Jewish Social Studies 7.3 (2001) 159-168
[Access article in PDF]
On Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American
A Review by Eli Lederhendler
No one who has given any serious thought to the subject of how, why, or to what extent we can or should incorporate the Holocaust into our historical awareness and cultural expression can approach Peter Novick's valuable book with indifference.1 Like most attempts to probe beneath widely accepted pieties, this book will disturb many readers. The subject is, of course, highly charged and necessarily laden with the burden of value judgments.
Moreover, the book is a highly personal document, and it therefore elicits a more-than-academic response: "more than academic" and not "less than" because, albeit very personal, The Holocaust in American Life is also generally well researched and ably argued. This book is not just a polemic (though it is that) but also intellectually challenging and stimulating. Unlike some other recent and even more disturbing Holocaust-related polemics, Novick's book never indulges in crude argumentation. My critique is offered, therefore, within an overall appreciative framework.
Novick assembles a great variety of evidence to support the contention that collective memory is shaped primarily by changing factors in our cultural, social, and political environment, overwhelming in the process the historical event as such--a notion that we have more or less internalized as a given since Maurice Halbwachs first suggested it, as Novick points out. Novick applies the theory and seeks to demonstrate that the Holocaust, as it is recalled in America today, is a very different "thing" from what it was from the late 1940s to the 1960s. "Then" it was one among various manifestations of Nazism's brutality (albeit a particularly egregious one), and the Jews were among its primary victims [End Page 159] (though not uniquely so). "Then" the American and Jewish-American response to the event was conditioned by the realities of the Cold War, in which the erstwhile ally, Soviet Russia, had inherited the role of totalitarian enemy, while the erstwhile enemy, Germany, had been cloaked in the mantle of the West's bulwark against communism. "Then" Jews were still sufficiently concerned about ensuring their own place within American society so as to avoid depicting themselves as a victimized pariah people who bore a unique and separate historical fate. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, the Holocaust was reclaimed by Jews as their own particular tragedy; it was projected into the heart of America's social discourse about our treatment of the "other"; and it was deployed politically to argue the case for Israel's endemic vulnerability in the Middle East. The relative silence on the unique victimhood of the Jewish people that prevailed in American discourse in the early postwar years was reversed, and the Holocaust's newly defined centrality to the Jewish experience was institutionalized in ways calculated to protect American Jewish interests, domestic and foreign.
That is the gist of Novick's thesis, and it is also the root of his unease (cultural, political, and, one suspects, temperamental) with the current phase of Holocaust consciousness. He suggests that a Holocaust-centered discourse lends itself too readily to manipulation, exaggeration, and abuse in ways that some of the most active promoters of Holocaust consciousness in the 1970s and 1980s probably did not foresee and to which they (let alone Novick himself) would not wish to subscribe.
Novick will not win any popularity contests for exposing all of this to public scrutiny, nor is his pooh-poohing of the Holocaust-denial phenomenon likely to be received as anything but misguided, if not downright heretical (especially in the wake of Deborah Lipstadt's recent courtroom victory in London). The critical barbs he lobs against the by-now de rigueur Jewish youth pilgrimages to the sites of Nazi concentration camps echo the criticisms already leveled against such trips by others, but the debunking tone of Novick's comments in this regard will strike some as unnecessarily harsh. Finally, he also dares to raise a more speculative question that many will find...