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The Strange Case of Norman Finkelstein

The line “there’s no business like Shoah business” has its provenance, I think, in Philip Roth’s novel Operation Shylock, which dealt in a double case of role reversal: the first occurring between the Roth and his doppelganger, the second between … Read More

By / April 12, 2007

The line “there’s no business like Shoah business” has its provenance, I think, in Philip Roth’s novel Operation Shylock, which dealt in a double case of role reversal: the first occurring between the Roth and his doppelganger, the second between those bickering tribal Gemini of last resorts, Diaspora and Zionism.

Norman Finkelstein is the product of Diaspora, having grown up in 50’s Brooklyn, and if any two human beings on the planet can have had a legitimate stake in Zionism, they were his parents, both of whom survived Hitler’s death camps. For related reasons, but not just for related reasons, “Shoah business” is what most preoccupies and disgusts this political theory professor at DePaul University. His book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2000) was intended to show how the Nazi genocide has been exploited by Jewish-American leaders to excuse the policies of Israel, and also to extort reparations money.

Finkelstein’s moral and forensic touchstone in The Holocaust Industry was the tremendously non-polarizing figure of Hannah Arendt, and his spadework in the field earned him the strong backing of Raul Hilberg, the dean of Holocaust studies and author of the seminal text on the subject, The Destruction of the European Jews.

And yet… Finkelstein is an avowed disciple of Noam Chomsky, and he’s not just a dogged opponent of the U.S. and Israel but also a vocal supporter of Hezbollah (his reason being that it too opposes the U.S. and Israel). As you can imagine, this doesn’t put him on gemutlich terms with very many groups stateside or in the land of milk and honey. Still, in spite of his ideology, there has been some curious and unexpected agreement on the merits of Finkelstein’s scholarship.

Not too long ago, Gabriel Schoenfeld wrote an essay in Commentary entitled, “Holocaust Reparations – A Growing Scandal,” which confirmed some of Finkelstein’s less outrageous claims, while being sure to categorize him as an anti-Zionist trying to "demonstrate that Jewish organizations have engaged in a ruthless campaign to maximize their own wealth and influence by manufacturing non-existent Holocaust survivors." Finkelstein is also responsible for the more frequently cited refutations of Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, which argued that many Arabs in Palestine at the time of Israel’s founding were recent migrants, and of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which gave new meaning to Kipling’s phrase “thinking with the blood” in relation to the innate German predilection for race hatred.

Finkelstein has found cause to recur to the Peters book due to a four-year-old and increasingly farcical skirmish with Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who is charged by the former with plagiarizing Peters' block quotations – complete with identically inserted ellipses – in The Case for Israel. Things aren’t looking so hot for the defense on this one. But that hasn't stopped The Dersh from issuing an unprecedented (and subsequently denied) request to Gov. Schwarzenegger – and here the affair really does mirror something out of I.B. Singer or Larry David – to squash publication of Finkelstein’s latest book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (University of California Press, 2005) because of its side-by-side exegesis of the similarities between the two pro-Israel writers.

Far be it from Finkelstein see the humor in any of this since his idea of a lawyer joke is pretty shabby. Inveighing against one form of legal “compensation” attained by former New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which had charged Swiss and German and Dutch banks of hording Nazi-stolen monies from Holocaust victims, Finkelstein writes: “’You have been a true pioneer in this saga,’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated D’Amato. ‘The result is not only an achievement in material terms but a moral victory and a triumph of the spirit.’ Pity he didn’t say ‘the will.’” Pity Norman did. What is this doing in an essay that features the sensible suggestion that Nazi be dropped as all-purpose epithet to describe less-than-philo-Semitic elements?

Martyrdom and messianism are apparently only as disreputable as the ends (or individuals) they serve. See what I mean by clicking on this wince-making cartoon, which Carlos Latuff, the second-place winner of Iran's Holocaust cartoon contest, sketched for Finkelstein, and which Finkelstein then posted on his website as a form of self-tribute. Oh, and you’ll never guess what constitutes the “real axis of evil” in his worldview. Bush, Blair and Sharon? Not so much. Try two Canadian cities – Calgary and Toronto – whose newspapers were guilty of blackening his name, and two universities – Georgetown and Carnegie-Mellon— that have canceled his speaking engagements. Speaking "truth to power" has never been quite so solipsistic.

[Note: After re-reading this post and discussing its contents with Senior Editor Joey Kurtzman, who spotted a few factual and interpretative errors, I've made modifications to the following points: Finkelstein's polemic intent with regards to publishing The Holocaust Industry; the characterization of him in Gabriel Schoenfeld's essay; an inaccurate description of Joan Peters' thesis in From Time Immemorial. I regret the errors or any confusion they may have caused. -- Michael Weiss.]

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