An Interview with Open University Professor Yair Auron
On a University Course and Book Series on Genocide
Interviewed by: Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar
Since 2005, Israel’s Open University has been offering a course on Genocide which is one-of-a-kind within Israeli academia. The course was developed by Prof. Yair Auron, who has been researching and writing about the genocide of the Armenian people for years. We met with Prof. Auron to learn more about this remarkable course and about the series of ten books that have been published so far as course material.
What got you interested in the subject?
I first researched the Jewish Yishuv’s attitude toward the Armenian genocide and then explored Israel’s lack of recognition of the event. My work on this subject resulted in the publication of two books, and my interest in the Armenian genocide gradually developed into a broader interest in genocide around the world.
What instances of genocide are addressed by the books in the series?
The books in the series include books on the Native American genocide in the United States, the genocides in Tibet and Rwanda, the political and ethnic cleansing campaigns carried out by the former Soviet Union, and the murder of gypsies by Nazi Germany. We have also published more theoretical books on the subject of genocide, as well as a collection of articles. A special volume entitled The Pain of Knowledge covers issues relevant to Holocaust and genocide education in Israel and the world.
Does the course address the Holocaust as well?
It certainly does. It is impossible to teach about genocide without discussing the Holocaust. The course, however, is based on the assumption that our students already possess historical knowledge about the Holocaust. It therefore focuses on the Holocaust’s historisophic aspects, and not necessarily on the history of the Holocaust itself. Ariel Hurwitz’s book Destruction – Nazi Germany’s Extermination of the Jews, which was also published as part of the course’s book series, explores subjects such as the character of the murderers, rescue efforts during the Holocaust, reactions to the Holocaust after the war, memory and the Holocaust, Holocaust denial, and the unique and universal aspects of the Holocaust. Destruction approaches its subject matter with an eye toward raising questions about the events with which most Israeli students are already familiar.
What has been the students’ reaction to the subject matter taught in the course?
First, I would like to point out that the course is one of the Open University’s most popular courses, with an annual enrollment of between 600-700 students. The subject by nature elicits strong emotion and sparks debate. Our goal is to encourage independent thinking and to raise questions, but not always to provide answers. One thing we stress in the course is that genocide is carried out by people, and that every one of us, no matter who we are or where we live, possesses psychological traits of ‘murderers’ to one degree or another. We try to clarify the external circumstances and personal qualities that lead people to become murderers. Among other things, the course examines issues such as blind obedience and the acceptance of authority, which leads people to engage in unusual and extreme behavior.
Do Arab students enroll in the course?
Yes. Israel’s Open University has thousands of Arab students, and many select the course as part of our program in political science and sociology. It is unfortunate that neither they nor the country’s Jewish students are exposed to the concept of genocide in any meaningful way during high school. For this reason, most students know very little about it.
Will any other books be published as part of this series?
Yes. In the coming months, we will be publishing two final books of the series. The first is a collection of articles on Racism and Genocide in different places around the world, which will also include a chapter on racism in Israel. The second and final book, which is set to be published in 2011, is entitled And Thou Shalt Purge the Evil from Thy Midst and examines genocide as an act of humans and analyzes the psychological aspects of the perpetrators of genocide.
Again, I would like to acknowledge the Open University’s openness in dealing with this sensitive subject, the encouragement I continue to receive from my colleagues, and the excellent feedback I have received from the students and instructors.
For more information, please consult the websites of the Open University, which includes the course syllabus, and Lamda, the Open University’s publishing house, which contains information about the books in the series (including the detailed table of contents for each).
The Open University: www.openu.ac.il