CONFRONTED on a warm, soft Jerusalem evening by one of Israel’s venerable Holocaust scholars a visitor to Israel Charny’s retirement home should perhaps keep a certain silence, especially if the new arrival is a journalist.
Charny, author of the monumental Encyclopedia of Genocide, speaks with the low, rather pondering voice of a US east coast academic. Not unlike the great Noam Chomsky, I note injudiciously. The American linguist and philosopher is a hero of mine, but a rather less prestigious figure in Charny’s eyes. “God forbid!” announces the 87-year-old head of Israel’s Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem. “You don’t know this — but I lived at the Chomsky house, as an undergraduate.”
He flourishes his most recent book, The Genocide Contagion, which asked readers to reflect on their own reaction to a future genocide in their own lives.
In today’s world, Charny says he can see no “concerted political or culture-wide consciousness to take care of people”. On the contrary, “what I see is another replay of a truth that we haven’t faced fully enough. And this is that the human species — with all of its beauty — is a horrible, uncaring, destructive species that has delighted and excelled in the taking of human life for centuries. And there is no real addressing of this issue in our evolution that I know of.”
“The problem, in my judgement,” he says, “begins with our failing to understand that in the creation of our species and in the very original equipment that we come from, there are two parallel instinctive streams that are operating simultaneously. One is all those beautiful, caring, creative [things] but it’s an utter mistake for us to pretend that that’s the end of the story, [that] that’s what humans really are.
“Because there’s another, no less powerful stream that includes killing off the next guy in self-defence — and self-defence means what you perceive to be self-defence, because that’s a whole big quicksand in its own right. It includes killing off the next guy — your brother — like the Bible begins with Cain and Abel, and it continues with a whole bunch of brothers who can hardly say ‘brother’ to one another, because they are really out in a deeply competitive readiness to overwhelm and even destroy the said brother. And it continues that way through all the identity systems that we have: religion, nationality, ethnic identification.”
Talking to a Holocaust expert, there are two subjects, of course, that cannot be avoided: the destruction of the Jewish people, and death. Charny does not appear to have forgiven Chomsky’s spirited but injudicious defence of the right to free speech of a French Holocaust denier who reprinted an essay on freedom of expression by Chomsky (without the latter’s permission) back in the 1970s.
But Charny’s constant defence of the Armenian people’s right to refer to their own people’s slaughter by the Turks as a genocide — and his repeated condemnation of the Israeli government for failing to use the word about the Christian Armenians of 1915 — is a mark of his uniqueness.
The work of Charny’s organisation covers Rwanda, as well. And Bosnia. Talk to Charny about death, and his reply covers a host of armageddons. “If you look at the work of [Israeli-American psychologist] Daniel Kahneman and the works of some others,” he says, “you find endless evidence and analysis of how the human mind is capable of creating any piece of nonsense — imbuing it with authority, establishing it with factuality — when it is all, in the words of a great leader of the whole movement, to disestablish any hold that we might have had on [our] perception of reality and tests of reality, and the use of scientific method in thinking and in observation. For him, whatever his impulses call for, this is what reality becomes. And he then endows that reality with superlative adjectives — ‘is the greatest ever’, ‘there’s never been anything so great as...’ — whatever the heck it is.”
So what should people be ready to do when witnessing the act of genocide? “To do everything they possibly can to save human life — their own and others,” says Charny. But he fears that the persecuted, while they may receive aid, will not receive military help. In the Holocaust, “there was absolutely no help, and even in those cases where there was some degree of cooperation with partisan fighters, it was limited, it was ambivalent, it was short-shrifting, mainly [in] the Soviet Union.”
By arrangement with The Independent
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2018