“On Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life” by Eli Lederhandler

Reference: Jewish Social Studies

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 (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 the most disturbing of all: is the concept of “lessons of the Holocaust” at all justified by the realities supposedly embraced by those “lessons,” or is the tendency to evoke the Final Solution in relation to a variety of current issues so problematic from an ethical or political point of view as to make the drawing of such “lessons” suspect, if not counterproductive? What if “more” Holocaust awareness should turn out to be “less” effective, after all, and where will that leave us? Disturbing, yes; but what else, one wonders, should a book be that asks us to seriously reconsider a half-century of Holocaust-related discourse?

I venture to say that I am not alone in sharing Novick’s unease, but, though not alone in that sense, I find myself in a somewhat awkward position as a reviewer because of my personal stake in this discussion. A few confessions are in order here. Twenty-five years ago, just out of college, I was what Novick might call an active promoter of Holocaust consciousness. At the time I am referring to, a prominent Jewish educator in Baltimore (where I was teaching) had offered his opinion in print that it was unwise to “overdo” the curricular treatment of the Holocaust. Intrepid youth that I was, I entered the fray with a response in which I argued that American Jewry had not yet begun to “confront” the Holocaust, let alone being in danger of wallowing in it. At the Zionist summer camp where I worked that summer, I organized a Tisha be-av program around a mini-Yad Vashem (a traveling exhibit provided by the Jewish Agency) and saw to it that every last camper walked through that exhibit.

Growing up in a Yiddish-oriented cultural community in the Bronx in the 1950s and 1960s, in a home where one parent was a war refugee who had lost his entire immediate family to the Nazis, I was, by the age of 12, quite familiar with the broad outlines (and some details) of what had happened to the Jewish people a decade before my birth. This is not to say that the Holocaust was foregrounded as the essential foundation of my Jewish identity (Jewish holidays, Israel, and the Yiddish language were all far more essential), but it was inevitably present as a corollary to all other Jewish cultural and ethnic associations that I had. It was clear to me in my teens and early twenties that most American Jews had not traveled that same cultural road, and I was determined (in my hubris) to do what I could to change that, for their sake.

Fast forward about 20 years: by the 1990s, I had absorbed the arguments of scholars I respected who contended that, by assigning a central priority to Holocaust-consciousness, the Jewish public (in America, in particular) was shortchanging its own cultural prospects. On the one hand, Jewishness was never reducible to victimhood, nor could a murder-victim culture create something positive to live by. On the other hand, and in a more personal vein, I was led to a more balanced understanding of what Holocaust consciousness might mean in terms of concrete life experiences. Living in Jerusalem, I was faced with a parent’s quandary when my daughter’s twelfth-grade class was planning a trip to Poland. Should she participate? Ought I, who to this day cannot bring myself to set foot in Germany (or Poland, for that matter), encourage my daughter to visit the sites of ghettos and concentration camps? I decided to honor my daughter’s wish to participate in the trip along with her classmates because this was no superficial “quickie” but rather a program that included four months of intensive preparatory study of four centuries of Polish Jewish life and culture. That was the kind of contextualization that resonated with my own early socialization. My daughter had been brought up with a great deal of positive Jewish content both at home and at school, to say nothing of her Israeli identity; there was no danger here of the Holocaust becoming the lynchpin of her Jewishness, nor was there any need to “reinforce” her attachment either to Israel or to the Jewish people. And, not the least of my considerations, my father had recently passed away and I felt that someone in the family ought to make the symbolic journey to his point of origin. As much as I felt personally unable to do so, I was confident of my daughter’s willingness and ability to undertake the task. All of this was confirmed, after the fact, by how she reacted to her experiences.

Finally, when I came (somewhat belatedly) to read Novick’s book, it was a year after I had completed work on the manuscript of my own book, a treatment of the changing nature of Jewish ethnic culture in postwar New York, in which I interwove an argument that dovetails, in part, with some of Novick’s thesis. There, and in a paper I delivered at Yad Vashem, I argued that the perceived contrast between “silence” about the Holocaust in the early postwar years and its “centrality” after the late 1960s is overdrawn. I pointed to the changing status of both ethnoracial particularism and victimhood in American social and political discourse–manifestations of which were evidenced very sharply in New York City in the 1960s–as a factor that lay behind a paradigmatic change in Jewish discourse about the Holocaust. Like Novick, I see that change as one evolving away from universalistic tendencies and toward a particularistic one. Like Novick, again, I reread Hannah Arendt in the context of the cultural politics of the 1960s and found her complex arguments on totalitarianism, on Nazism, on the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and on Eichmann to have been vastly oversimplified and misunderstood by her vociferous critics. Unlike Novick, however, I did not highlight the Cold War as a determining influence in the late 1940s and 1950s–a factor that Novick very astutely reads as an inhibitor of public Jewish discourse about the Holocaust. I also did not examine the role of Jewish organizations and leaders in assigning priority to a redefined rhetoric of the Holocaust, in the context of shoring up Israel’s international position. (2)

With all of those caveats noted, I have the sense of having found a kindred spirit in Novick; but, having traveled a parallel but very different route, I cannot wholly subscribe to everything he has to say. My differences with Novick are not of a frontal nature but rather come mostly under the heading of balance, nuance, and emphasis. Let me outline briefly a few things that trouble me in Novick’s analysis, which I find otherwise commendable and reasonable. (There are also a couple of small factual quibbles that I mention in the endnotes, below.) (3)

First, I believe that he underrates the influence of the Holocaust on American Jewry in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the result that, when he comes to discuss Holocaust consciousness as a new “possessive” characteristic of American Jews from the early 1970s onward, it does seem to spring from a wholly new set of representations. By setting up the contrast in that way, Novick lends added weight to his argument that such representations are “driven” and promoted by interested parties for specific reasons. But the relative silence “before” is portrayed in a way that is not always warranted, and Novick is sometimes tripped up by his own argument. Thus, on p. 104 he downplays the impact of The Diary of Anne Frank in the 1950s (both the movie version of Anne Frank and Judgment at Nuremberg, he tells us, “were not hits at the box office”). But 13 pages later he avers that the 1955 Broadway version of Anne Frank that won a Pulitzer Prize “was a box-office smash” (p. 117).

Moreover, it bears noting that there was a subterranean Holocaust awareness in early postwar American Jewish life that bears a closer look than Novick is prepared to give it. He does note, quite accurately, that many American Jews engaged in a tacit, unorganized, and unofficial boycott of German-made goods and that organizations like the American Jewish Committee felt constrained to rein in the “emotions” that were widespread in the Jewish community (see pp. 96-98). But these “around the kitchen table” feelings (as Novick calls them) did not amount to much because, “albeit widely shared,” they could not emerge in the form of public emblems and rhetoric without “official reinforcement.” Therefore, he argues, they tended, “at least for many, to decline in salience” (p. 98).

What gets lost here, for example, is the sea-change represented by the postwar pro-Zionist consensus that, in contrast to the prewar situation, held sway virtually across the board among American Jews–surely one expression of how American Jewish consciousness had been altered by the events of 1938-45. Novick cites those views that play down the intensity of American Jews’ pro-Israel posture during the 1950s and early 1960s (p. 147). Yet it is not the intensity of pro-Israel activity that is the critical question here (activities such as fundraising have waxed and waned with the recurrent cycles of crisis in the Middle East, periodic waves of immigration to Israel, etc.) but rather the newly uncontested position that Israel held within the Jewish consensus. A related example (again unmentioned by Novick) is the way that American Jews in the postwar period shouldered worldwide responsibility for Jewish communities in distress–a phenomenon that had its roots in World War I but was vastly expanded after World War II. This was surely tied to America’s postwar role as superpower, but it was no less an effect of the sudden elimination of European Jewry as the veteran seat of international Jewish public life. Pursuing the Holocaust’s impact on American Jews still further, it is fair to say that the Jews’ postwar integrationist agenda was related directly to their determination to prove that “America is different” and “it can’t happen here.” Although all three of these components (pro-Israelism, world Jewish involvement, and a principled pro-integrationism) could be seen as inhibitors of Holocaust discourse, I prefer to view them as conduits of Holocaust awareness that were characteristic for the immediate postwar period.

The second troubling thing I find in Novick’s analysis is that he gives the Jewish organizational establishment undue credit (or blame, depending on one’s point of view). His major contention is that, quite apart from whatever may have developed spontaneously, Holocaust consciousness was to a significant degree deliberately promoted by a communal elite that believed this to be the best way to respond to new political needs (chiefly Israel’s) in the mid-1970s; this strikes a chord of recognition, and to the extent that Novick’s evidence of internal memos and other archival material supports such a view, it is plausible. But it is also difficult to square that thesis with the fact that these same organizations and “leaders” have been singularly ineffective in mobilizing the main body of American Jewry. Less than a quarter of American Jews are organizationally affiliated, outside of synagogue congregations. The Anti-Defamation League and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council owe Novick a huge vote of thanks for the influence that he attributes to them. It is closer to the truth to say that organizations in the Jewish sphere coax, channel, and draw on a fraction of American Jewish resources and energies than to depict them as opinion makers with a great deal of clout. Novick is on firmer ground, however, when he correlates the longevity of the new phase in Holocaust discourse with the success that the active promoters of this discourse have had in institutionalizing their work in the form of memorials, museums, and legislation.

Rather than the deliberate actions of spokespeople and organizations, Novick would have done well to place greater stress on Jewish cultural amnesia as a factor that, by default, has enlarged the space occupied in contemporary Jewish consciousness by the history of antisemitism in general and by the Holocaust in particular. He treats this matter quite briefly (pp. 185-88) as a secondary or contributory element, and only in the context of explaining how the Jewish organizations perceived the issue: concern over assimilation of the young led the leadership to hope that American Jews who no longer responded to Jewish culture or religion might respond to an “endangered species” justification of Jewishness (no “posthumous victories for Hitler”). Prioritizing Holocaust consciousness, therefore, became the key to promoting Jewishness (as in the Auschwitz pilgrimages).

Here I believe that Novick once again makes too much of the organizations’ role and too little of the underlying sociocultural reality. In 1995, Jonathan Boyarin published an article in the New York Council for the Humanities’ journal, Culturefront, in which he observed that, “Because of the loss of Hebrew and Yiddish and the relative decline of traditional religiosity, for Jews born after World War II the debate over Holocaust-as-Jewish-memory plays a central role in defining their identity.” (4) In other words, regardless of the efforts of this or that Jewish organization, a context of growing cultural illiteracy has fueled the shift to “negative” identity factors. More than a scant several pages ought to have been devoted to this in Novick’s exposition.

Last of all, I have the sense that Novick’s discussion of Zionism and Israel, especially in the jaded way that they appeared in the international political discourse of the 1970s, is overly simplistic (pp. 148-69). This discussion occurs in the context of explaining why Jewish organizations hit upon the idea of “reminding” everyone about what the Jewish people had gone through, and how this was believed to offer a way of defending Israel’s vulnerable and isolated position, especially after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This policy, Novick argues, was based on a false reading of reality. It was not ignorance or neglect of the memory of the Holocaust that had turned the tide of world opinion against Israel and in favor of the Palestinians; rather, it was the effect of the final and decisive turn of the Third World against all vestiges of Western incursions into non-European areas.

There is much to this claim, and so long as he sticks to documenting the portrayal of Israel in world opinion, Novick is on firm ground. He falters, however, and quite ironically, when he tries to bolster his argument (and shield it from Jewish criticism) by citing Israelis’ opinions on the matter. Thus, he observes that, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, former prime minister David Ben-Gurion “pleaded with his countrymen to return the captured territories on any terms obtainable…. He was ignored” (p. 154). But he was not ignored: the Israeli cabinet decided right after the war on a policy of negotiating a return of the territories and sought in vain to obtain peace terms (remember the “three no’s” of the Khartoum conference). More to the point, though, is that it has become something of an Israeli national sport to quote Ben-Gurion’s opinions both for and against Israel’s annexation of territory (in East Jerusalem, for example, but also on the West Bank of the Jordan). The “old man” seems to have been heard to speak on every conceivable side of the issue. It is therefore unfortunate that Novick chose him, of all people, to drive his point home.

Even more problematic is Novick’s attempt (albeit a gingerly one, hedged about with apologies and qualifications) to relate to the use of Holocaust rhetoric and Nazi-based analogies in the context of the Palestinian civil uprising of the late 1980s. On the one hand, certain Israeli and American Jewish spokespeople are quoted as having compared the PLO to the Nazis; on the other hand, there were widespread examples, and not only in the Arab world, of Israel being compared to the Germans. Let me be very clear on this point: Novick himself does not countenance that particular comparison (which “understandably and justifiably outraged Jews” [p. 162]). His point is merely to indicate, once more, how misguided the policy was of American Jewish organizations when they invoked the Holocaust comparison in a situation where it was not warranted–where, in fact, it only served to match the promiscuous verbal hyperbole on the other side. So far, so good.

But in the process of substantiating this argument about the sheer implausibility of using the Holocaust as a framework for understanding Israel’s situation, he notes that, “For a number of American Jews and Israelis, Nazi imagery came to mind” when thinking about Israel’s actions in attempting to repress the Palestinian insurgency, and he cites the opinions on this score of one American rabbi and one Israeli army reservist. Novick’s purpose here appears to be a desire to put himself on the safe side when he suggests that, though the parallels were offered by only a few people and only “tentatively,” the fact “that they could be put forward at all was emblematic of the loss of legitimacy of the older framework, which saw Israelis as potential victims of an Arab-sponsored Holocaust” (p. 163).

This is a rhetorical ploy, however, that backfires on Novick because of its absurdity. Many American Jews and many more Israelis (this reviewer among them) were indeed disturbed by the moral ambiguity of Israel’s role as occupier in Palestinian villages, towns, and cities without ever entertaining for an instant the sort of comparison to which Novick alludes. Indeed, as an army reservist in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had the unenviable duty of serving month-long stints in Gaza city, Rafiah, Bethlehem, and the outskirts of Nablus. On one of those tours of duty, a fellow in my unit was called a Nazi by an irate Palestinian. Very calmly, and with a good deal of historical accuracy on his side, my colleague replied that, were he in fact a Nazi, “you would already be dead.”

Elsewhere in his book, Novick does not hesitate to employ dismissive epithets like fruitcake and screwball (p. 270–in reference to Holocaust deniers); it vexes me, therefore, that he did not see fit to identify something fatuous in the statement by the American rabbi whom he quotes: “We condemn the silence of good people during the Nazi era. There is certainly no genocide in Israel. Such comparisons are obscene. [But] the storm troopers did not begin with the ovens, but with beatings in the streets” (p. 162).

All of the foregoing is meant to suggest only that Novick, in dealing with a notoriously difficult and emotionally laden topic, has done very well by his readers, with only a few lapses of proportion or emphasis. I trust that The Holocaust in American Life will spark a great deal of healthy controversy, and I believe that was its author’s purpose in writing it.


(1) Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York, 1999).

(2) See my new book, New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970 (Syracuse, N.Y., 2001), and my essay, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: American and American-Jewish Perceptions in the 1950s and the 1960s,” in The Holocaust and Jewish History: History and Consciousness (Jerusalem, 2001).

(3) Among the few small errors that appear in the book, the following ought to be pointed out: (a) The quasi-clandestine outfit responsible for organizing the underground “boatlift” of Jewish immigrants outside the official quota to British-governed Palestine was called the mosad lealiyah bet (literally, the “institute for second-class aliya”), but it was not “the Mosad” (capital M) to which Novick refers (p. 78) that we know today, namely, the State of Israel’s secret intelligence agency. (b) Yossi Klein Halevi is indeed an Israeli journalist today, but before moving to Israel he was the Brooklynbred child of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States. He is also known for his idiosyncratic writing. To quote his views as “an Israeli journalist” (p. 160), and by implication somehow representative, is therefore somewhat misleading. (c) Leon Uris’s novel Exodus and the movie based on it pre-dated by a decade the Holocaust discourse of the 1970s, with its conscious orientation to Israel’s political isolation; Novick, however, mentions Exodus (p. 157) in the 1970s context, implying incorrectly that it faithfully enscripted the 1970s rhetoric in fictional form.

(4) Jonathan Boyarin, “Unsettling Words: Memory and Generation,” Culturefront (Spring 1995): 18.

ELI LEDERHENDLER is Associate Professor at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he is the incumbent of the Stephen S. Wise Chair in American Jewish History and Institutions.