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Debate Over Goldhagen Book Produces Charges Of Censorship Because of Author’s Anti-Zionist Views

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 1998

A controversy has emerged over the best-selling book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Harvard Professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.  

Goldhagen argues that the Germans’ collective history of homicidal anti-Semitism led inevitably to the Holocaust. Many Holocaust scholars have been highly critical of some aspects of Goldhagen’s work and a book, A Nation On Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth by Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Bird was recently published by Henry Holt & Co.  

According to The Jerusalem Report (Aug. 3, 1998), Abraham H. Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, sent a letter to Sara Bershtel, the book’s editor, urging her to drop it because Finkelstein’s "irreversibly tainted, glaring" anti-Zionist bias "disqualified" him from commenting on the Holocaust. "The issue," Foxman suggested, "is not whether Goldhagen’s thesis is right or wrong but what’s legitimate criticism and what goes beyond the pale."  

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, according to The Report, "went over Bershtel’s head to Holt publisher Michael Naumann, a longtime friend. Wieseltier,too, cited Finkelstein’s anti-Zionism . . . Both Foxman and Wieseltier asserted to the publisher that their concern was less with defending Hitler’s Willing Executioners than with ‘upholding scholarly standards.’ ‘There’s an encyclopedia of criticism on Goldhagen’s thesis by thousands of reputable scholars,’ Foxman told The Report. ‘All we asked was why did a mainstream publisher have to turn to the fringe for two ersatz scholars — a notorious anti-Zionist and a little known scholar with few credentials.’"  

The Report declares that, "‘Ersatz scholars’ may be stretching it. The German-born Bird (a noted war crimes researcher in Canada), who did her Ph.D. on the SS and the Nazi police at Stuttgart University and a post-doctorate at MIT is the foremost authority on the German Ludwigsburg archives where Goldhagen conducted his primary research. Finkelstein, who holds a Ph.D. on the theory of Zionism from Princeton, admits to being no Holocaust expert but asserts his exegesis on Goldhagen’s internal contradictions requires no expertise beyond common sense."  

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, likened Holt & Co. to "garbagemen" for deciding to bring out the book. Jonathan Mahler of The Forward compared the publisher’s decision to that of St. Martin’s Press, which in the early l990s decided to publish British revisionist historian David Irving’s biography of Joseph Goebbels, but backed down after lobbying from Jewish groups.  

Michael Neumann, the Holt publisher, declared: "Clearly, there was a campaign of hardball politics to stem publication of this book. The interpretation of the Holocaust has left, it seems, the realm of remembrance and entered the realm of lobby politics."  

The book’s editor, Sara Bershtel, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, disputes Foxman’s view that the "issue is not whether Goldhagen’s thesis is right or wrong but what’s legitimate criticism. She declares that the issue is precisely whether Goldhagen was right or wrong and wrote back to Foxman to say so. She says she is "frightened, angered and appalled" by Foxman’s attempt to interfere with her editorial freedom. "It’s a model of censorship when you don’t even care if someone is right or wrong and you want to slap that person down."  

Prof. Finkelstein, who teaches at New York University and Hunter College, says he is being criticized for his previous books on Israel rather than his thesis concerning Goldhagen.  

Finkelstein, whose parents are survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, is the author of two books on Israel’s Palestinian policies in which he charges that Israel is guilty of human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza which "besmirched the memory of the six million Jewish martyrs."  

The Jerusalem Report states:"It’s because of those books that, from the moment Holt approached him and Birn about a book, the project has lurched from one altercation to the next."

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