Jewish Social Studies 7.3 (2001) 149-158
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On Peter Novick's Holocaust in American Life
A Review by Berel Lang
In 1988, Peter Novick published That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession, 1 in which he criticized the sometime ideal among American historians of writing neutral or objective historical accounts--epitomized in Leopold von Ranke's conception of history written "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" ("as it actually was"). That ideal, Novick argued, was--is--illusory: a "noble dream," in Carl Becker's phrase (and not always, according to Novick, all that noble). In The Holocaust in American Life, published in 1999, 2 Novick now provides a vivid illustration of his own thesis, though not, one supposes, by design. The tendentiousness and ideological tilt he found in the work of other historians is here on prominent display; his conclusions, too, go beyond the evidence from which his accusations of the artifice of Holocaust "centrality" and its harmful effects on the American Jewish community and the larger American public allegedly follow. "Allegedly," because the three basic conclusions to which Novick lays claim do not in fact follow from his premises:
1. Question: What is the place of the Holocaust in American life? Answer : Large. Too large. For American Jewish life, much too large. 2. Question: What caused this? Answer : Interests and calculations unrelated to the Holocaust: an uncertain American Jewish identity that looked to a "new antisemitism" (or a new version of the old) for sustenance; the fading Cold War that opened the door to repressed recriminations against Germany; threats to Israel in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars inviting the use of the Holocaust as a metaphor (or more); and--nourished by all of these--a [End Page 149] self-serving "cadre of Holocaust memory professionals" (Novick's version of "Shoah Business").
3. Question: What are the consequences of Holocaust-centrism? Answer : Bad. Competition for the title of victim among religious and ethnic groups. Disdain and insensitivity to the suffering of others (especially by Jews). Self-definition by American Jews in Holocaust terms--thus as victims, thus also in terms of piety and privilege. A swing to the political right among American Jews. Advocacy of a hard-line Middle East policy against the Arabs. "Un-Jewish" (that is, "Christian") ritualization of the Holocaust in Jewish practice. A search for lessons in the Holocaust--misleading because no morals should (can?) be drawn from extreme cases.
None of these three parts of Novick's thesis is beyond the reach of evidence; each might in principle be demonstrated. But, as they appear in his account, none of them is. The evidence he does provide is partial in both that term's meanings, undermining his conclusions at every juncture that goes beyond the commonplace assertion that the Holocaust has at times been exploited by different groups for their own interests. (Who, incidentally, would deny this? Novick's indignation comes 20 years after Robert Alter wrote about the "deformations of the Holocaust," with Alter himself not the first to express such misgivings. And this is apart from the by-now wholesale exploitation of any notable event that the media get their arms around; in this respect, Novick's attack on uniqueness-claims for the Holocaust is surely warranted.)
Novick's conclusions, then, emerge as caricatures (near tautologies) on the one hand, and disfiguring, in their specific historical reach, on the other. They are no more warranted by his evidence than are their contradictories--which, indeed, other writers have, with stronger arguments, defended.
The thread of mean-spirited moralism running through Novick's book--the "few cheap tears" by which he epitomizes the allegedly exaggerated view of the Holocaust in post-Holocaust eyes--is thus no accident: it fills the vacuum between his evidence and his conclusions. To be sure, Novick does not contend that the Holocaust as it now appears is only a "retrospective construct" (p. 20), but he does view it as a construct and says little in these pages about the significance of the Holocaust un-constructed...