Norman Finkelstein

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Jan 30 10:12:01 MST 2001

The man who said too much

Norman Finkelstein has angered Jews by claiming that the Holocaust has
become an industry. How can the son of camp survivors could say such a thing?

By Fergal Keane

Independent (London) 30 January 2001

I doubt that I have ever interviewed a man who is more exact about
directions. In a lengthy e-mail, he suggests no less than three different
means of getting to his home in Coney Island - subway, New York taxi or
mini-cab service - and thoughtfully attaches the cost and duration of each.
Norman Finkelstein, academic at a small New York university and author of a
book that earned the hostility of the Jewish establishment, leading one
prominent figure to describe him as "poison ... a disgusting, self-hating
Jew, he's something you find under a rock". And by the way, he is the son
of Holocaust survivors.

My concept of the typical American academic's home was formed entirely by
Hollywood and I expected Mr Finkelstein to greet me on the porch of a
wood-framed house, the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the
hallway as we negotiated our way around a jumble of books and papers to his
wood-panelled study.

Well, that's not Coney Island, and it certainly isn't Norman Finkelstein.
There are books aplenty but they are neatly stacked in a book case in the
hall. It is a narrow hall. The rooms are small, spotlessly clean and
adorned with furniture that has been sitting around a long time. There is
an air of monastic asceticism about the place.

Norman Finkelstein has the sharp, vigorously alive appearance of a man who
takes care of his body. He jogs for several miles every morning and I get
the impression he has few if any mortal vices. But with Norman Finkelstein,
you take care not to intrude much into the detail of his personal life. It
is not that he would refuse to answer the questions, but that they seem so
irrelevant to the central cause of his life: the Holocaust.

Since the publication of his book The Holocaust Industry, Norman
Finkelstein has become an object of special loathing for many fellow Jews.
His claims that Jewish leaders have exploited the Holocaust for financial
gain and extorted money from the German and Swiss governments caused
outrage. As if that were not controversy enough, he also claimed that many
of those who say they are Holocaust survivors are fakes and that interest
in the Final Solution only arose after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when it
was needed as a political weapon.

He is a self-proclaimed supporter of the Palestinian cause and has been
beaten up by Israel soldiers while taking part in a demonstration.

He certainly has a gift for the incendiary sentence and the explosive
simile (eg the suffering of the Holocaust has been reduced to the moral
stature of a Monte Carlo casino). He abhors the current trend in Holocaust
museums and exhibitions, films like Schindler's List and the monuments and
memorial services. And when he speaks about his book and the reactions, his
voice bristles with indignation. But did he not worry that by labelling
Jewish leaders as "hoaxers and hucksters" he was perpetuating the
anti-Semitic stereotype of the greedy grasping Jew?

"I worry that these individuals are lending credibility to that ugly
stereotype, and I think those of us who are concerned about the spread of
anti-Semitism have a responsibility to expose these individuals, to
repudiate these individuals and to work so that these individuals are no
longer part of public life, or are allowed to represent themselves as they
do as representing American or world Jewry.

"Abba Eban [the legendary Israeli foreign minister] makes the joke 'there's
no business like Shoa business'. That is shameful and it ought to be
rebuked, repudiated, exposed."

But would he worry if the stand he's taken gave comfort to Holocaust deniers?

"Holocaust deniers and the holocaust industry have a symbiotic
relationship. The Holocaust industry needs the deniers so that it can
continue to claim the world is awash with Holocaust deniers so we need more
museums, more conferences, more books, to justify their quote-unquote
'Holocaust education'. The holocaust deniers, they love the Holocaust
industry, because the Holocaust industry supplies them with all the
ammunition for their arguments. It's the Holocaust industry which continues
to wildly inflate the number of survivors. As my late mother used to say,
'if everybody who claims to be a Holocaust survivor actually is one, who
did Hitler kill,' and that's exactly what the Holocaust industry is doing.
It's become the main exponent of Holocaust denial in the world today."

There has been criticism aplenty from sources outside the leadership of
mainstream Jewish organisations. Journalists who have reviewed the book
have accused him of manipulating facts. One accused him of being closer to
the territory of the Holocaust deniers than the survivors; others like
Rabbi Julia Neuberger have said the book fails because it is a rant and not
a reasoned critique like Professor Peter Novick's The Holocaust and
Collective Memory. Interestingly, Finkelstein's book was given much greater
publicity and provoked a far wider debate here in Britain than in the
United States. The British, and especially British Jews, he says, were far
more willing to argue the issue.

Finkelstein bats down the criticisms and places himself in distinguished
intellectual company. Edmund Burke ranted and so did Tom Paine, so did
Rousseau and so did Marx.

Throughout the "Taking A Stand" interview series, I have always been more
interested in motivation than justification. With public figures and
experienced interviewees, the arguments they spend every day of their lives
defending are so familiar to them that they shift into auto-response mode.
If you don't take them off that safe ground, little new is learned. With
Norman Finkelstein, every question is carefully answered. But when he
leaves the public debate on the Holocaust and talks about his parents there
is a distinct change in his tone of voice. It is softer and very often
tinged with sadness.

The flat we are sitting in was inherited from his father, a survivor of the
Auschwitz death march. His mother survived the Majdanek camp. Neither his
mother or father received compensation sums for their death-camp
experiences. (His father did receive a German pension until his death.) On
the walls, there are pictures of his parents. They are a handsome couple
and it is hard to connect them with the half-ghosts they must have been at
the end of the war. There are others on the wall - close relatives - who
did not survive the camps. I ask him what it was like to grow up in the
shadow of the Holocaust.

"The earliest recollection I have, I can see it in my mind's eye, was I
came home from school to where we lived in a little apartment in Borough
Park in Brooklyn, an orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, and I walked into the
living room and my mother had her eyes fixed on the TV screen. She was
watching the Eichmann trial. I was about nine years old and then my mother
started to read through books on the Warsaw ghetto. I remember trying to
make this mental leap between the people in this place called the Warsaw
ghetto starving and on the verge of extermination and so forth, and trying
to connect them with my parents... and there was no way for me to make,
much as I tried, the imaginative leap. I just couldn't."

His parents would discuss the Holocaust as a moral or political issue, but
they would never speak of their personal experiences. He does remember that
when anything went wrong with the electricity supplies in the house his
father would seize pliers and thrust it into a socket.

Norman and his brothers would shout at him to stop but their mother would
say: "Don't worry, he was an electrician in Auschwitz." Little glimpses now
and again.

Like the trip to Germany in 1979. His mother had been called to give
evidence against some camp guards and Norman travelled with her. "It was
for me a terrible experience. When we went, the assumption was that these
guards would be incarcerated and would be treated as criminals of
considerable dimensions... my mother saw them walking freely around the
courthouse and she was totally shocked and she said: 'Why aren't they in
cages, those animals, why aren't they in cages?'"

His mother hated all Germans and all Poles, believed them all to be
anti-Semitic. Norman does not share this view and will be travelling to
Germany soon on a lecture tour.

Earlier in the interview, I asked him if he was never tempted to ask his
parents about their personal experiences of the camps. His reply surprised
me. "To tell you the truth, I was terrified of asking him. I was afraid
that the floodgates would open and I wouldn't be able ever again to detach
myself from him. I would feel so duty-bound to somebody who had suffered so
much, that I would never be able to say no to anything. As it was I think
it's fair to say I was a faithful son... I felt that if I found out more, I
could never separate myself from my parents."

When his father was dying from Alzheimer's in a public hospital in
Brooklyn, Norman Finkelstein would visit him three times a day to make sure
he had food. With one nurse to 30 patients, Norman's mother would tell her
son he had to go to the hospital. "Your father, after Auschwitz, he can't
die a death like that." Whenever he writes, he says, he feels that his
parents are looking over his shoulder, nodding or shaking their heads. They
are in that room in Coney Island alright, with a faithful son and the
impossible weight of the Holocaust bearing down on all of them.

[Fergal Keane's interview with Norman Finkelstein will be broadcast on
'Taking a Stand' on BBC Radio 4 at 9am today and will be repeated at 9.30pm
this evening.]

Louis Proyect
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