Norman Finkelstein takes Alan Dershovitz apart, 8 September 2003
Finkelstein de-constructs Christopher Hitchens
The business of death: Norman Finkelstein has caused a storm on both sides of
the Atlantic and it is not hard to see why: he says the Holocaust has been
exploited to extort cash, that most 'survivors' are bogus and that too much
money is spent commemorating the Nazi genocide. In the first of two exclusive
extracts he argues that it's time to shut down 'the holocaust industry.'
The Holocaust Industry by Norman G Finkelstein (Verso, pounds 16) is
available from the Guardian Cultureshop at the reduced price of pounds 13 + 99p UK postage. 08003166102.
An Extract from Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry
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Both my father and mother were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi
concentration camps. Apart from my parents, every family member on both sides
was exterminated by the Nazis. My earliest memory, so to speak, of the Nazi
Holocaust is my mother glued in front of the television watching the trial of
Adolf Eichmann (1961) when I came home from school. Although they had been
liberated from the camps only 16 years before the trial, an unbridgeable
abyss always separated, in my mind, the parents I knew from that. Photographs
of my mother's family hung on the living-room wall. I could never quite make
sense of my connection with them, let alone conceive what happened. Apart
from this phantom presence, I do not remember the Nazi Holocaust ever
intruding on my childhood. I do not recall a single friend (or parent of a
friend) asking a single question about what my mother and father endured.
This was not a respectful silence. It was indifference. In this light, one
cannot but be sceptical of the outpourings of anguish in later decades, after
the Holocaust industry was firmly established.
I sometimes think that American Jewry 'discovering' the Nazi Holocaust was
worse than its having been forgotten. True, my parents brooded in private;
the suffering they endured was not publicly validated. But wasn't that better
than the current crass exploitation of Jewish martyrdom? Before the Nazi
Holocaust became the Holocaust, only a few scholarly studies (by Raul
Hilberg, Viktor Frankl and Ella Lingens-Reiner) were published on the
subject. But this small collection of gems is better than the shelves upon
shelves of shlock that now line libraries and bookstores. Both my parents,
although daily reliving that past until the day each died, lost interest by
the end of their lives in the Holocaust as a public spectacle. One of my
father's lifelong friends was a former inmate with him in Auschwitz, a
seemingly incorruptible leftwing idealist who on principle refused German
compensation after the war. Eventually he became a director of the Israeli
Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. Reluctantly and with genuine disappointment, my
father finally admitted that even this man had been corrupted by the
Holocaust industry, tailoring his beliefs for power and profit. As the
rendering of the Holocaust assumed ever more absurd forms, my mother liked to
quote (with intentional irony) Henry Ford: 'History is bunk'. The tales of
'Holocaust survivors' all concentration camp inmates, all heroes of the
resistance were a special source of wry amusement in my home.
My parents often wondered why I would grow so indignant at the falsification
and exploitation of the Nazi genocide. The most obvious answer is that it has
been used to justify criminal policies of the Israeli state and US support
for these policies. There is a personal motive as well. I do care about the
memory of my family's persecution. The current campaign of the Holocaust
industry to extort money from Europe in the name of 'needy Holocaust victims'
has shrunk the moral stature of their martyrdom to that of a Monte Carlo
The Holocaust only emerged in American life after Israel's victory in the
1967 Six Day war against its Arab neighbours. [Since then] too many public
and private resources have been invested in memorialising the Nazi genocide.
Most of the output is worthless, a tribute not to Jewish suffering but to
Jewish aggrandisement. 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 US
has likewise acquired victim status. Considerable dividends accrue from this
specious victimhood in particular, immunity to criticism, however justified.
The time is long past to open our hearts to the rest of humanity's
sufferings. This was the main lesson my mother imparted. I never once heard
her say: 'Do not compare.' My mother always compared. In the face of the
sufferings of African-Americans, Vietnamese and Palestinians, my mother's
credo always was: 'We are all holocaust victims.'
The term 'Holocaust survivor' originally designated those who suffered the
unique trauma of the Jewish ghettos, concentration camps and slave labour
camps, often in sequence. 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 toe exclaim, 'who
did Hitler kill?'
Even within the Holocaust industry, Deborah Lipstadt, for example, wryly
observes that Holocaust survivors frequently maintain they were personally
examined by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. Because survivors are now revered as
secular saints, one doesn't dare question them. Preposterous statements pass
without comment. Elie Wiesel reminisces in his acclaimed memoir that,
recently liberated from Buchenwald and only 18 years old, 'I read the
Critique of Pure Reason don't laugh! in Yiddish.' Leaving aside Wiesel's
acknowledgment that at the time 'I was wholly ignorant of Yiddish grammar,'
The Critique of Pure Reason was never translated into Yiddish. 'The truth I
present is unvarnished,' Wiesel sighs, 'I cannot do otherwise.'
In recent years, 'Holocaust survivor' has been redefined to designate not
only those who endured but also those who managed to evade the Nazis. One
contributor to a Holocaust website maintained that, although he spent the war
in Tel Aviv, he was a Holocaust survivor because his grandmother died in
Auschwitz. According to Israel Gutman, a former inmate of Auschwitz, director
of Yad Vashem and a Holocaust lecturer at Hebrew University, 'it's not that
important' whether Binjamin Wilkomirski's [now discredited 'autobiographical'
account of childhood in the camps], Fragments, is a fraud. 'Wilkomirski has
written a story which he has experienced deeply; that's for sure . . . He is
not a fake. He is someone who lives this story very deeply in his soul.' So
it doesn't matter whether he spent the war in a concentration camp or a Swiss
chalet; Wilkomirski is a Holocaust survivor because 'his pain is authentic.'
The Israeli prime minister's office recently put the number of 'living
Holocaust survivors' at nearly a million. The main motive behind this
inflationary revision is again not hard to find. It is difficult to press
massive new claims for reparations if only a handful of Holocaust survivors
are still alive.
In the early 1950s, Germany entered into negotiations with Jewish
institutions and signed indemnification agreements. It has paid out to date
some Dollars 60bn. The German government also negotiated a financial
settlement with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, an
umbrella of major Jewish organisations including the American Jewish
Committee, American Jewish Congress, B'nai B'rith, the Joint Distribution
Committee. The claims conference was supposed to use the monies, Dollars 10m
annually for 12 years, or about a billion dollars in current values, for
Jewish victims of Nazi persecution who had fallen through the cracks in the
compensation process. My mother was a case in point. A survivor of the Warsaw
Ghetto, Majdanek concentration camp and slave labour camps at Czestochowa and
Skarszysko-Kamiena, she received only Dollars 3,500 in compensation from the
German government. Other Jewish victims (and many who in fact were not
victims), however, received lifetime pensions from Germany, eventually
totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars. In a flagrant breach of its
letter and spirit, the conference earmarked the monies not for the
rehabilitation of Jewish victims who had received minimal compensation but
for the rehabilitation of Jewish 'communities'. Indeed, a guiding principle
of the claims conference prohibited use of monies for 'direct allocations to
In a classic instance of looking after one's own, however, the conference
provided exemptions for two categories of victims: rabbis and 'outstanding
Jewish leaders' received individual payments. As the conference came under
attack from defrauded Jews, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg cast a plague on both
sides, sneering that: 'It's not about justice, it's a fight for money.' When
Germans or Swiss refuse to pay compensation, the heavens cannot contain the
righteous indignation of organised American Jewry. But when Jewish elites rob
Jewish survivors, no ethical issues arise: it's just about money.
Others involved in the reparations process have also done well. The reported
annual salary of Saul Kagan, long-time executive secretary of the claims
conference, is Dollars 105,000. Kagan rings up in 12 days what my mother
received for suffering six years of Nazi persecution.
In recent years, the Holocaust industry has become an outright extortion
racket. Purporting to represent all of world Jewry, living and dead, it is
laying claim to Holocaust-era Jewish assets throughout Europe. Fittingly
dubbed the 'last chapter of the Holocaust', this double shakedown of European
countries as well as legitimate Jewish claimants first targeted Switzerland.
[After a protracted campaign which enlisted the American political
establishment] the Swiss finally caved in 1998 and agreed to pay Dollars
1.25bn. 'The aim . . .' a Swiss bank's press release read, 'is to avert the
threat of sanctions as well as long and costly court proceedings.'
Its solicitude for 'needy Holocaust survivors' notwithstanding, the World
Jewish Congress wants nearly half the Swiss monies earmarked for Jewish
organisations and 'Holocaust education'. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre
maintains that if 'worthy' Jewish organisations receive monies, 'a portion
should go to Jewish educational centres'. As they 'angle' for a bigger share
of the loot, reform and orthodox organisations each claim that the 6m dead
would have preferred their branch of Judaism as financial beneficiary.
Meanwhile, the Holocaust industry forced Switzerland into a settlement
because time was allegedly of the essence: 'Needy Holocaust survivors are
dying every day.' Once the Swiss signed away the money, however, the urgency
miraculously passed. More than a year after the settlement was reached there
was still no distribution plan. By the time the money is finally divvied out,
all the 'needy Holocaust survivors' will probably be dead. In fact, by last
December, less than half of the Dollars 200m 'Special Fund for Needy Victims
of the Holocaust' established in February 1997 had been distributed to actual
victims. After lawyers' fees have been paid, [total attorney fee demands for
the case run to Dollars 15m] the Swiss monies will then flow into the coffers
of 'worthy' Jewish organisations. The staggering dimensions of Hitler's Final
Solution are by now well known. And isn't the 'normal' history of humankind
replete with horrifying chapters of inhumanity? A crime need not be aberrant
to warrant atonement. The challenge today is to restore the Nazi Holocaust as
a rational subject of inquiry. Only then can we really learn from it. The
abnormality of the Nazi Holocaust springs not from the event itself but from
the exploitative industry that has grown up around it.
The Holocaust industry has always been bankrupt. What remains is to openly
declare it so. The time is long past to put it out of business. The noblest
gesture for those who perished is to preserve their memory, learn from their
suffering and let them, finally, rest in peace.
In our second extract
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Swiss toll: In our second extract from his controversial new book, Norman
Finkelstein argues that the campaign to reclaim Jewish assets from Swiss
banks smacks of hypocrisy and double standards
In May 1995, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the second
world war, Switzerland's president formally apologised for denying Jews
refuge during the Nazi Holocaust. Discussion reopened on the question of
Jewish assets deposited in Swiss accounts before and during the war.
Swiss bankers declared that they could locate only 775 unclaimed dormant
accounts, worth a total of Dollars 32m. They offered this sum as a basis for
negotiations with the World Jewish Congress, which refused it as inadequate.
The WJC, working with institutions including the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, mobilised the US political establishment.
Using the House and Senate banking committees as a springboard, the Holocaust
industry orchestrated a shameless campaign of vilification.
The campaign rapidly degenerated into a libel of the Swiss people. Tom Bower,
in a study supported by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre [Nazi Gold], reports that
they had 'knowingly profited from blood money'; 'committed an unprecedented
theft'; that 'Swiss greed was unique'; that the 'Swiss character' combined
'simplicity and duplicity'; that the Swiss were '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', and so on.
The Holocaust industry first alleged that Swiss banks had systematically
denied legitimate heirs of Holocaust victims access to dormant accounts worth
between Dollars 7bn and Dollars 20bn.
In late 1996 a parade of elderly Jewish women and one man delivered moving
testimony before the Congressional banking committees on the malfeasance of
the Swiss bankers. Yet almost none of these witnesses, according to Itamar
Levin, an editor of Israel's main business newspaper, 'had real proof of the
existence of assets in Swiss banks'. In 1997 the Swiss reportedly spent
Dollars 500m to fend off the Holocaust industry attacks. In April 1998 they
started buckling under pressure. In June the banks made a 'final offer' of
Dollars 600m. The next month stiff US sanctions were threatened. The Swiss
caved in and agreed to pay Dollars 1.25bn.
The settlement covered three classes: claimants to dormant Swiss accounts;
refugees denied Swiss asylum; and victims of slave labour which the Swiss
benefited from. For all the righteous indignation about the 'perfidious
Swiss', however, the comparable American record is, on all these counts, just
as bad, if not worse.
Like Switzerland, the US denied entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism
before and during the second world war. Yet the US government hasn't seen fit
to compensate them. And, although dwarfed in size and resources by the US,
Switzerland admitted just as many Jewish refugees as America (approximately
20,000) during the Nazi Holocaust. Prior to the first Senate hearing on the
dormant accounts in April 1996, the Swiss banks had agreed to establish an
investigative committee and abide by its findings. It comprised of six
members, three each from the World Jewish Restitution Organisation and the
Swiss Bankers Association, and headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the
US Federal Reserve Bank.
In December 1999 the committee issued its report on Dormant Accounts of
Victims of Nazi Persecution in Swiss Banks. The exhaustive audit had lasted
three years and cost no less than Dollars 500m. Its central finding merits
extended quotation: 'For victims of Nazi persecution there was no evidence of
systematic discrimination, obstruction of access, misappropriation, or
violation of document retention requirements of
Swiss law. However, the Report also criticises the actions of some banks in
their treatment of the accounts of victims of Nazi persecution.
'The word 'some' in the preceding sentence needs to be emphasised since the
criticised actions refer mainly to those of specific banks in their handling
of individual accounts of victims of Nazi persecution in the context of an
investigation of 254 banks covering a period of about 60 years. For the crit
icised actions, the Report also recognises that there were mitigating
circumstances for the conduct of the banks involved in these activities. 'The
Report acknowledges, moreover, that there is ample evidence of many cases in
which banks actively sought out missing account holders or their heirs . . .
and paid account balances of dormant accounts to the proper parties.'
The most explosive finding of the Volcker committee went unreported in the
American media. Alongside Switzerland, the committee observed, the US was
also a primary safe haven for transferable Jewish assets in Europe. The
question is, what happened to the dormant Holocaust-era accounts in American
The House Banking Committee did call one expert witness to testify on this
issue. Professor Seymour Rubin served as deputy chief of the US delegation in
the Swiss negotiations after the second world war. Under the auspices of
American Jewish organisations, Rubin also worked during the 1950s with a
'group of experts on Jewish communal life in Europe' to identify dormant
Holocaust-era accounts in US banks.
In his House testimony Rubin stated that, after a most superficial and
rudimentary audit of banks in just New York, the value of these accounts was
put at Dollars 6m. Jewish organisations requested this sum for 'needy
survivors' from Congress (abandoned dormant accounts in the US are
transferred to the state).
'The United States,' Rubin concluded, 'took only very limited measures to
identify heirless assets in the United States, and made available a mere
Dollars 500,000, in contrast to the Dollars 32m acknowledged by Swiss banks
even prior to the Volcker inquiry.' In other words, the US record is much
worse than the Swiss record.
European Jews had also purchased plots of land and opened bank accounts in
Palestine during the British Mandate [1920-1948] to support the Zionist
enterprise or prepare for future immigration. Recently the Financial Times
reported that 'unlike countries in Europe, Israel's banks and Zionist
organisations are resisting pressure to set up independent commissions to
establish how much property and how many dormant accounts were held by
Holocaust survivors, and how the owners can be located'.
In October 1998, an Israeli newspaper stated that the WJC and the WJRO
decided 'to refrain from dealing with the subject of assets in Israel of
Holocaust victims on the ground that responsibility for this lay with the
Israeli government'. The writ of these Jewish organisations thus runs to
Switzerland but not to the Jewish state. The most sensational charge levelled
against the Swiss banks was that they required death certificates from the
heirs of Nazi holocaust victims. Israeli banks have also demanded such
documentation. One searches in vain, however, for denunciations of the
'perfidious Israelis'. In an address to the Swiss parliament, US Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright explained that the economic benefits accruing to the
Swiss from withheld Jewish accounts 'were passed along to subsequent
generations and that is why the world now looks to the people of Switzerland
. . . to be generous in doing what can be done at this point to right past
wrongs.' Noble sentiments all, but nowhere to be heard unless they are being
ridiculed when it comes to African-American compensation for slavery.