Norman Finkelstein, a professor-emeritus of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, has written several books related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. My first encounter with him was a book first published in 2000 titled The Holocaust Industry, now in a second edition with significant new material on the resolution of Jewish claims upon Swiss Banks. I’ve just begun my second reading of the new edition and want to recommend it to you for the uncomfortable but important issues that it raises.
Finkelstein begins with an important distinction in terminology: “The Holocaust,” he maintains, is an ideological construct quite different from the Nazi holocaust (without the capital “H”). The latter is an historical event of admitted horrific dimension, while the former is a perspective developed during the 1960s that has been employed in less than ethical ways as cultural leverage for current events having little to do with what transpired in Nazi Germany. To invoke Finkelstein is to raise a lightening rod in the ongoing culture wars of the 21st century.
A great deal of his text is directly and indirectly concerned with the manipulation of language–not unlike the verbal sparing of candidates in our most recent election, with the hurling of labels back and forth; highly symbollic language, culturally loaded words used to demonize rather than define. [It is, for example, impossible for someone to be both a Nazi and a Socialist. To be one is to deny the other.] I can’t hope, here, to do more than draw attention to Prof Finkelstein’s drama-free discussion of a defining era in Western civilization. Suffice to say that much of his evidence does not reflect well on key figures in what he calls “the Holocaust Industry.”
I have not visited either of the two largest museums devoted to the Nazi holocaust (in Washington, DC, and Berlin, Germany), but I have followed some reporting of their exibits and interpretive programming with much interest. It would seem that neither museum is completely comfortable with the range of holocaust victims–Jews as well as Christians of every flavor; atheists, intellectuals; the old, infirm and physically disabled; the retarded and otherwise mentally disadvantaged; Romany (gypsies) and Slavs; and, of course, homosexuals; in short, anyone beneath or outside the Aryan ideal. After my recent re-reading of The Holocaust Industry, I’m anxious to visit these museums and test their treatment of a contentious past.
The are, of course, those strange bedfellows at the other end of the Nazi holocaust spectrum. Neo-Nazis here in the United States and their emboldened brethren (and sisteren) even in Germany itself contend that the Nazi holocaust did not happen; that only a handful of people died at the hands of the Nazis; that photographic documentation has been politically manufactured. These holocaust deniers may find it uncomfortable to be linked with someone such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, current president of Iran, who also alleges that reportage of Nazi atrocities is grossly exaggerated. I count such ideologues as lunatics, fools or political manupulators of the vilest order.
What does interest me here today is the appropriation of language for ideological ends. We all do it to some extent, I suppose, pinning avatars like “Hitler” and “Stalin” on our supposed enemies. The word that I am trying to purge from my vocabulary is “anti-semitic.”
It turns out that the word “anti-semitic” was coined as recently as 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German who blamed many of his country’s problems on the presence of Jews and their presumed roles in banking and industry. Marr would be surprised today that his label has become a banner held aloft by some of the very people he intended to deride. As an amateur and sometime student of linguistics, however, I also know there is a group of Semitic languages, which just happens to include both Hebrew and Arabic. So the term is imprecise or ambiguous at best. Etymologically, it would seem to apply to all Semites: Hebrews, Arabs and a host of other ethnic groups in the Mid-East and across northern Africa, the majority of whom are not Jewish. It’s surprising to find so many websites attempting to disamiguate the term and track down both it origins and, more importantly, its abusers.
Words can be weapons, especially in our higly charged media wars that pit my talking head against your talking head. It’s unfortunate that a few strategic words can be manipulated to carry meaning we may not intend.