Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Holocaust in American Life

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Holocaust in American Life

Article excerpt

The Holocaust in American Life

The Holocaust is a familiar topic to almost all Americans, Holocaust studies are included in the curriculum of most high schools and colleges, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, and, like the recent film "Schindler's List," two comedies based on the Holocaust are currently drawing crowds at the box office. But these and similar developments began taking shape less than 30 years ago, long after the events they recall took place.

In his book The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick, a Pulitzer Prizewinning historian at the University of Chicago, writes that the attempt by the German Nazis and their European sympathizers to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II was originally seen as part of a larger catastrophe, a war that took some 30 million lives. Only much later did the murder of 6 million Jews become a separate event, unique in its horror. Today it is a symbol of Jewish persecution and a sacrosanct subject to all Jews and almost all Americans.

Novick traces in rich detail the remark able change that has taken place over the years in how we think about the Holocaust, and how this change was brought about. As a Jewish American and a liberal he asks why the Holocaust has come to play such a prominent role in our culture, even though it was once ignored, even by many Jews. He also asks if this change is desirable. Novick's answers to these questions are certain to provoke controversy, if not rage, among many readers.

In fact, a subtitle to his book might be "The uses and abuses of the Holocaust." Without ever minimizing the horror and extraordinary suffering inflicted on European Jews during the Nazi era, Novick argues that the Holocaust looms so large today in our collective consciousness because Jewish leaders have deliberately used the event to shape Americans' views about Israel and to forge a stronger sense of identity and group loyalty among Jews.

Until the 1960s neither the Holocaust nor Israel were prominent issues. During the 1950s Germany was a Cold War ally and no one wanted to be reminded of its past crimes. An Israel full of impoverished immigrants held little attraction for most American Jews except as an object of charity.

Even the Israelis' spectacular kidnapping in 1962 of Adolf Eichmann, a chief perpetrator of Hitler's "final solution," was widely criticized. William Buckley's National Review, today an ardent supporter of Israel, deplored Eichmann's capture as part of "an attempt to cast suspicion on Germany" and charged that his trial would promote "bitterness, mistrust, the advancement of communist aims." But it was Eichmann's trial, at which a succession of death camp survivors gave their heart-rending evidence, that highlighted for the world the attempted liquidation of the Jews as a separate and distinct crime, of a different order from other Nazi crimes. During Eichmann's trial the word Holocaust first began finding its way into general usage.

The second critical event of the 1960s took place in June 1967, when Israel wiped out the entire Egyptian air force in one surprise attack and in the next six days overran the West Bank, the Sinai, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Jews were no longer seen as passive victims but as brilliant strategists and able soldiers. At the same time, Israel's lightning victory convinced some members of the Lyndon Johnson administration that its public support for Israel could diminish some of the growing American media criticism of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The new image of Israel as a strong and vibrant nation made it possible for Jewish leaders to restore the Holocaust to general consciousness and use it to strengthen Jewish identity and engender support for Israel. With the sharp decline of prejudice against Jews in America and a falling away of young Jews from the synagogue, the Holocaust today serves as a common denominator for all Jews, religious and otherwise, and the single justification for the slogan "We are one. …

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