Review: “The Holocaust in American Life” and “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering”

Reference: Outlook Magazine

By Peter Novick. 1999; Mariner Books edition, 2000.

By Norman G. Finkelstein. Verso, 2000.

Reviewed by Stephen Aberle (Sept / Oct 2001)

In the sixties, Tisha b’Av, the day of fasting and lamentation for the First and Second Temples, was still the quintessential – indeed the only – day of institutionalized North American Jewish mourning. Who knew from Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day? If anyone observed any date in connection with the Nazi genocide, it was secular Jewish leftists, with April 19th, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Times and fashions have changed. Today synagogues throughout North America observe Yom Ha-Shoah and, a week later, two other recently sanctified springtime Israeli state holidays: Yom Ha-Zikaron (Memorial Day, in honour of Israel’s fallen soldiers) and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut (Israel’s Independence Day). Congregants, especially children in Hebrew school, are strapped in for an emotional roller coaster ride from the agonized ashes of Hitler’s Europe to the radiant promise of Eretz Israel.

“There’s no business like Shoah business”, that gay wag Abba Eban is said to have quipped. The link between The Capitalized Holocaust and the communal obligation to Zionism is zealously forged and religiously maintained. Like the pair of cherubim in the ancient Holy of Holies, these two, Holocaust and Zionism, are held to be locked in a mystic, intimate embrace.

Forty and fifty years ago, when memories were fresh and their relevance immediate, few talked about the Holocaust; today, few (including me, it seems) will shut up about it. What’s going on? These two books set themselves to address that question, attacking it in markedly different
though complementary ways.

Peter Novick’s The Holocaust In American Life is an excellent work, and should serve as a source-text for discussion and further research for decades to come. Novick, Professor Emeritus of history at the University of Chicago, proceeds chronologically, dividing his book into five sections and
considering the American response to the Holocaust during the war, postwar, “transition” (1960s and ’70s), recent and future periods. “This book had its origin in curiosity and skepticism”, he informs us at the outset, and those critical tools remain key to his prodigious research and careful
analysis throughout. Curious, Novick asks provocative questions; skeptical, he offers answers that challenge the mainstream consensus.

His core questions include: Why was the Nazi genocide so nearly absent from American awareness and Jewish discussion for so many years? How did the Holocaust come to hold its present sacred position, central to Jewish identity and American political discourse? And – conscious of the question’s irony – “about our centering of the Holocaust in how we understand ourselves and how we invite others to understand us: ‘Is it good for the Jews?'”

Here’s the conventional myth: the phenomenon of the Holocaust is a sacred mystery, unique and transcendent, beyond rational understanding or analysis. Former Holocaust avoidance and present Holocaust fascination are symptoms of collective psychological trauma. European survivors were too wounded, their American contemporaries too guilty, runs the argument, to confront the reality of the Holocaust at first; with time came healing, and now we perceive its centrality to our definition of ourselves.

Novick gently dismantles this ahistoric, irrational non-analysis. Preferring French sociologist Maurice Halbwach’s concept of “collective memory” to “such dubious entities as a ‘social unconscious'”, Novick sets out to explore “the ways in which present concerns determine what of the past we remember and how we remember it.”

Until the early ’60s, many American Jews and Jewish leaders feared that in the assimilationist, patriotically cheery atmosphere of the time, Jewish particularism (exemplified by interest in such things as the State of Israel or the Nazi genocide) would be perceived as leftist and un-American.
Hence such interests tended – with notable expedient exceptions – to be discouraged.

The Eichmann trial in 1961 awakened public interest in the Holocaust, but the real sea change came in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967. Though “Israel was hardly in serious peril” in ’67, among American Jews “thoughts of a new Holocaust were surely present.” Further, “The ‘miraculous’ victory of Israel also made it easier to integrate the Holocaust into Jewish religious consciousness,” and “offered a folk theology of ‘Holocaust and Redemption’.” In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, “talk of the Holocaust … became increasingly institutionalized”; as scrutiny and criticism of Israel’s presence and actions in the Occupied Territories grew, “the Holocaust framework allowed one to put aside as irrelevant any legitimate grounds for criticizing Israel.”

Novick chronicles the influence and interaction of these and many other factors meticulously, subtly, clearly and, by and large, convincingly. Norman G. Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry, while courageous, important, clear and often convincing, is hardly meticulous and far from
subtle. Novick seeks to explain a layered web of processes; Finkelstein – sometimes brilliantly – articulates rage and assigns blame. He knows who the bad guys are, and he points the finger and tells them off with savage wit. It makes for a perversely entertaining read.

The first third of Finkelstein’s book is heavily dependent on Novick’s, a dependence he acknowledges – sort of – in a deliciously convoluted combination of backhanded compliment and sharp critique early in his own introduction. “The initial stimulus for this book was Peter Novick’s
seminal study, The Holocaust in American Life,” he explains – going on to characterize said seminal study as “more a congeries of provocative aperçus than a sustained critique”. Yum.

Finkelstein, who teaches political theory at Hunter College, City University of New York, draws an important distinction between the phrases “Nazi holocaust”, which “signals the actual historical event”, and the “‘The Holocaust’ [as] its ideological representation.” He maintains that “Holocaust memory is an ideological construct of vested interests”, and singles out the holders of those interests: “Jewish elites”, which phrase “designates individuals prominent in the organizational and cultural life of the mainstream Jewish community”. His thesis simplifies and extends Novick’s more nuanced analysis: Jewish elites first suppressed and subsequently (after 1967) encouraged interest in the Nazi holocaust, constructing “The Holocaust” in order to “sustain significant political and class interests” – power and money chief among them.

Careful now. Finkelstein, whose parents were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the concentration camps, does not deny or understate the extent of Jewish suffering under the Nazis. Rather, as his title suggests, he attacks the exploitation of that suffering.

Novick and Finkelstein – each with some reason – criticize one another sharply. Finkelstein dismisses what he calls “Novick’s central analytical category … ‘memory'” as “surely the most impoverished concept to come down the academic pike in a long time”. Novick for his part charges that Finkelstein makes “false accusations”, “egregious misrepresentations”, “absurd claims” and “repeated misstatements”. As Tevye says: “You know, you are also right!” Both authors’ criticisms -and their defenses – carry some merit.

Novick takes care to distinguish “the calculated public posture of Jewish officialdom” from the more organic “‘around the kitchen table’ feelings of American Jewry”, and to acknowledge their interdependence. But in seeking to convey some of the complexity of evolving public attitudes, he sometimes seems to describe actions without agents, decisions without intent. Finkelstein, on the other hand, overstates his case, bitterly ascribing only the most cynical of motives to those he criticizes, oversimplifying his opponents’ arguments the better to shred them, and twisting the sense
of some of his sources. That said, he presents startlingly important information and powerful arguments. He is, of course, by turns vilified or ignored by North American “Jewish elites”, but it’s interesting to note that most attacks against him centre less on the explosive substance of his
allegations than on his abrasive style – and his daring to say what Must Not Be Said.

Finkelstein’s three chapter headings tell his tale: “Capitalizing The Holocaust” presents and bulldozes the “ideological construct”; “Hoaxers, Hucksters and History” savages the ideological carpenters (notably Elie Wiesel and Daniel Goldhagen); “The Double Shakedown” follows the money. It’s on the money trail that Finkelstein leaves Novick far behind. Novick barely touches the issue of material compensation, and it’s a glaring omission. Finkelstein traces the extraction (or extortion) over many years of billions of dollars from various European governments, following the
flow of a great proportion of those dollars not to the individual survivors of Nazi oppression on whose behalf they were collected, but rather to the coffers of the organizations doing the collecting. It’s a nasty, sordid chronicle, and if a tenth of Finkelstein’s allegations are correct, so too is his conclusion: “The Holocaust industry has clearly gone berserk.” These two books, their authors so at odds, make a strong pair. Novick’s provides the historical foundation without which Finkelstein’s could not stand; Finkelstein’s provides a powerful political critique, and important further information without which Novick’s work is incomplete. I recommend both. My suggestion: study most the one you like least.