June 13, 1999
The holocaust in the Western mind: how Americans think the unthinkable
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
IT IS hard to read a newspaper without encountering a Holocaust-related story. Swiss banks, looted art, Madeleine Albright's lineage, and events in the Balkans all link the Holocaust to current events.
How and why has the Holocaust come to such prominence in American political and cultural life? Has it been trivialized in the process? In raising these questions, Peter Novick - a University of Chicago history professor who is best known for "That Noble Dream," in which he argued that the objective historian must be a "neutral, or disinterested, judge" - joins a conversation that began more than 20 years ago. Those who have "heard enough" about the Holocaust will welcome his contribution.
In the first portion of the book, which traces the Holocaust's emergence as a symbol in American life, Novick reviews familiar ground. However, having so thoroughly combed the archives of American Jewish organizations, he does provide some insights into their responses to external developments. His analysis is thorough but undifferentiated. He accords a statement by an organization with thousands of members the same significance as one by a paper organization with no members.
Novick argues that American Jews in some groups use the Holocaust to silence their critics, raise money, amass political power, support Israel, and fight intermarriage. He awards them the "gold medal in the victimization Olympics." He attributes the increased discussion of the Holocaust in the late 1960s to Jewish organizations which decided after the Six Day War that referring to the Holocaust was an efficacious way to enhance support for Israel.
In reality, much of the interest in the Holocaust had a dynamic of its own. It did not happen simply because a consultant to a Jewish organization believed this was how to foster support for Israel or to keep Jews from intermarrying. It happened, in great measure, because people - particularly a post-Holocaust generation of baby boomers who felt entirely comfortable as Americans and Jews - wanted to know more about this cataclysmic event.
Novick castigates those who think that aging Nazi war criminals should be prosecuted. Did he feel similarly in 1994 when Byron de la Beckwith, 70, was tried for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, or in 1998 when Sam Bowers, 73, was tried for the fifth time - four previous juries deadlocked - for civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer's murder in 1966. The district attorney justified the lateness of the Bowers conviction as giving "some closure into this matter for the Dahmers." Do Holocaust survivors and their families deserve less?
Novick sometimes hoists with his own petard in his attempt to catch Jews reshaping their tradition to make the Holocaust yield up desired lessons. He accuses Steven Spielberg of choosing the Talmudic epigraph "whoever saves one life saves the world entire" to end the movie "Schindler's List" in order to give the story a universal message. Novick, anxious to expose Spielberg's sleight of hand, observes that the "traditional" version of this saying, the one taught "in all Orthodox yeshivot," speaks of "one life in Israel." But Spielberg's version is more authoritative. It is cited by the Rishonim, the earliest Talmud scholars.
Novick is not wrong regarding the trivialization and abuse of the Holocaust. For more than 20 years scholars have criticized the invoking of the Holocaust by all segments of the Jewish community, religious and secular, liberal and conservative. Jews are told not to intermarry and to reproduce because of the Holocaust. Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi described assimilation as "worse than the Holocaust." Equally outrageous was former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's claim, made to a gathering of Jewish youth at Auschwitz, that had there been a Jewish state, the Allies would have bombed Auschwitz.
But Novick goes further, and herein lies an important weakness of his book. He asserts the Holocaust is the only thing that unites American Jews. The Talmud posited that to determine Jewish law on a certain matter, one should go out and see what the people are doing. But Novick acknowledges that he has been completely uninvolved with the Jewish community for most of his life. In fact, he believes there is no such thing as a Jewish community.
"Organized Jewish community" may be almost an oxymoron; even so, there is community. It is to be found in organizations as well as those places Novick ignores: religious and cultural settings. Enter revitalized synagogues in Boston, New York, Chicago, Berkeley, Los Angles, or myriad other places and you will find vibrant communities thirsting to learn more about their tradition and history. The Holocaust is important to many of these Jews - it may have first brought them inside the door - but it is not what keeps them there.
(A caveat is necessary. When I agreed to review this book, I had no idea that Novick mentions my work along with that of many others. I found my words decontextualized and bearing meager resemblance to their original intent. For example, he claims that I opposed a popular Holocaust middle- and high-school curriculum simply because it compared the Holocaust to Hiroshima. I did criticize the program but not on those grounds alone. I did so because it equated the Holocaust with a multitude of different inhumanities and injustices. As a result, it elided all historical nuance and shades of difference. Moreover, Novick asserts that I posit that those who do not believe the Holocaust is unique are worse than Holocaust deniers. I believe no such thing.)
Finally, Novick argues that because no contemporary act can be compared to the Holocaust, the Holocaust gives us an excuse not to act in other crises. But if not for America's "memory" of the Holocaust, this country would not have responded to the suffering of the Kosovo refugees. When President Clinton spoke of Kosovo he referred to the Holocaust. Reporters repeatedly draw analogies - some spurious - to it. We could have responded earlier, when Slobodan Milosevic first began his terrible activities. The Holocaust has not taught us enough. But it has taught us something. Letting tyrants wreak their havoc, unchecked, propels them to greater atrocities.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.
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© Focal Point 1999 write to David Irving