Holocaust and Genocide Memorialization Policies in the Western Balkans and Israel/Palestine

In a recent article the journal Peacebuilding, Professor Lea David, for the Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa, discusses the consequences of human rights-based Holocaust and genocide memorialization policies on conflict and post-conflict situations. She examines the effects of such policies on specifically Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovnia after the 1990s Balkans conflict, and on Israel/Palestine.

David acknowledges the importance of memorialization after a conflict, but notes that memory can transition from a sense of ‘duty to mourn’ for those lost to an externally-imposed and internationally-supported ‘proper way to remember’. Human rights’ policies have elevated the importance of memorialization in strengthening human rights values after a conflict. In fact, she argues, enshrining memorialization in a ‘proper way to remember’ can reinforce ethnic boundaries and nationalism as it causes competitive victimhood over who is the ultimate victim and thus perpetuates the very conflict that it intended to soothe.

David references the recent demand for ‘transitional justice’. In lieu of punishment, countries that have committed mass human rights violations are required to face their past by expressing broader accountability and responsibility as well as accepting criminal prosecutions and reparations. Since the 1980s, she notes, there has been a rise in the belief that ”by compelling the act of honouring the memory of those who died, the ‘duty to remember’ would be an insurance policy against the repetition of such crimes.” This viewpoint became enshrined as part of international human rights policy by the UN.

David cites the establishment of International Holocaust Memorial Day, which enforces memorialization of the Holocaust in Western formats even for countries far beyond the original genocide. Mandatory Western-style Holocaust education in EU member states further reinforces the Holocaust as the ultimate genocide and Jews as the ultimate victim group. While this was intended to prevent a recurrence, the unintended consequence has been to create a jostling for position as victims among other peoples. David conjectures that the Holocaust has been unintentionally established as the paradigm through which other genocides are perceived; thus, even Palestinians have accepted Holocaust education to some extent. By memorializing the Holocaust, Palestinians, Serbians, Croatians and others assume a platform of morality that allows them to push their own claims for victim status, and for similar reparations and memorialization of their own genocides.

In the Balkan states in particular, the unintended consequences of enforced memorialization have been high and are still evolving. The Srebrenica massacre was recognised as genocide by the EU and the 11th of July was established as an official European Day of Remembrance. For Bosniaks, this was an important conferral of victim status upon their people, bringing with it permanent claim to moral rectitude and evasion from guilt for future or past actions. But to Serbians, the recognition of Srebrenica as genocide rubs salt into the wound of the deliberate sidelining of the massacre of Serbians by the Croatian Ustasa in the Jasenovac concentration camp in World War Two. Thus the attempt at reducing human rights abuses by enforcing memorialization of the Srebrenica genocide only fuels local ethnic conflict by exacerbating the Serbian struggle for victim status.

Based on her examination of events in the Balkans and in Israel/Palestine, David concludes that the transition from an internally-motivated, natural ‘duty to remember’ to an external and out-of-context mandatory ‘proper way of remembrance’ is not just ineffective in preventing a repeat of genocide. It is instead actively harmful to the restoration of peace in the conflict region. Obligatory memorialization brings justice for some, but also renders them sanctified victims and ignores other victim groups. This instigates competing hierarchies of suffering laid out across ethnic lines, thus reinforcing the very tensions that first provoked the conflict. While we should acknowledge human suffering, David writes, we must also be aware of the unintended consequences of mandatory memorialization.

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