This week brought news of two shocking deaths: the first of Albert Abramson, 94, an important figure in building the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. And then there was Peter Novick, 77, an historian who wrote a withering attack of the Holocaust’s undue influence on American Jewish identity. The two would probably have had little to agree about had they ever talked in person, and one only hopes the after-life has sufficient square-footage to keep the pair apart.
Let’s start with some thoughts on Abramson. I hadn’t heard of him till I read his obit in this week’s New York Times. But there was much to admire. A wealthy developer, Abramson was appointed to the Holocaust museum’s board in the mid-1980s by Ronald Reagan. But he became frustrated with the snails-pace of the project’s development. Boldly, he took public aim at Elie Wiesel, also a museum council member, for wasting time on objections Wiesel thought were impediments to getting the project getting finished (though Wiesel’s objections had merit; original designs, Wiesel said disapprovingly, reminded him too much of actual death camp barracks).
But Abramson had one overriding concern—getting the museum built. At the time of his appointment, the first generation of Holocaust survivors was beginning to die, and having their life stories—and the horrific crime that shaped them—told to a broad audience was the ultimate thing that mattered. By the time the museum was complete, in 1993, his goal was realized. And it is fair to say that the Holocaust Museum has had a seismic influence on Holocaust awareness in the United States. There have been other forces, like Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” but nothing quite bridged the gap between serious scholarship and public education like the U.S. museum.
And nothing probably disgruntled Peter Novick more. I knew Novick’s career well. In college, I had to read his scrupulous study of the historian’s profession, “That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession” (1989), which argued that professional historians had achieved only a veneer of objectivity throughout its modern iteration. And then, in a Jewish studies course, I had to read his much more popular, and controversial, book “The Holocaust in American Life” (1999). It argued that the Holocaust had sadly become, for American Jews of all religious and political leanings, the only shared basis of their collective identity. At a time when Israel was becoming an increasingly divisive issue within the Jewish community, moreover, a true understanding of the Holocaust was being subsumed by its political manipulation by communal leaders. Jewish leaders were either exploiting the Holocaust to justify Israeli actions against Arabs and the Palestinians, or simply to distract from the issue entirely.
But if you think “The Holocaust in American Life” was anything like Norman Finkelstein’s markedly more biased and polemical book “The Holocaust Industry,” you’d be mistaken. What made Novick’s work the one that’s withstood the criticism, and over the last decade made it a standard text in many Holocaust courses, is that it avoided taking positions on the divisive issues—Israel; its Palestinian problem—and sought only to show how Jewish leaders often deliberately used the Holocaust as a political tool. And crucially, his argument was driven as much by his disdain for Jewish leaders’ political manipulation of the Holocaust as it was by his implicit plea for the honest study of the Holocaust.
If Jewish leaders who built powerful memorials to the Holocaust—men like Abramson—might have bristled at Novick’s attack, I suspect many of them have taken his argument to heart. Perhaps, then, there is an irony in Novick’s work: his attack on the politicization of the Holocaust has led to a proliferation of Holocaust museums—but ones that are probably better than ever: more historical accurate, and less politically driven.