May 27, 2016
Guest post by Jamie Stern-Weiner
In a recent interview leading Israel-Palestine scholar Norman Finkelstein recounted a shocking, but revealing, encounter with Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland:
[W]hen my book, The Holocaust Industry, came out in 2000, Freedland wrote that I was ‘closer to the people who created the Holocaust than to those who suffered in it’. Although he appears to be, oh, so politically correct now, he didn’t find it inappropriate to suggest that I resembled the Nazis who gassed my family.
We appeared on a television program together. Before the program, he approached me to shake my hand. When I refused, he reacted in stunned silence. Why wouldn’t I shake his hand? He couldn’t comprehend it. It tells you something about these dull-witted creeps. The smears, the slanders – for them, it’s all in a day’s work. Why should anyone get agitated? Later, on the program, it was pointed out that the Guardian, where he worked, had serialised The Holocaust Industry across two issues. He was asked by the presenter, if my book was the equivalent of Mein Kampf, would he resign from the paper? Of course not. Didn’t the presenter get that it’s all a game?
Freedland had already made himself appear ridiculous by contributing easily debunked falsehoods to the ‘antisemitism’ smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn. Now he was exposed as a revolting hypocrite.
The interview was shared widely, and Freedland soon caught wind of it. He has been working on a response, which appeared yesterday in the Jewish Chronicle. It is as dreary and dishonest as one might expect.
Freedland expresses regret for his attack on Finkelstein, but, so far from apologising, shoehorns in a new slander (in bold) that did not appear in his initial review:
Sixteen years ago, I was appalled by a short book called The Holocaust Industry by Norman Finkelstein. I wrote that it echoed arguments made by David Irving, who had just lost his notorious libel action and had been branded by the High Court as nothing more than a ‘pro-Nazi polemicist’. Finkelstein’s book praised Irving as having made an ‘indispensable’ contribution to our understanding of the last war. In the final line of the piece I wrote that Finkelstein’s outlook took ‘him closer to the people who created the Holocaust than to those who suffered in it’.
I now regret writing that sentence. Finkelstein is a child of Holocaust survivors but even if he were not, I should not have written those words. If I could withdraw them, I would. Implicitly, I had made the comparison – of Jews and Nazis – that I believe should be off-limits.
I have reproduced below the relevant paragraphs from The Holocaust Industry. Finkelstein did not praise Irving’s contribution as ‘indispensable’—he quoted the respected historian of Germany Gordon A. Craig to this effect. Was Craig ‘closer to the people who created the Holocaust than to those who suffered in it’? Finkelstein’s point was that, ‘however scurrilous’ the politics of revisionists like Irving, still, their work can be of use to those concerned with truth. Thus, even though Irving was ‘an admirer of Hitler and sympathiser with German national socialism’ and notwithstanding that Irving’s ‘claims on the Nazi holocaust’ were (again quoting Craig) ‘obtuse and quickly discredited’, serious scholars of World War II and Nazi Germany have been able to find value in his work. Finkelstein cited, in support of this argument, the founder and undisputed master of Holocaust studies Raul Hilberg. Was Hilberg ‘closer to the people who created the Holocaust than to those who suffered in it’?
Freedland proceeds to condemn those who analogise Israel and Nazi Germany for ‘inflict[ing] hurt on Jews, by poking into their deepest wound’; meanwhile, rather than apologise for comparing the son of survivors of the Nazi holocaust to the people who murdered his family, Freedland takes the opportunity to further misrepresent Finkelstein’s work and falsely portray him as an apologist for a Holocaust denier. Finkelstein has written two books on the political and scholarly reception of the Nazi holocaust. Both were praised by the world’s preeminent authority on the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, who judged that Finkelstein’s ‘place in the whole history of writing history is assured’. If history remembers Freedland at all, it will be for how low this interminably insipid pundit, who knew as little about the Nazi holocaust as he did about anything else, was prepared to sink.
Freedland’s baneful influence at the Guardian has long been a shame; it is now becoming a scandal.
Excerpt from Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering second ed. (London: Verso, 2003 ):
Not all revisionist literature – however scurrilous the politics or motivations of its practitioners – is totally useless. Lipstadt brands David Irving ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial’ (he recently lost a libel suit in England against her for these and other assertions). But Irving, notorious as an admirer of Hitler and sympathizer with German national socialism, has nevertheless, as Gordon Craig points out, made an ‘indispensable’ contribution to our knowledge of World War II. Both Arno Mayer, in his important study of the Nazi holocaust, and Raul Hilberg cite Holocaust denial publications. ‘If these people want to speak, let them’, Hilberg observes. ‘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’. (p. 71)
The corresponding footnote reads:
Arno Mayer, Why did the heavens not darken? (New York: 1988). Christopher Hitchens, ‘Hitler’s Ghost’, in Vanity Fair (June 1996) (Hilberg). For a balanced assessment of Irving, see Gordon A. Craig, ‘The Devil in the Details’, in New York Review of Books (19 September 1996). Rightly dismissing Irving’s claims on the Nazi holocaust as ‘obtuse and quickly discredited’, Craig nonetheless continues: ‘He knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field, and students of the years 1933-1945 owe more than they are always willing to admit to his energy as a researcher and to the scope and vigour of his publications. . . . His book Hitler’s War . . . remains the best study we have of the German side of the Second World War and, as such, indispensable for all students of that conflict. . . . Such people as David Irving, then, have an indispensable part in the historical enterprise, and we dare not disregard their views’. (pp. 71-72n60)
(Ellipses in original. The text is identical in the book’s first edition that Freedland reviewed.)