The Making of Norman Finkelstein -  Reality Asserts Itself (pt 5/8)

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on January 15, 2015. Dr. Finkelstein says writing the “Holocaust Industry” changed his life, isolating him academically and making him a target – but he felt he had to take on the subject to defend the legacy of his holocaust survivor parents.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself. And we’re continuing our series of interviews with Norman Finkelstein, one of the world’s probably best-known outstanding critics of Israeli policy. And he joins us now in the studio. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So I’ve introduced Norman in all the other parts, so all you’ve got to do is go look below the video player and you’ll see, but just to say, quickly, Norman is an author, he’s an academic, and his most recent book is Method and Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Assaults on Gaza. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So in the last segment, we kind of just began telling the story of the writing of The Holocaust Industry, and, amongst other things, was a book that, I think, probably changed the course of your life. You obviously–and you had to know you were touching one of the most central nerves of the American Jewish population–global Jewish population, if you were. The book, if I–tell me–let me paraphrase it very quickly, essentially that Israel and the founders of the state of Israel and the Israeli government since and others that support it were using the Holocaust to justify an occupation and, essentially, war crimes, and it’s a misuse of the memory of the Holocaust. Is that–?

FINKELSTEIN: Well, there was a second aspect to it, which actually at the time infuriated people more, which was you might recall in that period there were all these claims about Holocaust compensation, how the Swiss banks have cheated Holocaust survivors. And these were big news stories. And here came these crusading lawyers who were going to get retribution for what were called needy Holocaust victims. And then there were the fat Swiss bankers, you know, the evildoers. And a large part of the book was devoted to showing that it was just a shakedown racket and that all these guys were crooks.

JAY: The lawyers.

FINKELSTEIN: The lawyers and the whole apparatus, the World Jewish Congress, people like Edgar Bronfman at the time, Rabbi Israel Singer. And then also–.

JAY: And why were they shakedown artists? Was not this a legitimate claim to get compensation?

FINKELSTEIN: No, it was completely ridiculous, the claim.

JAY: Why?

FINKELSTEIN: Well, it was very simply put by the world’s leading authority on the Nazi holocaust, namely Raul Hilberg. Incidentally, as I recite the facts, let me just say as a foreground, Raul Hilberg was a conservative Republican. He swore by The Wall Street Journal. His politics were at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from my own. But he was also an extremely scrupulous scholar and in a class all his own when it came to the question of the Nazi Holocaust. He had literally memorized the entire Nuremberg process, which is–several hundred volumes were tucked away in his brain. Yeah, he was an extraordinary figure. And he happened to have–as he put it, he thumbed through the same pages as I did of the Congressional Record and all the relevant documents, and he said–interestingly enough, he said, my conclusions were conservative. They were conservative because I tend to be very cautious, because I know, one error and I’m going to be hung by it. So I’m very careful in what I claim and make sure there’s voluminous documentation to support it. So here was the basic fact as Hilberg laid it out (and now I’m quoting him as against myself). There are three basic facts about Jews during–in this period before World War II and during the Nazi holocaust. Number one, Jews are overwhelmingly poor. They lived in shtetls in Eastern Europe. They didn’t have Swiss Bank accounts. Number two, if you did happen to have a Swiss Bank account, remember we’re in the midst of the worldwide depression. The Depression meant if you had money, you lost it. That’s why it was a crash. We call it a crash. And number three, if you did have money still, you’re one of those rich Jews who managed to survive the Depression, you didn’t live in a shtetl, if you did have money, you used the money to get out of Nazi-occupied Europe, which means you got out, and after the war you went to the bank and you withdrew your money. So there were no huge sums of money in Swiss banks, which were deposited there by Jews, and then they were cheated after World War II. Probably the total sum came to about $30 million or $40 million which were in the Swiss banks. And the Swiss bankers themselves, when the whole hysteria began, they were willing to pay the $40 million. But the shakedown artists, people, as I said, like Rabbi Israel Singer; Burt Neuborne, the ACLU lawyer, the big liberal; all this gang of crooks, they realized, here was a double–you know, sort of like a double opportunity: one, they can come across as vindicating the Nazi holocaust, and number two, they can make a lot of bucks out of it.

JAY: Okay. I’ve got to jump in here for just a second, ’cause you’re calling people crooks and all this.

FINKELSTEIN: Oh, yeah, they were complete thieves. Actually, most of them, a large number of them, strangely enough, a large number of them ended up in a lot of trouble with the law.

JAY: Well, just let me say one thing, ’cause I don’t know enough about this to challenge Norman on this, and he’s calling people crooks. So if anybody out there wants to challenge and argue with him that these people aren’t crooks,–

FINKELSTEIN: Oh, I would love to argue with them.

JAY: –let us know. And if–are any of these people still alive that you just called crooks?

FINKELSTEIN: Oh, yeah. Rabbi–well, the funny thing is one of–the leading crook was Rabbi Israel Singer. He used to wear his yarmulke askew. And what happened was he ended up losing his position because he opened up–it’s funny–a secret Swiss Bank account, where he squirreled away money from the World Jewish Congress, he said, for his retirement. And so–.

JAY: And he was caught.

FINKELSTEIN: He was caught. And Edgar Bronfman, who was the head of the World Jewish Congress, he ended up saying that Singer was a thief and kicked him out of the World Jewish Congress. Burt Neuborne, he went [around] saying he’s doing all of this pro bono. Pro bono. Well, it turned out–I used to call him the pro bono Holocaust huckster. He’s at NYU now, and he’s a big liberal. They all love Burt Neuborne. He got $4 million from the Germans, he sat on the foundation, and he took $4 million from the Holocaust Survivors Foundation.

JAY: ‘Cause of what? Because he was their lawyer?


JAY: But that’s not unusual.

FINKELSTEIN: No, but he was going around saying, I’m doing all of this pro bono for needy Holocaust victims. And then he took another $6 million or $7 million he asked for from the Swiss case. It was so outrageous that The New York Times ran an editorial, personally directing it at Burt Neuborne, this crook, and said, what are you asking here? You’re billing $750 an hour and you call yourself pro bono? But let me just tell you, let me tell you something, why it makes me so angry, because both of my parents were survivors of the Nazi holocaust. You know what my mother got for being in Majdanek concentration camp and two slave labor camps? You know what she got? She get $3,000. That’s what she got. And when she was alive, I was the one who shepherded her from lawyer to lawyer, from what was called–there were all of these Jewish organizations–United Restitution Organization–that were supposed to give you money. And they wouldn’t give her a cent. And they were raking in all this cash for themselves and claiming to do it for my parents’ suffering. It made me sick when I saw what was going on. It was complete racket, and it was a racket at the expense of the real survivors. Real survivors never got a dime. It’s a very interesting story. I go through it, you know, quite–in probably painful detail for most people in the expanded edition of The Holocaust Industry. The Holocaust Industry actually started off, like, 120, 130 pages. By the end it’s now about 350 pages, because I added in all the detail about the Swiss banks case and all the other cases. But these people, they were making a fortune over my parents’ suffering. My father, incidentally, he did get a reasonable pension. But you want to know why? Because the money was paid out by Germany. And every month until the last day of his life, every month was a blue envelope. It came up from Hanover. I remember, ’cause I was also the executor for my father. And the check would come. You had to go to the German consulate to present papers to certify he was still alive because, you know, the survivors were dying, which is another aspect of the whole fraud. You ask me, how do I know it’s a fraud. There’s a very simple reason why. In 1945, the war is over. How many Jews survived the concentration camps, the slave labor camps, and the ghettos? The whole point of the Nazi Holocaust was its efficiency. As Raul Hilberg said, it was an assembly-line, factory-like extermination of the Jews. Very few survived. The figure’s probably under 100,000 Jews actually survived the Nazi Holocaust. So we’re now in the 1990s. The average survivor, the average survivor was about something around 25 years old, because if you were older than that, the Nazis exterminated you, and if you were younger than that, the Nazis exterminated you, because they wanted healthy people who can work at the end. So unless you are of a vigorous physical constitution, you were killed. That’s the whole point of the Nazi Holocaust. So, like, both my parents were about in the 25-year-old range. So we’re talking about now the late 1990s. Do the math. Who’s alive? My parents died 20 years ago–actually, this year. My father died this month, January 21, my mother October 19. They were all dead. They were talking about millions of Holocaust survivors.

JAY: Okay. Well, I want to get back to the kind of consequences of you and the choices you made. So this book comes out. You’re teaching at–

FINKELSTEIN: Hunter College at the time.

JAY: –Hunter College. And about a year later you go to DePaul.

FINKELSTEIN: Well, I didn’t go. A year later I was unceremoniously kicked out of Hunter College. And at that point–I don’t want to turn this into, you know, martyrdom, but I had been kicked out of every school in New York, and there was just no place to go anymore and I was pretty desperate. I mean, I actually–I’m not exaggerating. Anyone who knows the story–and I have close friends who can confirm–I loved Hunter College so much. I loved that school. It was a real working-class–students, a lot of them were immigrant kids, a lot of them from the Caribbean, and they were first-generation. They were so thrilled at the prospect of being in college. And they were also thrilled ’cause a lot of them worked at these mindless jobs during the day of having their ideas, their mind validated in class. They can think. Their ideas counted for something. It was so exciting to teach at Hunter College. I loved it. I was there from 1992 to 2000. I begged them to keep me. I begged them. I said at the last meeting, last conversation with the chair, Kenneth Sherrill, I said, just give me two courses this semester, two courses. That would be $12,000 a year. You’re laughing. That’s what I earned. Three thousand dollars per course you were paid at Hunter back then as an adjunct. No health insurance, nothing. Just give me two courses in spring, in fall, and two courses in spring and I’ll do it. I’ll do it for the $12,000 a year. It was two hours going each way, ’cause Hunter’s on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; I lived down by Coney Island. I didn’t care. I loved Hunter College. Just give me two courses. And you know what he said to me? He said to me, well, even if we had two courses, even if we had two courses, you would have to come in on two separate days. See, the way they used to do it for adjuncts is, because you’re being paid nothing, they would give you three courses back to back to back, so Tuesday and Thursday back to back to back, or Monday and Wednesday back to back. So, in order to teach two courses which were on different days, I’d have to come in four days a week.

JAY: But when you wrote Holocaust Industry and you take on the primary narrative for the existence of the state of Israel and you take on a whole question of what you’re calling corruption, you’ve got to know there’s going to be such consequences.

FINKELSTEIN: No. You see, Paul, you don’t know these things in advance. Remember, I’m a nobody. I’m a nobody. I published with a tiny left-wing press, Verso Books. Nobody reviews books from Verso. And I’m a nobody. You know what my advance–you know, people said, oh, you made so much money off The Holocaust Industry, they called me you’re another Holocaust huckster. You know what my advance was for the book? I can tell you. It was $2,000. Nobody thought it was going to create a huge ruckus. We just figured it would be another left-wing book read by a very small group of people.

JAY: So when it comes out–.

FINKELSTEIN: The only thing that is true is the lawyers went crazy over the book. They wrote up–the Verso lawyers, which is a left-wing press, they wrote up ten pages of stuff they wanted to take out. By the time you finish with the ten pages, there was no book left. And the head of the Verso Books at the time, who’s now my publisher at a new publishing house, Colin Robinson, he was just wonderful. I am eternally into his debt. He took all the lawyers’ criticism, flung it away–I don’t care; Let’s try it.

JAY: Okay. The book comes out. You lose–they fire you at Hunter. Let me finish the question. Let me finish the question. So the accusations start to rain down on your head from all the Israeli propaganda machine–you know, self-hating Jew, Holocaust denier. There is one piece of this–and I wondered, did it concern you. Not all criticism, obviously, of Israel is anti-Semitic, as some of pro-Israeli people would like to suggest, but some is. There really is–

FINKELSTEIN: That’s absolutely true.

JAY: –a virulent anti-Semitic trend of the world. We see it on our–our videos, sometimes people ask, how come–you know, on our website, if you write the word Jew in the comments–we have an automatic filter so we can find out if it’s pure racism or an actual comment, ’cause there is so much racist stuff that comes. And part of the critique you got from, admittedly, very pro-Zionist pro-Israeli positions that somehow you kind of reinforce the Holocaust denial, you were accused of being mixed up with the Holocaust deniers–now, I’m not suggesting there’s any merit to the argument, but how did it affect you emotionally, this tremendous barrage against you?

FINKELSTEIN: Well, there are many things to say to that. First of all, I was very close to my parents. Everybody who knows me knows that I took care of them. They both died from terrible, terrible illnesses. My mother had a cancer which literally–not figuratively–it consumed her whole face. Her whole face turned into blood and boils, whole–it was like out of a science fiction movie. My father had a–.

JAY: So melanoma or something.

FINKELSTEIN: Well, they could never find what they called the primary. They didn’t know what was causing it. They couldn’t diagnose it. And my father had Alzheimer’s, and he was a living corpse. He was just–you would go to the hospital, they would say, pulse excellent, heart excellent. The only problem was he was dead. You know? And I cared for them. It always happens in families, the burden falls on one of the siblings, and it happened in my case–it was me. So I was very close to them and very close to their suffering, very close to it. I knew they carried it around with them every day of their life to the last moment. Sometimes I would try to make a joke, but you couldn’t joke about it. You know, like, my father, sometimes he would fall out of bed at night and I’d say, what happened? What happened, Dad? He’d say, oh, I had a nightmare the Nazis were chasing me. So I said, well, the good news is you escaped. You know. And, no, those jokes fell flat. You know. It was horrible, what they experienced [incompr.] So there was no way, there was no way on God’s earth that I was going to ever diminish their suffering or–there was no way I was going to diminish their suffering. And so, when I was writing the book, I remember very clearly it was like my parents were watching over me. Every word I was very careful of. Am I betraying my parents’ legacy? Am I betraying what my parents went through? I was very careful about that. There is not one word in that book which my parents would recoil from. They would have had trouble with the book before, where I wrote about Hitler’s, really, executioners and the claim that all Germans were pathological anti-Semites. And my parents felt that. I didn’t agree with them. And if I argued with them about it, I felt, after what they went through they’re entitled to their opinions, even though I strongly disagree with them. But not The Holocaust Industry. Quite the contrary. For those who actually read the book, take what we just discussed a moment ago. My late mother used to get infuriated when–every time you meet anyone on the street, they would say, I was a Holocaust survivor. You know. They’re appropriating the horror that she went through as their own. And she used to get so exasperated, she would say, if everybody who claims to be a Holocaust survivor actually is one, who did Hitler kill? Who did Hitler kill? Everybody I meet in New York says, I’m a Holocaust survivor. Now, I mean, it’s a second-generation Holocaust survivor. I mean, the whole thing is such a joke. If I ever went up to my mother it said I’m a second-generation Holocaust survivor, you know, she would smack me. What do you mean second-generation Holocaust survivor? You know what it was? So, no, I was very careful. But it’s also true. It’s no doubt true. And I try to be objective about these things. I attracted a lot of the wrong people. And there’s no question about that. There were actually stories which–they were so insane they were funny. Everybody has his or her ego. I’m not immune to ego. I’m invited to this two-day conference in Italy, and it’s an academic conference devoted to my book. Well, as you can imagine, it was in a place called Teramo in Italy, a beautiful, beautiful–like, a ski resort. I’m thrilled. I’m going to have a two-day conference from my book. I mean, now I’m–really made it. You know. So the guy picks me up at the airport, we go for dinner, and he introduces me to his friends, and he introduces me as a–and when I say “the guy”, the professor who organized the conference–and he introduces me as a Holocaust revisionist. What do you mean Holocaust revisionist? That was the term used back then for Holocaust deniers. I said, I’m not a Holocaust revisionist. He says, revisionists revise. We’re always revising. That’s what history is about, revising. So I said, no, we’re not revising. I’m not a Holocaust revisionist. Then, after this dinner, we’re already–I’m beginning to think, Norm, your ego, I think, has gotten you into some trouble. He tells me in the car, let me show you some of my publications. So I’m a typical academic. He gives me the publications. I immediately flip to the footnotes. Academics don’t read text; they just look at footnotes. And I see Lyndon LaRouche all over the footnotes. By the way,–.

JAY: You’d better quickly tell people who–I know who he is, but let–.

FINKELSTEIN: Okay. He was an extreme leftist who turned into an extreme rightist and a complete lunatic in the former incarnation and a later incarnation.

JAY: Back to the leftist, back to the rightist, back to the leftist. Now they’ve got a thing about the Sauds.

FINKELSTEIN: So I see the footnotes are interspersed [with] LaRouche, Chomsky, LaRouche, Chomsky, LaRouche, Chomsky. I think, oh-oh, Chomsky fine, LaRouche big problems. So now I’m beginning to sweat and I think, I’d better get myself the hell out of here; what did I get myself into? Then I said, no, Norman, remember what John Stuart Mill says? All sides should be heard, and as long as they’re letting you speak your mind, you should let others speak their mind. Okay. So now I’m drawing my million liberalism [sic]. He takes me to the conference. It turns out to be a two-day conference of Holocaust denial. Oh my Lord, what have I gotten myself into?

JAY: It sounds like what they keep organizing in Tehran every so often.


JAY: You must have been I’m invited to those.

FINKELSTEIN: I’m invited, yeah, I’m invited to all the time. We always argue about that, by the way, me with the Iranians, why I won’t show up. So then the guy who introduces me, the one who organized the conference, he starts going through this long introduction. By the end of the introduction, he’s proved that it was the Jews who killed John F. Kennedy. So when it came to my turn, I said, let me begin by saying, this guy, he’s a nut. He’s complete lunatic. And the funny thing is, at the end of the whole thing, I thought, I really insulted him throughout. He came up to me, shook my hand vigorously, said, good, good; different points of view is very good.

JAY: Alright. In the next segment, we’re going to talk about some of the consequences of all of this, because you didn’t just lose your job at Hunter; you wound up getting isolated over the next few years. You go to DePaul, but then you lose that job and you essentially get isolated by the American and even Western academic community.

FINKELSTEIN: Including the leftists.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to talk about that in the next segment. Please join us for the continuation of our series with Norman Finkelstein on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.

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Norman Gary Finkelstein is an American political scientist, activist, former professor, and author. His primary fields of research are the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the politics of the Holocaust. He is a graduate of Binghamton University and received his Ph.D. in political science at Princeton University.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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