Post-World-War-II American Jewry and the confrontation with catastrophe.

Author:Diner, Hasia
Position:Part Two: Recent American Jewish History, 1954-2004

From the perspective of early-twenty-first-century American Jewish communal culture, few issues loom as large or carry as much valence in the performance of Jewish identity as the Holocaust, the horrific destruction of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and the obliteration of their communities. That cataclysmic event has come by 2004 to play a pivotal role in the shaping of American Jewry's political and cultural agendas.

Jewish communities across the United States have created Holocaust memorials, large physical monuments, often set boldly in highly public places. They have lobbied to make the study of the Holocaust a part of the social studies curricula in their various states. Jewish educational institutions have created volumes of instructional material on how best to teach the Holocaust, producing guidelines, teachers' manuals, and textbooks. Jewish communities as organized bodies representing the panoply of institutions that comprise the communal infrastructure sponsor Holocaust remembrance rituals, replete with traditional and innovative liturgies and attended by public officials who come annually to express their solidarity with the Jewish people. Jewish organizations have developed informational packets that are distributed to schools, synagogues, and organizations to help communities remember. The memorial gatherings, as well as the organized pilgrimages to the sites of the Nazi death camps in Europe and newly written liturgical texts, have catapulted the Holocaust to the near top of the American Jewish repertoire of performance

American publishers, university presses and trade houses alike, fill their catalogues with scholarly analyses of the Holocaust. These books, whether focusing on the victims or the perpetrators, on the actual destruction or its aftermath, demonstrate the continued draw of the Holocaust and the degree to which the Holocaust has come to dominate discussions about "the Jews." In its 2003 Jewish Studies catalogue, for example, Indiana University Press offered nine "Forthcoming" works. Two of these treated some aspect of the Holocaust, while the section explicitly marked "Holocaust" highlighted twenty-one books. In the field of Bible, on the other hand, the same list described only eight titles. (1) Random House's 2004 "Cultural and Ethnic Studies" catalog, a listing of books geared for college course adoption, offered nineteen books in its Jewish Studies section. Of them, fourteen involved the Holocaust. (2)

In the realm of popular reading, the public's appetite for Holocaust subject matter has been stoked with works of various kinds geared to both children and adults, including survivor memoirs, poetry, and fiction. The Scholastic Book Club of October, 2003 offered a special "Holocaust Pack" to middle-school students. The "pack" consisted of three recent books--When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Katrina, and I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust--all of which dealt with "one of the darkest times in world history." The same brightly colored handout, distributed in classrooms around the country, placed among its "Must-Read" books Eleanor's Story: An American Girl in Hitler's Germany. (3)

Similarly, the scholarly world has enshrined the Holocaust primarily, although not exclusively, through the study of Jewish history. Scholarly symposia and conferences sponsored by Jewish Studies departments continuously highlight the Holocaust as a subject worthy of study. Jewish Studies departments as well as history and literature departments offer courses on the Holocaust and hire scholars specifically in Holocaust Studies. In 1997, Clark University inaugurated its Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, a flee-standing department in the university, dedicated to teaching about and fostering research on "the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide and other genocides around the world." (4)

The United States Holocaust Museum, which opened in 1993, standing astride the Mall in Washington, D.C., and placed prominently adjacent to the nation's sacred spaces--the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House--has transformed the American landscape. Images of the Holocaust have infused American Jewish communal rhetoric. Rabbis, Jewish educators, journalists, leaders of the various Jewish organizations, and ordinary American Jews refer repeatedly to the Holocaust in worried discussions about intermarriage, the shrinking number of American Jews, the need for intensified Jewish education, and the fate of Israel.

The degree to which late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century American Jews use the Holocaust to further their contemporary agenda has emerged as a subject of criticism and contention. Critics, like Tim Cole in his 1999 book, Selling the Holocaust, University of Chicago historian Peter Novick, in perhaps the most widely discussed book on the subject, The Holocaust in American Life (1999), and Norman Finkelstein in his controversial work, The Holocaust Industry (2000), have lambasted American Jews, their communal organizations, and their leaders, who, the authors have contended, invest "too many public and private resources ... in memorializing the Nazi genocide. Most of the output," according to Finkelstein, "is worthless, a tribute not to Jewish suffering but to Jewish aggrandizement." (5)

The argument advanced by these writers looks backward from the end of the twentieth century, when Holocaust references abounded and, according to Novick, Cole, and Finkelstein, the words and invocations of the Holocaust served a set of political purposes. High among these, the critics have discerned American Jewish concern for Israel and what they perceived as a rightward drift in the politics of the community. Novick also asserted that the major defense organizations of the Jewish community use the Holocaust to make up for the absence of any other meaningful and common symbols to inspire group loyalty.

Individuals more firmly rooted within the Jewish community have also offered somewhat jaundiced observations about the nature of and degree to which American Jews have given the Holocaust its iconic status as the central defining event in their history. Jacob Neusner, writing in 1981, described the Holocaust commemorations of the 1970s as an "obsession," and questioned the reasons why American Jews wanted "to make the tragedy into the principal subject of public discourse." (6)

Neusner proffered this comment years before the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum or that of New York's Museum of the Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, which began to receive visitors in 1997. Neusner's statement also came before such sensationally popular movies as Schindler's List in 1993, Life Is Beautiful in 1998, and The Pianist in 2002. These award-winning films, box office successes, drew millions of viewers and caused a vast commentary in the Jewish world as to who has the right to narrate the Holocaust.

Indeed, a series of voices from within the Jewish world lamented the degree to which the Holocaust had come to define what it meant to be a Jew in America by the late twentieth century. Like Neusner, Daniel Jeremy Silver, a Reform rabbi, fretted over this tendency that he saw and deplored. Even before some of the boldest and most popular manifestations of Holocaust performance, he lamented the trend. Writing in the journal Judaism, he warned that the Holocaust "ought not provide the kind of vitalizing and informing myth around which American Jews could marshal their energies and construct a vital culture. Martyrs command respect, but a community's sense of sacred purpose must be woven of something more substantial than tears." (7)

From the 2004 vantage point, the year in which American Jews marked the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement of North America, Holocaust discussions, popularly referred to as "Holocaust consciousness," functioned as a key element in both intra-Jewish communal discourse and in the multiple ways in which American Jews presented themselves to the larger American and world public. American Jews of the early twenty-first century have claimed the Holocaust as theirs, invoking it when it served their needs and referring to it to advance their interests. And despite the fact that the horrors of the Nazi era transpired far removed from the United States and did not involve the United States as a major player, American Jews have embraced the Holocaust and woven its imagery into their communal culture.

Most historians and other commentators, both scholars and more popular writers, the critics among them, have asserted emphatically that this use of the Holocaust by American Jews represented a new phenomenon, with roots going no farther back in time than the late 1960s. They take as a given that from the end of the World War II, and during the 1950s in particular, American Jews either did not want to talk about the Holocaust (a word which itself has a complicated history) or believed that they could not, given the pressures of that decade. This assertion of "Holocaust invisibility" actually functions as one of the key elements in the standard narrative of American Jewish history, accepted by all, repeatedly stated, yet interrogated by few.

For critics, those operating outside of the world of Jewish scholarship or Jewish communal institutions like Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein, the earlier silence reflected a kind of American Jewish callousness, one bred by the pressures of the 1950s. In an era dominated by the push toward suburbanization and the desire to "fit in," American Jews chose not to use the Holocaust as they participated in the larger political world around them. In their interactions with other Americans they saw no benefit in positing their recent history as one of victimization, but rather opted for a bland kind of positive Americanism. In particular, these critics have argued...

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