's Quitting the Nairobi Trio is selling well and seems to be getting even better reviews than the chorus of huzzahs for his first one. Mofo. Bill Monahan's first novel Light House has just come out and is already into its second printing. Terminator's Sarah is on its third printing and made the L.A. Times bestseller list. Jonathan Ames' collection of "City Slicker" columns, What's Not to Love?, is recently out, as is Mark Gauvreau Judge's If It Ain't Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture, also based mostly on articles he wrote for us. Cheers, y'all.