Ugly ties bind genocide past and present


The word evokes different, powerful references, depending upon who hears it.

For Jews, the primary thought is the Holocaust, officially recognized in the United States as the first genocide.

For Armenians, it refers to mass killings by the Ottomans in Turkey in 1915, though many countries, including the United States, have not recognized those as such.

These days the word immediately points to Africa — to Rwanda, Darfur and other recent bloodbaths that have involved ethnic cleansing.

But genocide is not a modern invention, and although the term has legal connotations — specific conditions must apply in a conflict for the U.S. government to officially use the designation — acts of genocide can be traced back to the Bible. Some scholars argue that there have been 15 or more additional occurrences that could qualify in the 20th century. And while the motives of the perpetrators, the identity of the victims and the region of the carnage have changed over time, genocides almost always share one common thread:

“Whenever genocide takes place, religion is involved — before, during or after — in one way or another,” said John K. Roth, founding director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College and the author of “Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy.”

Roth spoke last month at a conference titled “Genocide and Religion: Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders and Resisters,” a collaboration between the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Pepperdine University School of Law, Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics.

The Feb 17-19 symposium, which was open to the public and attended by a few hundred students, scholars, rabbis and community members, aimed to broaden the discussion beyond the usual focus on a single genocide, such as the Holocaust — the subject of many books, studies, films and classes.

It also went deeper than many such conferences by examining as many as possible of the various groups involved in a genocide — the perpetrators, the victims, the bystanders and resisters — all of whom can be found in every such conflict, past and present.

“We didn’t want it to be just another conference on perpetrators’ responsibility,” said Roger Alford, an associate professor in the law school at Pepperdine, who organized the conference with professor Michael Bazyler, of Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa.

“We wanted to basically focus on the issue of how law and genocide and religion connect with one another: Is there a religious motivation, why are certain groups targeted, why is it the resisters try to resist, is there a religious component to that, what is it about bystanders and why do they not do more?” Alford said of the three days of lectures by academics, legal scholars and government officials from around the world.

There are four motivations for genocide, Roth said: To implement a belief, a theory or ideology; to eliminate threat; to spread terror among enemies; and to acquire economic wealth.

“Religion can be an agitating factor in genocides,” he said, noting that it is impossible to understand the numbers of people affected by the devastation, which has effects for generations to come, because it destroys cultures and traditions. “The effects of genocide have not stopped. On the contrary. Genocide has gone on and on. It might continue to do so.”

Religion plays a role in conflicts today, said Sandra Bunn-Livingstone, of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Human Rights. “The less religious freedom, the higher the religious persecution, and it sets the stage for possible genocide.”

Today, she pointed out, “there is higher religious persecution in countries with Muslims.”

Of 143 countries monitored for the highest level of persecution, 40 percent had a Muslim majority, versus 3.9 percent with a Christian majority.

On speakers’ and audience members’ minds was the role that Islam plays in world conflicts today — conflicts that have not been designated as genocide, but which involve terrorism, murder and group persecution.

Is there something inherent in Islam that is responsible for the terrorist tactics we see being perpetrated around the world today?
“We have to be very careful about demonizing religion,” Bazyler said in an interview. “We in the Jewish community have to be careful not to do that; it doesn’t serve us well.”

Instead of condemning the entire community or religion, we should “criticize individuals in the Muslim communities for not condemning enough the extremist elements, and we can reach out to what we believe are moderate Muslims.”

Others at the event lamented a climate in academia in which there’s “a fear of political incorrectness,” in the words of Israel Charney, executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Although Charney is against those who completely vilify Islam, such as Daniel Pipes and Arianna Fallaci — “who are so inciting they inflame the process I’m against,” he said — he allowed that “the violent position has prevailed” many times in Islamic society, and he said that it’s important to tell it like it is.

Of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call to eliminate Israel, Charney said, “I don’t think you send that to a committee for discussion; you treat it as incitement, you treat that as a call to kill, you add that to your evaluation to what it means that they’re seeking nuclear weapons, and unless you’re a complete jerk, you start looking for what actions to take, but you don’t do nothing and say, ‘We don’t really know if he means it, we don’t know if he has influence,’ That’s been the rationalization [so] that you don’t have to respond to stop him.”

Others at the conference were less certain.

“How Islam is to be interpreted,” Roth said, is still up for discussion. “If you go back to the Hebrew Bible or other traditions, you can see there’s a struggle taking place” between the injunction against murder and the allowances for it.

Shoah Foundation Makes USC Its Home

With a mixture of elation and nostalgia, filmmaker Steven Spielberg last week formally turned over his Shoah Foundation, with 52,000 videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses, to the University of Southern California.

“I feel like a proud and wistful parent whose child has graduated high school and is now enrolling at USC,” said Spielberg, who created the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation as a historical continuation of his Oscar-winning movie “Schindler’s List.”

Since 1994, Spielberg’s “child” has grown into the largest digital library in the world, representing testimonies from 56 countries in 32 languages and totaling 117,000 viewing hours.

As such, the archive was sought by numerous other universities and institutions. USC won out on the strength of its pioneering digital technology research, international outreach and scholarly resources, said Douglas Greenberg, president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation.

It didn’t hurt that Spielberg holds an honorary doctorate from USC and serves on its board of trustees, although he noted that “The best thing USC did was not to accept me,” when the boy who became Hollywood’s most successful director applied to its film school.

During a brief ceremony, USC President Steven B. Sample said that “When I visited the memorial at Auschwitz, I could see that it was, appropriately, about those who died. But the Shoah Foundation is about the living and the indomitable human spirit.”

As a living archive, the foundation’s content has been adapted for feature films and documentaries, has reached nearly 2 million students in 30,000 schools, and makes up parts of 70 collections in 18 countries. It’s widely used in teacher workshops and can be accessed on the Internet in the form of interactive exhibits.

Sample and USC Provost C.L. Max Nikias pledged to preserve and expand the mission of the Shoah Foundation “in perpetuity.” Securing the legacy of this documentation was Spielberg’s primary motive for the transfer.

“When the shifting sands of time reach Los Angeles, USC will still be here,” he said.

He said there also will be another advantage to surrendering control.

“I have been the divining rod of the foundation since its inception,” he said. “There is a prejudice against figureheads in Hollywood. The Shoah Foundation, sad to say, will be taken much more seriously by the world now than [with] a filmmaker at its head.” He noted this admission as something “which I find a little hard to say.”

Out of the $150 million raised and spent by the Shoah Foundation since 1994, Spielberg has personally contributed $65 million, so, he said, “I have done my share.”

The ambitions of the Shoah Foundation’s founder and successor institution go well beyond the current accomplishments.

“In 10 years, I see the foundation as the hub of a wheel with many spokes,” Spielberg said.

The “spokes” will represent the visual histories of man’s inhumanity to man, from the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to the sufferings of Native Americans and black slaves in the United States.

The transfer foundation to USC will become official on Jan. 1, when its name changes to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education and part of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Foundation CEO Greenberg will continue as executive director of the institute, reporting to the college’s dean and the USC provost. He has also been appointed adjunct professor of history.

Plans call for extensive interdisciplinary collaboration with other USC departments, the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and a range of other universities and institutions in the United States and abroad.

Although he will no longer be “the kosher seal of approval” for the massive project he started, Spielberg said he would remain committed to his goal of “teaching tolerance around the world.”

And he made a pledge to newly established institute: “I will continue to be your ambassador.”

Hands-on Tikkun Olam

More than 220 Jewish environmental activists gathered in Malibu last weekend for this year’s Mark and Sharon Bloome Jewish Environmental Leadership Institute, sponsored by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Professionals from Jewish educational, environmental and outreach institutions came from as far as Canada, Europe and Israel.

Composed of 12 affiliates all over North America, with another half-dozen branches in development, COEJL organizes proactive environmental programs for Jewish institutions and individuals. When the conference took place in Ojai, CA, in 1998, there were just three affiliates. This year, 30 regional leaders from 17 communities gathered for a weekend of education, training and coordination.

The conference blanketed a wide range of issues, including “Ten Fundraising Tips for Grassroots Groups,” “Operation Noah: Protecting Endangered Species,” “Building a Jewish Nature Trail,” “Creating a COEJL Affiliate from the Ground Up,” and “Using the Media to Convey Your Message” were among the seminars offered. Urban ecology, environmental health, climate change and food supply were discussed in both secular and Jewish community contexts. “Right to Know,” a ballot initiative calling for labeling of genetically engineered food that will become big news come November, was another hot button topic.

Ian Murray, associate director of Shalom Institute Camp and Conference, where the event was held, believes that this year’s conference accomplished what it had set out to do.

“It was really wonderful,” Murray reports. “My favorite part of the whole experience was that they had every denomination of Jewish faith … all respecting each other. Friday night they all prayed together.”

Shabbat was observed over the course of the three-day conference, which also included prayer, singing, meditation and hiking. The weekend’s meals accommodated kosher, vegetarian and vegan dietary concerns.

Said Murray, “There was such joy and a love of the environment and Judaism.”<