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Novick book reviewed by Milton Goldin: Does Holocaust Remembrance Define Jewishness?


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Author: Suzanna Hicks

Date: Wednesday, June 9, 1999  

H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Holocaust@h-net.msu.edu (June, 1999)

Peter Novick. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 373 pp. Bibliographical references and index. $27.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-395-84009-0.

Reviewed for H-Holocaust by Milton Goldin, H-Holocaust Book Review Editor


AFTER V-J Day in August 1945, I served in Japan--badly wanting out of the Army of the United States, but not because I yearned for a Jewish-oriented milieu. My father's distaste for self-serving Jewish organizational and religious leaders had deeply influenced me. True, I had great affection for the Eastern-European culture of my parents, and was shocked by fragmentary reports about the unspeakable fate of Ukrainian Jewry. But the horror I witnessed in the Pacific left me reluctant to learn more about catastrophes, and it would take several years before I began to study the scope and meanings of the Holocaust. Peter Novick indicates that many others took emotional and intellectual journeys similar to mine. His discussions of starts, stops, and detours commonly encountered make this book required reading for anyone interested in learning how Holocaust remembrance eventually became the ultimate expression of American-Jewish belongingness.

Novick's Dramatis Personae include Hannah Arendt, Norman Podhoretz, Elie Wiesel, and major Jewish organizations and institutions such as the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the United States Holocaust Museum. He divides his discussion into five parts: The War Years, The Postwar Years, The Years of Transition, Recent Years, and Future Years. The critical question that underlies the volume is succinctly posed on the Introduction's first page: "Part of my puzzlement about how Americans became so 'Holocaust conscious' had to do with timing: why now?"

Indeed, why now? Publics usually react to events during or immediately after their occurrences. But American Jews initially ignored the Holocaust, and not until several years after World War II did it mushroom into a subject that received maximum attention in the media. During the transition period, some individuals (Gentiles as well as Jews) came to see themselves as almost Divinely Sanctioned to carry forth the work of explaining the event. (In an opposing camp, revisionists, and those who are not revisionists but lean to accusing Jews of Holocaust "hysteria," came to see themselves as sanctioned to advise others that if genocide did occur, it didn't occur for reasons most Jews think. But if it did occur for reasons most Jews think, what actually occurred can be blamed on circumstances beyond the control of those Gentiles who made it happen. Yes, that's the logic.)

On the face of it, given the sorry intellectual stance of revisionists and neo-revisionists, it should by now be a walkaway for Jewish organizational spokespersons to argue the relevance of the Holocaust to human life, not just to Jewish life. But what emerges from Novick's pages is that Jewish Establishments and many of their most dedicated adherents have shared a depressing tendency to cut Jewish history to style (especially to the styles of American and Israeli politicians and some Holocaust survivors) and/or to make predictions about anti-Semitism not proved accurate by later findings. As if this weren't enough to cause concern among the rest of us, there has developed a tendency to press for the Holocaust rather than for Judaism to be the critical element in the lives of Jews.

As a pundit, Norman Podhoretz is second to none. Novick tells us that in 1957, Podhoretz "surveyed contemporary Jewish attitudes in an article, 'The Intellectual and Jewish Fate' a title that might seem to promise a discussion centering on the Holocaust. It was not even mentioned" (p. 105). Nor did Podhoretz mention the Holocaust in his 1967 memoir, Making it. By the late 1960s, however, Podhoretz became worried that a "moral statute of limitations ran out on the Holocaust" and that a "'golden age' [for American Jews] was over: no longer were Jews fully accepted as equals, indeed, even their physical safety could no longer be assumed" (p. 171). Podhoretz has since failed to explain how it is that the Holocaust is discussed more frequently today than ever before (including by himself) and why overt anti-Semitism occurs in America less frequently than it did in the past.

Israeli lobbying against discussion of the 1915 Turkish massacres of Armenians (Turkey and Israel maintain diplomatic ties) persuaded Elie Wiesel to withdraw from an international conference on genocide, in Tel Aviv. On the other hand, he helped initiate "an intense struggle ... [with] Jewish staffers in the White House ... [relative to] how the Holocaust should be described [in the Holocaust Memorial Museum]--who would be included. It was 'morally repugnant' said one presidential aide, 'to create a category of second-class [non-Jewish] victims of the Holocaust as Mr. Wiesel would have us do,'" (p. 218). Wiesel finally did agree that all victims should be remembered. Nonetheless, he insisted that Jewish survivors constituted a sort of priesthood of Holocaust historians, best able to relate what had happened; "the truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes. Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so."[1]

Serving as a reader for a publishing house, Hannah Arendt advised against publication of Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews. She then used his book (issued by Chicago's Quadrangle Books, in 1961) as a prime reference for Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published after the Eichmann trial. Writers who lauded Hilberg assailed Arendt because she considered Eichmann a man whose very ordinariness helped make a Holocaust possible, rather than as an evil genius who diabolically planned a genocide. (Podhoretz wrote that "the traditional version, pure evil versus pure good, was preferable to her story: 'complex, unsentimental, riddled with paradox and ambiguity,'" [p. 136].) Worse, for several pundits, Arendt (like Hilberg) sharply criticized Judenrat members. She believed that as leaders of Jewish communities it was incumbent upon them to set examples of courage. In her view, they did not do so.

Which brings us to, why now? The answer, according to Novick, has less to do with debates about history than with the present situation of the American Jewish community. That it continues to disintegrate does not surprise anyone with even a casual interest in Jewish affairs. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey appalled readers, suggesting that there might only be the remnant of an American Jewish community within a hundred years. Pundits, academics, and the Orthodox advised that this development had transpired because of intermarriage, which must be strenuously discouraged. Or, if preventing intermarriage proved impossible, non-Jewish spouses must convert to Judaism.

As usual in such instances, however, romance proved a stronger force than exhortations to righteous behavior. The intermarriage rate has annually increased and there have been no reports of overwhelming requests from non-Jewish spouses to convert.

Thus the use of the Holocaust to hold together the community by demonstrating the validity of Orthodox and Zionist claims that no matter what assimilationists may claim or intermarried couples may hope, Jews, half-Jews, and individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent live in a hostile world, at the mercy of Gentiles who may at any time break loose from moral moorings. No person with even a trace of Jewish blood or with loyalty to Judaism can conceivably be safe--unless they live in the Jewish State or isolate themselves from Gentile influences to the degree possible in the modern world.

Novick responds, "There is a sense in which Emil Fackenheim was right to say that for Jews to forget Hitler's victims would be to grant him a 'posthumous victory.' But it would be an even greater posthumous victory for Hitler were we to tacitly endorse his definition of ourselves as despised pariahs by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience" (p. 281).

Finally, a comment on Jewish giving to UJA (based on my experience as a development professional for forty-five years). Novick tells us that a major reason for initial donations to Israel was guilt and remorse at not having done more to save European Jewries (p. 75), and I certainly saw proof of that. But what I also saw was figurative arm-twisting. "Card-calling" that is, a buyer of goods or services calling on suppliers for pledges, flowered. It was the best method that professional fundraisers could think of to inspire prospects to actually part with cash, including those who most loudly proclaimed their unswerving dedication to Zionist beliefs.


[1]. Wiesel, Elie. From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 166.


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A Correction by Professor Novick . . .

From: Peter Novick

A minor correction to Milton Goldin's review of my THE HOLOCAUST IN AMERICAN LIFE.

Goldin writes: "Novick tells us that a major reason for initial donations to Israel was guilt and remorse at not having done more to save European Jewries (p. 75)."

In fact, on the page cited, I say THE REVERSE. This is part of a general discussion of the widespread notion that, after World War II, Jews, as well as some gentiles, felt guilty for having failed to do more to save Jews during the Holocaust. For the argument regarding gentiles, members of the list will have to consult the book. But I then write, regarding Jews, as follows on p. 75 [italics indicated by capitalization]:

"There is a parallel myth, widespread in Jewish circles, that American Jews converted to Zionism after the war because of guilt for THEIR inaction. . . . American Jews did indeed . . . work with unprecedented zeal first for unrestricted immigration to Palestine and later for statehood. . . . It was a chance to do what could be done for the survivors of the Holocaust, work undertaken not because of guilt for having done nothing for rescue, but, during the war, because rescue then seemed impossible, and after the war, because rescue had hitherto seemed impossible. It was an outlet for a frustrated desire to do something for European Jewry. When the world 'guilt' surfaced after the war, it usually referred to not having been ABLE, rather than not having been WILLING, to effect rescue." I then quote Jewish communal leaders' remarks during fund-raising drives in ways which illustrate this.

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