Sociology Confronts the Holocaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas

By Berger, Ronald J. | Shofar, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Sociology Confronts the Holocaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas


Berger, Ronald J., Shofar


Sociology Confronts the Holocaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas, edited by Judith M. Gerson and Diane L. Wolf. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. 407 pp. $24.95.

Holocaust studies is a vibrant area of interdisciplinary scholarly inquiry in the social sciences and humanities. Relative to other disciplines, however, sociology has been underrepresented in this field, leading some observers to speculate that sociology might even have a "Jewish problem." In a recent essay, Burton Halpert laments that when he undertook graduate work in sociology in 1968, he had no idea that the Holocaust might be an appropriate subject of study for someone pursuing a career in sociology. Two decades later, Zygmunt Bauman noted sociologists' continued neglect and failure to appreciate the Holocaust as an area relevant to some of the central concerns of the discipline. Since that time, many (though mostly Jewish) sociologists have heeded Bauman's call for a scholarly engagement with the Holocaust. Judith Gerson and Diane Wolf's anthology, Sociology Confronts the Hohcaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas, is a significant contribution to this effort.

Gerson and Wolf's book grew out of an international conference held at Rutgers University in 2001 and includes original contributions by some of the leading scholars in the field. Contained within are interesting empirical studies of neglected topics as well as incisive theoretical analysis of sociological issues. The editors argue that a comparative approach aimed at developing generalizations that apply to other social phenomena should guide sociological research on the Holocaust. As Gerson writes in a chaptet she contributed on Holocaust memoirs, "Continued assumptions of uniqueness only offer to place the Holocaust outside full scholarly study and perpetuate a priori conclusions about distinctiveness" (p. 131). Thus the editors seek to avoid the ghettoization of "Holocaust studies as an area of inquiry onto itself" (p. 6) and instead link Holocaust scholarship to broader disciplinary concerns with ethnicity and immigration, diasporas and transnationalism, and collective memory and identity.

Among the noteworthy empirical contributions to the book are studies of Jewish children who were hidden in Belgian convents during the war, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, wartime and postwar experiences of Holocaust survivors, German Jewish cattle dealers who settled in rural New York, dilemmas of Soviet refugees in Israel and the United States, the international Je wish "diaspora business" that utilizes tourism to inculcate Jewish identity and pro-Israel sentiments, and postwar exchanges among German intellectuals over the question of collective guilt. From these and other contributions to the book we gain greater appreciation of the complexity of the Jewish experience - of Jewish identity as not only a social construction but a heterogeneous phenomenon, of Jews who mistreat or hold negative attitudes toward other Jews, of the conflict between Israel and the United States as the center of Jewish culture and identity, and of cultural boundaries that construct varying accounts of victims, petpetrators, and bystanders of the Holocaust. …

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