Saturday, April 21, 2007

Norman Finkelstein and "The Holocaust Industry"

Scholar Norman Finkelstein is currently the subject of a politically motivated drive to prevent him from getting tenure at DePaul University in Chicago, a place that he's taught at since 2001. Because of this I decided to track down a copy of his controversial book "The Holocaust Industry", which was published in 2000 and is about corruption on the part of organizations getting and distributing compensation to holocaust survivors. I'd meant to do it before but it was one of those things you just forget about.

Anyways, although the focus of the book is Chapter 3, which deals directly with the organizations, Chapter 2 is probably the one that got people the most mad, because in it Finkelstein talks about how the Holocaust has been framed in contemporary society, in a way that's not exactly truthful. The contention isn't about the Holocaust itself but about the analysis of what significance it has. Specifically, whether or not it was a unique incident in human history; whether or not its cause was anti-Semitism going back hundreds of years, whether or not there was something unique about Jews that caused it. And finally what is the significance of the Holocaust in relation to Israel.

I'm going to preface this by saying that the rhetoric surrounding the Holocaust is so overwrought at this point that any criticism of how it's presented is, at the start, possibly going to sound like Anti-Semitism, but I'd ask the reader to bear with me, because looks can be deceiving. If you look at the entire argument you'll see it has nothing to do with anti-semitism.

Ok, so the idea that the Holocaust happened because of something unique to Jews. This is not to say that jews weren't expressly picked out for the Holocaust but rather that, yes, there was some quality, identified as positive in the case of those who propose it, on the part of Jews that made them candidates for the Holocaust. They were smarter and more successful than the majority, for instance. This is tied up with jewish notions of specialness and the sense that the two thousand years previous to the holocaust had been an arching crescendo of anti-semitism that ended in those horrible events.

What's wrong with this is that, to be blunt, it confuses the result with the intent. The result of the Holocaust was millions murdered, but does that mean that the motivations of those who murdered them had anything to do with the reality of jewish life? And was the holocaust really the end point of a rising anti-semitism, over the centuries, or were the jews chosen because they had been a minority that had been discriminated against in the past, which resonated with people's need for a scapegoat?

My take is that if jews and gypsies hadn't occupied the place they did in the popular consciousness of Europe and that instead a totally different set of people's shared the same sort of status, that it would have been them that would have been sent to camps. The holocaust was against the jews but it didn't have anything to do with jews as jews any more than stereotypes of blacks as rapists in the pre-civil rights era actually had anything to do with blacks as blacks.

The holocaust was a unique event in the history of the jewish people but it wasn't a jewish event: it was the product of social forces that used jews as a convenient target. Other minority communities have suffered similar kinds of discrinimation, although not taken to the extremes of the holocaust, such as Asians in Africa or Chinese in Indonesia. Both groups were/are considered to be separate from the societies in which they live and because of their economic position to be suspect. If the holocaust happened in Africa it probably would have been South Asians that would have been the victims. See what I mean?

1 comment:

dajerz said...

I think that you are letting your particular ideology get in the way of a clear understanding. Yes, there are others who could have been targeted for extinction. I mean the "precedent" (as Hitler pointed out) was the Armenians.

However the holocaust was the ultimate 'crescendo' to centuries of persecution of Jews, particularly in Europe.

And if one does believe in the bible, then there is the aspect of "special".

I'm not saying that I accept this 100%, but we cannot deny history.

Given all that I can understand the issue of a "Holocaust Industry". Ironically there are those of us who do not want an automatic linkage between the Holocaust and Israel because the Arabs have always tried to make a propaganda point in saying Israel was created because of the Holocaust, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth.

All of the infrastructure and other facts were already in place for the state, *prior* to WWII. The fact of the Holocaust was a subsequent event which did deliver a final justification for the existence of Israel though.