‘Is the Jew the Paragon of the Victim?’: A historian’s perspective of the Jewish experience

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The panel included keynote speaker Professor Manuela Consonni, the Pela and Adam Starkopf Chair in Holocaust Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as guest speakers Alon Confino and Simon Levis Sullam. All participants have published works on contemporary Jewish history, the Holocaust, genocide and historical memory. Photo provided by author.

The Holocaust is one of the formidable events of the 20th century, with lasting impacts on world history, specifically for the global Jewish community. As time has passed, the Holocaust has become an element of history rather than the lived experience it used to be some generations ago. Titled “‘Is the Jew the Paragon of the Victim? From History to Non-Memory,” historians of various universities from the United States and abroad met to discuss the Jewish community’s place in history, and how one can define it. 

The exchange marked the second and final panel discussion of the Noether Dialogues in Modern & Italian History for the Fall 2020 semester, moderated by Professor Sergio Luzzatto, the Emiliana Pasca Noether Chair in Modern Italian History here at UConn.  

The panel included keynote speaker Professor Manuela Consonni, the Pela and Adam Starkopf Chair in Holocaust Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as guest speakers Alon Confino and Simon Levis Sullam. Confino is a professor of history and Judaic studies at UMass Amherst, and Sullam is an associate professor in contemporary history at University Ca’Foscari Venice in Italy. All participants have published works on contemporary Jewish history, the Holocaust, genocide and historical memory. 

The panel discussion centered on the history of the Jewish people as victims, with Consonni expressing the idea of a paradigm, or a model, for historical victimhood as exemplified by the Jewish experience. The panelists examined various points of her argument and took questions from other attending historians to further the dialogue. 

The panel discussion centered on the history of the Jewish people as victims, with Consonni expressing the idea of a paradigm, or a model, for historical victimhood as exemplified by the Jewish experience. The panelists examined various points of her argument and took questions from other attending historians to further the dialogue. Photo provided by author.

Confino expressed the importance of placing the Jews in historical context before analyzing a possible paradigm. 

“Who are the Jews?” Confino said. “Are they diaspora Jews or Israeli Jews? The Jews in Israel are Jews with political power; they have a nation state; they have an army. The Jews in the diaspora are a defenseless minority when they are attacked, so who are we talking about?” 

Confino argued that the idea of Jewish victimhood can vary based on the group examining their experience. 

“For some, the Jews are a symbol of victimhood after the Holocaust,” Confino said. “Certainly not in the developing world, and certainly not for the Palestininans. The Jews lost their homes in the Holocaust, but for a lot of people they also produced homelessness, so again who are we talking about? Does this paradigm exist at all, or does it exist for a very particular group of people and for very particular aims?” 

Consonni discouraged looking at the Jewish experience only in terms of Europe and the Holocaust.  

“Who are the people we are talking about?” Consonni said. “Along this path, the overlapping between Jews and Israeli became stronger than it was in the past. Because it was not as, well, reading the sources, an automatic stand to blur the boundaries between the diaspora and Israel. I identify that overlapping in which the Jews assume a role, a role that [they] probably should never fall in.” 

While Jews were a victim in 1945 Europe, Sullam reminded the panel that this is nothing new for the Jewish people. 

“I think we should also reflect on the fact that Jewish victim paradigm, afterall, has been part of Jewish history prior to the Holocaust.” Sullam said. “This paradigm was relevant in Jewish memory before the Holocaust at the beginning of Jewish historiography.” 

Consonni concluded the panel discussion, addressing how the pattern of historical victims can be applied to the Jewish community, and what that means for historical understanding. 

“There is a kind of construction,” Consonni said. “Like an axis, in which the survivor changed, the witness changed, in which the depository of the historical facts is the clash between history and memory. The victims share one thing: the absolute truth of their perception, so there is no contrast in that, but I think that the role of the historian is to create a disjunction between history and memory.” 

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