The Holocaust Industry Comes to the University of Illinois
In his 2000 book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, scholar and critic Norman Finkelstein convincingly argues three general points. First, since the 1967 war and Israel’s military alliance with the United States, the Nazi holocaust-a historical event-has become the Holocaust, a narrow and ideologically-driven Zionist interpretation of that genocide that has been used to justify Israeli and American policies, and aggrandize Jewish-American elites in the halls of power. Second, and concurrently since 1967, a Holocaust literature has evolved apart from credible historical scholarship about the Nazi holocaust, the former which is without scholarly merit and is often fraudulent. Holocaust literature, most notably that of Elie Wiesel, has propagated specious notions of the "uniqueness" of the Holocaust and the eternal nature of anti-Semitism, both of which serve to silence criticism of Israel. Third, Finkelstein elaborated the evidence for a "double shakedown" during the late 1990s by which both survivors of the Nazi holocaust and European governments (primarily Switzerland) were exploited by Jewish organizations seeking exorbitant amounts of monetary compensation, while being held to standards far beyond those to which either the U.S. or Israel has been held in relation to the bank holdings of survivors.
While Finkelstein’s books are usually ignored by the mainstream media, the New York Times felt that in this case it had to respond, and they assigned Brown University holocaust historian Omer Bartov to do a hatchet job. Bartov’s review (8/6/2000) was little more than an overt ad hominem attack that included a few decontextualized references to the book, seriously addressing none of the major arguments stated above. He began the review on a particularly nasty note:
The main argument in ‘The Holocaust Industry’ is based on a simple distinction between two phenomena: the Nazi Holocaust and ”The Holocaust,” which he defines as ”an ideological representation of the Nazi holocaust.” The author has little interest in the former, though he readily acknowledges that it happened, since both his parents survived its horrors and since some of the few historians he respects, notably Raul Hilberg, have written on it.
In fact, Bartov well knows that Finkelstein has an abiding scholarly interest in the Nazi holocaust, which he demonstrated in his lengthy critique of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, lauded in the first sentence of Bartov’s review as a "brilliant dissection." Nevertheless, as a means of character assassination, Bartov implies that Finkelstein deigns to "acknowledge" that the Nazi holocaust actually happened.
Bartov continues with the one paragraph in the review that selectively addresses what Finkelstein actually wrote:
But in one of those strange inversions that characterize his book, Finkelstein speaks of the historical event with the same kind of awe, and demands the same sort of silent incomprehension, that he ascribes to his main foe, Elie Wiesel. In order ”to truly learn from the Nazi holocaust,” he asserts, ”its physical dimension must be reduced and its moral dimension expanded.” Whatever that might mean, it comes as no surprise that his views about the origins, nature and implications of the genocide of the Jews are but a series of vague, undocumented and contradictory assertions. Thus, for instance, in one place he writes that the ”historical evidence for a murderous gentile impulse is nil,” and rejects the notion that there might have been an ”abandonment of the Jews” by the United States government. But in another place he charges that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum ”mutes the Christian background to European anti-Semitism” and ”downplays the discriminatory U.S. immigration quotas before the war,” and then goes on to cite approvingly David S. Wyman’s book, ”The Abandonment of the Jews.”
Actually, Finkelstein makes it quite clear that the "physical dimension" (memorials, museums) of the Holocaust that serves current ideological demands need to be reduced, while we expand the moral dimensions of the Nazi holocaust; that is, one genocide among many that characterized the 20th century as a result of primarily European and American imperialism, militarism, and racism. This is hardly standing in awe, and Bartov (to give him the benefit of the doubt) simply pretends not to understand Finkelstein’s prescription. As far as "contradictory assertions," Bartov makes his case by quoting Finkelstein in disingenuously decontextualized fashion. Finkelstein’s argument against a "murderous gentile impulse" (p. 49) is in response to Goldhagen’s global argument of "eliminationist anti-Semitism," also rejected by Bartov. Similarly, Finkelstein rejects the vague notion of the world’s "abandonment of the Jews" on a general level as an ideological construct that emerged after the 1967 war as a "staple of ‘Holocaust discourse.’"
Finkelstein is clear, on the other hand, in specifically asserting that the Holocaust Museum in Washington mutes the Christian background and U.S. quotas (p. 73), a valid criticism that in no way contradicts his rejection of a "murderous gentile impulse." These comments are part of a detailed critique of the political nature of the museum (and the Holocaust museum phenomenon in general) that Bartov does not address. Similarly, Finkelstein’s general contention regarding anti-Semitism is not contradicted by his contextualized approval of Wyman’s well-documented book about the policies of the Roosevelt administration regarding Jewish immigration in an entirely different section (p. 103). Finkelstein concludes in a footnote:
A similar mix of factors-economic downturn, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and later, security-accounted for the restrictive American and Swiss quotas. Recalling the "hypocrisy in the speeches by other nations, especially the United States which was completely uninterested in liberalizing its immigration laws," the Independent Commission, although harshly critical of Switzerland, reports that its refugee policy was "like the governments of most other states."
There is something sad in this warping of intelligence, and in this perversion of moral indignation. There is also something indecent about it, something juvenile, self-righteous, arrogant and stupid. ….What I find so striking about ”The Holocaust Industry” is that it is almost an exact copy of the arguments it seeks to expose. It is filled with precisely the kind of shrill hyperbole that Finkelstein rightly deplores in much of the current media hype over the Holocaust; it is brimming with the same indifference to historical facts, inner contradictions, strident politics and dubious contextualizations; and it oozes with the same smug sense of moral and intellectual superiority.
Bartov offers no evidence to support any of these charges, because there is none. As always, Finkelstein’s work is a model of scholarly integrity and clarity, carefully argued and copiously documented, its provocative conclusions merited by the appalling facts. But Bartov is only getting warmed up for his personal attack on Finkelstein as an "irrational and insidious" conspiracy theorist, a charge that he repeated during his visit to the University of Illinois in September 2004. Bartov’s tantrum betrays not only his venality and tendency towards pathological projection, but his subservience to the demands of the Holocaust Industry. This has been particularly evident in his efforts to lend his scholarly credentials in support of the threat of a "new anti-Semitism" in Martin Peretz’s Zionist publication The New Republic.
Bartov visited the University of Illinois as a distinguished Millercom lecturer to deliver a dull and largely indecipherable Holocaust Industry lecture about anti-Semitism in obscure films to a numbed, mystified audience consisting mostly of elderly Jews, the more fortunate among them being hard of hearing. But in the political highlight and central purpose of his visit, he spoke at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities about the threat that the Muslim world poses to Jews on the basis of its anti-Semitic rhetoric. He obtusely argued his case with a grand total of three anecdotal quotations, in a debate that was remarkable for the obvious lack of serious preparation by the participants-both Jewish, with no Muslims invited to speak, as is consistent with the recent history of IPRH.
As it turns out, Bartov himself has quite an inventive mind when it comes to such rhetoric. In a TNR review of "Hitler’s Second Book" (2/2/2004), Bartov wrote: "Much more publicity has been given to anti-Israeli protests on American campuses, and these have demonstrated a troubling trend. A group calling itself "New Jersey Solidarity: Activists for the Destruction of Israel" called for an "anti-Israel hate-fest" to be held on the campus of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, in October 2003."
The truth, of course, is that the group is simply called New Jersey Solidarity, and that their conference was not advertised as a hate-fest, but as a promotion of solidarity for Palestinian rights and for divestment from corporations that do business with Israel-a conference that has taken place recently on an annual basis at different campus locations. Bartov (following the propensities for fabrication by Elie Wiesel, Jerzy Kosinski, Binjamin Wilkomirski, and others discussed by Finkelstein in The Holocaust Industry, and unmentioned by Bartov in his review) cleverly invented "Activists for the Destruction of Israel" and "anti-Israel hate-fest" out of whole cloth. This charge is not only defamatory, but as anyone knows, totally implausible on any college campus or in the domestic Palestinian rights movement at large. Bartov’s rhetoric is, of course, related to a much larger campaign to defame critics of Israel on campuses throughout the country with the charge of anti-Semitism, a campaign well supported locally by the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation.
In the same TNR review Bartov concluded:
For one of the most frightening aspects of Hitler’s book is not that he said what he said at the time, but that much of what he said can be found today in innumerable places: on Internet sites, propaganda brochures, political speeches, protest placards, academic publications, religious sermons, you name it. As long as it does not have Hitler’s name attached to it, this deranged discourse will be ignored or allowed to pass. The voices that express these opinions do not belong to a single political or ideological current, and they are much less easy to distinguish than in the 1930s. They belong to the right and the left, to the religious and the secular, to the West and the East, to the rabble and the leaders, to terrorists and intellectuals, students and peasants, pacifists and militants, expansionists and anti-globalization activists. The diplomacy advocated by Hitler is no longer relevant, but his reason for it, his "worldview," is alive and kicking, and it may still kick us.
With this outburst of advanced Holocaust Industry hysteria, Bartov manages not only to obliterate what little might be left of his own credibility, but to call into question the credibility of the three University of Illinois institutions that invited him: The Center for Advanced Study, the Program for Jewish Culture and Society, and the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities-the second run by the head of Jewish Federation, the latter run by a member of the PJCS faculty. Unfortunately, Bartov’s visit reflects central flaws in all three programs: the academic obtuseness and gullibility of the CAS, the Zionist and Jewishly esoteric propensities of the PJCS, and the narrow construction of "humanity" of the IPRH, which excludes Palestinian humanity. This is part of an environment in which Jewish Federation, housed at Hillel, has taken upon itself the task of vilifying Daily Illini Muslim student journalists who criticize Israel, and supporting the visits of the racist Daniel Pipes and a succession of propagandists for the Israeli government, including the former military administrator of occupied Hebron-that is, a criminal.
Our local Holocaust Industry works to respond ideologically and personally to any scholarly and rational debate about Israel’s criminal behavior that might emerge on this campus, to define strict and arbitrary limits to such debate, and ultimately to question the motives of Israel’s critics. At this point, due to the efforts of its academic executives and shills like Omer Bartov, it is working quite effectively. But the nature of Bartov’s visit should also remind us that our local Industry does nothing whatsoever to educate the community about the credible scholarship addressing the political and economic history of the Nazis rise to power (including western support), and prevents appropriate parallels from being drawn with the institutionalized inhumanity of both Israeli and American occupations in the Middle East.
The fascination of Holocaust Industry workers with the alleged uniqueness of Nazi inhumanity has led them to discount the inhumanity that is characteristic of all armies whose soldiers have been socialized in racist cultures, and desensitized by the violence inherent in military culture during war and occupation. While it may be a long way from Abu Ghraib to Auschwitz, it is also a long way from West Virginia to Abu Ghraib. But American and Israeli torture is rationalized and its cultural and institutional basis dismissed. The poster boy for this mentality, as well as the related charge of anti-Semitism to malign critics of Israel, is of course Alan Dershowitz in his remarkably shabby book The Case for Israel. In his forthcoming book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, Finkelstein will among other things detail the Israeli record of human rights violations that are denied by Dershowitz and ignored by local Jewish leaders and academics who doggedly maintain their belief in "beautiful Israel" against overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
DAVID GREEN lives in Urbana, Illinois.