I sit in a room of academics. Their heads constantly moving. At first they were nodding in agreement with the speaker, now however they bob back and forth to stay awake. A collective frustration fills the room. Regret for not drinking the coffee offered outside.
As I listen to professors recite their theses on “The Jewish Ghetto Police,”1 heavy coughing of that man who shouldn’t have gotten up this morning breaks the monotonous atmosphere. At least the depressing fit matches the theme of the day: genocide.
The International Network of Genocide Scholars (INoGS) has convened in Jerusalem for its annual conference. The benefactors chartered the conference to solve conflict, yet before the first words were spoken it was already drenched in politics and drama. Oh the irony. The Times of Israel titled it “Academics go to War.”2 On the one side you had Israel Charny: reprimanding participants for minimizing the Holocaust, delegitimising the State of Israel, and spewing forth anti-Semitic content3. On the other side, the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, condemning the conference for the exact opposite4. No surprise that I had mixed feelings before the opening ceremony.
Yet, I couldn’t help but smile when Jürgen Zimmerer, President of INoGS, countered both with his opening statement: “ The absence of a bias is not a bias in itself.” This set the scene for H.E. Adama Dieng’s inspiring speech. Dieng, a special advisor to the Secretary General, spoke of one world, one humanity that required mutual understanding. He spoke of genocide as a process that comes with warning signs, recurring factors to study in order to prevent further atrocities. He laid the groundwork to elaborate how education can counter incitement, cope with hate speech, and combat rising xenophobia.
Sadly, Dieng’s advice went unanswered as conference did not heed his words. The historians decided to stick with their history books and dwell in the past.
History’s value to the present is not absolute. A lesson from the past can only have merit if applied to the future. A conference centred around genocide is charged with studying the past in order to shape the present. Looking forward, the Holocaust is still the Holocaust, and the fates of Armenians and Tutsis alike are set in stone. What we can change is tomorrow. Hence, it is of the utmost importance to explore ways to tackle current threats of genocide, and the most pressing issue should and must focus on how to avoid the past repeating itself.
INoGS’ program was confined to the past, and therefore doomed to repeat it. When asked about his experience, Professor Dr. Elihu Richter provided a fitting comment: “The conference organizers did not realize that in addressing modern threats, one cannot be a bystander. Current history is not an ongoing Tuskegee Experiment.” We must learn from the mistakes of the past. We cannot excuse our idleness in the face of suffering. Idleness only exasperates the problem. That is the lesson we ought to have learned a long time ago.
Author: Daniel Mazur
Editor: Max Miller-Golub, Julian Erdos-Steinberg