From Genocide to Holocaust and back: Hannah Arendt, Rachel Lemkin and the Jewish Experience

Wednesday – July 20

Prof. Dr. Natan Sznaider (Academic College Tel Aviv-Yafo)
Some people view the Holocaust as the culmination of the history of anti-Semitism, some see it as the apogee of the history of racism, and some consider it a crime against humanity. The differences between these points of view are subtle but crucial. Anti-Semitism is suffered only by Jews; racism, a broader category, can be experienced by anyone who is different or other; crimes against humanity are broader still, and may even be considered a crime against the human condition. The Holocaust (the term was not used until several years after the war) constitutes an epochal break with the past, regardless of the scope of the definition. It thus has the potential to challenge some basic assumptions – about the sovereign law of nation-states, for example – and to create a new public and political space that reinforces moral interdependencies.
In this lecture I would like to show how these political and intellectual developments changed in the period between the world wars and were part of the Jewish lived experience, an experience in which Jewish intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and Raphael Lemkin played a crucial intellectual role at various junctures. Before the concept of the Holocaust as a description of the Nazi murder of the Jews came into being, Raphael Lemkin gave the world the concept of genocide. This lecture will follow these historical trajectories and develop the idea that genocide, crimes against humanity and human rights are concepts derived from the Jewish experience. I will argue in this lecture that Arendt’s and Lemkin's political views and praxis can be understood as exemplary of Jewish thinking and conduct before and after the catastrophe. It is the intention of this lecture to locate their thinking within the context of Jewish history and experience without neglecting the universal claims they consistently worked to develop. Thus, Jewish history and universal history are seen not as two different lenses through which to view the past but as part of one common project.
The implementation of the project is possible due to the support of Nissenbaum Family Foundation.


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