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At St. Joe's, Academics Tackle the Shoah's 'Unfinished Agenda'

March 11, 2010 By:
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Richard Rubenstein

A scholar of Eastern religions, specifically Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism, might seem out of place at an academic conference focusing on the Holocaust and the Protestant and Catholic churches.

But for Kunihiko Terasawa, an adjunct professor of philosophy and theology at St. Joseph's University, his interest makes perfect sense. In the wake of the Shoah, many Christian scholars -- such as the late Temple University professor Franklin Littell -- took an intense, introspective look at anti-Jewish sentiment imbued in Christian theology, and how such dogma partially set the stage for the emergence of Nazi ideology.

Terasawa said that he's utilizing the self-critical methodology pioneered by Littell and adapting it to Eastern thought. In his view, aspects of Buddhism and Shintoism may have played some role in creating the political climate that led to Japanese atrocities in the Pacific during World War II.

"There is some element creating such genocide and Holocaust," said Terasawa, one of two Japanese scholars who attended the 40th Annual Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches last weekend. "I really respect Franklin's self-criticism of his own tradition. Of course, he did not abandon his own faith."

Littell, a Methodist minister considered the father of Holocaust studies in the United States, died last May. This year's interfaith, interdisciplinary conference, which Littell co-founded back in 1970, was dedicated to his memory.

More than 120 academics, from as far away as Israel and Russia, took part in the conference. The issues discussed at times seemed just as far and wide in their scope, from the state of Holocaust education to the American judicial response to the Nazi legal system.

The emphasis of the two-day gathering was on what was designated by conference creators as the "unfinished agenda" in the field of Holocaust studies. In a few sessions, that discussion took on a far less academic tone, and instead revolved around how scholars can utilize their public voices to speak out against current and future genocide, including the ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing in Sudan and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran attacking Israel.

A secondary theme raised by several speakers related to the future of the discipline. Will Holocaust studies remain a separate endeavor, or will it be folded into genocide or even human-rights studies? And how will this affect the debate that scholars have been having for decades over whether the Holocaust was a singular, epoch-making event, or part of an historical continuum stretching from antiquity to the killings in Darfur today?

In a public lecture that concluded the conference on Monday evening, Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, a prolific writer and pioneer of interfaith dialogue, described the Shoah as "an absolute contact with evil, which gives us some guidelines and some testing ground for comparative judgments on so many political, moral, ethical and religious questions."

In terms of the unfinished agenda, he said that Judaism and Islam, especially the more fundamentalist strains of both religions, need to follow the Christian example of confronting the potentially hateful rhetoric within their respective traditions.

Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who has been critical of Orthodoxy, said that many traditional Jewish religious leaders have not responded adequately to certain lessons of the Holocaust.

"We understand now that the Nazis could not have killed the Jews until they first dehumanized them. Well, is there anything in my tradition that makes a gay person less human? Is there anything in my religion that makes a woman less than a man?"

He also said academics must push harder for the "genocide early warning system" advocated by Littell to be put into full practice. He focused specifically on the threat of a second Holocaust posed by Iran, and charged that too many professors have been morally blinded by an anti-Israel bias.

Greenberg wasn't the only speaker to note the danger Iran poses or the challenge to various forms of discourse that's presented by radical Islam: Both Richard Rubenstein, a noted Holocaust theologian, and Michael Berenbaum, a historian, called attention to these issues during the opening plenary.

Rubenstein's 1966 book After Auschwitz: History, Theology and Contemporary Judaisminfluenced how many Jews think about God. In recent years, he has zeroed in on the problem of radical Islam, and said that he has had to take extra security precautions in the wake of publishing his latest book, Jihad and Genocide.

"Never once did I have to fear any kind of physical violence in anything I said to Christians -- whether they were Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical," Rubenstein said, adding that such fear has made dialogue with Muslims far more difficult. "This is an appropriate time for an early warning system about the dangers of radical Islam."

Racelle Weiman of the Dialogue Institute at Temple University said during the same plenary session that in examining the worst deeds human beings have perpetrated, it's easy to despair when eyeing the future. But she also said that it's part of a scholar's job to point toward possibility.

"Give me the proof that the world can be a better place. Give me proof that you can have faith in humanity," Weiman recounted one student asking her. "I can honestly say that Franklin Littell -- in his actions, in his words, in the people he inspired and the people speaking alongside him in the same voice -- is my proof."

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