Shoot the Messenger
By David Peterson at Jun 13, 2007
Like me, I'm sure you've all noticed that the
multi-year battle that led DePaul University of
Chicago to deny tenure to Professor Norman
Finkelstein, the outstanding Jewish-American
academic, has been pretty seriously misrepre-
sented by establishment news accounts. To
take just one example, as Ed Pilkington of The
Guardian (London) told it, interested parties from both sides cast their
lots either with or against Finkelstein, and in the end, those against
turned out to be victorious. ("University denies tenure to outspoken Holocaust academic," June 12.) But to suggest that this battle was two-sided simply isn't true. For in fact the long knives were drawn and used by the assassins of Finkelstein's professional life and reputation, and by them alone. The anti-Finkelstein side was as merciless as its was fanatic. This point must not be forgotten.
Another point worth mentioning is that no less a revered scholar of Nazi Germany's "final solution" for the "Jewish question" than Raul Hilberg defended both the academic soundness of Finkelstein's work as well as the merit of his tenure bid. This point also needs to be remembered, as it shows that the anti-Finkelstein fanatics never really contested his academic credentials (How could they?), despite a lot of theatrics and dodgy dossiers from the likes of Harvard's Alan Dershowitz -- a man for whom it appears there is always a lower level yet to descend.
Instead, what Finkelstein's assailants contested was Finkelstein's message. Clearly, as these tactics and DePaul University's unpardonable surrender to them attest, Norman Finkelstein's assailants figured that in time-honored fashion, the best way to rid themselves of his message was to get rid of the messenger.
With this in mind, I'm reproducing here something from what is perhaps Norman Finkelstein's finest exercise in moral debunking:
The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (London and New York: Verso, 2000), 1st Ed. -- Reproduced from the author's "Conclusion," pp. 143-150.
Imagine an "institution of higher learning" having had the chance to bring Norman Finkelstein into its fold on a tenured basis, and saying NO!Boycott DePaul University.
It remains to consider the impact of The Holocaust[*] in the United States. In doing so, I also want to engage Peter Novick's own critical remarks on the topic.[#]
Apart from Holocaust memorials, fully seventeen states mandate or recommend Holocaust programs in their schools, and many colleges and universities have endowed chairs in Holocaust studies. Hardly a week passes without a major Holocaust-related story in the New York Times. The number of scholarly studies devoted to the Nazi Final Solution is conservatively estimated at over 10,000. Consider by comparison scholarship on the hecatomb in the Congo. Between 1891 and 1911, some 10 million Africans perished in the course of Europe's exploitation of Congloese ivory and rubber resources. Yet, the first and only scholarly volume in English directly devoted to this topic was published two years ago.[i]
Given the vast number of institutions and professionals dedicated to preserving its memory, The Holocaust is by now firmly entrenched in American life. Novick expresses misgivings, however, whether this is a good thing. In the first place, he cites numerous instances of its sheer vulgarization. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to name a single political cause, whether it be pro-life or pro-choice, animal rights or states' rights, that hasn't conscripted The Holocaust. Decrying the tawdry purposes to which The Holocaust is put, Elie Wiesel declared, "I swear to avoid…vulgar spectacles."[ii] Yet Novick reports that "the most imaginative and subtle Holocaust photo op came in 1996 when Hillary Clinton, then under heavy fire for various alleged misdeeds, appeared in the gallery of the House during her husband's (much televised) State of the Union Address, flanked by their daughter, Chelsea, and Elie Wiesel."[iii] For Hillary Clinton, Kosovo refugees put to flight by Serbia during the NATO bombing recalled Holocaust scenes in Schindler's List. "People who learn history from Spielberg movies," a Serbian dissident tartly rejoined, "should not tell us how to live our lives."[iv]
The "pretense that the Holocaust is an American memory," Novick further argues, is a moral evasion. It "leads to the shirking of those responsibilities that do belong to Americans as they confront their past, their present, and their future." (emphasis in original)[v] He makes an important point. It is much easier to deplore the crimes of others than to look at ourselves. It is also true, however, that were the will there we could learn much about ourselves from the Nazi experience. Manifest Destiny anticipated nearly all the ideological and programmatic elements of Hitler's Lebensraum policy. In fact, Hitler modeled his conquest of the East on the American conquest of the West.[vi] During the first half of this [the 20th] century, a majority of American states enacted sterilization laws and tens of thousands of Americans were involuntarily sterilized. The Nazis explicitly invoked this US precedent when they enacted their own sterilization laws.[vii] The notorious 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of the franchise and forbade miscegenation between Jews and non-Jews. Blacks in the American South suffered the same legal disabilities and were the object of much greater spontaneous and sanctioned popular violence than the Jews in prewar Germany.[viii]
To highlight unfolding crimes abroad, the US often summons memories of The Holocaust. The more revealing point, however, is when the US invokes The Holocaust. Crimes of official enemies such as the Khmer Rouge bloodbath in Cambodia, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, recall The Holocaust; crimes in which the US is complicit do no.
Just as the Khmer Rouge atrocities were unfolding in Cambodia, the US-backed Indonesian government was slaughtering one-third of the population in East Timor. Yet unlike Cambodia, the East Timor genocide did not rate comparison with The Holocaust; it didn't even rate news coverage.[ix] Just as the Soviet Union was committing what the Simon Wiesenthal Center called "another genocide" in Afghanistan, the US-backed regime in Guatemala was perpetrating what the Guatemalan Truth Commission recently called a "genocide" against the indigenous Mayan population. President Reagan dismissed the charges against the Guatemalan government as a "bum rap." To honor Jeane Kirkpatrick's achievement as chief Reagan Administration apologist for the unfolding crimes in Central America, the Simon Wiesenthal Center awarded her the Humanitarian of the Year Award.[x] Simon Wiesenthal was privately beseeched before the award ceremony to reconsider. He refused. Elie Wiesel was privately asked to intercede with the Israeli government, a main weapons supplier for the Guatemalan butchers. He too refused. The Carter Administration invoked the memory of The Holocaust as it sought haven for Vietnamese "boat people" fleeing the Communist regime. The Clinton Administration forgot The Holocaust as it forced back Haitian "boat people" fleeing US-supported death squads.[xi]
Holocaust memory loomed large as the US-led NATO bombing of Serbia commenced in the spring of 1999. As we have seen, Daniel Goldhagen compared Serbian crimes against Kosovo with the Final Solution and, at President Clinton's bidding, Elie Wiesel journeyed to Kosovar refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania. Already before Wiesel went to shed tears on cue for the Kosovars, however, the US-backed Indonesian regime had resumed where it left off in the late 1970s,[xii] perpetrating new massacres in East Timor. The Holocaust vanished from memory, however, as the Clinton Administration acquiesced in the bloodletting. "Indonesia matters," a Western diplomat explained, "and East Timor doesn't."
Novick points to passive US complicity in human disasters dissimilar in other respects yet comparable in scale to the Nazi extermination. Recalling, for example, the million children killed in the Final Solution, he observes that American presidents do little more than utter pieties as, worldwide, many times that number of children "die of malnutrition and preventable diseases" every year.[xiii] One might also consider a pertinent case of active US complicity. After the United States-led coalition devastated Iran in 1991 to punish "Saddam-Hitler," the United States and Britain forced murderous UN sanctions on that hapless country in an attempt to depose him. As in the Nazi holocaust, a million children have likely perished.[xiv] Questioned on national television about the grisly death toll in Iraq, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied that "the price is worth it."
"The very extremity of the Holocaust," Novick argues, "seriously limit[s] its capacity to provide lessons applicable to our everyday world." As the "benchmark of oppression and atrocity," it tends to trivializ[e] crimes of lesser magnitude."[xv] Yet the Nazi holocaust can also sensitize us to these injustices. Seen through the lens of Auschwitz, what previously was taken for granted -- for example, bigotry -- no longer can be.[xvi] In fact, it was the Nazi holocaust that discredited the scientific racism that was so pervasive a feature of America intellectual life before World War II.[xvii]
For those committed to human betterment, a touchstone of evil does not preclude but rather invites comparisons. Slavery occupied roughly the same place in the moral universe of the late nineteenth century as the Nazi holocaust does today. Accordingly, it was often invoked to illuminate evils not fully appreciated. John Stuart Mill compared the condition of women in that most hallowed Victorian institution, the family, to slavery. He even ventured that in crucial respects it was worse. "I am far from pretending that wives are in general no better treated than slaves; but no slave is a slave to the same lengths, and in so full a sense of the word as a wife."[xviii] Only those using a benchmark evil not as a moral compass but rather as an ideological club recoil at such analogies. "Do not compare" is the mantra of moral blackmailers.[xix]
Organized American Jewry has exploited the Nazi holocaust to deflect criticism of Israel's and its own morally indefensible policies. Pursuit of these policies has put Israel and American Jewry in a structurally congruent position: the fates of both now dangle from a slender thread running to American ruling elites. Should these elites ever decide that Israel is a liability or American Jewry expendable, the thread may be cut. No doubt this is speculation -- perhaps unduly alarmist, perhaps not.
Predicting the posture of American Jewish elites should these eventualities come to pass, however, is child's play. If Israel fell out of favor with the United States, many of those leaders who now stoutly defend Israel would courageously divulge their disaffection from the Jewish state and would excoriate American Jews for turning Israel into a religion. And if US ruling circles decided to scapegoat Jews, we should not be surprised if American Jewish leaders acted exactly as their predecessors did during the Nazi holocaust. "We didn't figure that the Germans would put in the Jewish element," Yitzhak Zuckerman, an organizer of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, recalled, "that Jews would lead Jews to death."[xx]
* * * * * * * * * *
During a series of public exchanges in the 1980s, many prominent German and non-German scholars argued against "normalizing" the infamies of Nazism. The fear was that normalization would induce moral complacency.[xxi] However valid the argument may have been then, it no longer carries conviction. 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 exploitive 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.
[* As Norman Finkelstein explains at the very outset of his book, "In this text, Nazi holocaust signals the actual historical event, The Holocaust its ideological representation" (n. 1, p. 3).]
[# See Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999).]
[i]Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost (Boston: 1998).
[ii] Elie Wiesel, Against Silence, selected and edited by Irving Abrahamson (New York: 1984), v, iii, 190; cf. v. i, 186, v. ii, 82, v. iii, 242, and Elie Wiesel, And the Sea Is Never Full (New York: 1999), 118.
[iii] Novick, The Holocaust, 230-1.
[iv] New York Times (25 May 1999).
[v] Novick, The Holocaust, 15.
[vi] John Toland, Adolf Hitler (New York: 1976), 702. Joachim Fest, Hitler (New York: 1975), 214, 650. See also Norman G. Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (New York: 1995), chap. 4.
[vii] See, for example, Stefan Kühl, The Nazi Connection (Oxford: 1994).
[viii] See, for example, Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind (New York: 1998), esp. chaps 5-6. The vaunted Western tradition is deeply implicated in Nazism as well. To justify the extermination of the handicapped -- the precursor to the Final Solution -- Nazi doctors deployed the concept of "life unworthy of life" (lebensunwertes Leben). In Gorgias, Plato wrote: "I can't see that life is worth living if a person's body is in a terrible state." In The Republic, Plato sanctioned the murder of defective children. On a related point, Hitler's opposition in Mein Kampf to birth control on the ground that it preempts natural selection was prefigured by Rousseau in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Shortly after World War II, Hannah Arendt reflected that "the subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition" (The Origins of Totalitarianism [New York: 1951], ix).
[ix] See, for example, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, The Political Economy of Human Rights, v. i: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (Boston: 1979), 129-204.
[x] Response (March 1983 and January 1986).
[xi] Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide (Boston: 1985), 36 (Wiesel cited from interview in the Hebrew press). Michael Berenbaum, The World Must Know (New York: 1993), 3.
[xii] Financial Times (8 September 1999).
[xiii] Novick, The Holocaust, 255.
[xiv] See, for example, Geoff Simons, The Scourging of Iraq (New York: 1998).
[xv] Novick, The Holocaust, 244, 14.
[xvi] On this point, see esp. Jean-Michel Chaumont, La concurrence des victimes (Paris: 1997), 316-318.
[xvii] See, for example, Carl N. Degler, In Search of Human Nature (Oxford: 1991), 202ff.
[xviii] John Stuart Mill, On the Subjection of Women (Cambridge: 1991), 148.
[xix] It is no less repugnant to compare the Nazi holocaust, as Michael Berenbaum proposes, only in order to "demonstrate the claim of uniqueness" (After Tragedy, 29).
[xx] Yitzhak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory (Oxford: 1993), 210.
[xxi] I refer here both to the Historikerstreit and to the published correspondence between Saul Friedländer and Martin Broszat. In both instances, the debate largely turned on the absolute versus relative nature of Nazi crimes; for example, the validity of comparisons with the Gulag. See Peter Baldwin (ed.), Reworking the Past, Richard J. Evans, In Hitler's Shadow (New York: 1989), James Knowlton and Truett Cates, Forever in the Shadow of Hitler? (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: 1993), and Aharon Weiss (ed.), Yad Vashem Studies XIX (Jerusalem: 1988).