Here's a weird blink-and-you'd-miss-it type story. On Friday morning, the Left-wing press Verso ("the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world") published a blog post to mark the approach of Holocaust Memorial Day. The article was a list of recommended reading about the Holocaust and it included two rather colourful titles. One was The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and the other, The Invention of the Jewish People. A few hours later, Verso took the blog post down. Why?
According to its blurb, in The Holocaust Industry author Norman Finkelstein explores how "America's Jewish community … exploited the Holocaust to enhance [Israel's] status." On Finkelstein's website, he writes that his book documents "the Holocaust industry's blackmail of European governments in the name of 'needy Holocaust victims' and then the shakedown of Holocaust victims by the Jewish organisations that pocketed the 'Holocaust compensation' monies." I should like to stress that all those inverted commas are Finkelstein's – not mine.
Meanwhile, The Invention of the Jewish People, by Shlomo Sand, challenges the traditional Diaspora story by arguing that Judaism spread by conversion rather than ethnic migration. The DNA debate on this issue is raging right now, but while the question of ethnicity is an empirical matter the moral implications are far more emotive. Sand told the Guardian that he wrote the book for a double purpose: "First, as an Israeli, to democratise the state; to make it a real republic. Second, I wrote the book against Jewish essentialism." This challenge to the link between ethnicity and faith earned the book some notably scathing reviews. The New Republic called it "deplorable."
The books have their defenders as well as their detractors, with most of the praise coming from Marxist scholars (Chomsky apparently liked The Holocaust Industry and Hobsbawm went for The Invention of the Jewish People). What links the texts is that they attempt to debunk some part of the Israel story by discussing political myth making – and some would argue that they indirectly provide intellectual ammunition to its critics. If you doubt that, consider that both titles appeared on a 2012 reading list published by Verso titled "Explaining the Israel-Palestine Conflict" – a list that promoted participation in a demonstration against the bombing in Gaza. It's not unreasonable to infer that Verso wanted to use Holocaust Memorial Day to encourage a similar debate about Zionism in 2013 by advertising Finkelstein and Sand's books. Is that an appropriate thing to do on a day of remembrance? Obviously something plucked at the conscience of the folks at Verso, because after a journalist pointed out how strange a choice the titles are the page promoting them suddenly disappeared.
Verso isn't some crazy extremist press run out of a mad man's front room – its authors include Owen Jones, Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton and Seumas Milne (although it also boasts about having Fidel Castro and Leon Trotsky on its books – I bet Castro is a tough negotiator on royalties). But Verso seems to have fallen victim to the militant tendency among some critics of Israel to think that Holocaust Memorial Day is an appropriate opportunity to start a political debate about Zionism. MP David Ward's schoolboy observations about the machinations of "those Jews" is but one example – Toby Young provides plenty of others. Whether or not this is anti-Semitism is probably for the target of the criticism to decide rather than this Catholic third party. But it does seem like a gross collective failure of sensitivity. Someone needs to remind these people that politics isn't everything and everything isn't political. Holocaust Memorial Day is more sacred than that.