Interdisciplinary program will examine humanity’s darkest moments, have a human rights focus
One step to keeping history’s darkest events from recurring is to learn as much as possible about how and why they happened.
BU’s new interdisciplinary major in Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies (HGHRS) will ask students to dig deep into the roots of those cataclysmic events and look for ways to head them off in the future.
The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, in whole or in part.”
“The Holocaust was not the first genocide. There have been genocides ever since Armenia. What’s going on in other parts of the world is just mimicking patterns we’ve already seen, and it’s very disturbing,” says Nancy Harrowitz, director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of Italian and of Jewish studies. She will oversee the new major along with Tim Longman, a CAS professor of political science and a Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies professor of international relations.
The new major gets a high-profile kickoff on Wednesday, October 26, when Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor of history and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Crown Publishing, 2015), delivers the first of this year’s Elie Wiesel Memorial Lectures, “The War in Ukraine and the Question of Genocide,” at the Questrom School of Business Auditorium at 6 pm (reception at 5 pm). Snyder will speak on the genocidal actions and language of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the lecture will be moderated by Alexis Peri, a CAS associate professor of history, and registration is required.
“Tim Snyder is a world-renowned expert, not only a Holocaust historian, but also a historian of Eastern Europe, and he has been working on Ukraine,” Harrowitz says.
The Lemkin Institute on Genocide Prevention has recently posted red flag alerts indicating troubling signs in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s treatment of Armenians, Iran’s treatment of women, and India’s action towards its Muslim population.
“Genocides don’t just happen all of a sudden. There is a buildup to them,” Harrowitz says. “Genocide prevention is something that we talk about in the major and in this program. How do you stop this?”
Based at the Wiesel Center, the program in Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies also includes an existing minor, which has grown to 17 students this year, and a graduate certificate program. Harrowitz is program director and Longman, director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, is associate director.
Longman worked in Rwanda in the 1990s and knows whereof he speaks.
“This has become a topic that is not just unavoidable, but something that we have a moral responsibility to tackle,” says Longman, author of Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda(Cambridge University Press, 2017), “because it’s part of our modern reality, and our students need to be educated in how to understand and make sense of it, and ultimately help prevent mass atrocities like what I saw in Rwanda.”
Students in the major will closely and critically examine the Holocaust and other genocides in the context of modern history and culture, focusing on racism, anti-Semitism, nationalist ideologies, and other causes of genocide. The human rights component will look at the role of international conventions on human rights and international courts in responding to genocide.
"This has become a topic that is not just unavoidable, but something that we have a moral responsibility to tackle." - Timothy Longman
Human rights was added to the minor in 2018 “because we cannot study the Holocaust or any genocide without also studying human rights. It’s just embedded in the topic,” Harrowitz says. “It’s important for every field. And if we offer a way for students to approach human rights from a different perspective, a deeper perspective, then we’re doing our job as educators.”
She notes that it also connects to BU’s history in human rights, not just with the late Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74), BU’s longtime Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, but also Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) and Howard Thurman (Hon.’67), among others.
The major will be excellent preparation for students in health sciences or law, she says, given the human rights focus, as well as those planning an academic career or work in international relations or nongovernmental organizations. It has been in discussion among faculty for several years.
“It’s really since the 1990s that this has emerged as an interdisciplinary field, that discussions about human rights and mass atrocity and how to promote international law and to protect people from things like genocide have become a major conversation in universities,” Longman says.
It has become a topic in public health, in international law, in the social sciences, he says, “and we’re kind of responding to the change in the academic landscape as well.”
The major requires a total of 10 courses: 3 core courses in genocide, Holocaust, and human rights studies, 6 electives from a list of courses in these fields, and a senior thesis or internship. And it truly is interdisciplinary, involving faculty from history, political science, international relations, anthropology, sociology, law, literature, film studies, and religion. Harrowitz and Longman will be among those teaching courses.
In Rwanda, Longman says, he watched “a minority population increasingly excluded and targeted, and rhetoric becoming increasingly violent, and violence becoming increasingly normal. So, having lived through that once, I have to say, looking at my own society, and looking at the expansion of what I would call neofascism around the world, it’s frightening, right?”
The rhetoric of self-defense is at the heart of every genocide, he says, and viewing certain groups as a threat is used to justify a lot of violence, discrimination, and exclusion. “We need to nip it in the bud and address violent rhetoric before it gets away.
“There are no easy answers, of course, which is sad,” he says. “But I do think a lot of us are trying to equip our students with the tools that they need to honestly transform the world and make it a better place, and that starts with understanding the past.”
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