New York Times, by Dennis Hevesi, March 13, 2012
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 Jews.”
“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 orthodoxies.
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.”