To the Editor:
I was sorry to see from his review that David G. Roskies disliked my book, The Holocaust in American Life [Books in Review, September]. But given that he and I are at odds on most issues within American Jewry, as well as within the American polity at large, this was hardly surprising. In any case, he is entitled to his opinion. What he is not entitled to do—at least not without being called to account—is repeatedly and willfully to make demonstrably false assertions about the book’s contents. A few examples.
- Mr. Roskies attributes to me the view that “the campaign to vilify Hannah Arendt for her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, . . . was launched from Israel.” This is a complete fabrication, and Mr. Roskies knows that it is. In the eight pages I devote to the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem there is not a word—not a syllable, not a comma—that even hints at such an absurd conclusion. Pure invention on Mr. Roskies’s part.
- “Novick,” Mr. Roskies writes, “even blames the Zionists for doing away with the last vestiges of authentic Jewish American speech patterns, replacing the beloved yarmulke with kippa and the homey shabbes with the harsh-sounding shabbat.” I devoted a paragraph to the “Israelization” of American Jewish consciousness following the 1967 war. This is a very unoriginal observation, frequently made, among other places, in the pages of COMMENTARY. Among other examples of this reorientation, I cited the changes in language that Mr. Roskies mentions. There is no hint in this discussion of disapproval of these changes, let alone of “blame.” (In any case, as what Mr. Roskies describes as “a resolutely secular Jew,” who grew up in a completely secular Jewish home, yarmulke was not “beloved” for me, nor shabbes “homey.”) But Mr. Roskies’s polemic demands that I be “blaming Zionists,” so he simply invents this, along with my alleged affect toward these changes in language.
- Mr. Roskies says that “in an outburst of passion” I ask why “the American Jewish community does not labor to rescue the millions upon millions of innocent children who are dying of starvation today.” This, he says, “is the purest cant . . . [and] a wild distortion of the truth to boot.”
I asked no such (rhetorical) question, and Mr. Roskies knows that I did not. The wild distortion is his, and it is willful. The passage in question appears, as Mr. Roskies knows, in a chapter that has nothing to do with Jews. Jews’ relationship to the Holocaust—and the “Jewish-specific” lessons they draw from it—is discussed separately in other chapters. The discussion of starving children appears in a chapter on the alleged “universal” lessons of the Holocaust—“the abortion holocaust,” military intervention in Bosnia, etc.—lessons to which non-Jews are said (sometimes) to subscribe. One of those that I discuss is “the lesson of indifference,” and it is in this “all-American” context that I take up the question of world hunger. (I would not dream of suggesting that this is a special obligation of Jews—or, in any case, one that Jews have the resources to address seriously.) It is hard to think of a more unconscionable reviewing practice than to cite what an author says about one subject and pretend that it applies to a quite different subject.
• Mr. Roskies says that all the “main villains” in my book are “either ‘Zionists’ or ‘neoconservatives,’ or both.” His example of this is that I fail to mention Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s 1975 book, The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945, which, Mr. Roskies says, “set a gold standard” for Holocaust studies. Dawidowicz, he says, “appears here only as a neoconservative ‘expert on Communism.’ ”
It is quite true that in The Holocaust in American Life I make no mention of The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945. In a different sort of book—one that attempted a review of scholarly writings and how they were received—I would have done so. If I had written that sort of book, I might have noted that whatever the merits of Dawidowicz’s book, most professional historians did not think well of it. I might have also noted (anticipating Mr. Roskies’s characterization of my book) that the leading Israeli historians of the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer and Israel Gutman, criticized Dawidowicz’s book for its anti-Zionist bias.
It is also true that in discussing Jewish agencies’ concern about the association of Jews with Communism I mentioned that Lucy Dawidowicz was, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the American Jewish Committee’s expert on Communism. But rather than this being the “only” way in which she is mentioned, as Mr. Roskies alleges, it is one of eleven occasions on which she is cited or quoted. The others include: (1) her recollections of her wartime attitudes toward Germans; (2) her defense of American Jews against the charge of inaction during the war; (3) her objection to the charge that FDR “abandoned” the Jews; (4) her criticism of Zionists for “pressuring” survivors to immigrate to Israel (criticism which I said was too harsh); (5) her criticism of Israel for accepting German reparations while declining responsibility for Palestinian refugees; (6) her equation of clemency for the Rosenbergs with clemency for Hermann Goering; (7) her denunciation of Jews who voted for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan; (8) her denial that the Armenian genocide could be meaningfully compared to the Holocaust; (9 and 10) her criticisms of various Holocaust curricula. That in the face of all this, Mr. Roskies can say that Dawidowicz appears in my text “only as a neoconservative ‘expert on Communism’ ” suggests that his zeal to falsify is quite beyond rational control.
Let me end with an apology. I had been skeptical about articles in COMMENTARY in recent years reporting that the academic study of literature has been taken over by radical nihilists. These ideological zealots, COMMENTARY has reported, have no interest in what authors actually wrote—the plain words on the printed page. They cheerfully turn texts upside down and inside out to serve their political purposes. This is not a matter of anything that could (generously) be called “interpretation.” Practicing what they call “creative misreading,” they make flatly false assertions about what is in the text, confident that trusting students will defer to their authority, even if their assertions are clearly contradicted by the author’s words. As I say, I was skeptical about these claims, but the review of my book by Mr. Roskies, who teaches literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has made a believer out of me. So I apologize to COMMENTARY for my former doubts—and congratulate it on the subtlety with which it chose to illustrate the breadth of the postmodernist takeover.
University of Chicago
David G. Roskies writes:
A radical nihilist; an ideological zealot; an agent of the “postmodernist takeover” who has successfully infiltrated the bastion of neoconservatism—now that Peter Novick has flushed me out, I suppose my only hope is to plead guilty to the lesser charge of creative misreading.
Mr. Novick is narrowly right on his first point: he did not explicitly state that the campaign to vilify Hannah Arendt was launched from Israel. Rather, it was the Anti-Defamation League, his bête noire, that, as he tells it, launched the first prong of the attack, with Nahum Goldmann, head of the World Zionist Organization, responsible only for the second. If I creatively fused one with the other, it is because, ten pages later, Mr. Novick quotes “a long-time official of the Anti-Defamation League” who wrote in a letter to a friend “that by the 1970’s organized American Jewry had, become ‘an agency of the Israeli government . . . follow[ing] its directions from day to day’ ”
Since a private letter, even from someone in the know, hardly constitutes proof, Mr. Novick also cites corroborating evidence from “changes” in “popular Jewish attitudes”: the supposed “Israelization” of American Jewish speech; the “mandatory” presence of Israeli artifacts in every American Jewish living room; and, of course, the blind and totally uninformed American Jewish “commitment to Israel.” I invite readers of Mr. Novick’s book to judge for themselves whether or not there is any “hint in this discussion of disapproval of these changes.”
American Jews, Mr. Novick argues throughout his book, have become increasingly insular, using the “lessons” of the Holocaust and the defense of Israel as reasons to abdicate their proper, liberal agenda. In the penultimate chapter, he extends this argument to the American polity as a whole. Why do the deaths each year of over ten million children from hunger and preventable disease make no moral claim on the American conscience? Because, he suggests, they are insufficiently “holocaustal.” The Jews, in other words, are guilty not only of having betrayed themselves but of having unwittingly contributed to the self-betrayal of all socially conscious Americans.
I thank Mr. Novick for collating the references to Lucy S. Dawidowicz that lie scattered throughout his book. (There are actually quite a few more, if you count the footnotes.) But what do they add up to? Dawidowicz comes across as—at best—a political pundit. This, in a book about the Holocaust in American life that devotes nine full pages to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Since Mr. Novick labors so valiantly to defend Arendt’s reputation but fails to learn anything from Dawidowicz’s example, a brief comparison may be in order.
Hannah Arendt remained wedded to a narrow conception of European Jewish life, which she enunciated in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah.” From its purview, she issued a sweeping indictment of the entire European Jewish leadership in wartime. As for Adolf Eichmann, he must have cut a banal figure indeed next to the demonically seductive Martin Heidegger, the philosopher and Nazi sympathizer who was Arendt’s teacher and former lover. But none of this matters for Mr. Novick: to him Arendt represents the historian as gadfly, and in defending her he is defending his own Left flank.
Lucy Dawidowicz, by contrast, spent half a lifetime researching and writing The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945. On the strength of this great book, she fully achieved the authority to speak to Americans, and to American Jews, about the Holocaust; in her, it is not too much to say, the scholar became the moral counterpart to the eyewitness. In the course of writing that book, moreover, Dawidowicz become a religiously observant Jew and a passionate defender of Israel. Perhaps that is why Mr. Novick declines to honor her, for to do so would cede something of the moral high ground that he is so determined to occupy with so much bluster.