Thursday, April 27, 2006

Finkelstein’s Follies: The Dangers of Vulgar Anti-Zionism (Tobias Abse)

Stuart Elliott alerted me to this devastating piece on the appalling Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, that appeared in the British journal New Interventions (which appears to be broadly Trotskyist in orientation) in 2000. I don't know the journal, but this examination of Finkelstein is quite good--cogent and to the point. Some highlights:

Finkelstein intermittently poses as a rigorous Marxist theoretician concerned with ‘power’, ‘interests’ and ‘ideology’, contemptuously remarking: ‘Novick’s central analytical category is "memory". Currently all the rage in ivory towers "memory" is the most impoverished concept to come down from the academic pike in a long time.’ (p.5)

Finkelstein, who as brief asides in his critique of Goldhagen, co-written with Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (New York, 1998), showed, has always been contemptuous of the value of oral sources for the history of the Holocaust, seems to have next to no knowledge of the extensive literature on memory, whether collective or individual, that has been a by-product of the growth of oral history over the last 25 years or so, so this attack seems to be gratuitous abuse without any substantial theoretical or empirical underpinning. In any case, such lofty condescension about methodology ill-becomes Finkelstein, given that his own work soon degenerates into a journalistic rant that frequently lacks a coherent structure, particularly in the longest and worst chapter, ‘The Double Shakedown’, a bizarre paean to Swiss bankers and German industrialists that is notable for its lack of any real conceptual rigour, to which I will return in due course. [....]

However, as the book progresses, any initial sympathy one might have had with Finkelstein as a leftist engaged in an unequal battle with the American Zionist establishment vanishes. [....]

With ever increasing frequency, the overall tone of Finkelstein’s work becomes increasingly reminiscent of a neo-Nazi tract; no non-Jewish anti-Stalinist left-wing opponent of Zionism would ever dare to indulge in such blatant anti-Semitic stereotyping, at least in Europe and the USA, although such a discourse would be widespread in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and might find an echo in one strange British sect originating in the Stalinist milieu (whose rentier theoretician was once the youth organiser of the ultra-Stalinist New Communist Party) that has become notorious for its convoluted apologias for Irving and Le Pen. [....]

If parts of the second chapter, ‘Hoaxers, Hucksters, and History’, start to induce nausea, the third chapter, ‘The Double Shakedown’, is impossible to stomach for anybody not already committed to an anti-Semitic world-view, and changes the overall balance of the text from a tract that might have been written by a sincere Jewish socialist whose awareness of a wider context in which his work might be misused is obscured by an excess of anti-Zionist zeal, to a truly pathological example of Jewish self-hatred the like of which has probably not been seen since early twentieth century Vienna. In his ‘Introduction’, Finkelstein claims: ‘The time is long past to open our hearts to the rest of humanity’s sufferings.’ (p.8) Most readers would naturally assume that this means opening our hearts to the wretched of the earth, and the book contains a fair number of references to the sufferings of native Americans, African Americans, Vietnamese and Palestinians, even if these people’s genuine woes are largely deployed to relativise the seriousness of Jewish grievances. [....]
In this context, Finkelstein’s solicitude for the Swiss bankers and, to a lesser extent, the German industrialists, whose alleged persecution by Jews receives a less extended treatment, is truly extraordinary.


But read the whole thing. --Jeff Weintraub

New Interventions
(Vol. 10, #2 2000)
Finkelstein’s Follies: The Dangers of Vulgar Anti-Zionism
Tobias Abse

NORMAN Finkelstein’s new book, The Holocaust Industry, does no service to the left, to Jews or to genuine anti-fascists of any variety. Objectively, this book, whose very title echoes the rhetoric of Holocaust denial rather in the way that the phrase ‘race relations industry’ is a hallmark of all British racists, provides considerable comfort to every Holocaust denier, neo-Nazi and anti-Semite on the face of the planet. It was no accident that the Evening Standard I bought on my way home from Finkelstein’s book launch in Bookmarks (where his presentation had somewhat disingenuously barely mentioned his third, longest and most controversial chapter) in July contained a ‘Diary’ item in which David Irving expressed his pleasure that Finkelstein had vindicated him against his critics.[....]

The questions that Peter Novick raised in his much longer and far more carefully considered work first published in 1999 in the USA as The Holocaust in American Life, and reissued a year later in Britain under the slightly misleading title of The Holocaust and Collective Memory, are perfectly legitimate ones, and deserve serious discussion. [....] Novick’s book is a serious and scholarly attempt to answer these questions, resting on years of research and reflection, in sharp contrast to Finkelstein’s hastily-written pamphlet which from internal evidence seems to have been cobbled together between January and April 2000 in response to Novick – whose book Finkelstein had reviewed for the London Review of Books (6 January 2000) – rather than out of some longstanding interest in the phenomenon. [....]

Undoubtedly, memorialisation has taken different forms in different countries, and Novick’s book clearly raises legitimate concerns about the form it has taken in the Washington Holocaust Museum, where, for example, the opening sentence from Niemöller’s famous list – ‘First they came for the communists, but I was not a communist, so I said nothing.’ – is omitted, but Finkelstein’s intemperate attack on any kind of memorialisation makes no useful contribution to such debates, and merely plays into the hands of anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.

[The rest is here. --JW]