Holocaust Memorial backer Abramson dies at 94; Novick, critic of Holocaust centrality dies at 77

It’s one of those coincidences with no link other than timing, but which provides fodder for journalists and commentators: Developer Albert Abramson, who helped bring about creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington died March 6 at 94, a few weeks after the death of University of Chicago Prof. Peter Novick, author of a searing criticism of the way the American Jewish community and leadership have made the Holocaust central to American Jewish identity.

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Abramson, a major Washington-area commercial real estate developer “joined the drive to create an American memorial to the Holocaust in the mid-1980s, when the venture was seen to be stalling. The aging and deaths of survivors of Hitler’s horror created a special sense of urgency,” The New York Times said.

Michael Berenbaum, the museum’s former project director, said in a Washington Jewish Week article that Abramson had “complained that the museum’s leaders had so far produced only “’talk, talk, talk.’”

Berenbaum, now a professor at American Jewish University, showed up in the Forward with an appreciation of Novick, despite being a fierce intellectual critic of him and his work:

Peter Novick argued that the Holocaust had been overemphasized in American culture and manipulated by prominent Jewish organizations to preclude any criticism of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. He asserted that it was used to strengthen Jewish identity by making a long-defeated enemy central to that identity at precisely the point when Jews have gained full acceptance in American national life. Novick saw this as a fixation that allowed Jews to see themselves as oppressed when they have, in fact, become privileged….

Novick, who died on February 17 at age 77, held views on the Holocaust that were antithetical to everything to which I have devoted my professional life. But Novick was my friend as well as my opponent. This was so because he embodied the best in American intellectual life, offering others a model of what it means to be a serious scholar….

At a time when so many cite the Holocaust as they consider actions related to Iran’s nuclear capacity, when the prime minister of Israel recalls the Allies’ failure to bomb Auschwitz when discussing his arguments for bombing Iran and invokes the Shoah to speak against a retreat to the borders of 1967, we need Novick’s searing criticism – not because he was right, but because his criticism forced deeper consideration of the issues at hand.

University of Chicago colleague Jan Goldstein praised Novick’s contributions to the study of history and noted that his 1999 book, The Holocaust in American Life, “developed the even more iconoclastic thesis that a segment of American Jewry had enlisted the Holocaust remembrance as a way of preventing their thoroughgoing assimilation into the American mainstream.” She praised the way Novick “trained his powerful intellect on two salient aspects of his own identity: his professional identity as a historian and his cultural identity as a secular American Jew.”

Jewish Week blogger Eric Herschthal noted that what has made Novick’s work withstand criticism and evolve into a standard text in university Holocaust courses, “is that it avoided taking positions on the divisive issues – Israel, its Palestinian problem – and sought only to show how Jewish leaders often deliberately used the Holocaust as a political tool.  And crucially, his argument was driven as much by his disdain for Jewish leaders’ political manipulation of the Holocaust as it was by his implicit plea for the honest study of the Holocaust.”

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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