“There is no salvation to he extracted from the Holocaust, no faltering Judaism can he revived by it, no new reason for the continuation of the Jewish people can he found in it. If there is hope after the Holocaust, it is because to those who believe, the voice of the Prophets speaks more loudly than did Hitler, and because the divine promise sweeps over the crematoria and silences the voice of Auschwitz.”—Michael Wyschogrod “Faith and the Holocaust”
Almost half of all Americans are unable to locate Mexico on the map, but you do not have to know when the Nazi holocaust occurred to notice that the further that event recedes in time, the more overwhelmingly it looms upon die American scene. Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life is an attempt at explaining why.
From World War II until the mid-1960’s, neither the holocaust nor the state of Israel loomed large in the American consciousness, Jewish or gentile. Before the war, it escaped no one’s attention that the Third Reich was hostile to Jews, but then there seemed to be a lot of other people the regime did not like, too. As the war progressed, rumors and, later, documented stories of anti-semitic atrocities surfaced—in the context of a global struggle that ultimately took between 50 and 60 million lives. This, Novick stresses, was the perception of many American Jews, as well as non-Jews. The press, recalling how often it had been duped and manipulated a quarter-century before by the White House and George Creel, was understandably sensitive to the possibilities for exaggeration, while government agencies like the U.S. Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information hesitated to disseminate such seemingly fantastic stories for fear of forfeiting credibility. By the middle of the war, when authenticated accounts of the mass murder of European Jewry emerged, these also were accepted in the context of a full decade of Nazi atrocities. To the extent that the Jews’ special victimhood was de-emphasized by Allied propagandists, this was due significantly to their governments’ desire to portray “free men everywhere” as the object of the Nazi assault—and to Washington’s care to avoid the charge of having gone to war on behalf of European Jews and at the behest of American ones. The genocidal program was, of course, all too real. And yet, Novick says,
“the Holocaust,” as we speak of it today, was largely a retrospective construction, something that would not have been recognizable to most people at the time. To speak of “the Holocaust” as a distinct entity, which Americans responded to (or failed to respond to) in various ways, is to introduce an anachronism that stands in the way of understanding contemporary responses.
Since the 1970’s, the fashion has been to condemn the British and American war governments for “abandoning” and “writing off the Jews of Europe—even for “complicity” in murdering them. At the time, a delegation of American Jewish leaders meeting with Franklin Roosevelt apparently thought it unreasonable to ask the President for anything more than a formal warning that those responsible for murdering Jews would be held accountable after the war, while Zionists themselves considered their European coreligionists doomed by unalterable circumstance.
What the liberating armies found as they swept across enemy territory ended all speculation concerning the fate of the Jews by confirming the worst Allied intelligence reports. Even so, once the first international shock had subsided, postwar political vectors worked against invoking—much less exploiting—the holocaust as a separate and distinct enormity. With the nearly immediate onset of the Cold War, the West needed Germany’s help in confronting its former ally, the Soviet Union. The enemy was now “totalitarianism,” understood as a system of political repression rather than genocide; consequently, the liquidation of the Jews was presented as a crime committed not by the German people but rather by a totalitarian regime: “The constant iteration of this theme,” Novick explains, “reinforced the already existing tendency to define the victims of Nazism in political rather than ethnic terms.” Yet there was more to it than this. The holocaust of Hiroshima made a greater impression on Americans than did the European holocaust, as a catastrophe that—quite imaginably—might befall them. The aftermath of the Allied victory was an era that celebrated victors, not victims. Contemporary Jewish theologians found no religious significance in the holocaust. Finally, as antisemitism (partly in response to the holocaust) waned in America, American Jews felt more secure, although Jewish leaders felt constrained throughout the 1950’s to distance the American Jewish community from the Communist Party. It was in the 50’s that Nathan Glazer wrote of the holocaust having little effect on the “inner life of American Jewry,” while Norman Podhoretz, in an article titled “The Intellectual and Jewish Fate,” failed even to mention the event. On three separate occasions in the late 40’s, a number of important Jewish organizations—including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Congress—were asked to sponsor a proposed holocaust memorial in New York City. Three times the answer was no, the reason given that “a perpetual memorial to the weakness and defenselessness of the Jewish people” would “not be ill the best interests of Jewry.”
While “private sorrow” lingered, Novick suggests, it required “official sanction” in order to become a “public communal emblem.” Official encouragement was what followed after the mid-60’s, the catalyst having been the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which presented the holocaust for the first time as a distinct atrocity to the American public and freed American Jews of many of their inhibitions so far as speaking publicly about it went. (Norman Podhoretz, reacting furiously to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem for the book’s banality-of-evil thesis, insisted that “No person could have joined the Nazi party, let alone the S.S., who was not at the very least a victim anti-Semite; to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of anti-Semitism . . . [or] the nature of evil.”) If Eichmann was the catalyst, however, the proximate cause of the sea change was the Six Day War in the late spring of 1967. Before the war, Israel had not been of particular importance to American Jews; after it the holocaust, in Peter Novick’s words, “was suddenly transformed from ‘mere,’ albeit tragic, history to imminent and terrifying prospect.”
On the heels of war, what Novick calls the “Israelization” of American Jews occurred. Israel’s victory presented Jews as victors rather than victims and, by balancing the holocaust of a quarter-century before, became a functional part of what Rabbi Jacob Neusner has described as a salvation myth. Reciprocally, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which began with a series of stunning Israeli reverses, had the opposite effect. By then, Israel had enough enemies in the international community to make American Jews question whether the United States would continue to stand fast as that country’s guarantor; to many of these, Israel began to seem comparable to the European Jewish community before World War II. Regarding with trepidation the decline of Israel’s standing in the world, American Jewish leaders concluded that forgetfulness of the holocaust was significantly at fault. The result was the constant invocation, after 1973, of Hitler’s pogrom to stifle criticism of Israel (Martin Peretz, the owner of the New Republic, accused the United States of “complicity” in the butchery of the Jews). This misuse of history peaked in the late 70’s before becoming increasingly implausible throughout the 80’s as Israel achieved a commanding position in the Middle East, its security problems attributable less to antisemitism than to its prolonged military rule over a million-and-a-half Palestinians. As Israel’s strength increased in the 80’s and 90’s, the holocaust—that other twin pillar of secular Judaism—became more “centering,” as Novick puts it. “[A]s larger numbers of American Jews no longer saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black-and-white terms, the Holocaust offered a substitute symbol of infinitely greater moral clarity.”
As the 70’s got under way, the Jewish-American leadership had something more on its collective mind than the threat to Israel: It perceived a “new antisemitism” here in the United States. The “golden age” of the Jews in America, Norman Podhoretz claimed, was over. Jews were no longer accepted as equals in American society, where even their physical safety could not be assumed; to Earl Raab, America seemed “inhospitable” and indeed “hostile” toward Jewish Americans. These charges rested substantially on a process of defining deviance upward, by which “antisemitism” became “callous indifference to Jewish concerns” and apprehensions. The proximate occasion for such concern was what Diane Ravitch, writing in Commentary, called “The Great School Wars,” fought in New York City over community control of the public schools, and other “vibrations,” picked up by the sensitive antennae of Jewish leaders, that Novick nevertheless describes as “almost laughably trivial,” “a series of anti-Semitic remarks made by a few militant blacks in the late sixties, as the civil rights movement was collapsing into impotence and disarray.” (Podhoretz, in conversation with a journalistic supporter of community control, accused him of wanting to “shove the Jewish people back into the gas ovens.”)
The School Wars were soon nearly as lost to memory as the Wars of the Roses, yet after the late 60’s a change became apparent in the American Jewish community. Jewish philanthropists gave more of their money to Jewish causes, and Jews generally, while remaining Democrats, grew more conservative. Though the “golden age” in reality was more gilded than ever, American Jews began to worry about being “killed by kindness”—meaning intermarriage with gentiles specifically as well as, more broadly, a loss of Jewish identity. The process, of course, fit well with the rise of ethnic consciousness among all minority groups, with the resultant identity politics and the competitive politics of victimhood. In an atmosphere in which Tikkun expressed the desire that Jews not be rolled together with the white American majority—even questioning whether Jews are really “white”—the holocaust mushroomed on the American scene as purveyors of holocaust awareness claimed for its victims the status of having experienced a level or type of suffering unique in human history. Jacob Neusner, dismissing this claim as “intellectually vulgar,” protested, “If you know who you are, you don’t have to make statements like that.” To which Novick adds:
In part it may be because many Jews don’t know who they are, except insofar as they have a “unique” victim identity, and because the uniqueness of the Holocaust is the sole guarantor of
For whatever reasons, the holocaust has become “sacralized” in the “folk Judaism” of America (particularly among the least observant American Jews), made the basis of a “mystery religion” in which survivors have assumed the role of priests: a process forwarded by President Carter’s establishment of a holocaust commission in 1977 to commemorate Israel’s 30th birthday, by NBC’s Holocaust miniseries (the network’s answer to ABC’s Roots) in 1978, and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. While the popularity of holocaust material with American Jews to a certain extent needs no explaining, Novick emphasizes that:
its rise to the top of the Jewish agenda was by no means a spontaneous development. More than anything else, it was the consequence of decisions made by communal leaders in response to their appraisals of current communal needs—of what worked in dealing with immediate problems. That the end result . . . would be to put the Holocaust at the center of how Jews understood themselves and wanted others to understand them was neither foreseen nor intended by most of those who set the process in motion.
Like most Jewish religious leaders and scholars, Novick is unable to discern anything “revelational” in the holocaust. Elie Wiesel, among others, insists that it amounts to a “unique” event with “universal” implications. But how, Novick asks, can the holocaust be unique and universal at the same time? And how can it be both an illustration and a source of historical lessons? For Novick, the holocaust’s utility in providing instruction for the quotidian world is extremely limited, unless one believes feelings of “awe” and “horror” amount to moral lessons. Oprah Winfrey congratulated herself on having become “a better person” after watching Schindler’s List, while many other viewers claimed the film provoked “horror” and “grief in them. But why, Novick wants to know, are these reactions that need or ought to be drawn from Americans?
In the United States, memory of the Holocaust is so banal, so inconsequential, not memory at all, precisely because it is so uncontroversial, so unrelated to real divisions in American society, so
The American people bear no responsibility for the holocaust. Yet its treatment in contemporary culture, Novick suggests, may have the effect of desensitizing Americans to other atrocities and unpleasant events, some of which they are answerable for. Observing the original impetus behind the “centering” of the holocaust to have spent itself at least in part, he feels something like relief:
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.
The Holocaust in American Life is a valuable as well as fascinating work; its sole fault, to mv mind, is that conceptually it is somewhat free-floating. “The memory of the Holocaust,” Novick suggests,
probably tended to inhibit public criticism of Israel. (The Holocaust made most Americans bend over backward to avoid anything that could be represented, or misrepresented, as anti-Semitism.) But earlier there wasn’t that much criticism of Israel to inhibit; in recent years, criticism hasn’t been that inhibited.
It was at this point—page 166—that I cheeked the index for the absent names of Patrick J. Buchanan and Joseph Sobran, before coming on the next page to Novick’s observation that:
unlike just about every other issue on which interest groups work to win congressional support—things like abortion, gun control, and affirmative action—there have been no significant forces in the legislative arena opposing [pro-Israeli lobbyists].
Peter Novick, who is himself Jewish, has displayed great courage in engaging this inflammatory subject, and if his account displays occasional lacunae or absence of a critical dimension, the explanation may lie in the author’s closeness to the subject.
[The Holocaust in American Life, by Peter Novick (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.) 373 pp., $27.00]