The man who said too much

Norman Finkelstein has angered Jews by claiming that the Holocaust has become an industry. How could the son of camp survivors say such a thing?

Norman Finkelstein has angered Jews by claiming that the Holocaust has become an industry. How can the son of camp survivors could say such a thing?

I doubt that I have ever interviewed a man who is more exact about directions. In a lengthy e-mail, he suggests no less than three different means of getting to his home in Coney Island – subway, New York taxi or mini-cab service – and thoughtfully attaches the cost and duration of each. Norman Finkelstein, academic at a small New York university and author of a book that earned the hostility of the Jewish establishment, leading one prominent figure to describe him as “poison … a disgusting, self-hating Jew, he’s something you find under a rock”. And by the way, he is the son of Holocaust survivors.

My concept of the typical American academic’s home was formed entirely by Hollywood and I expected Mr Finkelstein to greet me on the porch of a wood-framed house, the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the hallway as we negotiated our way around a jumble of books and papers to his wood-panelled study.

Well, that’s not Coney Island, and it certainly isn’t Norman Finkelstein. There are books aplenty but they are neatly stacked in a book case in the hall. It is a narrow hall. The rooms are small, spotlessly clean and adorned with furniture that has been sitting around a long time. There is an air of monastic asceticism about the place.

Norman Finkelstein has the sharp, vigorously alive appearance of a man who takes care of his body. He jogs for several miles every morning and I get the impression he has few if any mortal vices. But with Norman Finkelstein, you take care not to intrude much into the detail of his personal life. It is not that he would refuse to answer the questions, but that they seem so irrelevant to the central cause of his life: the Holocaust.

Since the publication of his book The Holocaust Industry, Norman Finkelstein has become an object of special loathing for many fellow Jews. His claims that Jewish leaders have exploited the Holocaust for financial gain and extorted money from the German and Swiss governments caused outrage. As if that were not controversy enough, he also claimed that many of those who say they are Holocaust survivors are fakes and that interest in the Final Solution only arose after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when it was needed as a political weapon.

He is a self-proclaimed supporter of the Palestinian cause and has been beaten up by Israel soldiers while taking part in a demonstration.

He certainly has a gift for the incendiary sentence and the explosive simile (eg the suffering of the Holocaust has been reduced to the moral stature of a Monte Carlo casino). He abhors the current trend in Holocaust museums and exhibitions, films like Schindler’s List and the monuments and memorial services. And when he speaks about his book and the reactions, his voice bristles with indignation. But did he not worry that by labelling Jewish leaders as “hoaxers and hucksters” he was perpetuating the anti-Semitic stereotype of the greedy grasping Jew?

“I worry that these individuals are lending credibility to that ugly stereotype, and I think those of us who are concerned about the spread of anti-Semitism have a responsibility to expose these individuals, to repudiate these individuals and to work so that these individuals are no longer part of public life, or are allowed to represent themselves as they do as representing American or world Jewry.

“Abba Eban [the legendary Israeli foreign minister] makes the joke ‘there’s no business like Shoa business’. That is shameful and it ought to be rebuked, repudiated, exposed.”

But would he worry if the stand he’s taken gave comfort to Holocaust deniers?

“Holocaust deniers and the holocaust industry have a symbiotic relationship. The Holocaust industry needs the deniers so that it can continue to claim the world is awash with Holocaust deniers so we need more museums, more conferences, more books, to justify their quote-unquote ‘Holocaust education’. The holocaust deniers, they love the Holocaust industry, because the Holocaust industry supplies them with all the ammunition for their arguments. It’s the Holocaust industry which continues to wildly inflate the number of survivors. As my late mother used to say, ‘if everybody who claims to be a Holocaust survivor actually is one, who did Hitler kill,’ and that’s exactly what the Holocaust industry is doing. It’s become the main exponent of Holocaust denial in the world today.”

There has been criticism aplenty from sources outside the leadership of mainstream Jewish organisations. Journalists who have reviewed the book have accused him of manipulating facts. One accused him of being closer to the territory of the Holocaust deniers than the survivors; others like Rabbi Julia Neuberger have said the book fails because it is a rant and not a reasoned critique like Professor Peter Novick’s The Holocaust and Collective Memory. Interestingly, Finkelstein’s book was given much greater publicity and provoked a far wider debate here in Britain than in the United States. The British, and especially British Jews, he says, were far more willing to argue the issue.

Finkelstein bats down the criticisms and places himself in distinguished intellectual company. Edmund Burke ranted and so did Tom Paine, so did Rousseau and so did Marx.

Throughout the “Taking A Stand” interview series, I have always been more interested in motivation than justification. With public figures and experienced interviewees, the arguments they spend every day of their lives defending are so familiar to them that they shift into auto-response mode. If you don’t take them off that safe ground, little new is learned. With Norman Finkelstein, every question is carefully answered. But when he leaves the public debate on the Holocaust and talks about his parents there is a distinct change in his tone of voice. It is softer and very often tinged with sadness.

The flat we are sitting in was inherited from his father, a survivor of the Auschwitz death march. His mother survived the Majdanek camp. Neither his mother or father received compensation sums for their death-camp experiences. (His father did receive a German pension until his death.) On the walls, there are pictures of his parents. They are a handsome couple and it is hard to connect them with the half-ghosts they must have been at the end of the war. There are others on the wall – close relatives – who did not survive the camps. I ask him what it was like to grow up in the shadow of the Holocaust.

“The earliest recollection I have, I can see it in my mind’s eye, was I came home from school to where we lived in a little apartment in Borough Park in Brooklyn, an orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, and I walked into the living room and my mother had her eyes fixed on the TV screen. She was watching the Eichmann trial. I was about nine years old and then my mother started to read through books on the Warsaw ghetto. I remember trying to make this mental leap between the people in this place called the Warsaw ghetto starving and on the verge of extermination and so forth, and trying to connect them with my parents… and there was no way for me to make, much as I tried, the imaginative leap. I just couldn’t.”

His parents would discuss the Holocaust as a moral or political issue, but they would never speak of their personal experiences. He does remember that when anything went wrong with the electricity supplies in the house his father would seize pliers and thrust it into a socket.

Norman and his brothers would shout at him to stop but their mother would say: “Don’t worry, he was an electrician in Auschwitz.” Little glimpses now and again.

Like the trip to Germany in 1979. His mother had been called to give evidence against some camp guards and Norman travelled with her. “It was for me a terrible experience. When we went, the assumption was that these guards would be incarcerated and would be treated as criminals of considerable dimensions… my mother saw them walking freely around the courthouse and she was totally shocked and she said: ‘Why aren’t they in cages, those animals, why aren’t they in cages?'”

His mother hated all Germans and all Poles, believed them all to be anti-Semitic. Norman does not share this view and will be travelling to Germany soon on a lecture tour.

Earlier in the interview, I asked him if he was never tempted to ask his parents about their personal experiences of the camps. His reply surprised me. “To tell you the truth, I was terrified of asking him. I was afraid that the floodgates would open and I wouldn’t be able ever again to detach myself from him. I would feel so duty-bound to somebody who had suffered so much, that I would never be able to say no to anything. As it was I think it’s fair to say I was a faithful son… I felt that if I found out more, I could never separate myself from my parents.”

When his father was dying from Alzheimer’s in a public hospital in Brooklyn, Norman Finkelstein would visit him three times a day to make sure he had food. With one nurse to 30 patients, Norman’s mother would tell her son he had to go to the hospital. “Your father, after Auschwitz, he can’t die a death like that.” Whenever he writes, he says, he feels that his parents are looking over his shoulder, nodding or shaking their heads. They are in that room in Coney Island alright, with a faithful son and the impossible weight of the Holocaust bearing down on all of them.

Author: Fergal Keane

News Service: Independent News

URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/People/Profiles/2001-01/man300101.shtml