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Book Reviews

The Holocaust in American Life

By Peter Novick. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999, 373 pp. List: $27.

Reviewed by Rachelle Marshall, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2000, page 100-103

The Holocaust is a familiar topic to almost all Americans, Holocaust studies are included in the curriculum of most high schools and colleges, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, and, like the recent film "Schindler's List," two comedies based on the Holocaust are currently drawing crowds at the box office. But these and similar developments began taking shape less than 30 years ago, long after the events they recall took place.

In his book The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick, a Pulitzer Prizewinning historian at the University of Chicago, writes that the attempt by the German Nazis and their European sympathizers to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II was originally seen as part of a larger catastrophe, a war that took some 30 million lives. Only much later did the murder of 6 million Jews become a separate event, unique in its horror. Today it is a symbol of Jewish persecution and a sacrosanct subject to all Jews and almost all Americans.

Novick traces in rich detail the remark able change that has taken place over the years in how we think about the Holocaust, and how this change was brought about. As a Jewish American and a liberal he asks why the Holocaust has come to play such a prominent role in our culture, even though it was once ignored, even by many Jews. He also asks if this change is desirable. Novick's answers to these questions are certain to provoke controversy, if not rage, among many readers.

In fact, a subtitle to his book might be "The uses and abuses of the Holocaust. Without ever minimizing the horror and extraordinary suffering inflicted on European Jews during the Nazi era, Novick argues that the Holocaust looms so large today in our collective consciousness because Jewish leaders have deliberately used the event to shape Americans' views about Israel and to forge a stronger sense of identity and group loyalty among Jews.

Until the 1960s neither the Holocaust nor Israel were prominent issues. During the 1950s Germany was a Cold War ally and no one wanted to be reminded of its past crimes. An Israel full of impoverished immigrants held little attraction for most American Jews except as an object of charity.

Even the Israelis' spectacular kidnapping in 1962 of Adolf Eichmann, a chief perpetrator of Hitler's "final solution," was widely criticized. William Buckley's National Review, today an ardent supporter of Israel, deplored Eichmann's capture as part of "an attempt to cast suspicion on Germany" and charged that his trial would promote "bitterness, mistrust, the advancement of communist aims." But it was Eichmann's trial, at which a succession of death camp survivors gave their heart-rending evidence, that highlighted for the world the attempted liquidation of the Jews as a separate and distinct crime, of a different order from other Nazi crimes. During Eichmann's trial the word Holocaust first began finding its way into general usage.

The second critical event of the 1960s took place in June 1967, when Israel wiped out the entire Egyptian air force in one surprise attack and in the next six days overran the West Bank, the Sinai, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Jews were no longer seen as passive victims but as brilliant strategists and able soldiers. At the same time, Israel's lightning victory convinced some members of the Lyndon Johnson administration that its public support for Israel could diminish some of the growing American media criticism of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The new image of Israel as a strong and vibrant nation made it possible for Jewish leaders to restore the Holocaust to general consciousness and use it to strengthen Jewish identity and engender support for Israel. With the sharp decline of prejudice against Jews in America and a falling away of young Jews from the synagogue, the Holocaust today serves as a common denominator for all Jews, religious and otherwise, and the single justification for the slogan "We are one." It fills the need to preserve Jewish continuity in the face of increasing intermarriage (which the president of Yeshiva University in New York has likened to "another Holocaust").

During the 1970s and 1980s Jewish leaders used reminders of the Holocaust to counter growing criticism in America of Israel's refusal to return captured Arab territory, its repeated invasions of Lebanon, and its attack on a Libyan airliner that killed over a hundred civilian passengers. The zealously pro-Israel editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, even accused Jews who criticized Israel's 1992 invasion of Lebanon of granting Hitler a "posthumous victory."

Recalling the Holocaust served notice on the world that the wrong done to Jews was so great as to put Israel beyond criticism and justify any action it might take against those it perceives as enemies. As Israeli scholar Avishai Margalit wrote in a 1988 article for the New York Review, "Against the weapon of the Holocaust, the Palestinians are amateurs." (In 1978 the American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC], Israel's principal lobby in Washington, DC even lobbied against the sale of AWAC planes to Saudi Arabia by giving every member of Congress a book on the Holocaust.)

Fortunately, Novick writes, "increasing numbers of American Jews no longer see things as quite so black and white." Nevertheless, the message that Jews are under constant threat from hostile forces remains a central theme of Holocaust remembrance. Ellen Wills, a columnist for the Village Voice, expressed a widely held view when she asserted, "The status of Jews as persecuted outsiders is at the core of what Judaism and Jewishness is about."

Although many Jews, including this reviewer, strongly disagree with that message, it is drummed into the ears of thousands of Jewish teenagers who are taken from the United States every year to visit death camps in Poland. On arrival they are told by an American rabbi, "The world is divided into two parts: those who actively participated with the Nazis and those who passively collaborated with them." Armed Israeli guards who accompany the young people do everything possible to convince them they are in constant danger as long as they are in Poland. At the end of the tour they are flown to Israel, which many by then are convinced is "my real home."

David Roskies, who reviewed the book for Commentary, monthly publication of the American Jewish Committee, criticized Novick for "demystifying Jewish memory itself as nothing but a tool of Zionist politics" and argued that "The use-and yes, the abuse-of Holocaust memory forms part of a much larger mobilization of group memory for the sake of group survival."

Novick acknowledges the appropriateness of "awe and horror when confronting the Holocaust-now and forever," but he sees danger in making the Holocaust central to Jewish identity. In his view, "group memory," with its emphasis on victimhood, too often encourages inward-turning and a sense of otherness on the part of various segments of society. When groups compete over which one suffered the most, the unity necessary for an effective social order is undermined.

One of the many virtues of Novick's book is its fairness. He not only documents each of his statements but takes care to qualify them. As a result it becomes clear to the reader that the Jewish community in America is far from monolithic and includes many who oppose the tribalism of its leaders.

One such critic is Daniel Singer, who, in the Sept. 27 issue of The Nation, described his recent return to Poland, where almost all of his family died in the death camps. Unlike Novick, Singer, who survived only by chance, does find a lesson in the Holocaust, but it is a universalist, not a separatist one: "When you cast somebody out because he is other, different, alien, when you raise ethnicity to a political religion, you start on a slippery slope that, we now know, can lead to hell on earth."

On visiting Auschwitz Singer writes, "My deep links are with the dead whose ashes are interred here. But this should not be interpreted in any nationalistic fashion. The heritage I claim is that of standing on the side of the victims, of the downtrodden, the exploited, whatever their color or passport, black, white or yellow, Palestinian or Jew." Judging by his book, it is a heritage Novick would be willing to claim as well.


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