Victims of History

In American society the Holocaust is far from a dimly recognized historical event. A rather shorthand version of it is so deeply rooted in our understanding of modern history that it is invoked to illustrate all sorts of moral "lessons," from the culpability of indifference to the criminality of legalized abortion. But for otherwise ignorant Americans—or even American Jews—such name recognition may not be a boon. According to Peter Novick, this "Holocaust consciousness" allows Jews to triumph in the "Victimization Olympics."

Part social history, part monkey wrench, The Holocaust in American Life charts "Holocaust consciousness" among Americans during the last half-century. Using government documents, internal records of mainstream Jewish organizations, memoirs, and media coverage of Holocaust-related events, Novick argues that the destruction of European Jewry is now central to American Jewish self- understanding and that this "centrality" developed mainly in response to Israel's military crises in the '70s, which to many seemed ominously like 1935 Nuremburg.

Jewish leaders began an ambitious campaign of "Holocaust programming" through commemorations and in the media. For the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust, for example, the American Jewish Committee distributed millions of study guides; another group handed out yellow stars to be worn on the first night of the miniseries. By the late '70s, Jewish college students crammed Holocaust-related courses even as they stayed out Friday nights and let their prayer books gather dust. Now, as assimilation continues and support for Israel wanes, a sense of "honorary survivorship"—the knowledge that they might have been among Hitler's victims—is "virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish identity in the late twentieth century." This shared sense of themselves as survivors has pitted Jews against Native Americans, African Americans, and other groups in a morbid competition over whether or not Nazi oppression was the most complete, murderous, and diabolical ever.

Novick argues not against the Holocaust's importance, but against Jews' supposed Holocaust "fixation." This neurosis is aggravated by the mystical notion of Holocaust "uniqueness," that it is singularly unlike any other event, incomprehensible, unrepresentable—a theory (most notably advanced by Elie Wiesel) he accuses of being "quite vacuous." Any historical event can be compared and contrasted with any other; to discourage doing so is not only "intellectually empty" but "deeply offensive."

The truculence of Novick's conclusions seems destined to put many off. This is unfortunate, because this book makes intellectual history exciting by showing how what American Jews initially understood to be an example of their own weakness became a universal signifier of modern brutality and moral responsibility. Even though Jews and gentiles of the late '40s and '50s knew Hitler had murdered the 6 million, they reckoned these deaths as but one component of a gruesome war toll. Novick points out that seeing the Holocaust as an event in itself, and a mainly Jewish one, only began when American journalists covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961.

Unfortunately, Novick often falls into the trap of seeing everything since the mid '70s or so as "current events," as if the headlines of 1999 could have appeared in 1979 and vice versa. For instance, he finds the rise of identity politics and the cultural emphasis on being victimized (his historical backdrop to Jewish Holocaust obsession) "from the 1960s on." Haven't these trends only become significant in the past 15 years or so? My hunch is that they're the poisoned fruit of a withered Cold War liberalism, which while it was in bloom was probably the most important ideological reason for the rapid postwar decline of anti-Semitism. Culturally, "victim status" received a huge boost after 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association created the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. While this produced such tangible social changes as increased services for combat veterans and the awarding of legal damages for psychological suffering, it has also changed the way we evaluate victims, including Holocaust survivors. Novick's account of these changes seems rooted less in historical reality than in his disappointment with the flavor of '90s politics.

In his conclusion, Novick strikes a tentative tone when he returns to the question of American Jewish identity. What might replace the Holocaust as "the emblematic Jewish experience"? One expects Novick to offer an optimistic alternative vision that incorporates but doesn't emphasize the genocide. But he doesn't—perhaps implying that the answer to the Jewish-identity question lies in the very un-Jewish idea of not asking in the first place.

 
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