Alvin Rosenfeld, the Indiana University professor of English and Jewish Studies engaged in dialogue at the NY Museum of Jewish Heritage, Dec. 14, with David Harris, director of the American Jewish Committee, on his new book, The End of the Holocaust (Indiana University Press, 2011). Prof. Rosenfeld had achieved a measure of notoriety with an essay published by the AJC in 2006, “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Antisemitism.” The controversy that followed is admirably summarized in this Wikipedia article.
You might wish to read “Shotgun Blast,” an analysis of the essay in The American Prospect magazine by Gershom Gorenberg. He praised Rosenfeld’s idea, but criticized his “sloppiness”:
…. While attacking vituperative opponents of Israel who call themselves “progressive,” he identifies their views with all who call themselves progressives – rather like letting James Dobson define what “Christian” means. He fires the shotgun of his criticism at such a wide flock of writers that his reader can wonder where he is aiming. Does The Washington Post’s pro-Israel columnist Richard Cohen really belong to the same ideological species as those who accuse Israel of genocide? [Cohen apparently went overboard in one column, cited by Rosenfeld, when he characterized Israel’s creation as a “mistake”; in another column published not long after Rosenfeld’s essay came out, Cohen complains (in much the same way that Rosenfeld would) about the left’s outsized focus upon Israel, while often giving far worse human rights offenders (like China, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iran) a bye.–R. Seliger]
The blurriness is a shame, because Rosenfeld has a legitimate argument. … his intended target is those Jews who reject the very existence of a Jewish state, and who express their opposition in shrieks that rise to equating Israel with the Nazis.
Another excellent critique was written by Andrew Sillow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, in an editorial that I reproduced on this blog. Since I share Rosenfeld’s concern for the more outlandish and unfair arguments against Israel that characterize so much of the left, and occasionally seep into mainstream liberal discourse, my response was rather mild.
Yet, as in the AJC essay, Rosenfeld (judging from this public appearance) engages in overkill in
his new book. He’s terribly pessimistic, to the point of being alarmist, that the Holocaust is not generally understood and even that the Jewish people face the possibility of a second Holocaust in Israel. But during the Q & A, when I challenged his initial statement bemoaning a trend he cites for Holocaust museums and study centers to include “genocide and human rights” in their mission, he admitted that it’s not wrong for Holocaust institutions to also deal with these issues; we readily agreed that it should not be a requirement that they do so, nor their primary focus. He’s concerned with the “equivalence” question — overly so, in my view.
Yes, the Holocaust was the largest and most sustained project of mass murder in modern times. This is less because of the number of victims– which are nearly duplicated, or even surpassed– in some other recent outrages, than in its systematic nature. The politically-induced famine produced by Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s may have actually cost many more lives. The under-reported chaotic war in the eastern provinces of the former Zaire, now the ludicrously named Democratic Republic of Congo, is estimated at causing five million deaths and still counting (mostly due to starvation and disease). But what marked the Holocaust was its scope and intensity: operating throughout Nazi-occupied Europe and even into North Africa, with a single-minded focus to hunt-down and annihilate a single people, concentrating the political and technological resources of a modern state in an unprecedented way.
It’s good for this story to be understood. The Holocaust was not— as described by a frequent email interlocutor of mine, the veteran pacifist and socialist leader David McReynolds– the slaughter of 11 million European non-combatants under Nazi occupation (including the six million Jews). Other civilian victims of the Nazis were not categorically marked for death– with the exception of some Roma (“Gypsy”) groups– nor with such maniacal energy.
Still, there sometimes is an unseemly self-centeredness among Jews in their vigilance against “moral equivalence” arguments in invoking the primacy of the Holocaust as compared with other mass crimes or instances of gross injustice. And I can see where this would trouble a non-Jewish progressive like McReynolds. Yet complications abound; for example, even if one criticizes Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, they are in no way “genocidal,” and the Gaza Strip– even on its worst days– has never been like the Warsaw Ghetto (a massive holding pen for doomed prisoners).
In the conclusion of Rosenfeld’s discussion with Harris, he spoke about the four Holocaust writers who have most influenced him: Italy’s Primo Levi, author of Survival in Auschwitz; Imre Kertész of Hungary (now residing more comfortably in Germany because of the disturbingly antisemitic environment of present-day Hungary), the Nobel Prize winning author of Fateless or Fatelessness (apparently the same book, rendered with different titles in separate translations); the essayist Jean Améry, born Hanns Chaim Mayer; and the ever-familiar Elie Wiesel. Two are Nobel Laureates (Kertész & Wiesel) and two committed suicide (Levi & Améry).
Lawrence L. Langer’s review in The Forward, in June 2011, sums up Rosenfeld’s invocation of these four as follows:
Dispirited by the amnesia of the Germans about the crimes of their forebears, Améry could ask in 1977, a year before his suicide, “what is the good of my attempt to reflect on the conditio inhumana of the Third Reich? Isn’t it all outdated,” while Kertész could assert in 1997 with equal gloom that “There is an ‘Auschwitz mode of existence’…that continues to claim victims decades after the Nazi death camps themselves were destroyed.” Nevertheless, Wiesel and Kertész keep writing, and the voices of Améry and Levi were silenced only by their [self-inflicted] deaths.
My bottom-line sense of Rosenfeld’s two works is that the author is out of his depth in both. As a scholar of literature rather than a journalist, historian or social scientist, I fear that his analysis is more acutely impressionistic than rigorously factual.