The louder Finkelstein got, the less we discussed the Shoah

The louder Finkelstein got, the less we discussed the Shoah

There was no doubt that DePaul University would be charged with stifling free speech and academic freedom for its decision last week to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein, a political scientist better known for his ruthless personal attacks and contempt for critics than for his scholarship. On the matter of Holocaust reparations, however, Finkelstein himself is at the root of a certain collective Jewish censorship.

During much of the Jewish organizational maneuvering and legal wrangling over the dormant Nazi-era accounts in Swiss banks and compensation for slave labor, Finkelstein’s polemics raised some important issues about Holocaust compensation. But he did so in a manner so toxic that he stifled virtually all rational discussion, leaving only the name-calling. Finkelstein was called an Israel-bashing traitor and a self-hating Jew; he had some choice terms for Elie Weisel and Alan Dershowitz. In the meantime, though, the issues fell by the wayside. Those who disagreed with Finkelstein did not want to become the butt of his venomous attacks, while those who shared his views did not want to be associated with the rancor with which he often colored them.

Bursting with moral authority as the son of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein had charged Jewish organizations with creating a "Holocaust industry" that exploited the tragedy for political and financial gain, blackmailed Europe with reparations claims, generated anti-Semitism, and trampled on the memory of Nazi victims. His views, in his book "The Holocaust Industry," shattered taboos in Europe, where the book had wider exposure than in the United States.

Finkelstein had special scorn for the World Jewish Congress, the most publicity-conscious of the organizations in the restitution effort. It was a combustible mix in which the WJC implied that it had been successful in securing compensation for Holocaust survivors, while Finkelstein accused the organization of hoarding the funds for itself.

At this point, I concede that I write with some anxiety. To challenge Finkelstein, in effect, is to invite him to debate. After all, Finkelstein’s book began as his response to historian Peter Novick’s scholarly book "The Holocaust in American Life." (I like Novick and his book.)

Was Finkelstein’s general premise accurate? He refers to the Holocaust "industry" as an entity that was "mobilized," as if there was cooperation, if not collusion, among the players. But it was not a cartel, like OPEC. Instead, the Jewish organizations were often competitors, and much of the exaggeration and escalation in demands for Holocaust compensation can be traced to their rivalries.

But that is semantics. The important issue was whether these efforts served to benefit Nazi victims or simply to traumatize them and undermine their dignity.

The answer is both. What Finkelstein refers to as extortion for slave labor compensation, for instance, provided funds not only for Jews, but also for Polish, Ukrainian, and other non-Jewish victims who had been forced to labor under the Nazis and who could not have prevailed without Jewish claims. But the Swiss banks case was primarily trauma. Filed in 1996, it was the first of the class-action lawsuits. From the outset, some of the lawyers misrepresented it as something that would provide compensation to all survivors, rather than what it was: a case to recover specific Swiss accounts belonging to specific families.

Finkelstein was not above relying on exaggeration, distortion, and recklessness. That seems to have been his academic undoing. "Scholars must be free to write about even the most controversial issues and to disagree vociferously about each others’ work. But tactics such as ad hominem attacks threaten, rather than enhance, academic freedom," DePaul’s president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, wrote to Finkelstein last week.

It also was the undoing of any serious discussion on the substance of Holocaust compensation: about what Nazi victims had successfully recovered, what remained to be recovered, the difference between outstanding collective and individual claims, and the means to pursue claims for those who chose to do so.

Imagine the cacophony of Finkelstein lambasting the Jewish organizations, which had formed commissions to recover some assets, but not others; attorneys filing lawsuits against selected targets that would benefit some survivors, but not others; public finance officials in various states scrutinizing the war-era business practices of some industries, but not others. How can it be, if there was so much commotion, that so much remains undone, and each individual must fend for himself, so that, for instance, if the child of survivors wants to reclaim a house in Poland or a painting that now hangs in a museum in Detroit or Madrid or Linz, the Jewish communal response is: "We cannot help you"?

There is no Holocaust industry per se, but there is a communal grip on the Holocaust. There are Holocaust education programs, museums, memorials, and commemorative events. Yet it is rare that there is any public discussion about their mission or purpose. Instead, there is a tacit understanding that these are of some fundamental value, without saying for whom, or to what end.

What the community has not embraced is its responsibility for the welfare of survivors. Finkelstein errs in his premise that Jewish organizations blackmail Europeans but fail to pass the fruits on to survivors. His charges, and the defenses they engender, drown out the real issues, however, including that some organizations fail to recognize that survivors have urgent financial needs, or that public statements can raise survivors’ expectations in a way that guarantees them more disappointment down the line.

That is Finkelstein’s greatest flaw. In the end, he was no different from many of those he criticized. He was simply louder and more abusive.

Marilyn Henry, a former staff writer for the Jerusalem Post, is the author of "Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference," with a foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert (Vallentine Mitchell).