Academic journal article Shofar

American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965

Academic journal article Shofar

American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965

Article excerpt

American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965, by Kirsten Fermaglich. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2006. 252 pp. $29.95.

Kirsten Fermaglich's highly suggestive American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares offers a spirited plea for us to reassess the multiple and often ambiguous meanings of secular Jewish identity. Her defense of secular American Jewishness is as well a rebuke to more static ideas about Jewishness that measure identification strictly in terms of ritual observance or temple membetship. As Fermaglich demonstrates, secular Jews at the turn of the 1960s championed universal values and liberal causes in a fashion completely consonant with their Jewish identities even while they often neglected (or hesitated) to name Jewishness as a motivation for their actions. As Fermaglich illustrates in a quartet of case studies, the content of secular Jewish self-understanding for these individuals was anything but static. It often could - and did - change dramatically over rime.

In four self-contained chapters, Fermaglich traces the careers of four controversial public intellectuals at the turn of the 1960s: the historian Stanley Elkins, the journalist Betty Friedan, the sociologist Stanley Milgram, and the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. In each case, Fermaglieli explores how the intellectual made use of references to the Holocaust to make sense of a radically different political or historical situation. Indeed, a major purpose of Fermaglich's book is to contribute to a growing body of scholarship that challenges Peter Novick's increasingly threadbare paradigm (advanced in his The Holocaust in American Life) that the Holocaust was not a topic for public discussion in the U.S. until after 1967. To the contrary, as Fermaglich persuasively shows, the Holocaust was openly and broadly discussed already at the turn of the 1960s.

Thus, her first chapter looks at Elkins' Slavery (1959), a blockbuster academic text that equated pathological damages done to (male) slaves in the antebellum South with psychic damages experienced by victims of the Nazi concentration camps. Considered a liberal intervention in debates over whether African Americans should be the beneficiaries of preferential treatment, Slavery soon found its way into public policy discussions and was cited prominently in the Johnson administration's now infamous Moynihan Report. In her second chapter, Fermaglich examines Friedan's massively influential TIk Feminine Mystique (1963), which stated that the American housewife was little more than the dehumanized denizen of "a comfortable concentration camp." In the third chapter, Fermaglich recounts the fascinating tale of Milgram's obedience experiments wherein unsuspecting subjects administrated (what they believed were) painful electric shocks to another human being. Since subjects so often did what they were told, his research led Milgram to conclude that a Nazi lay dormant in each of us. …

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