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Understanding the Holocaust

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In his controversial book The Holocaust Industry, the Jewish American historian Norman Finkelstein deals with the business of the Holocaust and its relation to Israeli strategic interests.

Western attitudes to members of Jewish communities have been characterised by an apparent dualism that borders on schizophrenia.

Jews are seen not as different minorities with their ordinary human quota of good and evil, but as a collective entity called “Jewry,” or the Jewish people, which is also a chosen, sacred, or spiritual people. However they have also simultaneously been seen as traders, money lenders, human matter that can be transferred from one place to another according to the needs of the ruling class -- in short, as a functional group.

This dualism has a long genealogy. The Catholic concept of the Jews as a witness people postulates that the Jews, being the vector for one of Christianity’s holy books, have to be defended by the Church to the extent that the Church barred their forced conversion. However the Jews were viewed as an unintelligent people carrying an intelligent book. Their very survival in a mean and humble condition, which stood in contrast to that of the saved within the folds of Christianity, was considered to be living testimony to the greatness and glory of the Catholic Church.

The same dualism is manifest in the Protestant restorationist myth that postulated that the restoration of the Jews to the Promised Land was a precondition of the Second Coming and hence of the final salvation. But their restoration was also seen as a means to facilitate their conversion to Christianity, final salvation becoming final solution. The same dualism has coloured modern Western secular attitudes to the Jews, attitudes which inherited, in modified forms, the theological baggage of earlier times. The Jews were viewed in 19th-century Europe, for example, as a hard-working, talented, unique people, ein Volk, an organic people that had a distinct identity and that was organically related to their promised land. But, by that very same token, they do not fit in European society. Therefore, the argument ran, they should be transferred to Palestine, serving Western interests in the bargain.

Thus, ironically, the bestowal of the quality of sacredness upon “the Jewish people” -- this process of immanentisation (making the Jews unique and self-referential) -- has facilitated their instrumentalisation. The dualism colouring western attitudes to the Jews turns out to be more apparent than real, for to sacralise and immanentise someone is also to put him outside the pale of common humanity, and therefore to instrumentalise him becomes an easy matter. Philo-Semitism (Zionism) and anti-Semitism are revealed to be one and the same thing.

The same apparent dualism colours or determines the Western and Western Jewish attitude to an important event in the history of modern Western civilisation, namely, the extermination of millions of Western Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime. The event is referred to not simply as “extermination” or “genocide,” but as “holocaust.” The Greek word “holocaust” does not simply mean “destruction by fire” as is suggested by the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Rather, it means an offering to the Lord that is not partly burnt (then eaten by the servants of the Temple), but one that is completely burnt so no part of it remains.

Theologically, a holocaust offering is considered the most sacred of all offerings, given in atonement for the sin of pride. In Hebrew the event is referred to not only using the term “shoah,” which means simply burning, but also using the term “hurban,” which means “destruction,” a term used to refer to the destruction of the Temple. Thus, in the very choice of loaded terms, whether in English or in Hebrew, to name a historical event, the genocide of European Jews is set apart as something sacred.

But the same ironic instrumentalising of what has been set apart as sacred has happened with the holocaust. The term “holocaust” is used today in our secular, de-sanctifying times with self-defeating abandon. Zionists refer to the intermarriage of Jews and non-Jews as a “silent holocaust.” Rabin described the film Schindler’s List as not “holocausty enough.”

As a result of the total instrumentalisation of the holocaust to serve political agendas and economic interests, critics like Norman Finkelstein register their protest and refer to “holokitsch,” “holocash” and “holocaust mania.” Finkelstein’s book is a well-researched protest against the instrumentalisation of the Holocaust, its transformation into an industry designed to serve the political interests of American-Jewish elites acting in tandem with the US government’s foreign policy interests. Drawing a distinction between “the Nazi holocaust” as a historical event and “The Holocaust,” which is the ideological presentation thereof, he points out that the holocaust has been turned into something without parallel in human history, that “its uniqueness is held to be absolutely decisive” and, hence, it “cannot be rationally apprehended.”

I call this iconisation, where a human phenomenon is stripped of its historical nature, then presented as sui generis, a mysterium tremendum to be discussed, if at all, only in the grandest of eschatological terms. Jewish death-of-God theologians, for example, not only interpret Jewish dispersion and extermination as analogues for Christ’s suffering and crucifixion, but they view the establishment of the State of Israel as the analogue of the resurrection. Thus the sanctification of the Jewish people is transferred, via the Holocaust, with the lines between history and eschatology becoming fuzzier and fuzzier, to a colonial settler state.

In this way we move from historical time to cosmic timelessness. “If The Holocaust is unprecedented in history,” Finkelstein writes, following the line of reasoning that underpins the Holocaust industry, “it must stand above and hence cannot be grasped by history.” Denial of the sanctity of cosmic events is sheer blasphemy from the standpoint of the fervent believer: “Rationally comprehending The Holocaust amounts, in this view, to denying it. For rationality denies The Holocaust’s uniqueness and mystery.”

“Holocaust denial” becomes not simply “denying the Holocaust” altogether as some revisionist historians do, but, as the French intellectual Roger Garaudy, who was recently prosecuted for just this, learned, a blanket term to cover any number of responses or rational approaches to the historical Nazi holocaust. Garaudy never denied the Holocaust; he simply questioned the figure of six million dead (as some American Jewish and Israeli historians do)

Finkelstein provides an almost exhaustive survey of what, according to those in whose interest it is that the Holocaust industry thrives, constitutes “Holocaust denial.” Denying the absolute uniqueness and incomparability of the Holocaust is the one form from which all other forms of “Holocaust denial” follow like an avalanche: “To question a survivor’s testimony, to denounce the role of Jewish collaborators, to suggest Germans suffered during the bombing of Dresden or that any state except Germany committed crimes in World War II -- this is all evidence, according to [the American historian] Lipstadt, of Holocaust denial. And to suggest that Wiesel has profited from the Holocaust industry, or even to question him, amounts to Holocaust denial.”

Finkelstein argues that the Holocaust could be approached in a more humane way. To this effect he quotes the words of Raul Hiberg, a leading historian of the Nazi genocide of Western Jewry: “If these people [Holocaust deniers] want to speak, let them... It only leads those of us who do research to re-examine what we might have considered as obvious. And that’s useful for us.” Such a levelheaded approach cannot be maintained vis-à-vis the sacred, however. For to iconise something is also to dehumanise it, and once something is stripped of its humanity, it can be instrumentalised. And that is precisely what has happened to the mysterium tremendum it has become holocaust business.

As the industry grew, Finkelstein points out, the manipulators of the holocaust have juggled the figures of holocaust survivors in order to claim more compensation; but, as Finkelstein demonstrates, if the mathematics are worked out, in so doing they have wound up actually diminishing the number of those who were killed: the six million figure winds up becoming untenable. Finkelstein sarcastically says that the perpetrators of the holocaust industry are gradually becoming holocaust deniers.

They also manipulate facts. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, for example, “downplays the discriminatory US immigration quotas before the war, exaggerates the US role in liberating the concentration camps, and silently passes over the massive US recruitment of Nazi war criminals at the war’s end.” Finkelstein also refers to the museum’s failure to underscore the Nazi genocide of the Gypsies, communists and handicapped.

He also devotes a large section of his book to the issue of dormant Holocaust-era accounts in Swiss banks -- and then raises the question of similar accounts in American banks, about which there has been no uproar. Is, one may ask in the spirit of speculative enquiry, the US using Jewish organisations, via the question of dormant Holocaust accounts in European banks, to mount pressure on European countries so that they would be forced to help subsidise the Zionist state?

Finkelstein does not lapse into a mere small deconstructive “narrative” of events. Rather, he tries to provide a history and sociology of the holocaust industry, situating it firmly within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “By virtually all accounts,” he shows, “it was only after this conflict [the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War] that the Holocaust became a fixture in American-Jewish life.” Before 1967 the Jewish establishment tended to downplay the Nazi holocaust in order to conform to the US government’s Cold War priorities, which entailed support for a rearmed Germany and even recruitment of Nazi SS veterans. Moreover, “remembrance of the Nazi holocaust was tagged a Communist cause” because leftists opposed to the Cold War alignment with Germany kept “harping on it.”

However, in the mid-sixties, things, as Finkelstein shows, began to change. The rise of identity or ethnic politics, on the one hand, and the culture of victimisation, on the other, coupled with the growing assimilation of the Jews into American society and their gradual moving from the left and the left-centre to the right, all helped to give prominence to the holocaust as a source of Jewish ethnicity that set the Jews apart from other ethnic or religious groups and also became a source of Jewish “moral capital” that bestowed a halo of secular chosenness on them.

Finkelstein views the total assimilation of the Zionist state into American international security arrangements and the “strategic alliance” between the USA and Israel as a decisive factor. I might also add that the growing rivalry between Europe and the USA put an end to any inhibitions regarding the manipulation and exploitation of the holocaust. The holocaust, as mentioned earlier, could be used as a club to blackmail some European countries into subsidising Israel. It could also be used as a way of justifying Israeli conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians. As Peter Baldwin, quoted by Finkelstein, writes: “The singularity of the Jewish suffering adds to the moral and emotional claims that Israel can make... on other nations.”

The same uniqueness also produces a smoke screen that hides other atrocities committed elsewhere by Western man, like, for (obvious) example, the genocide of the Native Americans, in the name of Manifest Destiny, which, Finkelstein writes, “anticipated all the ideological and programmatic elements of Hitler’s Lebensraum policy.” In connection with another American genocide, Finkelstein, in his conclusion to The Holocaust Industry, notes: “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 Congolese ivory and rubber resources. Yet, the first and only scholarly volume in English directly devoted to this topic was published two years ago. The destruction (for which the Hebrew term “hurban” could aptly be used) wreaked by the Americans on Vietnam during the same decade that saw the securing of US-Israeli relations -- and the inception of the Holocaust industry -- is also brought into the picture by Finkelstein: “Some 4-5 million men, women and children died as a result of the US wars in Indochina.

After the American withdrawal, a historian recalls, Vietnam desperately needed aid. ‘In the South, 9,000 out of 15,000 hamlets, 25 million acres of farmland, 12 million acres of forest were destroyed, and 1.5 million farm animals had been killed; there were an estimated 200,000 prostitutes, 879,000 orphans, 181,000 disabled people, and 1 million widows; all six of the industrial cities in the North had been badly damaged, as were provincial and district towns, and 4,000 out of 5,8000 agricultural communes.” And, yet, former US President Carter flatly refused to pay reparations.

The Nazi holocaust, instead of deepening our understanding of the evil (and the good) within us, instead of being pursued as “a rational subject of inquiry” as Finkelstein counsels, and instead of serving as a concrete image of what could happen to the human individual in a totalitarian society dominated by a materialistic, utilitarian set of “values,” has thus been turned into an icon unrelated to man’s suffering and into a smoke screen that conceals atrocities committed by man against man.

Abdelwahab Elmessiri -

Abdelwahab Elmessiri [‘Abd Alwahhaab Almiseery] is an Arab thinker and writer.Read More >>

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