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Exploring enigma of the Holocaust

By Mandy Leigh Boyle

The Holocaust is an enigma; by definition, a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation. While there is an enormous amount of research on the Holocaust, and many explanations, no answer seems to fit what occurred between 1933 and 1945. On Saturday morning of Homecoming weekend, three philosophy faculty members examined the issue of genocide in a panel discussion “Enigmatic Experiences: Jewish Thinkers and the Holocaust.”

Holocaust panel
Panelists (left to right above) Randy Friedman, Bat-Ami Bar On and Max Pensky did not attempt to resolve the enigma, but rather assumed it while examining the core contributions and teachings of Jewish thinkers whose lives were directly touched by genocide.

Pensky, philosophy department chair, began with a discussion of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent best known for his work in genocide. In fact, Lemkin coined the term in 1944.

“In the work of Lemkin, one way that we've found to solve the 'enigma' of the Holocaust is to see it as one example of genocide, a category of international criminal law,” said Pensky. “But it's not entirely clear whether we want the enigma of the Holocaust to be solved in this way. Lemkin's concept of genocide covers kinds of acts, circumstances and motivations far broader than that of the Holocaust, and the very concept of crime and criminal liability can appear inadequate to account for the Holocaust.”

Friedman, assistant professor of philosophy and Judaic studies, looked at the Holocaust and genocide through a theological lens, focusing on the teachings of Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian-born French philosopher and Jewish theologian.

“Though he did not blame God for the Holocaust or trace the roots of Hitlerism to German philosophy, he spent the majority of his life challenging the tradition in philosophy which grounds our approach to problems in the subjective point of view,” said Friedman of Levinas. “In the end, he seems to turn back to a liberal model of Judaism as the challenge to the philosophical tradition, which does not emphasize ethics as our first order of business.”

Bar On, professor of philosophy and women's studies and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, explored the work of Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish political theorist and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism.

“[Arendt] has several distinct contributions to the theorization of genocide in general and the Holocaust in particular,” said Bar On. “According to Arendt, genocide can be viewed from the point of view of politics as an extreme act that illuminates totalitarianism as a regime that is antithetical to politics, where politics is to be understood in terms of democratic action engaged by free people.”

The panel represented the work of Pensky, Bar On and Friedman in genocide studies under the sponsorship of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Hear audio clips from the panel discussion:
Bat-Ami Bar On
| Max Pensky | Randy Friedman

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Last Updated: 8/5/14