August 17, 1999
Vexing New Book
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
THE HOLOCAUST IN AMERICAN LIFE By Peter Novick. 373 pp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $27.
In his vexing new book, "The Holocaust in American Life," Peter Novick proposes to look at such questions as why has the Holocaust "come to loom so large" in contemporary American culture, what its cultural visibility says about American Jews and American society at large and what consequences its heightened place in our collective memory has on our thinking and our foreign policy. In addressing such issues, Novick, the author of "The Resistance Versus Vichy: The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France" and a founder of the University of Chicago's program in Jewish studies, takes a willfully contrarian attitude toward the Holocaust and those he dismissively refers to as "Holocaust-memory professionals."
He argues that there are no "useful" lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust, and he suggests that the high level of Holocaust awareness in American society stems in large measure from decisions made by Jews who "occupy strategic positions in the mass media" -- remarks that echo assertions made by revisionist historians who play down the Nazi crimes of World War II.
Throughout this book, Novick contests the view that the United States should have done more during World War II to help the Jews, arguing that such "guilt talk" has simply provided useful leverage in persuading Americans that they have a continuing obligation to support Israel. He argues that the question of Allied bombing of the railway lines to the Nazi concentration camps "can be dismissed immediately," because "massive experience" taught us that "bombing rail lines was hardly ever effective," and adds that there were "dim practical possibilities" for other rescue attempts of the Jews.
As for the question of why the United States did not ease its restrictive prewar immigration policy to allow more Jews sanctuary, he writes that America was "still not out of the Depression, with unemployment still high" and that "anti-immigration sentiment was so strong in Congress and among the general public that to open the question for debate seemed likely to worsen rather than to ease conditions; better to leave bad enough alone."
For the first 20 years or so after World War II, Novick observes, the Holocaust was "hardly talked about": survivors were encouraged not to look back but to look forward to building new lives, and the upbeat, universalist Zeitgeist of those postwar years made the Holocaust "an inappropriate symbol of the contemporary mood." In addition, he says, the Cold War -- which taught that the Soviet Union, not Germany, was the new enemy, and totalitarianism, not Nazism, the great evil -- made "the Holocaust the 'wrong atrocity"' for purposes of galvanizing this new thinking.
In the 1960s, all this began to change, as the Eichmann [left] trial raised consciousness of the Holocaust "as an entity in its own right, distinct from Nazi barbarism in general." The anxious prelude to the Six-Day War of 1967 fed fears of a renewed Holocaust among American Jews -- fears heightened further during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which left many with the image of an isolated and vulnerable Israel.
"After 1967, and particularly after 1973," Novick writes, "much of the world came to see the Middle East conflict as grounded in the Palestinian struggle to, belatedly, accomplish the U.N.'s original intention. There were strong reasons for Jewish organizations to ignore all this, however, and instead to conceive of Israel's difficulties as stemming from the world's having forgotten the Holocaust. The Holocaust framework allowed one to put aside as irrelevant any legitimate grounds for criticizing Israel, to avoid even considering the possibility that the rights and wrongs were complex."
While concerns about Israel's security declined in the 1980s and 90s, Novick says, the Holocaust became more of a focal point for American Jews during those same years because it "offered a substitute symbol of infinitely greater moral clarity" than the problematic Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, he suggests, the rise of identity politics and the "culture of victimization" made it acceptable, even fashionable, for American Jews "to embrace a victim identity based on the Holocaust." In his view, the Holocaust became "virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish identity in the late 20th century" as assimilation and intermarriage led to a thinning sense of Jewish commitment among the young.
It is Novick's startling contention that while "there's nothing wrong with the affirmative lessons the Washington Holocaust Museum attempts to teach," such lessons "seem, if not useless, hardly necessary." He argues that the very extremity of the Holocaust and "the extremity of the circumstances in which it unfolded" seriously "limit its capacity to provide lessons applicable in our everyday world," adding that "an unintended consequence of our making the Holocaust our central symbol of atrocity" may in fact be a "desensitization" to other cases of mass death.
In support of this theory, he notes that the Persian Gulf war was motivated by geopolitical considerations, not moral outrage, and that the 1994 Rwandan genocide elicited "not the slightest will in American political circles for any U.S. intervention." He does not address the Kosovo crisis at all (though his book may have well gone to press before NATO air strikes began).
Although Novick has some useful things to say about the dangers of dwelling in the memory of oppression, although he can be eloquent on the sectarian use of the Holocaust as an easy moral touchstone, such observations are completely overshadowed by this volume's deliberate cynicism. Novick writes that survivors' memories "are not a very useful historical source." He glibly tosses around phrases like "the gold medal in the Victimization Olympics" and "Jewish moral capital." He asserts that for Jewish organizations intent on capturing the attention of a younger generation, "the Holocaust looked like the one item in stock with consumer appeal."
This flippant tone reflects Novick's determination to not merely demystify the Holocaust, but to diminish its place in the collective imagination. While he argues that Hitler would triumph if Jews were "to tacitly endorse his definition" of them "as despised pariahs by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience," the words of the scholar Emil Fackenheim remain a potent warning of the real dangers of forgetting the past: "We are commanded [to remember] the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish," he declared in 1967. "We are forbidden . . . to deny or despair of God . . . lest Judaism perish. . . . To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler's victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories."