"What we have here between the Israelis and the Palestinians is an armed conflict - if one side becomes stronger there is a chance of genocide," Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer told a group of visiting Danes in Jerusalem last week. "Fortunately," the 77-year-old doyen of Holocaust scholars continued, "both sides are very strong and good at killing each other so you realize you can't get rid of each other and must come to some sort of political solution."
The 16 Danish educators and MA students in the audience were participating in a two-week seminar at Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies (ISHS). They had come on scholarship from Thanks To Scandinavia (TTS), an American Jewish Committee educational institute.
"Am I to understand that you think Israel could commit genocide on the Palestinian people?" asked one young educator, somewhat taken aback. "Yes," answered Bauer. "Just two days ago, extremist settlers passed out flyers to rid Arabs from this land. Ethnic cleansing results in mass killing." Bauer added that polls say a high percentage of Palestinians want to get rid of Jews.
Bauer expressed support for former longtime UN diplomat Brian Urquhart's proposal to establish an international armed intervention force within the UN as a tool to prevent genocides and genocidal murders with countries other than superpowers. "The views I express are not an ideological collective [at Yad Vashem] ... But, I think generally the lines of thinking are the same," said Bauer, who is also a cofounder of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism.
"Freud said people have a deep instinct of life ... and death ... and most of us are in the middle - meaning we are capable of both extremes," he explained. "It doesn't matter if you are white, black, brown or yellow. Human beings are the same."
Learning about one's past is essential to dealing with one's present, Bauer added. "Your people are a good example of that. It was recently discovered that a small group of Danish Jews and Communists were handed over to the Nazis. Why do [people] go into the archives to find these things? They can't help it. It's there."
But, he maintains, "There are no lessons of the past - lessons are individual. They are internalized. I get a rash all over my body when someone says, `The lessons of the Holocaust.'" Bauer demystifies the Holocaust, refusing to accept the view of some philosophers and historians that the Holocaust is beyond human understanding. He says it can be explained, because it was done by humans "for human reasons." And although "the genocide of the Jews was by far the worst," he no longer sees it as a unique event but rather as an unprecedented event which can happen again.
"I thought it was very impressive that a man of his age can be so self-critical," said Niels Danielson, an MA history student, afterwards. "Not many people are able to say late in life that they see things differently than before." For Danielson, the highlight of the seminar was Bauer's lecture while "meeting the survivors was the most emotionally moving."
"It wasn't a beast's act, it was a human act," said Michael Mogensen, a Holocaust historian and university lecturer in Denmark, who calls himself an admirer of Bauer. "Animals would never have done something like that. [Bauer] turned things around and made us think about them differently."
Founded in 1963, by the late entertainer Victor Borge and New York attorney Richard Netter, TTS awards over $250,000 each year in its various programs and fellowships, from a principal fund of over $6 million, most of which comes from contributions by the American Jewish community, says TTS Israel representative, Peter Singer.
This is the sixth group of Danish educators to come through TTS. "I hope to return in two months with high-school students on an exchange program," said Otto Ruhl, a consultant on educational affairs at the Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and chairman of the Israel-Danish Society, who leads the Danish groups to Israel.
"What I got from this course is that the history I've read about has become personalized and therefore more touching," said Marten Ramlov. "Now I understand - although I may not agree with - the survivor's relationship with Israel. That it gives them safety and Israel must be strong."