The Holocaust and the War of Ideas begins with an analysis of ancient and modern anti-Semitism as the primary cause of the destruction of European Jewry. Alexander proceeds to interpret representative works from the three main bodies of Holocaust literature—Yiddish, American, Hebrew—in relation to the war of ideas that surrounds the historical catastrophe that is their subject.
The chapter on Yiddish writers explores religious ideas and the claim that Yiddish, having become the language of martyrdom, has replaced Hebrew as the Jews' sacred tongue. The discussion of American writers centers on the attempts to Americanize Anne Frank, and criticizes the "personalization" of the Holocaust by literary latecomers to the subject who knew little of the Jewish past other than the Holocaust. Alexander treats sympathetically writers like Kovner and Appelfeld who integrated the European tragedy into the Israeli imagination, but charges that some Israeli dramatists have perpetrated travesties of the Holocaust that resemble anti-Semitic polemics.
The second half of the book enters the seething cauldron of controversy in which the Holocaust is now engulfed. The chapter on Italian Jewry evaluates accusations of Vatican indifference and Primo Levi's allegations about German national character; the chapter "Crime and Punishment" reevaluates the writings of Arendt, Wiesenthal, and Weiss on the nature of Nazi war crimes, arguing that attempts to exculpate killers on the grounds that they were compelled to obey orders lack historical foundation.
Alexander concludes the book with a survey of recent controversies: denial of the Holocaust; appropriation and relativization of it; the scandals of Bitburg and the Auschwitz Convent. He imputes the pervasive deformations of the Holocaust to the fact that the war of ideas over the Holocaust has become part of the larger war forced upon the Jews by the foes of Zionism as an ideology and Israel as a nation.