I sometimes think," writes the American academic Dr Norman Finkelstein, "the worst thing
that ever happened to the Nazi Holocaust was that American Jewry discovered it."
The quotation comes from Finkelstein's explosive and bitterly angry book The Holocaust Industry, to be published here next month. It accuses those who exploit the Holocaust of telling lies, conniving in Israeli atrocities, and of naked greed. The pursuit of reparations from Swiss bankers and others is damned as "an outright extortion racket". The ruthless industrialisation of the Holocaust has encouraged the rebirth of anti-semitism in Europe and the United States.
And, in conversation with me, he said the fascination with Holocaust memorials and museums - the latest being the permanent exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum, opened by the Queen last week - was "a kind of circus".
If any of this had been written or said by a non-Jew with no direct experience of the Holocaust, it would have been savaged as anti-semitism or, worse, Holocaust denial. But Finkelstein is a Jew - though non-observant - both of whose parents were survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and concentration camps. All the members of their families were wiped out by the Nazis. Even so, his views make him an outcast among the American Jewish establishment and define him, for many, as
an enemy of Israel. So why has he done it?
"I will not have," he shouts down the phone from New York, "the suffering of my parents used for any ulterior purpose, whether it be the prevention of the assimilation of Jews or the defence of Israel."
Finkelstein's father never spoke of his experience, but his mother spoke of little else. Yet, he recalls, even she was disgusted at the rise of the Holocaust industry in America. There were, he says, only 60,000 Jewish survivors of the camps and 20,000 of those died in the first week after liberation. Yet in the 1960s and 1970s many of his parents' friends started claiming to be survivors. Soon everybody was a victim of the great martyrdom.
"I'm not exaggerating when I say that one out of three Jews you stop in the street in New York will claim to be a survivor. And, since 1993, the industry has been claiming that 10,000 survivors have been dying every month. That is completely impossible. It would mean that there were 8m survivors in 1945, but there were only 7m Jews in German-occupied Europe before the war."
Finkelstein says the Holocaust industry was born at the time of the six-day war in June 1967 - before that both the Holocaust and Israel were scarcely mentioned in American public life. But it was not born, as many have said, out of fear for the survival of Israel; rather it sprang from American strategic interests. Israel became the American surrogate in the Middle East and the Holocaust was evoked morally to justify the alliance. Israel became the defender of US values and, since
America at that time was losing the Vietnam war, it was a more effective defender than America herself.
The American Jewish elite embraced the cause of Israel and created the contemporary image of the Holocaust. Finkelstein highlights the power of this elite by pointing out that Jewish income is almost double that of non-Jews, 16 of the 40 wealthiest Americans are Jews, 40% of Nobel prizewinners in science and economics are Jewish, 20% of professors at main universities are Jewish, as are 40% of partners in law firms in New York and Washington.
Led by campaigners such as Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel - Finkelstein claims the latter gets a minimum lecture fee of $25,000 plus chauffeured limousine - the industry insists on the unique nature of the atrocity. It can be compared, they say, to nothing else. Finkelstein - rightly, I believe - identifies this as the intellectual heart of the matter.
Wiesel and others insist that the Holocaust stands outside history and rational discussion. The only final response is silent incomprehension. This position has become so extreme that any attempt to compare it with other episodes of human cruelty - Finkelstein mentions the deaths of 10m Africans in the Congo as a result of the Belgian ivory and rubber trade - is often met with accusations of anti-semitism and Holocaust denial.
The result is that America is dotted with Holocaust museums and memorials, but there is none for the many more victims of communism. There is not one even for the gypsies and the mentally and physically disabled who died under Nazism. Finkelstein says that a higher proportion of the gypsy population of Europe died than of the Jewish.
And, at his most scathing, Finkelstein points out that there are no memorials to the millions who died in the slave trade or in the genocidal campaign against the American Indians. The presence of the Holocaust Museum in Washington "is particularly incongruous in the absence of a museum commemorating crimes in the course of American history".
"My parents would never have claimed that the Holocaust was unique," he says, "they would have said that it made them sympathetic to the suffering of other oppressed people."
The danger of the uniqueness argument is that it blinds us to the possibility of other forms of evil. People see the Holocaust museums and memorials, they see the face of Hitler, and they think that that is what evil is like. The truth is that evil also wore the masks of Stalin, Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot. And, if we are convinced that evil must wear jackboots and a little moustache, we may not recognise it the next time round.
Finkelstein adds that the leaders of the Holocaust industry use the uniqueness argument to convince themselves of their own virtue. If this particular suffering and martyrdom were worse than any other for the victims - including indirect victims such as contemporary Jews and the whole state of Israel - then who dare say a word against the moral stature of those who daily remind us?
So is he right? Well, in one key sense, he must be. The Holocaust cannot be unique. Every starved, tortured and murdered person, of any race, has something in common with the victims of Auschwitz. The idea that one historical event is different from all others is plainly irrational. It is also dangerous because it silences discussion and analysis of the Holocaust, and when that happens we lose our ability to learn anything.
"The challenge today," writes Finkelstein, "is to restore the Nazi Holocaust as a rational subject of inquiry . . . The abnormality of the Nazi Holocaust springs not from the event itself but from the exploitive industry that has grown up around it . . . The noblest gesture for those who perished is to preserve their memory, learn from their suffering and let them, finally, rest in peace."
But is he right that the Holocaust industry is entirely self-serving, corrupt and destructive? It is true that it has produced absurd fantasists like Binjamin Wilkomirski, who have persuaded publishers and scholars of the truth of their fabricated tales of survival under the Nazis. Many of the claims of those who pursue reparations are plainly outrageous, and I do not doubt that the political ruthlessness with which many of these claims have been enforced is, as Finkelstein says, encouraging a
new wave of anti-semitism.
But there is, in his book, a serious problem of tone. It is a rant, and Finkelstein is a man obsessed. Those who know nothing of these matters are likely to doubt the scholarship that underpins such savagely expressed conviction. They may also feel that there cannot be that much wrong with the desire to remember the 5.1m - Finkelstein's figure is typically fewer than the 6m claimed by others - who were unquestionably murdered by the Nazis. However questionable the
intellectual climate that inspired it, the Imperial War Museum's exhibition is an impressively sombre experience that cannot be gainsaid. It happened, and this is how it happened. It is a fair criticism to say that other awful things happened, and they should be remembered, but that does not in itself deny the legitimacy of the exhibition. Finkelstein would have been more persuasive if he had accepted that much of his opposition's case.
Nevertheless, his attack on the Holocaust industry could well have far-reaching effects. An acceptance of his broad case would, ultimately, weaken American support for Israel, as it would undermine the sympathy created by the idea of the unique suffering of the Jews. It might also, by removing the cultural adhesive of the Holocaust experience, accelerate the process of assimilation - the dilution of Jewish identity primarily by "marrying out" - which has already
resulted in the "loss" of millions of diaspora Jews in the United States and elsewhere.
Finkelstein is not too concerned about either of these outcomes. He would like the Israeli case to be more rationally considered and, though he acknowledges the ethnic loss involved in assimilation, he prefers the Martin Luther King position that people should come together irrespective of the colour of their skin, their race or their beliefs.
I'm not so sure. I like the Jews and I like Israel and I do not have to close my eyes to its shortcomings. If the Holocaust has become a brand name - which, I agree, it has - then that is a big problem. But there are some babies you really don't throw out with the bathwater, and Jewishness is one of them.
The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, by Norman G Finkelstein, is to be published by Verso on July 20, £16