Guest-Editorial: Our Struggle against Hatred and Mass Violence
By Navras J. Aafreedi
Mass Violence is a problem we sadly continue to confront in the twenty-first century. This is in spite of the fact that we are, according to many, in the most peaceful of times in human history. What is paradoxical is that although no species on earth is guilty of genocide other than the humankind, yet dehumanization of the targeted people is almost a prerequisite for genocide. It may be utopian to think that we may ever be able to get rid of violence completely; however, it is certainly possible to prevent its frequent occurrence and keep it from acquiring a massive scale. In spite of all our efforts, we have failed to end mass violence. There are, of course, a number of reasons for this failure of ours, ranging from the arms industry to the concept of state sovereignty which poses a big obstacle when it comes to international intervention with the aim of stopping the occurrence of genocide or ending an ongoing genocide. Along with prevention, several other issues remain highly problematic, such as, conflicting narratives, remembrance and memorialization, some of the aspects to which this issue of Café Dissensus draws our attention. I teach an MA (History) course at Presidency University, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), under the auspices of which nineteen different aspects of mass violence are studied: challenges of definition and nomenclature, causes, warning signs, propaganda, hateful or inflammatory speech, state’s connivance or inaction, mass atrocities, complicity, bystanders, rescuers, resistance, displacement, responses, role of academia, trauma, rehabilitation, reconciliation, conflicting narratives, denial or minimization, and remembrance and memorialization. Yet, even at nineteen, it is far from an exhaustive list of the different and varied aspects of mass violence.
There is no scarcity of scholarship on mass violence. However, it has largely remained confined to academia and scholarly peer-reviewed publications, beyond the reach of non-specialist readers. And, even in academia its presence is not very strong in the curriculum at any level of education. For had it been so, Hitler would have, surely, not enjoyed the popularity he has come to enjoy in India, as pointed out in a special issue of Café Dissensus I guest edited in January 2017 on “India’s Response to the Holocaust and its Perception of Hitler”. The present issue of Café Dissensus is a modest attempt to make a little of the scholarship on mass violence accessible to all, for it is an issue of concern to all, not just to scholars and academics. Scholars, academics, social activists and a lawyer, including a few of the biggest names from the fields of Holocaust Studies and Interfaith Studies/Activism, come together in this issue to help us gain a better understanding of the subject. It is a motley of scholars, both well-known and early career, from different parts of the world.
Drawing from ancient Indian wisdom, Sarva-Daman Singh provides us with a philosophical take on prevention of mass violence and promotion of tolerance. He reminds us as to how we must ceaselessly strive to end “man’s inhumanity to man”.
David Rosen reports on a significant attempt to achieve amity and harmony among the three Semitic monotheistic religious communities that make up half of the global population. The Alexandria Summit was held in 2002 precisely to explore as to how religion may be a vehicle for promoting tolerance and peace rather than a tool of violence.
Richard Benkin cautions us as to how it would be a mistake to see anti-Jewish sentiments in Bangladesh as akin to historical Christian or Muslim antisemitism. That, according to him, is not to excuse it or explain it away as less virulent than the other forms. It is just that antisemitism in Bangladesh has its roots in non-theological elements with less penetration in a cultural narrative.
David Matas addresses the issue of prevention of continuation of genocide by using as a case-study China and the evidence of mass killing for organ transplantation with the practitioners of the spiritually based set of exercises Falun Gong as the targeted victims.
Suzanne Rutland and Suzanne Hampel give a brief overview of the Australian Holocaust survivor community, the concept of ‘the silence’ and the initial memorialization within the survivor community, which at first focused on the unique aspects of the Holocaust. Included in this is the emergence of Holocaust museums and their educational programs. They examine the major generational changes that have taken place both in terms of trips to the killing sites in Poland and particularly the move to include a broader universal message of human rights and prevention of mass violence, described by Yehuda Bauer as Rethinking the Holocaust (2001). They are of the view that the introduction of Holocaust Studies into Australian state curricula and Australia’s recently becoming a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance make these new approaches and the central role Holocaust education can play in combatting prejudice evident.
Srimanti Sarkar tries to buttress the significance of Genocide Studies for addressing the incipient challenges that haunt countries like Bangladesh (transitioning democracies) even now. While deliberating aspects like hyper-nationalism, growing radicalization of the society to shrinking public sphere, she argues the need for a more critical, responsible and informed approach to study violence upon the masses. She contends that a conscientious study of genocides, war crimes, violence can potentially provide a fresh outlook required to address the immanent challenges affecting the Bangladeshi polity in particular; and in doing so, it can add immensely to the evolving discourse of Genocide/Holocaust Studies at large.
Reuven Firestone analyses the work of Vamik Volkan. Volkan studied how through the preservation of particularist narratives for generations in latent state national or community trauma can be eternalized and preserved in varied ways, only to erupt into mass violence when conditions are ripe. Commemorative rituals and the formulation of particular types of historical narrative provide the means for the maintenance and preservation of the experience of communal trauma. But it need not be. Firestone analyzes the work of Volkan in order to consider four aspects of the phenomenon:
- The influence of communal trauma on historical perspective, encouraging the formulation of highly problematic communal narratives.
- The preservation and perpetuation of communal trauma in the memory of victimized communities through historical narrative and commemorative practice.
- The activation of the memory of communal trauma to motivate mass violence against innocent victims.
- How unresolved anxiety and tension brought about by communal trauma preserved by historical narrative can:
- be perpetuated and later discharged through violence,
- be reduced and even relieved through constructive processes that thwart the release of violence.
Charles Ehrlich provides us an overview of the propaganda and the distortion of Holocaust history in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He points out how post-Holocaust historical memory of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe has been erased twice, first by communists and later by countries that belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence but asserted their identities after the disintegration of the USSR. They erased it because it did not fit into their historical narratives. False moral equivalence enables justification of atrocities, equation of victims and perpetrators, and obfuscation of justice. The Holocaust is often used as a buzzword, abusing distorted narratives.
Nabanita Mitra reminds us how rape was used as a weapon of war by Pakistani army in collaboration with Razakar militias in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) in 1971 on a scale unprecedented in history. It led to countless unwanted pregnancies, unwelcome birth of war-babies, abortions, infanticide, suicides of young unwed mothers, and ostracism of female victims by their own families. She laments the fact that the victims came to be seen as social pollutants and were relegated to a life of ignominy and humiliation, penalized for offences that were not of their own making.
Conscious of how museum is not a neutral platform for social and cultural debate, but rather a political institution and active participant in the question(s) it raises, Stephanie Rotem explores the way a Holocaust museum’s architecture partakes in one of the most pertinent questions asked in regard to Holocaust commemoration: What are the “lessons” that should be taught by it? Are these “lessons” universal or unique? The examples of several Holocaust museums she gives, reflect the dilemmas that these questions raise.
Fuzail Asar Siddiqi tries to understand how secular and religious publics have failed to address issues of genocide and violence with a keen focus on Englander’s stories. In doing so he draws our attention to the need to rethink public discourse which, according to him, should be post-religious and perhaps even post-secular, if there can be such a thing.
I am most grateful to all the contributors to this issue for their immensely rewarding articles and to the editors of Café Dissensus for hosting it. I hope this issue of Café Dissensus helps in stimulating deeper and wider interest in genocide studies.
Photo: Caen Memorial Museum
Dr. Navras J. Aafreedi, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Presidency University, Kolkata, is an Indo-Judaic Studies scholar who teaches a postgraduate course in genocide studies among several other courses. He has to his credit the first ever Holocaust films retrospective in South Asia, which he held in 2009 at the universities in Lucknow, a major centre of Muslim scholarship, a couple of international multidisciplinary conferences (2016 and 2017 respectively) on genocide studies, one of which he organised with a couple of colleagues and the other singularly, and several Holocaust photographic exhibitions. Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar on Holocaust and Genocide Education and participant in panel discussions on Holocaust education at conferences at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (2012), the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC (2013, 2015, and 2017), and the Global Forum of the American Jewish Committee, Washington, DC (2016), he has given lectures and presented papers on the Holocaust at scholarly forums in Canada, India, the United Kingdom, and the Unites States. The theme of one of the three issues of Café Dissensus that he has guest edited in the past was “India’s Response to the Holocaust and its Perception of Hitler”. He has held visiting fellowships at the Tel Aviv University (2006-2007), the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, UK (2010), and the University of Sydney (2013 and 2015), and been peer advisor to the International University of Rabat, Morocco in 2017 to help it develop a new postgraduate degree programme in “Conflict Resolution and Governance of Peace”. His numerous publications include his book Jews, Judaizing Movements and the Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia (2016).
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