The Holocaust is one of those subjects that tends to make otherwise reasonable, intelligent individuals go a little bit bonkers. So it should come as no surprise that Norman Finkelstein's new book has been met in some quarters with the sort of reception normally reserved for the likes of David Irving. After all, Finkelstein's earlier work, both on the Holocaust and on the politics of the Middle East, has seen him labelled "poisonous", "a self-hating Jew" and so forth.
The Holocaust Industry is a short, sharp and furious polemic. It almost seems designed to set Finkelstein's critics baying. In television debates, it has been derided as "intellectual bunkum". The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland, normally an admirable writer, has given the book a quite swivel-eyed review, arguing that it hasn't really generated any great controversy (so why did his own paper see fit to run extracts from it over two days?) and, moreover, that it has all been said before. He then roundly condemns Finkelstein for saying it again and, for good measure, chucks in the "self-hating Jew" epithet (a peculiarly unpleasant term of abuse), comparing Finkelstein with, yes, David Irving as someone who "sees Jews as the authors of their own suffering".
This is all quite spectacular nonsense and a shameful misrepresentation of Finkelstein's argument. For a start, he distinguishes the holocaust (the historical event in which millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime) from The Holocaust (its ideological representation, which is the primary subject of this book). Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he goes on, that ideology has been developed to sustain certain class and political interests, notably those of the conservative Jewish elite in the United States, and to bolster the state of Israel itself through the representation of that state, and Jews in general, as eternal victims of oppression. This ideology, he argues, has been used to "extort" money from the German government and the Swiss banks, and to exempt Israel from criticism of its own oppressive treatment of the Palestinians.
Finkelstein identifies two central dogmas that underpin this ideology: 1) that the holocaust marks a categorically unique historical event; 2) that the holocaust marks the climax of an irrational, eternal Gentile hatred of Jews. Further, the holocaust is cast as a definitively Jewish event. To deny these tenets, argues Finkelstein, is, in some circles, tantamount to denying the holocaust itself. In a vicious critique of the doyen of Holocaust literature, Elie Wiesel, he writes: "Rationally comprehending The Holocaust amounts, in [Wiesel's] view, to denying it. For rationality denies The Holocaust's uniqueness and mystery. And to compare The Holocaust with the sufferings of others constitutes, for Wiesel, a 'total betrayal of Jewish history'."
Yet it is hard to make any sense at all of the uniqueness claim, unless at a trivial level: namely, that all historical events are unique. Everyone knows there have been other genocides - against the Armenians, the Native Americans, the Aborigines, the East Timorese. Even a partial list is dispiritingly long. Yet, as if to bolster this idea of uniqueness, memorialisations of the holocaust all too often downplay or ignore the Nazis' non-Jewish victims. Visit Yad Vashem, for example, and you will struggle to find any mention of the Roma (equally the target of the Nazis' policy of total elimination) or the disabled.
It is self-evidently absurd to say that questioning the uniqueness of the holocaust is the same as denying the holocaust. But the uniqueness claim is politically important because, as Finkelstein writes, "unique suffering confers unique entitlement": it is the very basis of the exploitation of the holocaust as an ideological tool.
Rabbi Julia Neuberger, writing in response to Finkelstein in the London Evening Standard, defends the uniqueness claim on the basis that the destruction of the Jews "was planned and executed so efficiently in civilised Christian Europe, in Germany, home of great composers and writers. It was as if the cradle of civilisation had taken leave of its senses . . . This does not belittle other genocides." Fine sentiments, but, sadly, this absolutely does belittle other genocides. The unfortunate corollary of this line is that, say, the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus, regrettable though it is, should not surprise us so much as that of the Jews by the Germans. Anyone who thinks that savagery exists only beyond the marches of western Christian civilisation, frankly, hasn't been paying attention.
No, the injunction "don't compare" is as ethically bankrupt as it is intellectually unsustainable. "No doubt," writes Finkelstein, "historical distinctions must be made. But to make out moral distinctions between 'our' suffering and 'theirs' is itself a moral travesty." Quite so. Part of the reason why Finkelstein's tone in this book is so angry is that we really shouldn't need to be having this argument. And, indeed, he devotes a fair amount of space to other themes, which there is no room here to elaborate, such as the eye-watering hypocrisy that underpins US foreign policy in the Middle East, central America and elsewhere. This is, in short, a lucid, provocative and passionate book. Anyone with an open mind and an interest in the subject should ignore the critical brickbats and read what Finkelstein has to say.