In June, some 120 international and 30 Israeli scholars will come to Jerusalem for the 5th Global Conference on Genocide of the International Network of Genocide Scholars, at the Hebrew University and Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. The keynote speaker will be UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng. Additional co-organizers include Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and many foreign universities. Glaringly absent is Yad Vashem. None of its senior researchers even submitted a paper to the conference.
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None of the hundreds of scientific events organized by Yad Vashem has been dedicated to the Holocaust and genocide. Yad Vashem has not offered research scholarships on the 1915 Armenian genocide, or on the annihilation of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. You have to look hard to find any reference to the destruction of other populations in the Holocaust, and its chief aim seems to be to silence criticism. Similar museums in Paris and Washington hold regular activities on these topics. They recently held events marking the 100th and 20th anniversaries of the Armenian and Tutsi genocides, respectively.
Holocaust researchers mostly stay away from conferences on genocide. A 50-year-old axiom says the Holocaust belongs to a separate category, even though it was obviously a case of genocide. “The uniqueness of the Holocaust,” they call it. This distinction, which stems solely from a desire to entrench a separate Jewish victimhood, must be rooted out.
Israel exploded in 1988 when Prof. Yehuda Elkana published in Haaretz “The Need to Forget,” in which he called for an end to the “death cult” of Holocaust commemoration. Don’t send the kids to Yad Vashem, Elkana wrote. (It was before the school trips to Auschwitz.)
“... the deepest political and social factor that motivates much of Israeli society in its relations with the Palestinians is not personal frustration, but rather a profound existential ‘angst’ fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust and the readiness to believe that the whole world is against us, and that we are the eternal victim,” he wrote.
For many years, Judeo-centrism set the course for Holocaust study in Israel, research which failed in its mission of to live up to its task of elucidating the historical explanation. For decades, no courses on genocide were taught at Israeli universities (except for an undergraduate course at the Open University), as Holocaust studies meanwhile grew disproportionately. It’s no wonder that no papers were written here about genocide and the Holocaust, while there have been countless studies of this or that city in Poland or Ukraine where Jews were murdered. Some of these works are excellent, but they rarely address Nazi atrocities against other ethnic groups (Roma, Poles, Russians) in the same cities.
The Israeli education system’s Holocaust obsession, which has reached preschool, does not produce college students who know something about racism, totalitarianism and other acts of genocide. They are sure they know everything: They saw that Jews were wiped out in Poland (where they visited on patriotic brainwashing trips) and they learned that Jews were murdered in almost every European nation. They feel the Holocaust, but they don’t know what really happened there. At most they can tell you it was because of anti-Semitism, an explanation that suits the victim identity nurtured from childhood.
The Holocaust is a large component of Jewish Israelis’ national identity. It serves the right’s proto-fascist, racist, victim-centered discourse, meant to whitewash the ongoing crime against the Palestinians and to put the Christian world in a position of eternal apology. Elkana wrote: “The very existence of democracy is endangered when the memory of the dead participates actively in the democratic process. Fascist regimes understood this very well and acted on it.” A generation later, his words seem prophetic.
Academia has a duty to present a counternarrative. Yad Vashem must be part of this. It is not, be it due to legal restrictions or because the dominant historical outlook there keeps it from breaking the Holocaust’s isolationist boundaries. Even if it is unintentional, Yad Vashem helps keep the Holocaust in a narrow Jewish ghetto that serves the xenophobic manipulations Israel makes of it.
Important breakthroughs are being made in the joint study of the Holocaust and genocide: For example, Hutu ideologues in Rwanda created a “race doctrine” that drew on the ideas on which the Jews’ annihilation 60 years earlier was based. States that aided in the destruction of the Jews, like Hungary, Romania and Croatia, did so for different reasons than the Nazis did, and also persecuted and murdered other minorities — Roma, Serbs – sometimes with greater intensity than the Jews.
Disconnecting Holocaust studies from genocide studies is artificial and tendentious, like studying Napoleon apart from the French Revolution. The Jerusalem conference takes the opposite approach, as expressed in its title: “Intersections: Holocaust Scholarship, Genocide Research and Histories of Mass Violence.” The intersections are broadly varied, ranging from studies of genocide in Africa, to the violence of South American dictatorships in, to the persecution of Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire to the status of human rights in Israel and the territories.
Prof. Daniel Blatman is a Holocaust historian at Hebrew University and chairman of the conference’s scientific committee.