A number of weeks ago, an exceptional academic event took place in Israel: an international symposium on the Holocaust and genocide.
Professor Yehuda Bauer, a leading Israeli scholar of the Holocaust and a senior figure in Holocaust and genocide studies internationally, initiated the symposium and chaired its organizing committee. Among the committee members were researchers from the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace — both at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as scholars from the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. The event was held under the auspices of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and sponsored by the Israel office of the German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. The author of this article coordinated the conference.
Fourteen renowned academics from the United States and Europe and 15 Israeli scholars devoted three busy days to deliberations. The symposium sessions dealt with Holocaust research as a paradigm in the study of genocide and of other forms of political mass violence; the massacre in the Great Lakes Region in Africa, which has been going on for close to two decades now with a death toll of millions of victims; quantitative models for forecasting the eruption of mass violence and the possibilities to prevent genocide, drawing on the relationship between international law and international politics.
It was the first time ever that an academic symposium on the Holocaust and genocide studies was held in Israel on such a scale, and with the participation of the leading international scholars of Holocaust and genocide research. This may seem rather strange. After all, it is highly unlikely that the Holocaust would raise more interest in universities outside Israel than in the universities of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
However, going over the currently available options in Israeli universities for Holocaust studies, a surprising and upsetting picture is revealed: In Israel, which was until the 1990s a world center of Holocaust research, there is at present no undergraduate curriculum in Holocaust and genocide studies, while such curricula are increasingly offered in American and European universities.
The American and European scholars attending the symposium were also astounded to learn of this situation. They voiced their indignation in a sharp letter to Israeli Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar, circulated among university presidents in Israel as well. The letter, signed by them and published here for the first time, reads as follows:
We were surprised to learn that no public university in Israel offers an undergraduate program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, with only the private Open University of Israel offering a survey course in Genocide Studies. We further discovered that no graduate programs in the field exist. Indeed, the options in Israel for pursuing a graduate-level education in Holocaust Studies alone have shrunk in the last decade. We had long assumed that it is in Israel’s interest to stand as a world leader in Holocaust research and teaching, in addition to fulfilling its weighty responsibility for Holocaust memorialization. We are dismayed that, evidently, this is not the case — while Holocaust and Genocide Studies in North America and Europe has moved in innovative directions and enjoys robust growth.
The signatories to the letter are all celebrated scholars of Holocaust and genocide research. Among them are professor Frank Chalk from Concordia University in Canada; professor Barbara Harff from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis; professor Debórah Dwork, founder and director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University; professor Omer Bartov from Brown University; professor Donald Bloxham from the University of Edinburgh; jurist professor Sheri Rosenberg from the Cardozo School of Law at the Yeshiva University in New York and Dr. Jennifer Leaning, a pioneer of the campaign for human rights and a lecturing professor at Harvard Medical School.
“What can be done to cultivate the next generation of Holocaust researchers in Israel?” ask the distinguished scholars in their unprecedented, poignant and incisive appeal to the education minister in his capacity as chairman of the Council for Higher Education in Israel. Receipt of the letter has been confirmed by the education minister’s bureau. The minister may have read the letter and decided to decline comment.
It’s a shame. Holocaust and genocide researchers the world over, along with students and academics in Israel, are awaiting his answer.