The story of such a monumental reversal in official Jewish thinking occupies the second part of Novick's book. Where did the concept of "the Holocaust" as a distinct entity come from? Novick's answer is that it derives from the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, the first time the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jews was presented to the public as distinct from Nazi barbarism in general. Israeli tactics in kidnapping Eichmann and bringing him to Israel for trial had initially aroused considerable opposition: The New Republic recommended that Israel "confess error and hand Eichmann back to the Argentine authorities," and the Wall Street Journal editorialized that the trial could benefit only the Communists and was pervaded by "an atmosphere of Old Testament retribution." William F. Buckley's National Review was the most vehement, denouncing Israel for "bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of Communist aims."
But the Israeli prosecutors succeeded in showing American Jews that they could and should discuss a singular event they called "the Holocaust," that they need no longer be defensive about Jewish victimization. American Jews had not taken the initiative in this development, but many nevertheless found the end of silence liberating.
The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 provided a major impetus to the rise of Holocaust consciousness in America. Jewish enthusiasm about Israeli invincibility, which followed the Six-Day War of 1967, came to a sudden end, as did the claim that the Jewish homeland provided a kind of security unknown in the diaspora. The 1973 Israeli victory came only after frightening early reverses and massive Israeli casualties. Only US support assured Israeli victory and survival. Suddenly the Holocaust had an intense new significance, invoked on behalf of Israeli security. Elie Wiesel wrote that he was, for the first time since the end of World War II, "afraid that the nightmare may start all over again."
Along with this theme came offensive arguments made by defenders of Israel. Most encompassing was Cynthia Ozick's statement in 1974 that "all the world wants the Jews dead." She was arguing, essentially, that since nobody cared what happened to the Jews, they should stop being so concerned about injustices to others and focus on defending their own particular interests. Talk about "our timidity" and "our failure" in the face of the Holocaust now became central to Jewish discourse, the implication being that "we" must not be timid or fail to protect Israel this time around.
While Zionist spokesmen expressed deep anxieties about the survival of Israel after the 1973 war, Jewish leaders began worrying during that decade that the greatest threat to Jewish survival in the United States was the loss of Jewish distinctiveness. Novick points out that it's not easy to come up with grounds for a distinctive Jewish identity in America today: Most Jews aren't particularly religious; most have no particularly Jewish cultural traits; Zionism provides only a thin and abstract commitment. For many official voices, the best argument for Jewish survival is the obligation to deny Hitler a "posthumous victory."
This contention that Jews are an endangered species was accompanied by an irrational anxiety about a "new anti-Semitism" in America, whipped up by professional Holocaust memorializers like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which bombarded Jews with mailings describing frightening threats and appealing for money. But in fact, as Novick argues, "it was the absence of hostility to Jews that was threatening"--the threat now was assimilation, and especially intermarriage. "The monster has assumed a different and more benign form," said Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, "but its evil goal remains unchanged: a Judenrein world."
As a historian, Novick is profoundly critical of the argument that the Holocaust was "unique." Every historical event is unique in some ways, yet each can be compared with others in other ways. It's easy to point out ways in which the Holocaust was not unique: Stalin killed more people than Hitler; Gypsies suffered losses that were roughly proportional to those of the Jews. But there's a more radical argument Novick found in the work of philosopher Berel Lang: "So what if the Holocaust is unique?" The uniqueness argument serves primarily to denigrate or minimize the sufferings of others.