September 18, 2000
No. 8, Vol. 271; Pg. 9, ISSN: 0027-8378
Author analyzes reception in U.S. of book on Holocaust reparations
WELL, Jesus Christ -- as Senator Joseph Lieberman would want to say -- it ought not to take Commentary magazine to give serious attention to the fleecing of Holocaust victims and the exorbitance of Holocaust profiteers. Yet I open my September  issue of this neocon album and find that the most salient article is contributed by Gabriel Schoenfeld and titled "Holocaust Reparations -- A Growing Scandal."
The likelihood is that no such essay would have been commissioned or printed if it were not for a book by Norman Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, which is currently occupying a word-of-mouth position somewhere between samizdat and "not in front of the goyim." Of course, Schoenfeld knows his duty, and makes as short a work as he can of Finkelstein himself. As a defender of Palestinian rights, a "follower of Noam Chomsky" and a scholar who exposed the anti-German vulgarities of Daniel Goldhagen, Finkelstein enjoys no rights that Commentary is bound to respect. But this is of no consequence.
Schoenfeld concludes on the available evidence that the sudden boom in Holocaust litigation is most often exemplified by Edward Fagan, an obscure personal-injury lawyer from San Antonio, Texas who claims to have signed up 31,000 clients in record time. For his role in the Swiss settlement, he submitted to the court a bill for $4 million, or $640 an hour. The average pension that Holocaust survivors today receive from the German government is $640 a year.
Now let us ask ourselves a question. Suppose that it was your desire to incite and incubate anti-Semitic emotions in Germany? You would not need to be a sneaky Jewish lawyer (Edward Fagan of San Antonio could possibly be a sneaky Irish lawyer, unless he really thought that a one-vowel change would save him from a Dickensian cliche). But if you employed dubious methods to reap vast sums from an already penitent state, and if you did this hand on heart, saying that business had nothing to do with it, and if you then couldn't prove that the money had gone to the victims, might you not be stirring the folk rhythms of an ancient prejudice?
That risk might conceivably be worth running, assuming that German democracy meant nothing to you and that you took Goldhagen's view of the irredeemable German (or Swiss, or Dutch) national character. But you would still have to face the victims and survivors, who have not received the vast sums aforementioned, or any measurable share of them, and who are nearing the end of their lives, and who discover instead that the money has gone to finance Holocaust memorials inscribed with the names of well-heeled donors.
IN making the case that this is exactly what has happened, Norman Finkelstein has not run into a storm of obloquy of the kind that nearly destroyed, say, Hannah Arendt. He has instead been given, with the partly honorable exception of Commentary, the silent treatment.
In England, in Germany and elsewhere Finkelstein's arguments and evidence have received serious attention and been subjected to real and fierce debate. But in the United States, where the press and the academy are wedded to a near-uniform combination of Holocaust kitsch and Holocaust dogma, no real argument has been permitted to arise. The self-regard almost passes belief. In a report on Swiss neutrality and Swiss business practices, commissioned allegedly on behalf of the victims by Stuart Eizenstat for the United States government in 1997, we were solemnly instructed that neutrality itself was a moral failure on the part of the gold-hugging Alp dwellers. What, then, of the indifference of the much mightier United States, which excluded Jewish refugees and did massive and indeed enthusiastic business with Hitler while not sharing a vulnerable common border with the Third Reich [see Ken Silverstein, "Ford and the Fuhrer," January 24]?
I suppose it is thinkable that this combination -- of a boycott somewhat diluted by slander -- will end with two recent interviews on l'affaire Finkelstein, given by Professor Raul Hilberg to Eva Schweitzer of the Berliner Zeitung and to Roberto Antonini of Swiss National Radio. Professor Hilberg (left) deserves his renown as the dean of Holocaust studies, since his book The Destruction of the European Jews was in many ways the founding text of the discipline. He describes the actions and methods of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and its outriders -- such as Edgar Bronfman's World Jewish Congress -- as "detestable" and even as "blackmail." He endorses the main arguments of the Finkelstein book and confirms some of its findings in his capacity as a child of Viennese Jewish refugees.
On the academic Holocaust career-path, Hilberg repeats his view that there is no "quality control" and gives his dry opinion that
"this is the only reason why Goldhagen could obtain a PhD at Harvard. There was nobody on the faculty who could have checked his book."
Most challenging of all, perhaps, Hilberg responds to those in the German-Jewish community leadership who worry that Finkelstein's book will furnish, as it were, ammunition to the enemy. "Only when this taboo is broken," he says, "will Germany be emancipated."
In Tom Segev's outstanding history The Seventh Million, one can read of how Menachem Begin led a mob that nearly burned down Israel's Knesset in 1952. The protest was against Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's acceptance of compensation, freely and openly offered, from the German Federal Republic. Begin was a chauvinist and a demagogue, but his furious refusal of "blood money" at least had a tincture of pride and principle. Now we read that Lawrence Eagleburger, a former president of Kissinger Associates, is paid $300,000 a year to chair a commission that arbitrates unpaid insurance claims, brought by people often no better than bounty hunters, on the lives of the dead of the Nazi era. This synthesis -- of the shades of Eichmann and Gogol -- fully deserves Professor Hilberg's characterization as "obscene."
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