Public Lecture - 28 May 2015 - Sarajevo BiH - Gallery 11/07/95

The banality of indifference

Dr Yair Auron

genocide-studies expert, lecturer


I want to thank you for this day. It was a unique day for me, very unusual, very moving. I've been dealing with this subject for more than thirty years but I must say that these two days in Sarajevo were very moving for me. Maybe I can compare it to my two visits to Rwanda last year where I was moved deeply and it was even more difficult for me than my visit to Auschwitz, because it is the story of today. Twenty years ago is the past, but the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders are among us. When you are in Rwanda, in Kigali, you see that the majority of the people are Hutu people, which means the perpetrators. And they are very nice and polite. You start to ask yourself what they have done thirty years ago, because probably most of them were, in one way or another, involved in the genocide. This event today and these two weeks in Rwanda raise many questions. If we are dealing with the study of genocide, we must admit that we have more questions than answers. We have to understand that we will not get answers to many of these questions, even if it's difficult. But as you say, we must raise the question. If we don't raise them, we are not dealing with the real subject of genocide. We have to try to find the whole truth, as much as we can achieve it. We have to know, on the other hand, that we have limits. In many cases the truth will remain unclear.

I want to say another thing. Thank you very much for this event. I think you are right that we have to deal with education. We must deal with education. I found out that in Bosnia there is no curriculum for high schools regarding the genocide. People tried to explain that to me, because there are three narratives. You have to be honest to yourself. You are a victim of genocide. Maybe Bosnians did commit some massacres, I don't know the details. We, Israelis, did commit massacres, not genocide. We have to admit it. But you are a victim of genocide and you can't avoid this subject in your education. We must deal with it and we must do that with all the complexity of the issue. There is one thing we must remember: we used to say, especially after the Holocaust, 'Never again!’ But what does that mean, 'never again'? It happened again and again and we use this term and we let another genocide occur. And what does it mean, 'never again', when after one genocide there is another genocide, that I am related to, even emotionally now, and which is denied by the majority of the countries. Twenty four countries of the 196 members of the UN recognized the Armenian genocide. The absolute majority does not recognize the Armenian genocide. By denying genocide - and this is very important to me - you prepare the ground for a new genocide. And I must admit I wasn't aware about the denial of your genocide until three days ago. I knew vaguely about your genocide but I knew even less about the level of denial by the Serbs about the genocide they've committed. And you must face it, we must face it, it's not your problem with the Serbs. It's the problem of the whole world, the problem of humanity. As I said to the Armenian people, you must struggle for the recognition of your genocide, because without recognition, you've said it before, judge Goldstone said it also, you can't recover your trauma. When the society is denying the victimhood of the people, you can't begin the process of recovery. And you have to fight for it now, not after hundred years of denial. We have to fight with you for the recognition of the genocide by the Serbs and by humanity. Europe is a problem, the US is a problem, because, you know that, in one way or another, they were an accomplice in the genocide. And I want to say something that maybe some of you will not accept: more and more I am convinced that there is no 'third party'. There are the victims and there are the perpetrators. If you are not with the victim, you are, by definition, with the perpetrators. When we don't take part, whether there was genocide of the Armenian or not, we are supporting the Turkish policy of denial. And my country is also doing it, unfortunately. When we say that it is not clear if genocide happened to the Bosnian people, we support the Serbian policy of denial. And it is our obligation as human beings, whatever our origin is, to struggle for recognition. Because, I repeat, when you deny genocide, you prepare the ground to a new one. It's terrible what people told here, really terrible. But on the other hand, what are the Serbs thinking? They say that they are the victim. They cultivate the identity of being a victim. And they believe that they are victims and they are not ready to deal with their crimes. I can only say to the Serbs, as I said to the Turkish people in the Government: a country can become a democratic society, but what does that mean without dealing with its past, Serbia will not become a democratic state, I don't know whether they want it, if they don't want to recognise their guiltiness and their crimes. It's a must for the society. They have to do it for themselves first of all and then for the victim. If they don't do it, their society will be sick in one way or another and it will not be a real democratic society.

Now I want to say something for the victims. You are in a very difficult situation and we have to face it. Because you are the victims and your victimhood is not recognized. You will suffer twice. You are suffering from the fact that you are the victim and from the fact that your victimhood is not recognized by the world. In the Jewish case, we were the victim but the world recognized our genocide and admitted it. And Germany, after some years of resistance, started to honestly deal with the past. Holocaust is being studied in German high schools in the correct way, in an honest way. This is what the society has to do build its democracy and, unfortunately, people don't do it. There are people who say that Germany has no other choice but to admit their guiltiness because they lost the war. Serbia didn't lose the war, but I think it is a critical choice for them. If they don't recognize their guiltiness, they will not find peace for themselves.

I need to repeat one thing which is very important to me. It is not an issue between Serbia and Bosnia, it is not an issue between Turkey and Armenia - it's an issue for humanity. And humanity has to recognize their responsibility and not to play political games. There is one thing missing, not only in this event, but in many events. People are talking about the legal system: is it genocide or not according to the legal system. I am not familiar enough, but I think that what happened to you is genocide. There are many who hesitate to call it genocide, they call it ethnic cleansing. I don't know. I think it's genocide, but I don’t have enough information to say it as I can say it about other genocides. I don't want to avoid the issue. I think you were victims of genocide and we have to accept it. But sometimes we use another term to avoid the issue. Suffering is suffering, whether you call it genocide or ethnic cleansing. We insist to call our genocide Holocaust. We don’t have the right to measure the suffering of a human being. It has to be universally recognized. Suffering is suffering. We have to sympathise with the people who were suffering. And sometimes we are not doing that.

Now I want to say something about my country. Jewish people have a special responsibility regarding the topic of genocide, not because we are the chosen people and I don't accept this theory, but because we were the victims of our genocide, the Holocaust. As victims, we have to be the first to identify with the other victim. Three weeks ago I was in Armenia. There was a big event. The first country to recognize the Armenian genocide was Uruguay. And after my speech the Ambassador came to me to say 'Thank you. You know, we were the first country to recognize the Armenian genocide.' I told him: 'I know, but we had to be the first one. Unfortunately, we are not.' And we have to struggle, everyone in our society, so that our society can change. We must change our society. I speak now as an Israeli. I realize the fact that we support the Turkish policy of denial more and more. You told me some months before. We support the policy of denial of the Serbs. The Prime minister of Serbia was in Israel a few months ago. Our Prime minister spoke with him and it was a historical event. The first Prime minister of Serbia, because there was no Serbia before, came to Israel and said: 'We are sharing the same history.' What does it mean to say that we are sharing the same history? He wanted to take the mythos of Serbia or Serbian people who saved the Jews during the Holocaust to identify with them. I've learned about it bit, not enough, but you told me about it today. I know that people from Belgrade were sent to the concentration camp by the Serbian police.  And now we have to deny it because we want to have the same interest with Serbia. We have to say it openly because this is the truth. It is the truth. We don't have the right, because of a political interest, to betray the memory of the victims in Armenia, not your victims or victims elsewhere. When we deny genocide, we don't only betray the memory of the victim of the genocide denial, we betray the memory of the victims of our genocide. I know it's difficult for people to listen to it, I know that I have to struggle for saying it in Israel, but I will say it. As long as Israel is continuing its policy if denial, I will keep saying it. It is my obligation as a human being and maybe also as a Jew. And there is something else I should mention. I know that Israel sent weapons to Serbia during the genocide. I know it and I have a lot of evidence for it. A friend of mine is a lawyer, we conducted a process against the Ministry of Security of the State of Israel. We have a process regarding the selling of weapons from Israel to Rwanda during the genocide. We've lost the first stage but we are going to the Supreme Court. In two weeks we have the first process regarding the Serbian case. Probably we are going to lose this case also, but we will go to the Supreme Court which is more independent.

So I want to finish by thanking you for this special opportunity to know more about what happened here. I want to repeat what I've said before: there is no third party. We have to admit it. I propose that you read, maybe another time, maybe most of you already have read it, the book of Camus 'The Plague'. People have tried to save other people during the epidemic. The epidemic is the fascism and the Nazism. And it says, finally, there is no third party, either you are with the victim or you are the perpetrator. In most cases of genocide we are what we call the 'third party'. But I think we, especially as victims, have to always be with the victims. Otherwise, we are the perpetrators. Thank you.

Yair Auron, Israel
Scholar and expert specializing on Holocaustand Genocidestudies, racism and contemporary Jewry. He is professor at the department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication of The Open University of Israel. From 1974 to 1976 Yair Auron worked as the Director of the Education Department in the Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem). In the 1980s he worked as a researcher at the Melton Center for Jewish Education of the Hebrew University and also as an Academic Director of European Section at the Israel-Diaspora Institute, an external institute of Tel-Aviv University. From 1996-1999 he was a Senior Lecturer and Head of the Division of Cultural Studies at the Max Stern Academic College of Emek Yezreel. Auron is serving as an Associate Director and Member of the Academic Board of Directors at the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide, Jerusalem. He is also a member of the Academic Board of Directors at the Zoryan Institute in Toronto, and an Advisory Board member of The Genocide Education Project in San Francisco (USA).He is member of the international very esteemed Genocide Prevention Advisory Network (GPANet). Author of many books, some of them are: “The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide”, (2000), “The Banality of Denial”, (2003). “The Pain of Knowledge - Holocaust and Genocide Issues in Education”, (2005”), “The Israeli identities” (2012) and “The Holocaust, the Rebirth and the Nakba” (2013). Yair Auron is a visiting Professor at The American University of Armenia (A.U.A.), where he is developing Genocide and Human Rights studies.