The Holocaust in American Life

by Peter Novick

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703

The main characters of The Holocaust in American Life are ideas and interest groups that have made the Holocaust such a prominent feature of American life.

Holocaust survivor immigrants to America after WWII held off telling their Holocaust stories, according to Novick, in part because of the integrationist ethic in the post-war United States that emphasized American values held in common rather than separatism and victimhood. The perceived threat to Israel in 1967, he reasons, and the identification by Americans with Israel as an ally, made Americans more receptive to the message of the Holocaust in the 1970s and later. This helps to explain, according to Novick, why the evidence is lacking that the Jewish experience of WWII in Europe was not considered to be much different from other groups until the 1970s.

The state of Israel, according to Novick, has been replaced at the center of non-orthodox Jewish American life by the Holocaust. He cites polls by the American Jewish Committee to support his point that the Holocaust outranks Israel and any other aspect of Jewish religious or cultural inheritance in providing them with a "consensual symbol."

Middle-class Americans are the target. Novick acknowledges that very few of the Jews that died in the Holocaust resembled middle-class Americans, even though that is how they've been presented to American audiences. Novick does not side-step the fact that Jews in Hollywood, television, and the newspaper, magazine, and book publishing industries have much to do with the attention the Holocaust has received in recent years.

Jewish political power backs the Holocaust movement. Holocaust initiatives by the government were promoted by Jewish aides to help politicians score points with the Jewish power structure. For example, President Carter's US Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. was a concession to American Jews that thought the president was too even-handed on handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Novick notes the irony that it was Jewish wealth and influence that allowed them to build this "monument to their weakness and vulnerability."

Victimization Olympics culture supported the Holocaust movement. Novick recognizes the importance of the shift from an American culture that valued assimilation, hard work, Stoicism in the face of hardship and success to a culture that valorized victimhood. This cultural shift supported the Holocaust industry's quest to win the gold, silver, and bronze medals in the new "victimization Olympics" for American Jews, despite the fact they had not suffered victimhood in America.

Novick argues that despite the Jewish leadership's promotion of the "sameness" of American Jews, "perhaps most" American Communists in the 1940s were Jews. The American Jewish Committee found that 75% of the "hostile witnesses" called to testify before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and other investigative bodies were Jews. Novick acknowledges that Jewish Communists and fellow travelers were among the first to promote the Holocaust narrative.

Holocaust survivor testimony is not "an indispensable historical source that must be preserved," according to Novick. Instead, those memories are not very useful, because they are often faulty because of emotion, the passage of time, and many other factors. Novick is aware of the false, faulty, and contradictory nature of much survivor testimony and cautions against putting too much stock in it.

Novick acknowledges the usefulness of the Holocaust as a fundraising tool for the embattled state of Israel and other Jewish causes. As the initial backer of the Simon Weisenthal Center told the media, "Israel and Jewish education and all the other familiar buzzwords no longer seem to rally Jews behind the community. The Holocaust, though, works every time."

Criticism of Israel is allegedly made illegitimate by the Holocaust framework in the eyes of many of its supporters. Novick realizes this reasoning is faulty. He states that the Israel lobby lavishly rewards Israel's supporters in Congress and "ruthlessly punished" those that defied its wishes.

Novick addresses the fact that Jewish separatism can undermine the message of sameness that Jewish leaders have often tried to emphasize, and that the message of the unique suffering of Jews reinforces this message of separatism that Jews themselves apparently feel. One survey of volunteer American Jewish fundraisers revealed that three quarters felt more emotional on hearing Israel's national anthem than on hearing America's national anthem.

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