As I write these words, The Holocaust Industry is causing enormous debate in British intellectual circles. It has received more publicity than any book on the Holocaust in recent years, and has been furiously attacked by many mainstream interpreters of Nazi genocide. Its aim is to show how a variety of persons and groups, some highly respected, some little more than rip–off artists, have exploited the Holocaust for political and financial ends. Norman Finkelstein’s targets include revered figures of the Jewish world such as Elie Wiesel, influential Jewish groups such as the World Jewish Congress (WJC), and, most of all, the State of Israel and its vocal supporters.
The Holocaust Industry is greatly uneven in its value—indeed, I cannot think of another recent work that is both so very good and so very bad. While some of Finkelstein’s attacks are unjustified, particularly those against the State of Israel and its supporters, his courageous attacks on the financial extortions by groups like the WJC are of great importance and one hopes they will make a difference. Many of the book’s more hostile critics have attacked its strident tone; I find that tone defensible, especially given the author’s careful sourcing of most of his claims, but for the same reason probably unnecessary.
Finkelstein first came to attention through a savage, trenchant attack he launched in 1989 on Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, published (with Ruth Bettina Birn) as A Nation On Trial. Although the task of refuting Goldhagen is not terribly difficult, Finkelstein’s essay struck me as the most cogent of the many criticisms of Goldhagen’s very dubious thesis that Germany uniquely adopted a national ideology of “exterminationist” anti–Semitism. Yet A Nation On Trial was marred by its curious, indeed bizarre, insistence on linking Goldhagen and his allies with support for Zionism and the State of Israel. For Gold hagen’s thesis is virtually the opposite of the usual justification for Zionism, namely, that anti–Semitism is found, not in one nation, but in every society where there are Jews. What’s more, Goldhagen never refers to Zionism or Israel in his book, either explicitly or by implication.
It is clear that, in fact, Finkelstein has such a continuing obsession with Zionism that he may fairly be termed an anti–Israel propagandist. He has written two books on this subject, The Rise and Fall of Palestine and Image and Reality of the Israel–Palestine Conflict. The latter, a collection of essays, puts forth the thesis that, roughly, everything Zionism and Israel have done since the foundation of the movement is bad, and everything that the Palestinians and Arabs have done is good. Finkelstein routinely, almost automatically, compares Israel with Nazi Germany, although, presumably to avoid boredom, he also compares Israel’s supporters with Stalinists. The presence of Noam Chomsky, Finkelstein’s acknowledged mentor, is never far off.
Finkelstein’s most notable qualities, then, are considerable intelligence and diligence, very great independence, and narrow–minded anti–Zionism. It must also be appreciated that he is avowedly a political leftist, and not (as many of the critics of The Holocaust Industry have wrongly suggested) a right–winger trucking, despite his Jewish origins, with anti–Semitism. (As Finkelstein too frequently reminds us, both of his parents are Holocaust survivors.) Many parts of Finkelstein’s critique of the contemporary Jewish world have been made before by other leftist Jews, for instance by Lenni Brenner in Jews in America Today (1986), while venomous anti–Zionism has been a stock–in–trade of the extreme left since the 1960s.
Finkelstein’s latest work, however, adds a totally original element by criticizing the activities of the WJC and other Jewish bodies, criticism which one need not be on the left (or the right) to accept. As a rule, Finkelstein’s value as a commentator on Jewish affairs increases exponentially as he moves away from his hostile obsession with Zionism. The main thrust of his new book, and its most powerful and original feature, consists of a series of highly specific charges about the greed and rapacity of Jewish organizations seeking compensation for victims of the Holocaust, especially the WJC.
Despite its grandiose–sounding name, the WJC, founded in 1936, cannot be termed a representative body of the Jewish people. While it is linked to the representative Jewish organizations of most countries, in practice, as in any other independent body, its leaders set their own agendas. The WJC’s current head, Edgar Bronfman, is the billionaire chief of Canada’s Seagrams distilling empire. In the past, an international body like the WJC was clearly necessary to coordinate Jewish efforts in, say, the campaign against the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union. But in recent years it has been without a clear or obvious agenda.
This lack of purpose has been one of the most important factors behind the activities Finkelstein attacks, rather like a cancer charity flailing around for something to do the day after science discovers a cure for cancer. Most of the hostile reviews of The Holocaust Industry have notably and studiously avoided commenting directly on the charges Finkelstein makes against the WJC, presumably because there is no adequate reply. Finkelstein accuses the WJC of being, in effect, a pirate ship, sailing the waters, hunting for booty, and using the unique moral credibility of the Holocaust to extort fortunes from European governments. The case made by Finkelstein appears unanswerable, and he deserves great credit for having the nerve to expose what appears to be a scandal of enormous proportions.
Finkelstein devotes most space to examining the WJC’s campaign against the Swiss banks, a campaign that has received worldwide publicity. The banks were accused (in Tom Bower’s words) of “a fifty–year Swiss–Nazi conspiracy to steal billions from Europe’s Jews and Holocaust survivors” by refusing to hand over the dormant accounts of Holocaust victims to their heirs. This charge deserves careful examination.
First of all, we are not here looking at what became of the accounts held by murdered Jews in banks down the street in Warsaw, Vilna, or Prague, but those held by European Jews in banks in Switzerland. In Poland, however, to take the largest Jewish population center, although there was a Jewish middle class, the per capita income of Jews in the 1930s was less than $100 per year, and a quarter of Poland’s Jews were kept from starvation only by charity from America. These Jews, the bulk of those who perished in the Holocaust, were as likely to hold funds in a Swiss bank account as they were to own a suite in the Waldorf Towers; the very idea is a kind of sick joke.
Moreover, Jews in western and central Europe—eastern Europe, where the Nazi death machine came without warning, is another matter— with the financial means, geographical mobility, sophistication, and foresight to hold a Swiss bank account were also those most likely to survive the Holocaust. Fully 90 percent of Austria’s Jewish middle class, for instance, managed to emigrate in time. The most obvious reason why there are still dormant accounts in Swiss banks, opened in the 1930s by European Jews, is that they, and their entire families, were murdered by the Nazis, and there are no heirs left to claim the assets.
So, just how many dormant accounts held by European Jews in Swiss banks are there? A comprehensive auditing of the entire Swiss banking system found only 1,200 accounts where there was actual evidence that the depositor was a Jew who perished in the Holocaust; other estimates place the figure (without real proof of any kind) at twenty–five thousand such accounts. The value of ten thousand of these accounts for which full information is available (including those where there is no evidence that the depositor perished) has been put at about $170–$260 million, or roughly $20
,000 per account. It must be stressed that these are only estimates.
The aim of any legitimate campaign must be to restore these accounts to the heirs of their depositors as quickly as possible, with suitable compensation where it can be shown that the delay was deliberate. After a lengthy campaign against it, Switzerland created an impartial committee, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker, and an independent committee including prominent Holocaust historians such as Saul Friedlander, to investigate these charges. Before these bodies could report—and probably because im partial investigation was likely to reveal a very different picture from that suggested by the WJC—the WJC added two further demands to the Swiss authorities: compensation for refugees allegedly denied asylum by the Swiss during the war, and compensation for bars of gold sold to Switzerland by Nazi Germany that were allegedly made from the fillings of victims’ teeth. (Careful research revealed that “victim gold” purchased by the Swiss totaled $134,428 in value, and that the Swiss knew nothing about its origins.) A massive campaign aimed at forcing Switzerland to make billions available in “compensation” was launched by the WJC, with the governors of four American states threatening economic sanctions against the Swiss, and the City of Los Angeles withdrawing millions of dollars of pension funds from a Swiss bank. In 1998, rather than fight on, Switzerland agreed to an overall settlement of $1.25 billion.
It will be interesting, at the end of the process of disbursing this money, to learn just how many Jewish dormant accounts actually exist, and in how many cases identifiable heirs were actually denied access to their money because of Swiss machinations. (I will not be holding my breath while I await the answers.) It will also be interesting to learn how much of this money will actually reach the relatives of Holocaust victims, as opposed to Jewish organizations or the administering bureaucracy. From past experience, we can expect very little.
The WJC has also presented demands to a number of other targets, including the newly democratic nations of eastern Europe. Poland, for instance, has been asked to pay compensation for lost Jewish property, though it is hard to see why. In the interwar years Poland was rife with anti–Semites and anti–Semitism, but it was, paradoxically, virtually the only nation in eastern Europe that never imposed any economic restrictions on Jews or racialist limitations on their full participation in the nation’s economy. During the war millions of Polish Jews perished, but this was at the hands of the Germans, not the Poles. The Nazis regarded the Poles as racial inferiors and therefore ineligible to participate in the massacre of Jews. After the war, a Jewish community of up to 250,000 very briefly emerged again in Poland. Their property was indeed confiscated by the Communists, not because they were Jews but because they were capitalists—the property of gentile capitalists was also seized. I personally cannot see any compelling reason why the present Polish government should pay one cent for former Jewish properties.
The WJC has also recently arranged a massive settlement with Germany to compensate wartime slave laborers. This is an altogether worthy goal, with one slight quibble—as Finkelstein notes, Germany has already been paying compensation to wartime slave laborers since 1952! Moreover, the WJC has vastly inflated the number of surviving Jewish slave laborers, to the extent that, as Finkelstein wryly points out, if accurate, the number of Holocaust victims must be so much lower than the standard number that the Jewish bodies pressing these claims might well be charged with “Holocaust denial.”
It is difficult to believe that any person of good will could approve of these demands. As a Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust, I find them frankly odious, and Finkelstein should be praised rather than condemned for exposing them.
At the same time, however, it is far from clear that there exists, in Finkelstein’s terminology, a “Holocaust industry,” or that Holocaust activists are necessarily motivated by the basest of motives. Finkelstein, for instance, says nothing in his book about the ongoing campaign to identify and punish Nazi war criminals, a campaign which, however controversial, is obviously not motivated by material gain. He is, moreover, emphatically wrong in connecting the growth of the centrality of the Holocaust in Western consciousness with Jewish support for Israel. The post–war “taboo” on serious discussion of the Holocaust was not broken by the 1967 Arab–Israeli war, as he repeatedly asserts, but by the Eichmann Trial of 1960–62, as every serious account of this subject notes.
The State of Israel has, indeed, been almost punctilious in not exploiting the Holocaust for political ends. While one might expect Israel to be dotted with Holocaust monuments on every street corner, in the whole of the country there is precisely one memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, on the hills outside Jerusalem. A place of dignity, it is probably best known for its avenue of trees planted, not in memory of murdered Jews, but to commemorate “Righteous Gentiles” who risked their lives to save Jews. Apart from Eichmann (and the ill–fated, highly unfortunate Demjanjuk trial of the 1980s), Israel has shown virtually no interest whatever in apprehending former Nazi war criminals, and, indeed, it is a legitimate charge that one might make against Israel that it has not tracked them down more rigorously.
It must also be stressed that the current centrality of the Holocaust flows from the power of that event to affect virtually everyone today: it is recognized by nearly everybody as an unspeakable horror that requires no “Holocaust industry” to impress on our consciousness. Finkelstein never acknowledges this basic truth. Indeed, the problem with the Holocaust as a memory and a metaphor today is precisely that it is too powerful, an ever–expanding black hole of consciousness that invariably swallows up everything in its path. To millions, it is perhaps the only real contemporary religious event; for hundreds of thousands of Jews, it has served to define their Jewish identity, taking the place of everything else. It is at the heart of many contemporary forms of political correctness, and of many remaining academic and intellectual taboos. Its automatic moral authority is such that it allows charlatans and hucksters to flourish unchallenged. The great importance of Finkelstein’s work, flawed though it is, lies in breaking those taboos and exposing the charlatans.
William D. Rubinstein is Professor of Modern History at the University of Wales–Aberystwyth. He is the author of The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis (1997) and more recently coauthor, with Hilary L. Rubinstein, of Philosemitism: Admiration and Support in the English–Speaking World for Jews, 1840–1939 (St. Martin’s Press).