In his recent article in the Journal of Genocide Research, Professor Shmuel Lederman – a professor a the Weiss Livnat International MA Studies Program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa – examines the distinctive harm of genocide. He makes specific reference to Hannah Arendt’s conceptualization of the harm of genocide, positing that despite its flaws it brings a valuable perspective to the issue.
Lederman opens by citing the views of historians who distinguish the harm of genocide as stemming from the loss to the world of a unique culture. As he notes, culture is difficult to quantify. If one understands culture as referring primarily to high culture, one would have to argue that the genocide of the Jews is ‘worse’ than the genocide of the Roma, who have not made the same level of cultural contribution. On the other hand, Lederman writes, one could approach cultural loss as the destruction of a distinct way of life. This viewpoint is also difficult to defend, since for example the majority of German Jewry killed in the Holocaust were assimilated into German society and did not live in any way that differentiated them from their non-Jewish compatriots.
Yet another conceptualization of the harm of genocide is the effect that the destruction of the group has upon the survivors, who are left without a group to which to belong. The evident drawback to this position, is that this harm would be avoided by destroying an entire nation and leaving no survivors. Yet other writers point to the harm of genocide as lying in its destruction not just of individuals but of the mass of accumulated knowledge and wisdom within their group memory. This perspective, Lederman comments, comes close to that of Hannah Arendt, on which he wishes to focus.
According to Arendt’s philosophy, every nation shares similar views to those of other nations but also possesses unique perspectives. If any one nation is destroyed, the entire world will have lost a unique perspective without which we as a whole become conceptually poorer. Arendt espouses a view that she sources in ancient Rome, that only when an idea is fully exposed from every facet can it be said to truly exist. Thus lacking one nation’s perspective on an idea effectively means that the idea is not fully revealed. Arendt writes that the more we are exposed to other points of view, the richer we are both as individuals and nations. In this way, Arendt encompasses cultural genocide, which strips a nation of its differentiated perspective without bloodshed, as a crime for removing some of the plurality of viewpoints from this world. Lederman adds that Arendt also valued the richness of individual viewpoints within each nation. Thus, to Arendt, even partial genocide weakens the whole world by reducing the spectrum of viewpoints therein.
Lederman points out that Arendt’s approach is not the same as any of the earlier-stated concepts of genocide as destroying a culture. Instead, she viewed the harm of genocide as stemming from the loss of that nation’s unique point of view, as formed by their unique political, social and historical experiences. From this perspective, assimilated German Jews had a different point of view to those of their non-Jewish German neighbors, despite sharing the same culture, thus defining the act of genocide.
Lederman summarizes that this approach underlies Arendt’s consideration of the Holocaust as worst of all crimes The Nazis specifically wished to wipe out the plurality of viewpoints. Lederman acknowledges that it is a failing in Arendt’s philosophy that in contradistinction to the Holocaust, she viewed other attempts at genocide to constitute a loss to humanity (through the loss of plurality of perspective) but not a crime, since they were not motivated by a desire to remove a plurality of viewpoints.
Lederman concludes that Arendt distinguished between morality, and existential or political values. To Arendt, genocide is a unique crime because of the existential loss it causes to plurality of humanity, not because it brings a moral loss of human lives. Lederman presents this as a flaw in her philosophy, but nonetheless wishes to add her unique categorization to the understanding of the true harm of genocide.
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