The Holocaust in American Life

by Peter Novick

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The themes of The Holocaust in American Life center on questions of how, why, and when the Holocaust narrative became so conspicuous in American life fifty years after the event. Most modern historical events receive attention during and immediately after the event, whereas with the Holocaust, this pattern is reversed. The author of this book, an American Jew, questions whether this development is as desirable as most people think it is. Because of the lack of any substantial American connection to the Holocaust (apart from America defeating its perpetrators), the author asks, in addition to "why now?," the question of "why here?"

The author suggests that present concerns determine which events of the past we remember and how we remember them. He argues that remembrance of events in Jewish history is contingent on present needs. He suggests that the context for this dramatic change in Jewish public self-identification was the decline of the integrationist ethos (i.e., a focus on what unites us as Americans) and the rise of a separatist ethos, emphasizing what divides us. As American Jews are decreasingly distinctive in their religion and culture, the Holocaust narrative filled the void by providing a common denominator for American Jewish identity, which was then packaged, marketed, and enforced by legislatively mandated education on the rest of the population, the author argues. In the face of declining religiosity and rising assimilation, the Holocaust narrative became a manifestation of "Jewishness out of spite." The author questions whether the subtext of this narrative is useful or appropriate in an America where Jews have faced no measurable persecution but instead have become a highly influential and even dominant minority.

Another cultural theme that has reinforced and buttressed the centrality of the Holocaust, according to the author, is a broader trend in American society's treatment of victimhood, taking it from a status universally shunned and rejected to one eagerly embraced and competed for, in what the author has characterized as a sordid "victimhood Olympics." In this strange new cultural environment, the Holocaust narrative became a well-funded Jewish effort to take the gold, silver, and bronze medals in the victimhood sweepstakes and win the right of moral self-aggrandizement that comes with it. This arguably dubious trend reinforces the valorization of separate group identity at the expense of shared American identity, accelerating the already dangerous levels of division and balkanization in the country. The author rejects the angry claims of the alleged "uniqueness" of Jewish suffering as not just disingenuous and inaccurate but as morally repugnant. The author also bemoans the use of the Holocaust as a weapon against any criticism of the state of Israel, although he denies that it has much impact on American foreign policy toward that country, which he characterizes as typically guided by realpolitik.

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