How Finkelstein Broke the Trauma Bond?

Finkelstein is not just a public intellectual, however: there is something too explosive about the subjects he writes about for that category to completely contain him. He acts out a role that is Grecian in its cosmopolitanism, Abrahamic in its prophetic intensity. It is a role all Christians, Jews and Muslims instinctively – if subliminally – recognize. He is the archetypical Prophet who warns the people in his tribe to stop dancing around the Golden Calf, and tells of their impending doom if they do not. He is Cassandra, who foresees the downfall of her nation; he is the Abrahamic prophets Isaiah, Daniel, and Jeremiah, as well as the heroic figure of Joseph, who astounds the Pharaoh by telling him what his dreams are really about. He is a figure Americans recognize, although they do not want to. He is the Puritan preacher, hurling bolts of rhetorical fury in modern Jeremiads; he is Daniel in the lion’s den; he is tormented and selfish and at times uncouth, but he is also unexpectedly Christ-like, refusing to Abandon his message despite scourging by critics.

What Lawrence Swaim writes on page 174 of his collection of eulogies on several individuals’ “traumatic memory and the struggle against systemic evil” [1] is a culmination of a very subjective narrative about the American political scientist Norman Finkelstein who has paid a high price for challenging Israel and members of the so-called Israel Lobby in the U.S when painstakingly exposing, in his numerous books, Israel’s not-so-favorable conduct in the decades-long war with the Palestinians.

Swaim’s claim that Finkelstein had broken the trauma bond with his late parents, who had both died in 1995, is not certain. In the above telling documentary about him, he remarks that his late mother, Maryla Husyt Finkelstein, who talked about “the war” and her survival in the Warsaw ghetto and Maijdanek concentration camp virtually every day, was very much concerned about his transformation into Frankenstein’s Monster, here “Finkelstein’s Monster”. His outright vitriolic, albeit entirely true, most famous books, “The Holocaust Industry” about the financial and political exploitation of The Holocaust by the American Jewish establishment, and “Beyond Chutzpah” on the “misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history”, but, in particular, on the shoddy scholarship and downright propaganda of his adversary, Israel apologist Professor Alan Dershowitz in his “Case for Israel”, must be regarded as utterly self-destructive. It had to be expected that the Israel Lobby and Alan Dershowitz would destroy Finkelstein’s academic career afterwards.

I am afraid, Finkelstein never broke the trauma bond. Apart from that, what is inexcusable in Swaim’s book is the virtual lack of any references in his quasi-biography, with few exceptions quoting mainly Finkelstein’s own account in his books, articles, and on his blog. Swaim’s narrative contains numerous factual errors which may easily be identified for readers who are faintly familiar with Finkelstein’s fate [2].

So, in general, the chapter on Finkelstein is useless and may well prevent me from reading the other chapters on Eric Lomax, a former British soldier who met and reconciled with the Japanese who had tortured him 50 years before, and Gerry Adams of the IRA and Sinn Fein. Both are claimed, by Swaim [3], to have broken the trauma bond as well.


[1] Swaim L. How Finkelstein broke the Trauma bond and beat the Holocaust. Traumatic Memory and the struggle against systemic evil. Psyche Books, Winchester, UK 2015.

[2] A most personal account on his difficult time as adolescent and young adult by Norman Finkelstein himself is “Haunted House”, published by Monthly Review in 2006, just before tenure was denied by DePaul University on the intervention of Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. It contains a most significant event, when 26-yr-old Norman Finkelstein accompanied his mother in 1979 who had been asked to testify at the 1975-1981 Majdanek Trial in Düsseldorf, Germany.

In 1979 the German government requested that my mother testify at the Maijdanek trial in Dusseldorf.  I accompanied her.  The initial shock came when she discovered that the defendants not only weren’t manacled but moved about freely, unguarded, in the courthouse.   They were even released on their own recognizance every evening after court proceedings were over.  “Those animals,” my mother shrieked, “they’re not in cages?!”

Taking the witness stand to give testimony, my mother was called on by the judge to identify the defendants in the courtroom as the guards she knew in the camp.  She couldn’t.  It had been forbidden for inmates to make direct eye contact with the guards and, anyhow, the Germans sitting in front of her didn’t at all resemble them.  My mother remembered the guards as slim, towering “Aryan” types in crisp uniforms.  Many were now obese, and wearing drab pleated skirts and cheap, wrinkled blouses.  “I can’t believe it,” my mother whispered to me the first day in court, “they’re washwomen.”  The survivor-witness right before my mother also couldn’t identify them.  Ordering the defendants to stand up, the judge told the witness to inspect them from up close.  Approaching the former guards, she now claimed to recognize them from their feet.  I cringed from shame at this obvious falsehood.  Were the spectators in the courtroom thinking “another Jew-liar,” I wondered, and would they now infer that all the testimony was false too?  In fact, the witnesses had been quietly coached ahead of time which defendant in the courtroom was the guard “Hermine,” which “Birgetta,” which “Perelka,” etc.  I still can’t say whether identifying the defendants was just a legal formality, the Germans being sticklers about procedure, or whether it was a subtle plot to discredit survivors.  When the judge asked my mother to identify the guards from up close, she refused, saying that, if she got any nearer, she would beat them.  Exasperated, the judge then asked my mother to identify them from an album collecting contemporary photographs from Maijdanek of the guards.  She again refused.  “I won’t look at them alive in the camp.  If you give me pictures of them dead, not only will I look at them, I’ll do a dance for the courtroom.”  Although my mother might seem in retrospect a willfully uncooperative witness, I don’t fault her.  Having dragged on for years, the Dusseldorf proceedings no longer carried moral weight.  Scores of witnesses had already identified these beasts, and the defendants themselves seemed bored to tears.  Personally, I supported the Soviet style of meting out justice after entering the camps at war’s end: Line them up, shoot them down.

The most notorious of the female guards at Maijdanek was Birgetta.  Whip in hand, she used to stride into the main courtyard of the camp trailed by German shepherds.  One evening after my mother had just given several consecutive hours of testimony, we were exiting the courthouse into the darkness when I noticed, but my mother didn’t, Birgetta casually walking almost shoulder-to-shoulder with me, my mother on the other side.  My whole being started to quiver.  I waited for Birgetta to get several hundred feet ahead, and then turned to my mother: “Do you know who that is?”  “Birgetta?” my mother gasped.  “Yes!  Do you want me to get her?”  “Get her! Get her!” my mother screamed hysterically.  “They think we’re sheep!  They think we’re sheep!”  Although pathologically mindful of my physical safety, afterwards she never expressed regret about commanding me to exact retribution.  In fact I’m certain she would have lost all respect for me if I silently abided this colossal, ineffable affront.  Despising Martin Luther King’s turn-the-other-cheek philosophy, my mother on the contrary admired Malcolm X for advocating that each blow be returned in kind.  To teach them a lesson; to avenge the dead; to keep one’s honor.

[3] Swaim claims to be Executive Director of an obscure Interfaith Freedom Foundation, a “public-interest nonprofit advocating civil rights for religious minorities and religious liberty for all.” Swaim’s account contains numerous anti-Semitic as well as anti-Christian musings.

5 July 2017 @ 10:15 am.

Last modified July 5, 2017.

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