American Jewish Identity and the Holocaust: A Critical Examination of Its Growing Role
Allan C. Brownfeld
In the 1998 "Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion," the respondents were asked to rate the importance of various listed activities to their Jewish identity. The year 1998 was the first in which "remembrance of the Holocaust" was included in the list. It was the clear winner—chosen as "extremely important" or "very important" by many more than those who chose synagogue attendance, Jewish study, working with Jewish organizations, traveling to Israel, or observing Jewish holidays.
It is, argues Professor Peter Novick of the University of Chicago, no accident that more and more American Jews are basing their identity on the Holocaust. In his widely discussed book, The Holocaust In American Life, he points out that the rise of the Holocaust "to the top of the Jewish agenda was by no means a spontaneous development. More than anything else, it was the consequence of decisions made by communal leaders in response to their appraisals of current communal needs—of what worked in dealing with immediate problems. That the end result of these decisions would be to put the Holocaust at the center of how Jews understood themselves and wanted others to understand them was neither foreseen nor intended by most of those who set the process in motion."
In this book, Peter Novick looks, as well, at the larger question of why the Holocaust has "come to loom so large" in contemporary American culture, what its cultural visibility says about American Jews and the larger American society and what the consequences may be. He shows that in the first decades after World War II, the Holocaust was little talked about, even by American Jews. Now, millions flock to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and other such museums around the country. He asks whether American Jews, by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience, have given Hitler a posthumous victory, tacitly endorsing his definition of Jews as despised pariahs? He wonders if the Holocaust really teaches useful lessons and sensitizes us to atrocities, or, by making the Holocaust the measure, does it make lesser crimes seem "not so bad?"
Professor Novick, the author of The Resistance Versus Vichy: The Purge Of Collaborators In Liberated France, and a founder of the University of Chicago’s program in Jewish studies, takes what one reviewer described as a "willfully contrarian attitude toward the Holocaust and those he dismissively refers to as ‘Holocaust memory professionals.’" In fact, there is much in this book for Americans of all faiths and backgrounds to seriously consider, particularly with regard to the politicization of the Holocaust and its use to promote particular contemporary agendas—including the tendency to compare Israel’s present adversaries with those who committed mass murder in Europe and to magnify every instance of anti-Semitism, however minor, as a precursor to yet another Holocaust, even in our own country.
"I bring to this project skepticism about the bottom line—about whether all the attention paid to the Holocaust is as desirable as it’s usually said to be," Novick writes. "In fact, there are two separate balance sheets. One has to do with the consequences for American Jewry of putting the Holocaust at the center of its self-understanding and self-representation; the other with the consequence of a heightened awareness of the Holocaust for American society at large. The meaning for American Jewry of its centering of the Holocaust is inseparable from the context in which that centering has taken place. One of the most important elements of that context has been the decline in America of an integrationist ethos (which focuses on what Americans have in common and what unites us) and its replacement by a particularist ethos (which stresses what differentiates and divides us). The leaders of American Jewry, who once upon a time had sought to demonstrate that Jews were ‘just like everybody else, except more so,’ now had to establish, for both Jews and gentiles, what there was about Jews that made them different."
Distinctive Jewish Identity
What, then, does differentiate American Jews from other Americans? On what grounds can a distinctive Jewish identity in the U.S. be based? The author notes that, "These days American Jews can’t define their Jewishness on the basis of distinctively Jewish religious beliefs, since most don’t have that much in the way of distinctively Jewish religious beliefs. They can’t define it by distinctively Jewish cultural traits, since most don’t have any of these either. American Jews are sometimes said to be united by their Zionism, but if so, it is of a thin and abstract variety... What American Jews do have in common is the knowledge that but for their parents’ or (more often) grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ immigration, they would have shared the fate of European Jewry. Within an increasingly diverse and divided American Jewry, this became the historical foundation of that endlessly repeated but empirically dubious slogan ‘We are one."’
The Holocaust, Novick argues, served the purposes of the organized Jewish community as a symbol and rallying point: "The Holocaust, as virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish identity in the late 20th century, has filled a need for a consensual symbol. And it was a symbol well designed to confront increasing communal anxiety about ‘Jewish continuity’ in the face of declining religiosity, together with increasing assimilation and a sharp rise in intermarriage, all of which threatened demographic catastrophe. The Holocaust as central symbol of Jewishness has furthered in the late 20th century what German Jews in the early 19th century had called Trotzjudentum, ‘Jewishness out of spite’; a refusal to disappear, not for any positive reason, but, nowadays, so as not to give Hitler a ‘posthumous victory.’"
Attitude Toward Victimhood
This tendency has been furthered, Novick points out, by a parallel development in contemporary American culture: "There has been a change in the attitude toward victimhood from a status all but universally shunned and despised to one often eagerly embraced. On the individual level, the cultural icon of the strong, silent hero is replaced by the vulnerable and verbose antihero. Stoicism is replaced as a prime value by sensitivity. Instead of enduring in silence, one lets it all hang out. The voicing of pain and outrage is alleged to be ‘empowering’ as well as therapeutic. Transformations on the individual level are mirrored at the level of the group ... Every group claims its share of public honor and public funds by pressing disabilities and injustices. National public life becomes the settlement of a collective malpractice suit...All of this, of course, meshes with the new emphasis on separate group identity rather than ‘all-American’ identity."
By the 1980s and 1990s, many American Jews, for a variety of reasons, wanted to establish that they too were members of a "victim community." This, in Novick’s view, was a largely fanciful effort: "Their contemporary situation offered little in the way of credentials. American Jews were by far the wealthiest, best- educated, most influential, in-every-way-most—successful group in American society—a group that compared to most other identifiable minority groups, suffered no measurable discrimination and no disadvantage on account of that minority status. But insofar as Jewish identity could be anchored in the agony of European Jewry, certification as (vicarious) victims could be claimed, with all the moral privilege accompanying such certification."
Competition for Primacy
What Americans have witnessed in recent years, Novick argues, is "not just a competition for recognition but a competition for primacy. This takes many forms. Among the most widespread and pervasive is an angry insistence on the uniqueness of the Holocaust...A moment’s reflection makes clear that the notion of uniqueness is quite vacuous. Every historical event, including the Holocaust, in some ways resembles other events to which it might be compared and differs from them in some ways. These resemblances and differences are a perfectly proper subject for dis-cussion...The assertion that the Holocaust is unique—like the claim that it is singularly incomprehensible or unrepresentable—is, in practice, deeply offensive. What else can all of this mean except ‘your catastrophe, unlike ours, is ordinary; unlike ours is comprehensible; unlike ours is representable.’"
By using the Holocaust to promote Israel’s Middle East policies, Novick writes, the Arab-Israeli conflict "was endowed with all the black-and-white moral simplicity of the Holocaust. And in this realm the Holocaust framework has promoted as well a belligerent stance toward any criticism of Israel: ‘Who are you, after what you did to us (or allowed to be done to us), to dare to criticize us now?"’
In the immediate post-war years there was little discussion of the Holocaust in the United States, among Jews or others. Forty years after their liberation, Werner Weinberg wrote of the changes in the language with which he and others who had been in the camps were described: "Immediately after the war, we were ‘liberated prisoners’; in subsequent years we were included in the term ‘DPs’ or ‘displaced persons’...in the U.S. we were sometimes generously called ‘new Americans.’ Then for a long time...there was a good chance that we, as a group, might go nameless. But one day I noticed that I had been reclassified as a ‘survivor.’"
Between the end of the war and the 1960s, Novick reports, "the Holocaust made scarcely any appearance in American public discourse, and hardly more in Jewish public discourse—especially discourse directed at gentiles...An integrationist rather than a particularist consciousness was the norm in the postwar decades: difference and specificity were at a discount as a ‘brothers under the skin’ and ‘family of man’ ethos was dominant... Jewish groups did everything in their power to further this...those whose outlook is basically optimistic and universalist, as Americans, including American Jews, were in the fifties—are not going to be inclined to center the Holocaust in their consciousness."
When the Holocaust was discussed, it was in an upbeat manner, stressing, for example, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and focusing on the successful postwar lives of the survivors. "Even more widespread...was its universalist framing," writes the author, "with an emphasis on the diversity of the victims of Nazism rather than on what was singular and Jewish victimhood...A speech drafted by the American Jewish Congress staff for one of their local leaders, while noting that Jews had been the ‘first’ and ‘most tragic’ victims, insisted that ‘Hitler felt that only by eradicating the Jews could he succeed in his campaign to destroy Judeo-Christian civilization and supplant it with primeval paganism.’ Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), viewing an ADL film strip, ‘The Anatomy of Nazism,’ thought it focused too narrowly on Jewish suffering. They wanted frames added to show that millions of non-Jews perished."
When the movie version of Anne Frank’s diary appeared, the National Community Relations Advisory Council, the coordinating body of leading Jewish organizations, enthusiastically recommended the film for its "portrayal of Jews finding solace and strength in their Jewishness, for its depiction of the selfless courage of Christians who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis, and for its evocation of horror and revulsion against the Nazi program of Jewish extermination." Forty years later, Novick writes, the Anne Frank film has "become the representation of the Holocaust that nearly everyone who writes on the subject loves to hate. What captured audiences in the 1950s—Anne’s ‘universalism,’ outraged writers in the 1990s. Among those who inveigh against the universalizing or ‘de-Judaizing’ of the Holocaust—‘stealing our Holocaust’—the (movie) adaptations are repeatedly invoked as the most egregious examples of this process...Cynthia Ozick... suggested that the universalizing of Anne"s story had gone so far, and its results had been so pernicious, that it might have been better if her diary had been ‘burned, vanished, lost.‘...Lawrence Langer, a specialist in Holocaust literature, has cited Anne’s failure to practice Jewish rituals and, in general, her ‘limited concern with Jewish issues’ as grounds for considering whether the time had come to expel her Diary from the canon of important Holocaust texts."
The fact is, Novick declares, that Anne Frank’s diary was not "twisted into an optimistic and universal document...it was such a document, and it was that fact which commended it to Americans in the 1950s, including most of the organized Jewish community. Every generation frames the Holocaust, represents the Holocaust in ways that suit its mood."
Holocaust to Center Stage
In the 1960s, the Holocaust slowly began to move to the center stage of American Jewish life and consciousness. The Eichmann trial raised awareness of and interest in the Holocaust and the prelude to the Six Day War of 1967 fed fears of a renewed Holocaust among some American Jews—fears heightened further during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
After 1967, Israel moved to the top of the agenda of the organized Jewish community. Oscar Cohen, a long-time official of the ADL, wrote to a friend that by the 1970s organized American Jewry had become "an agency of the Israeli government...following its directions from day to day." The hallmark of the good Jew, Novick writes, "became the depth of his or her commitment to Israel...the Six Day War offered a folk theology of ‘Holocaust and Redemption."’
After the Six Day War, and particularly after 1973, Novick writes, "much of the world came to see the Middle East conflict as grounded in the Palestinian struggle to, belatedly, accomplish the U,N.’s original intention. There were strong reasons for Jewish organizations to ignore all this, however, and instead to conceive of Israel’s difficulties as stemming from the world’s having forgotten the Holocaust. The Holocaust framework allowed one to put aside as irrelevant any legitimate grounds for criticizing Israel, to avoid even considering the possibility that the rights and wrongs were complex...Only a few months after the top officials of the ADL had proclaimed that it was fading memories of Nazism’s crimes against the Jews that accounted for Israel’s isolation, the ADL decided to embark on an ambitious venture on Holocaust programming. Its public relations consultant submitted a memorandum on the shape the program should take. The memo concluded by insisting that everything done should be ‘against the background of a powerful J’Accuse that is now submitting its bill ‘for Sufferings Rendered."’
Examples of how the Holocaust has been used as a weapon to promote policies favorable to Israel are extensive. Hyman Bookbinder, when serving as a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust, wrote to the German ambassador to the U.S. in his capacity as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, though he was not, saying that, "How Germany will be treated in the museum might well be affected by the decision you make pertaining to the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia."
Connecting Arabs with Nazism
Beyond a diffuse relationship between the Holocaust and Israel’s cause, specific themes were developed. One was connecting Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular with Nazism. I.L. Kenen, a prominent Zionist spokesman, declared: "The Arabs cannot pretend they played no role in the Holocaust." The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier wrote, "The Palestinians, or many of them, were Hitler’s little helpers in the Middle East." Peter Novick declares that, "The claims of Palestinian complicity in the murder of the European Jews were to some extent a defensive strategy, a preemptive response to the Palestinian complaint that if Israel was recompense of the Holocaust, it was unjust that Palestinian Muslims should pick up the bill for the crimes of European Christians."
The Holocaust is being used, Novick shows, to tie young American Jews to Israel through programs such as the March of the Living, in which thousands of Jewish teenagers tour death camps in Poland, where they commemorate Yom Hashoah, then are flown to Israel, where they celebrate Israeli Independence Day. The Zionist message is one of "Holocaust to Redemption." At Auschwitz, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells them: "The world is divided into two parts: those who actively participated with the Nazis and those who passively collaborated with them." At Maidanek, another rabbi informs them that the camp could become operational within a few hours. Armed Israeli security guards who accompany the tour do everything possible to convince the youngsters they are in constant danger in Poland. A teenage participant from Cleveland said: "Six million were killed by a country—Germany—where Jews were living the good life. I hate to draw the parallel, but Jews are living the good life in America." A California student: "We are leaving this awful place tonight and tomorrow will be in Israel. All I want to do is go home and I realize now that tomorrow I will be at home, my real home, Israel." One Jewish educator commenting on the march concluded that the participants "achieved a Zionist perspective which many hours in suburban Jewish classrooms could not transmit."
The way the Holocaust is being used in Israel, writes Israeli political scientist Charles Liebman, "reinforces and legitimates closed-mindedness, unrealistic foreign policies and barbaric behavior toward Arabs." After the Hebron massacre, in which a Jewish extremist slaughtered Arab Muslims at prayer, Ze’ev Chafets, who had been head of the government press office under Menachem Begin, wrote that "dwelling on genocide may be a good fund-raising strategy, but it also encourages an us-against-the-world mentality that deranged zealots...translate into a religious obligation to murder."
A whole industry of Holocaust professionals has been created in the U.S. "As large numbers of American Jews no longer saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black-and-white terms," writes Novick, "the Holocaust offered a substitute symbol of infinitely greater moral clarity. At a discussion of the central role of the Holocaust in American Jewish life, held a few years ago at the University of Chicago, a local rabbi suggested that there was nothing at all surprising about this fact: ‘God and Israel are too controversial."’
Novick is particularly critical of the hyping of anti-Semitism at the same time when it is rapidly diminishing. He reports that in the late sixties and during the seventies, influential Jewish leaders began to insist that a "new anti-Semitism" had arisen and that American Jews were threatened, isolated and vulnerable: "Previously, the history of Jews in America was seen as a success story. Now, increasingly, American Jews came to see themselves as an endangered species, and searched for themes and programs that could promote Jewish solidarity and stem the hemorrhage of assimilation and intermarriage. Overall, there was a shift away from the posture of the early period when American Jews rejected the status of ‘victim community,’ and in consequence marginalized the Holocaust. Now the posture adopted by an increasing number of Jewish leaders...was one in which Jews defined themselves by their history of victimization and in which the Holocaust became the central symbol of Jewish identity."
As anti-Semitism declined, and it was re-defined by some as being anything which challenged Israeli interests, warnings about its alleged growth became increasingly vocal. Norman Podhoretz warned that the "golden age" is over. Earl Raab, a leading figure in Jewish communal life, spoke of the end of the golden age. America, he said, was becoming "inhospitable" and "hostile" to Jews. Henry Siegman, in the seventies the executive vice president of the Synagogue Council of America, described what he viewed as "a siege mentality—an ‘everyone has turned against us’ attitude."
What was going on? Jonathan Sarna, a leading historian of American Jewry, surveyed recent books on American anti-Semitism and observed with dismay that, "influenced by the current obsession with the Holocaust, they ask only one question: could it happen here? And to this question they have only one answer: yes." By 1990, more than 80 percent of American Jews expressed the view that anti-Semitism was a "serious problem" in the U.S.
All of this, Novick writes, shows a serious disconnect with reality: "The reality in these years was that the ‘golden age’ for American Jews, rather than receding, became even more golden... surveys showed anti-Semitic attitudes continuing to decline...any hint of anti-Semitism from a figure in public life was immediately and roundly reprobated... Where did the perceptions of high and rising levels of anti-Semitism come from? And what was the (reciprocal) relationship between these perceptions and increasing talk of the Holocaust?...It also seems likely that at a time when American Jewry was publicly defining itself as militantly Zionist (not, of course, enough to immigrate to Israel), many were, albeit ambivalently, coming to accept classical Zionist ideological propositions: that murderous anti-Semitism was always latent in the ‘unnatural’ conditions of Jews living in the Diaspora, that only in Israel were Jews safe...From the 1970s on, the growth sector in the Jewish organizational world consisted of the old and new ‘schrei gevalt’ agencies...The ADL, together with the enormously successful Simon Weisenthal Center, bombarded Jews with mailings announcing new anti-Semitic threats (The ADL was especially assiduous in giving wide circulation to anti-Semitic remarks by obscure black hustlers and demagogues, thus vastly increasing their audiences). Of the dozens of local Jewish newspapers in the U.S., all but a handful were organs of local Jewish Federations, whose success in fund-raising was directly proportional to the level of anxiety among potential contributors."
Communal Turn Inward
The turn inward of the organized Jewish community represents what Novick sees as "a shift in strategic priorities from ‘integration’ to ‘survival.’ Integration—winning acceptance at every level and in every area of American society—could hardly any longer be a priority, since it was an accomplished fact. But the acceptance came at a price. The survival to which Jewish leaders increasingly turned their attention did not mean the physical survival of Jews in a hostile environment. Rather, it was the absence of hostility to Jews that was threatening. Individually, American Jews were prospering; collectively they were being killed with kindness. In the words of one Jewish leader ‘the melting pots has succeeded beyond our wildest fears.’ The threat of assimilation was frequently described as a ‘quiet,’ ‘silent,’ ‘bloodless,’ or ‘spiritual Holocaust.’"
A factor which had held Jews together in previous periods was anti-Semitism. What, given the free and benevolent American environment, could Jewish groups do to shore up Jewish identity among an assimilating and intermarrying young generation? It was argued that insufficient awareness of the Holocaust led to their thinning Jewish identity. Bertram Gold, head of the American Jewish Committee, attributed young American Jews’ "lack of a sense of ‘being Jewish’ to the fact that the Holocaust was not ‘seared into the memory of a generation born after World War II" and the best way to keep straying sheep in the fold was through Holocaust programming.
The Jewish establishment, Novick shows, created a cultural climate that virtually celebrated victimhood in an effort to firm up a faltering Jewish identity. These efforts were not always embraced by other Americans. The black author James Baldwin, for example, wrote: "One does not wish...to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t by the very tone in which he assures you that it is...It is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him."
Victimhood to Bolster Identity
The use of the Holocaust and the image of victimhood to bolster and maintain Jewish identity is a sad and hollow enterprise in Novick’s view: "..it may be in part because Jews don’t know who they are, except insofar as they have a ‘unique" victim identity, and because the uniqueness of the Holocaust is the sole guarantor of their uniqueness...One could argue...as Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg does, that it was not coincidental that interest in the Holocaust began ‘at the point when anti-Semitism in America became negligible’...The stark memory of Auschwitz needed to be evoked to make the point that Jews were different...Historians will no doubt see the unparalleled effort and passion which created the greatest Holocaust memorials in the U.S....as the contemporary version of the building of ‘a national Jewish cathedral.’ It enshrines the Holocaust as the via dolorosa and crucifixion of the Jewish people."
There have, of course, been some critics of the movement to make the Holocaust central to American Jewish life and identity. One of these is the scholar Michael Wyschogrod who wrote: "Should the Holocaust cease to be peripheral to the faith of Israel, should it enter the Holy of Holies and become the dominant voice that Israel hears, it could not but be a democratic voice that it would be hearing. There is no salvation to be extracted from the Holocaust, no faltering Judaism can be revived by it, no new reason for the continuation of the Jewish people can be found in it. If there is hope after the Holocaust it is because to those who believe, the voice of the Prophets speak more loudly than did Hitler, and because the divine promise sweeps over the crematoria and silences the voices of Auschwitz."
Insisting on Ethnic Differences
The centering of the Holocaust in American Jewish consciousness has had an important impact which concerns Peter Novick as a Jew: "Through the mid-60s Jewish communal leaders downplayed the Holocaust, believing for various reasons that to center it wasn’t in the best interests of American Jewry. In their emphasis on the future rather than the past, and in submerging rather than insisting upon ethnic differences, they reflected the dominant ethos. In those years, American Jewish leaders were, on the whole, more integrationist and more universalist in sensibility...than most for whom they claimed to speak.... Over the last quarter century, American Jewish leadership, in response to a perception that needs had changed, has chosen to center the Holocaust—to combat what they saw as a ‘new anti-Semitism’; in support of an embattled Israel; as the basis of revived ethnic consciousness. That choice was made in a culture that had come to celebrate rather than disparage ethnic difference and to elevate the status of victims. The Jewish leaders... have been, over all, more particu-larist...and more Israel-oriented than their constituents. In recent years, critics of those leaders’ choices have deplored what they have seen as a perverse sacralization of the Holocaust, and objected to the competition over ‘who suffered most,’ to the way in which Jews now often seemed proud of the Holocaust...I am among those critics."
Peter Novick laments the trivializa-tion of both the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. He notes that, "The Holocaust came to symbolize the natural and inevitable terminus of anti-Semitism; first stop, an anti-Semitic joke; last stop, Treblinka. Every loud-mouthed Farrakhan acolyte was the opening act of the Julius Streicher show." The author is also concerned about the growth of a narrow Jewish ethnocentrism and points out that the Talmudic adage-cited in Schindler’s List—that ‘whoever saves one life saves the world entire" refers, in the original, to saving "one life of Israel," adding that this is the version "taught in all Orthodox yeshoivas."
Effect on Larger Society
There is much more in this book, particularly with regard to the effect of the Holocaust upon the larger society, such as the impact of calls for U.S. intervention in Kosovo, Bosnia and other trouble spots lest we not learn "the lessons" of the Holocaust. Such calls, Novick notes, can also have an opposite effect, since "compared to the Holocaust, anything else looks not so bad" and we risk becoming desensitized to "lesser forms" of suffering throughout the world.
There is something deeply sad about the American Jewish community, the most secure and prosperous in history, seeking to perpetuate a vision of itself as a "victim," and hoping to keep young people within the group by spreading fear of a new Holocaust always around the corner. Peter Novick has examined the role played by the organized American Jewish community in perpetuating such a negative and fearful mindset and sees all too clearly that if Judaism is to survive in America through fear and trembling rather than through a positive contribution to the lives of those it seeks to influence, it is indeed doomed. The Holocaust was a horrible event in history and should not be forgotten. Neither, however, should it be sacralized and the fact remains that American Jews did not suffer the Holocaust nor is the United States guilty in any way for its tragedy. It was the U.S. Army together with its allies which brought the Holocaust to an end. And it was not the Palestinians who planned or built or guarded the death camps.
Dangers of Ethnocentrism
If we are to learn from the Holocaust, let us attempt to learn what it really has to teach us and not trivialize its victims by making them pawns in current Middle East politics or in strategies to keep young American Jews from straying. Let us understand the dangers of narrowness, of ethnocentric religion and politics, of separating men and women from one another because of ethnic background, religious faith or racial identity. To respond to the Holocaust by embracing the very kind of narrowness which characterized its perpetrators is a disservice, particularly to the millions who lost their lives in the inferno which such hate created.
Peter Novick has made an important contribution by casting light on a subject which few have been willing to discuss openly in the past. His book, in the words of Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is "a long overdue, endlessly fascinating and finely nuanced corrective to the temptation to turn the Holocaust from historical fact into world view."