Another lesson some have drawn from the Holocaust is awareness of "the crime of indifference." Novick agrees that "the atrophy of a sense of mutual obligation" is indeed a problem in modern individualistic societies, but he doubts that the Holocaust provides the most useful example, again because of the extremity of the situation. When Kitty Genovese was attacked in Queens in the mid-sixties, thirty-eight neighbors heard her cries for help and didn't respond or even call the police. They didn't have to fear Gestapo retaliation.
The most fundamental thesis the professionals advance is that Holocaust consciousness sensitizes us to oppression and atrocity. But making the Holocaust the example of oppression can easily have the opposite effect. It's such an extreme event, Novick argues, that it tends to trivialize everything of lesser magnitude: Slavery was bad, but not as bad as systematic mass murder; Americans may have killed 2 million Vietnamese, but that's not as bad as the Nazis' killing 6 million Jews. The argument for the uniqueness and incomparability of the Holocaust contributes directly to this kind of "lesson." Novick's harsh but unavoidable conclusion is that the Holocaust doesn't teach lessons at all. Visiting the Holocaust museum doesn't make you a better person--it could conceivably provide a rationale for minimizing current injustices.
Beyond these immensely significant arguments, Novick's book is full of revealing little gems. The Holocaust text quoted most often is Martin Niemöller's confession: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist--so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat--so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew--so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left who could stand up for me." Niemöller had the progression of Nazi concentration camp policy correct. Al Gore quoted the passage, but moved the Jews to first place. He also left out Communists and trade unionists, and he added Catholics, who were not on Niemöller's list. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum preserves the list intact and in the correct order, except that it omits Communists. Other versions add homosexuals.
The invocations of the Holocaust in American politics and culture today cited by Novick are mind-boggling. Hillary Clinton, under attack in 1996 for her Whitewater financial transactions, appeared in the gallery of the House during her husband's televised State of the Union address, sitting with daughter Chelsea on one side and Elie Wiesel on the other. Surely this should get the award for best use of Holocaust imagery in a photo-op. Runner-up goes to Woody Allen for his explanation about how he was able to cope with the scandal over his romance with his teenage stepdaughter: by learning from "all the reading I'd done through my life on the Holocaust.... Those who focused on what was actually happening to them--the daily horror...the reality of it--they survived."
Virtually every reader will have some disagreements with this provocative and vigorously argued book. I thought Novick should have considered the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the "other" big Holocaust museum in the United States, which, unlike the one on the Washington Mall, seeks to relate Jewish suffering to the sufferings of other groups, to teach that all minorities have an interest in protecting one another from discrimination. I disagreed, too, with his assessment of the writing about rescuers--Christians who helped Jews. Novick says its purpose is to condemn the millions who did nothing by honoring the few who helped, but the work I know--particularly Gay Block and Malka Drucker's magnificent book Rescuers--simply affirms that, under the most difficult circumstances, ordinary people can be heroes. Novick suggests that the Holocaust curriculums mandated for public schools are a waste of time, teaching trivial lessons about being nice to everybody; I think the Holocaust ought to be taught in school.
But Novick has made his case: The present state of Holocaust consciousness is not good for the Jews. It provides a negative way for Jews to define themselves as a people and a destructive way for Jews to relate to others. His wonderfully clear and intelligent voice, his insistence on posing difficult questions and his deep learning make this, for me at least, the history book of the year--not just for what it says about Jews but for what it reveals about cultural politics in America since World War II.