In the seventies the insistence that the Holocaust was unique turned into what Novick calls "the Victimization Olympics." Official Jewish treatment of the Armenian genocide has been particularly reprehensible, Novick shows. Originally the Holocaust museum had pledged to provide some coverage of the Armenian genocide, but its planners yielded to the Israelis, who didn't want to offend Turkey, a crucial Muslim ally. American Jewish activists joined Israeli lobbyists in defeating a 1989 Congressional resolution memorializing the Armenian genocide, while major Jewish organizations stayed silent. In response to Armenians who argued that they too were the victims of genocide, Lucy Dawidowicz, a leading Holocaust historian, argued that the Turks had "a rational reason" for killing Armenians, unlike the Germans, who had no rational reason for killing Jews.
Black-Jewish Holocaust competition has been equally distasteful and destructive. "They are stealing the Holocaust from us," Wiesel complained. "The greatest victory," Novick writes, "is to wring an acknowledgement of superior victimization from another contender. Officials of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum tell, with great satisfaction, a story of black youngsters learning of the Holocaust and saying 'God, we thought we had it bad.'"
James Baldwin long ago provided the best response to this Jewish oneupmanship: "It is not here, not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him."
Holocaust consciousness today is thoroughly embedded in mainstream popular culture. This has happened, Novick writes, because American Jews "are not just 'the people of the book,' but the people of the Hollywood film and the television miniseries, of the magazine article and the newspaper column, of the comic book and the academic symposium." A giant leap in situating this in the mind of Middle America came with the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust. One hundred million Americans watched all or part of the four-night broadcast. Wiesel didn't like the program--he wrote that the series "treats the Holocaust as if it were just another event.... Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized.... The dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable of recovering." But it made a tremendous impression on the American public.
Then came Schindler's List (1993); Oprah Winfrey declared on television, "I'm a better person as a result of seeing Schindler's List." Again a few Jewish critics complained; again the public responded with tears and sympathy. Novick, ever the clear-eyed questioner, asks "why the eliciting of these responses from Americans is seen as so urgently important a task."
The central claim justifying the spread of Holocaust consciousness is that it teaches "lessons" that we all "ignore at our peril." Novick is deeply skeptical of this claim. He points to the ways contending groups have drawn different, self-serving "lessons." On the right, thinkers like George Will have claimed the Holocaust teaches that we must reject the liberal belief in the perfectibility of man, that we need to adopt government policies to deal with the evil people in our communities. But Americans, with their daily TV diet of images of crime, murder and mayhem, hardly need the Holocaust to teach them about the dangers outside their door, and Novick politely suggests that Will's opposition to liberal social programs did not arise out of his study of the Holocaust. Liberals, of course, draw their own lessons--the need for tolerance and mutual understanding among different ethnic groups. And antiabortion groups proclaim they are fighting the abortion holocaust.
Novick is interested in the "lesson" that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary evil, but he argues that the Holocaust is not as relevant a case of this as the work psychologist Stanley Milgram did at Yale in the mid-sixties. Milgram recruited ordinary New Haven residents for what they were told was an experiment in the influence of pain on learning. He told them to inflict increasingly painful electric shocks on subjects who gave wrong answers. The upper range of shocks on what was in fact a fake generator was described as "Danger: Severe Shock" and "XXX." Despite hearing screams of agony and pleas for help, more than 60 percent continued to crank up the shocks, and 90 percent of those reading the questions but not administering the shocks continued to the end. If you want lessons about the capacity of normal people to inflict pain, you don't need to go to a society in a total war with an ideology that has dehumanized some groups--you don't need Auschwitz when you've got New Haven.