[Marxism] Peter Novick, Wrote Controversial Book on Holocaust, Dies at 77

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 13 08:56:57 MDT 2012

NY Times March 13, 2012
Peter Novick, Wrote Controversial Book on Holocaust, Dies at 77

Peter Novick, a history professor at the University of Chicago who 
stirred controversy in 1999 with a book contending that the legacy 
of the Holocaust had come to unduly dominate American Jewish 
identity, died on Feb. 17 at his home in Chicago. He was 77.

The cause was lung cancer, his wife, Joan, said.

Dr. Novick — “a nonobservant Jew,” according to his wife — was the 
author of “The Holocaust in American Life,” in which he asked why 
the Nazi genocide had “come to loom so large” and “whether the 
prominent role the Holocaust has come to play in both American 
Jewish and general American discourse is as desirable a 
development as most people seem to think it is.”

He was skeptical that it was, and 10 years of research, he added, 
“confirmed the skepticism.”

Dr. Novick did not deny the enormity of the Holocaust or suggest 
that it should be forgotten. But he contended that at a time of 
increasing assimilation, intermarriage and secularization, it had 
become “virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish 
identity in the late 20th century.”

The Holocaust, as he saw it, was also being used for political 
ends. That was particularly true, he said, after the Six-Day War 
in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 had heightened fears of 
Israel’s vulnerability.

“After 1967, and particularly after 1973, much of the world came 
to see the Middle East conflict as grounded in the Palestinian 
struggle to, belatedly, accomplish the U.N.’s original intention” 
of creating two states, he wrote. “There were strong reasons for 
Jewish organizations to ignore all this, however, and instead to 
conceive of Israel’s difficulties as stemming from the world’s 
having forgotten the Holocaust. The Holocaust framework allowed 
one to put aside as irrelevant any legitimate grounds for 
criticizing Israel.”

Dr. Novick’s book drew wide and varying reactions from reviewers 
and academicians.

In his review of the book in The New York Times, Lawrence L. 
Langer, a scholar of Holocaust literature at Simmons College in 
Boston, was unconvinced by Dr. Novick’s contentions. “Novick 
rightly slights formulaic responses to the Holocaust,” he wrote, 
“from the ubiquitous but vacuous ‘Never again!’ to the periodic 
manipulations of popular sympathy by some Jewish organizations 
when they fear a rise in anti-Semitism or a decline in support for 
Israel. But the abuse of the Holocaust for political or emotional 
ends does not discredit the continuing significance of the 
atrocity itself, as a human catastrophe and an example of vast 
evil in our time.”

Eva Hoffman, the writer and literary scholar, writing in The New 
York Review of Books, was more supportive. She noted that the book 
had been “criticized for the harshness and alleged ‘cynicism’ of 
its tone” and acknowledged that it was “indeed a tough-minded 
work, sharp, brusque, and sometimes nearly Swiftian in its 
acerbities.” But, she added, “the anger is a measure of Novick’s 
involvement; his candor is part of the argument. Novick is clearly 
intent on cutting through the circumlocutions of habitual 
Holocaust discourse, on challenging what he sees as its 
obfuscations with uncompromising logic and saying out loud what is 
often intimated in private.”

Jan Goldstein, a friend and colleague of Dr. Novick’s at the 
University of Chicago, recalled that “very often historians of 
Jewish background would take the thesis as an attack on American 

“He was regarded by some as a self-hating Jew,” Dr. Goldstein said 
of Dr. Novick, “which he was definitely not.”

In 2000, The Economist cited Dr. Novick’s book as the “starting 
point” for a far more controversial one, “The Holocaust Industry: 
Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” in which the 
author, Norman G. Finkelstein, contended that the Holocaust was 
being exploited for personal, political and economic reasons.

Ms. Novick recalled the uproar over her husband’s book. “Some 
people hated the book,” she said. “People said: ‘This is a bad 
thing. You’re saying the Holocaust was not the most horrible thing 
in the world.’ ”

Still, she added, “Unbeliever that he was, Peter found strong 
supporters among many rabbis — liberals to Orthodox — who shared 
his concern that the Holocaust might replace religion as the 
central symbol of Jewishness.”

Peter Novick was born in Jersey City on July 26, 1934, to Michael 
and Esther Novick. His grandparents immigrated to the United 
States from Eastern Europe in the 1890s. After serving in the 
Army, Dr. Novick received his bachelor’s degree in 1957 and his 
doctorate in 1965, both from Columbia University. Besides his 
wife, he is survived by a son, Michael.

Dr. Novick joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1966 and 
retired in 1999. His specialty was historiography, the study of 
the techniques of historical research, and even here he challenged 

In his 1988 book, “That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ 
and the American Historical Profession,” he questioned the idea of 
objectivity itself in historical research. Tracing its 
development, he wrote that history was long considered a kind of 
literary genre until the late 19th century, infused with an 
author’s point of view. That changed when the prevailing ideal 
became fact-based documentation without preconception. Dr. Novick 
was again skeptical, believing that the “myth of objectivity 
breaks down,” as Dr. Goldstein put it — “that there is no such 
thing as a fact in isolation from a preconceived theory or narrative.”

Of the criticism of his Holocaust book, Dr. Novick told the 
Chicago Tribune in 1999: “I knew I’d get some static and 
controversy on this,” adding that the reaction was “divided 
between those who say, ‘Right on!’ and those who are scandalized 
and outraged.”

“They don’t just pay me here for the teaching I do,” he said. “I 
produce scholarship.”

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