Given the atrocities that have occurred since World War II, it becomes ever more difficult to keep the Holocaust in perspective. Dr. Gilbert Kahn will challenge the community to do just that when he speaks at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark on Sunday morning, Jan. 30.
Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University in Union, will deliver the annual Edith and Mark Lief Memorial Lecture. His topic: “Are We Trivializing the Holocaust?”
His goal, he told NJ Jewish News in an interview last week, is to explore why the Shoa should be seen as a unique historical event.
“Tragically, since the Holocaust there have been so many poignant examples of genocide — like in Rwanda and with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia,” he said. “But — though I don’t want to trivialize those — there is a unique aspect to what happened to the Jewish people in the 1930s and ’40s.”
The difference, he said, is in the Nazis’ intentions. “The Hutus were concerned with getting rid of the Tutsis in Rwanda — not with Tutsis outside of the country,” he said. “With the Nazis, there was a set of specific government decisions to eliminate the Jewish people wherever they were.”
The term “Holocaust” itself has been abused, he said. “People — Jews and Israelis included — have become very casual in expressing the term ‘Holocaust.’ It gets used talking about political campaigns, and talking about abortion, and it compounds the problem. We are on the verge — God forbid — of talking about the Holocaust as if it were just another tragic event in the human experience.”
Kahn was emphatic that while he wants the Holocaust treated in a very particular light, there still needs to be an all-out effort to combat racist atrocities and human rights abuses — like those that have occurred and continue in Darfur. “Jews have been extremely sensitive and aware of such human suffering; we have an obligation to fight it, but we also have to maintain the distinction,” he said.
Kean University has taken a lead in studying these issues, with the Holocaust Resource Center on campus, its Human Rights Institute, and master’s program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Kahn is supportive of those efforts. He said, “I’m not sanguine about the efforts to promote human rights; it’s appalling how little the world is doing to ratchet up efforts to help. But the Holocaust was a unique experience, and it has to be treated as such.”
Kahn’s academic interests center on American foreign policy, with a special focus on the Middle East, how the Holocaust influences decision-making and decision-makers, and responses to contemporary anti-Semitism.
His research has been published in both scholarly and journalistic publications, and he has served as a political consultant on behalf of the Jewish community and in political campaigns and lobbying and has appeared frequently as a political commentator and analyst on television and radio. For more than five years, he has written a biweekly op-ed column for NJJN that also appears in other publications across the country.
Just since August, he delivered a paper at Yale University at the First International Conference on Contemporary Anti-Semitism, was a panelist and presenter at the first conference convened by the Journal on Anti-Semitism, and was an expert participant at the Second International Conference of World Parliamentarians against Anti-Semitism, held in Ottawa.