On May 2, James North and Phil Weiss talked with Norman Finkelstein in his Brooklyn home about the Six Day War, its history, its mythology and its impact on US Jewish life. Finkelstein then revised the transcript of that conversation.
Weiss: How important was the Six-Day War in your neighborhood when you were a kid?
Finkelstein: I was in 8th grade. My social studies teacher, Josh Abramson, was a religious Jew. I remember in the schoolyard—I can see the scene in my mind’s eye—he had transistor radio to his ear. He was visibly worried about Israel’s fate. It seems a lot of Jews worried. I recently read Professor Chomsky’s reminiscences. He and his friends in Cambridge also feared the worst.
But it came, they won, it went.
It was the era of the Vietnam War and Black Power. Go back and look at the topical television programs. Laugh In, The Smothers Brothers, All in the Family. Israel never comes up.
It’s historical revisionism that Israel figured prominently in Jewish life back then. When you say someone in ‘67 was a “Zionist”—well, Zionism, it wasn’t an issue. There were a handful of idealistic young people, the Bernie Sanders type, who had romantic ideas of socialism, kibbutzim.
But folks like Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer—Schumer attended my high school, a few years ahead of me—wanting to experience the hard life? You’ve got to be kidding! Schumer was the son of an exterminator. The last thing he wanted to experience was a gritty life! He once said that his father “hated his job” and he was determined not to end up like his father. Schumer was his class valedictorian. He got a perfect score of 1600 on his SAT, a rare feat in those days. He was out to conquer the upper reaches and inner sanctums of American power, not sing Kumbaya on some kibbutz in a backwater.
Weiss: My mother’s best friend, Golda Werman was born in Berlin in 1930. She and her husband moved from Bloomington to Jerusalem in 1968. My cluster may not be meaningful, but there were people for whom this was very important. Bernie Avishai, MJ Rosenberg—they were called by that, their lives changed.
I, too, remember some classmates who did “aliya.” But I had in mind the top tier in my school, the soon-to-be movers and shakers.
North: In ‘71, ‘72, Chuck [whom North knew] would turn it around to Israel. I would say to Chuck, I admire Ho Chi Minh. Who do you admire? I’d have to think. No American politicians. Certainly David Ben-Gurion. But you’re entirely right, he wasn’t going to move there.
Weiss: What about your family?
My eldest brother lived in Israel for a short while. He was there during the 1973 war. He was a bit of a loner. He went there in search of family. When he returned we argued bitterly. But he later turned against Israel with a vengeance. I suppose it was a feeling of betrayal, as the truth slowly sunk in. Now he makes me look like Alan Dershowitz.
My parents perceived the whole world through the prism of the Nazi holocaust. The Red Army defeated the Nazis, so the Russians could do no wrong. A Jew who didn’t support the Soviet Union was a sellout and traitor. Those were the epithets they used. You can laugh, but for my parents it wasn’t a laughing matter.
Israel Gutman was a director of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. My father knew Gutman in Auschwitz. They were on the Auschwitz Death March together, and then in the same Displaced People (DP) camp in Linz, Austria. They both belonged to Hashomer Hatzair, the Zionist youth movement that was pro-Soviet at the time. They were very close. Gutman eventually became—via revelation or prudence—very anti-Soviet. My father lost all respect for him. As far as my father was concerned, he was just another sellout and traitor.
My parents were, as my mother used to put it, the real McCoys. Starting in the 1970s, everyone who had immigrated from Europe after the war pretended to be a Holocaust survivor. Well, my parents were Holocaust survivors.
Every member of my family was exterminated on both sides. No grandparents, aunts, uncles. [He gestures to pictures on his wall.] That was my mother’s father. My mother’s mother. Her two sisters and her brother. If I can point to these pictures, it’s because my mother had an aunt in the US, so before the war my mother’s mother had sent over the pictures.
No pictures survived of my father’s family. My mother once glimpsed from afar my father’s sister in Majdanek before she was killed. Every so often during their marriage, my father would suddenly stand solemn, erect, pensive, as he pled with my mother, “Tell me what she looked like.”
When the Holocaust industry started up in the ‘70s, authentic survivors were in high demand. My parents were not indifferent to money—I’m not going to idealize them—they would not sneer at the opportunity to make a buck. My mother was a witness at a trial of Nazi concentration camp guards from Majdanek in 1979. The survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, several tens of thousands, including my parents, were deported to Majdanek. My mother was going to testify but—I’m not happy to admit this—at one point she wanted the German government to compensate her. I found that really wrong. I’m saying this in the context of, my parents could have cashed in on the Holocaust. Like Elie Wiesel, who was both a mountebank and consummate Holocaust entrepreneur. He accumulated tens of millions of dollars playing the role of a Holocaust survivor.
But the Holocaust industry only let survivors bear witness if they denounced the Soviet Union. The campaign to “Free Soviet Jewry” was in high gear—the Jackson-Vanik amendment, etc. As much as they liked money, there was no way on god’s earth my parents would ever utter a single word critical of the Soviet Union. So they were never asked to speak.
I’ve always respected their fidelity. They loved Stalin even as the Communist Party blushed at his legacy. My mother was very smart. She knew many languages including Latin—to the end of her life she devoured books at a pace that bewildered the local librarian and she effortlessly summoned forth a better vocabulary than my own—was president of her high school class, and went on to study mathematics at Warsaw University. But she refused even to acknowledge that Stalin killed Trotsky. “It was the CIA.” Well, there was no CIA then.
You might call it fanaticism, but at bottom it was faithfulness: however unpopular it might be, you don’t betray a friend. They might have been wrong, but my parents weren’t up for sale. They despised Israel when it aligned with the US in the Cold War at the time of the Korean war. Up until Korea, it was still touch and go. It was unclear which way Israel was going to lean. Mapam, the second largest Israeli political party, was blindly pro-Soviet. It even supported Stalin during the 1953 Doctors’ Plot.