Peter Novick. (Photo: Fredric Stein/New York Times)
The deservedly esteemed historian Peter Novick died on February 17th, and his obituary appeared on March 13th in the New York Times [Peter Novick, Wrote Controversial Book on Holocaust, Dies at 77]. It is perhaps unlikely that an obituary in the paper of record would have appeared without his publication in 1999 of the book The Holocaust in American Life, which provoked great controversy. As the Times‘ obituary notes, “Dr. Novick’s book drew wide and varying reactions from reviewers and academicians.” The book was largely a critique of Jewish-American culture and institutions, rather than Jewish-American politics and its relationship to Israel and U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, much of the criticism of the book was an implicit defense of Jewish and American support for Israel, and U.S. foreign policy in general.
Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry (2000) was an explicit response to Novick’s book, motivated both by Finkelstein’s criticism of Israel and his revulsion at the exploitation of the Holocaust for financial gain. Finkelstein extended and transformed Novick’s critique, in terms of both political and criminal motives. Novick was, in turn, harshly critical of Finkelstein, and made clear his wish to be disassociated from both the analysis and accusations made in The Holocaust Industry. Events of the past decade on both political and prosecutorial fronts have affirmed Finkelstein’s perspectives on the nature of the centrality of the Holocaust in both Jewish and American life. The review below was originally written in 2001, and contains minor current edits. Its purpose then and now is to clarify the context and limits of Novick’s important book in a manner that is predictably not alluded to in the Times’ obituary:
It is no longer unusual for a Jewish writer to lament the manner in which memory of the Holocaust has been incorporated into Jewish-American identity. It has been ten years since essayist Phillip Lopate wrote “it almost seems that the Holocaust is a corporation headed by Elie Wiesel, who defends his patents with articles in the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times.” So it is not surprising that in The Holocaust in American Life, historian Peter Novick of the University of Chicago critically examines the Holocaust not as history but as, in the phrase of Maurice Hawlbachs collective memory, “in which the present determines the past.” Unfortunately, Novick’s political limitations deprive this book of the incisive critique of what irreverent Israelis refer to as “Shoah business.”
To be sure, Novick’s basic insight into the context of the Nazi genocide and the political parameters of Holocaust remembrance allows him to conclude, correctly, that the notion of uniqueness is quite vacuous; that in the United States, memory of the Holocaust is “so banal, so inconsequential, not memory at all, precisely because it is so uncontroversial, so unrelated to real divisions in American society, so apolitical;” and finally that in the 1960s, increased awareness among Jews coincided with the “inward and rightward turn of American Jewry, as the Middle Eastern dispute came to be viewed with all the black-and-white moral simplicity of the Holocaust.”
If Novick understands that beneath the cult of Holocaust memory are essential political divisions in Jewish-American and American life, he nonetheless misconstrues these conflicts, undermining both his scholarly efforts and his claim to intellectual insight that matches his penchant for iconoclasm.
Thus Novick mistakenly thinks he is challenging conventional wisdom by debunking those who, following the meticulous research of historian David Wyman, believe correctly that the Roosevelt administration failed miserably in its treatment of Jewish refugees before and during the war. He is apparently unaware that it has become the political fashion, even among the Jewish intelligentsia, to rationalize and minimize American guilt–as does Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., so as defend FDR’s protective liberal image among Jews; and as does Novick himself.
Nor can Novick bring himself to criticize American postwar and Cold War policies which left Holocaust survivors waiting to emigrate to the U.S. in refugee camp purgatory while American intelligence recruited Nazi spies and our military employed rocket scientists. This leads to a blatant contradiction: he asserts that during the war American leaders could not possibly have been expected to effect “dramatic reversals in mass attitudes toward immigration,” but the end of the war saw our alliances change with “breathtaking speed,” as the Russians were transformed from “indispensable allies to implacable foes, the Germans from implacable foes to indispensable allies.” Breathtaking indeed, as is Novick’s sudden recognition of the effectiveness of state propaganda, much more willing to identify red demons and redeem Nazis than to challenge anti-Semitism and save Jews during the war itself.
Most important, Novick fails to apply his critique of Holocaust memory to the past three decades of its relationship to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Novick accurately describes this relationship as it evolved among American Jews between the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars. But he abruptly abandons the issue by claiming that American Jews no longer see the Holocaust as a framework for understanding the Middle East, that the American people never did, and that in any event memories of the Holocaust have had no real influence on American realpolitik in that region. These views allow Novick to avoid confronting the complex, implicit ideological relationships among Holocaust memory, foreign policy from Vietnam to the post-Cold War era’s “clash of civilizations,” and Israel’s military role in the post-Cold War New World Order.
Novick thinks that Holocaust memory is a transitory, sentimental, kitschy aspect of Jewish-American identity and American culture, already on its last legs except among its professional advocates. But events in Yugoslavia in the first half of 1999 proved this wrong, as the media rushed to demonize Milosevic as the latest “Hitler,” and American Jews collected money for Kosavar Albanian refugees in the name of “never again.” It is not by accident that Jewish Holocaust survivors have become America’s favorite victims–not only because they are uncontroversial, as Novick does understand, but because their images effectively serve to reinforce a belief in American innocence as we conduct our imperial business.
Novick concludes on the domestic front with Leon Wieseltier’s view that Jews, like African-Americans, score “a posthumous victory for the oppressors when pain becomes a tradition.” This is surely a tendentious analogy between African-American pain, which is ongoing and institutionalized, and Jewish pain, which is rooted in a past with few remnants, and exists in a present of tolerance and prosperity. The issue is whether “pain as a tradition” can be transformed into empathy and a passion for justice, especially beyond one’s own group or community. The question left unaddressed by Novick is why, in American political life, memory of the Holocaust has contributed so little to such a transformation, and indeed has on balance contributed to something quite the opposite. Even in this controversial and courageous book, the answers are beyond Novick’s political limits.