In This Review

The Holocaust in American Life
The Holocaust in American Life
By Peter Novick
Houghton Mifflin, 1999, 320 pp

Having written the best book on the postwar purges in France, Novick has now moved on to even more controversial terrain: Why has the Holocaust come so late to loom so large in public discourse, and why is this such a uniquely American phenomenon? He tackles taboos and slaughters sacred cows with a cool passion for proportion, perspective, and the truth. Novick punctures the charge of official (and Jewish) indifference during the war and finds no evidence to support the view that American Jews converted to Zionism out of guilt for their inaction. In the 1950s, he argues, Jewish organizations were reluctant to talk about the Holocaust because they wished to disassociate Jews from communists in the public mind at a time when only the American far left was focusing on the Holocaust. Talk about the subject became more open as support for Israel grew after the 1967 and 1973 wars in the Middle East, but it has only recently taken on a central role for American Jews. Its current centrality reflects a choice made by current American Jewish leaders, Novick writes, who are less concerned with integration into American society and more particularistic, religious, and Israel-oriented than their followers. Novick also defends Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem and chastises those who insist on the uniqueness of the Holocaust, thereby trivializing gross human rights violations that fall short of the Nazi standard of evil yet deserve collective action. Skeptical about the so-called lessons of history, he shows how difficult it is to derive simple lessons from the Holocaust. A courageous and thought-provoking book.