What Does “Never Again” Mean When it Comes to the Uyghurs?

Guest-blog by David Malamud (Third-year PhD student in the BU Graduate Program in Religion) 

This summer, Buzzfeed’s four-part series of articles exposed the gargantuan extent of the Uyghur and Kazakh concentration camps in western China. The articles reignited coverage of the humanitarian and human rights crisis in the US media. Buzzfeed’s reports have inspired the editorial boards of other news outlets across a wide political and ideological spectrum, including the Washington Post and the New York Post, to take a stance against the human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government. These atrocities have been recognized in the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 passed by the 116th Congress and signed into law by President Trump. I remember first reading rumors about these atrocities several years ago, while working on my undergraduate degree. I have since watched with horror and felt frustrated by my inability to do anything about it.

Like many Americans, I grew up hearing the tales of Nazi atrocities committed during the Holocaust. It always disturbed me to hear about the indifference that allowed the Nazis to act with impunity. The world watched and did nothing. How could the whole world stand by as the Nazis exterminated my people and attempted to erase the very memory of our existence? Many people and politicians invoke Holocaust comparisons to describe current events, but I think in this case, the comparison is particularly apt. 

A recent BU conference showed the link between discrimination and economic exploitation of Jews during the Nazi period. Like the Nazis, the Chinese government and businesses are profiting economically from the forced labor of the imprisoned Uyghur population. This exploitation extends to their very bodies. In July, a thirteen-ton shipment of Uyghur hair was seized by US Customs and Border Patrol. In many ways, we are complicit in this exploitation. Uyghurs have been forcibly detained in work camps to produce PPE for COVID-19 exported to the US. As this fact became clear, US House of Representatives responded by passing a bipartisan bill 406-3: the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would “prevent certain imports” and “impose sanctions” on products from Xinjiang. But this is not enough to stop the Chinese government-sponsored exploitation and mistreatment of entire populations that are persecuted, incarcerated, tortured, and forced to live under subhuman conditions.

I cannot, in good conscience, stand silent while I watch an oppressed ethno-religious minority destroyed by a powerful authoritarian regime intent on ethnic and religious purity and obedience to the state. I was taught in Hebrew school to say, “Never Again.” As some of our fellow Jews claim with regard to the American immigration crisis, “Never Again is now.”

I am heartened by the growing number of Jewish institutions, including Bnai Brith Canada and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum who are calling for a vigorous response to the Chinese repression of the Uyghurs. Jewish individuals, such as Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, have denounced China’s actions as well. For the past year and a half, a British Orthodox Jew (“Andrew”) has protested every Tuesday and Wednesday at the cultural office of the Chinese Embassy in London. I am proud to have joined the nascent Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom. We are an international and interdenominational Jewish organization which seeks to foster student advocacy, lobby Jewish organizations, and support Uyghurs in their diaspora.

What can we do for people suffering under a powerful authoritarian regime halfway around the world? If you would like to stay up to date on current news or join the fight for Uyghur freedom in a Jewish context, please subscribe to JMUF or learn how to take action lobbying for the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Join with Uyghur activists like Ziba Murat and Jewher Ilham’s who have called on us to #boycottMulan, Disney’s latest Live Action film. Not only was it filmed in Xinjiang, but it also credits the “publicity department” or the Chinese government’s propaganda wing in Xinjiang, and the “bureau of public security” of Turpan, a city in Xinjiang, and an organization directly responsible for the Uyghur genocide. Uyghur activists have also recently called on the ICC to deny Beijing the honor of another Olympics in 2022. 

Join me! Never Again is Now.

David Malamud is a PhD student in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean tract. He graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Jewish Studies, a BA in History, and a BA in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park (2018). His research interests include sectarianism and messianism in Second Temple Judaism, the development of canon in early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, and broader questions of religious and cultural identity and exchange in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Confronting Conspiracism After a Failed Insurrection

Benjamin Austin CU by Benjamin J. Austin, a PhD candidate at Boston University specializing in the philosophy of digital religion.

 

Wednesday morning (1/6/2021), prior to the Trumpist insurrection, I was preparing the syllabus for my undergraduate writing seminar on “Tricksters and the Invention of Religion.” The title is an intentional provocation to students. It is based on Carole Cusack’s notion of “invented religions,” a category with origins in mid-century American counterculture, live-action role play (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons), fan fiction, and the complex, intertwined worlds of game and film-based subcultures. Some prefer to call such phenomena “consumer religion,” “postmodern” or “meta modern” religion, or “remix religion,” all with good reason. The fun in calling them “invented religions” lies in the fact that students tend to read Cusack as implying that there are religions that are not invented. The traditions we often call “world religions” retain a special degree of authenticity, if simply because their historical narratives and truth claims are so far in the past as to be impervious to allegations of “fake news.” My goal is not to convince students that ancient or “axial age” religious figures were every bit as coercive and corrosive as Jim Jones or Osama Bin Laden, but to expose a peculiar contemporary bias against invention as a religious act. Too many assume that if a religious movement is so new that we can trace its emergence, it is a fad at best, and a cult at worst. This is a strange assumption; imagine thinking that access to blueprints would render a house uninhabitable. Cusack’s invented religions are nothing more or less than religious movements that implicitly understand, and sometimes explicitly emphasize, that their recent vintage and countercultural orientation are no impediment to meaning-making, community organizing, mystical exploration, and spiritual fulfillment. Our mistake has long been to insist that religious traditions are, or ought to be, in the business of uncovering and preserving “truths,” or, more recently, “facts.”

This way of thinking blinds us to a reality that we can no longer afford to ignore: new religious movements are everywhere, especially online. The prominence of conspiracy theory and unbridled groupthink has rendered the Internet, to borrow a phrase from Henri Bergson, “a machine for the making of gods.” The novelty of such gods does not mean that they will not take hold, or that their devotees are not perfectly capable of waltzing into the U.S. Capitol through ranks of sluggish and/or sympathetic law enforcement officers, leaving menacing notes on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, and sabotaging vital democratic processes. The late Robert Anton Wilson – a prominent proponent of Discordianism, which is perhaps the prototypical invented religion – used to say that “reality is what you can get away with.” This appears to be truer of political reality than many of us might have anticipated, even just one week ago.

Americans saw unfamiliar flags, symbols, and slogans alongside more familiar Christian nationalist insignia like the ichthys (Jesus fish) at the Capitol on January 6th. We also listened to news anchors decry the “crackpot” and “baseless” QAnon conspiracy theory. QAnon’s currency with the Trumpist rioters was evident for those who know what to look for – a sweatshirt bearing a large “Q,” a banner inviting us to “Trust the Plan” or “Save the Children,” and, at the front of the unruly mob a bare-chested, heavily tattooed figure wearing face paint and a horned fur hat. This man – Jake Angeli – is known in QAnon circles as “the Q Shaman.” Thus the question arises: are we confronting a neo-shamanic fascist cult born in the digital wilderness or perhaps a more familiar iteration of American Christianity fallen prey to the temptations of chauvinism?

American conspiracy theory is a strange genre, perhaps best thought of as a kind of secular eschatology (reasoning about “last things,” i.e., the end of the world or at least the status quo). As such, it draws at once on contemporary (“secular”) and ancient (“religious”) sources for inspiration. QAnon is no exception here. Beginning in October of 2017, QAnon emerged on the online message board 4Chan as a kind of meta-conspiracy or “big tent” conspiracy theory intended to identify the root cause of governmental corruption and social degeneration. The basic QAnon thesis is that the world is run by a cabal of Satanic pedophiles who harvest the adrenalized blood of their young victims in order to consume a concoction – “adrenochrome” – which allows them to live (and therefore rule) in perpetuity. Major figures accused of belonging to this class of elites include Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, George Soros, and the Rothschild family. Q supporters stormed the Capitol last week (alongside more cynical and opportunistic comrades) because they sincerely believe President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to be members of this vile coterie.

In many respects, QAnon is an outgrowth of the patriot movement, which sprang up during the 1990’s in response to the Clinton administration’s push for increased gun control as well as two disastrous showdowns between federal agents and Christian/White Nationalist extremists at Ruby Ridge (1992) and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas (1993). The patriot movement drew mythological and eschatological inspiration from the work of Milton William (“Bill”) Cooper, especially Behold a Pale Horse. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh considered himself a “patriot” in Cooper’s sense, a guerilla warrior combatting excessive federal overreach into the lives of American citizens. Cooper himself espoused a kind of libertarian equality for Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and denounced McVeigh’s violence and racism. Still, Cooper’s decision to reprint the notoriously anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Behold a Pale Horse has only fanned the flames of ethnonationalism in the patriot movement since his death in 2001. To this day, the movement only partially overlaps with White and Christian nationalist movements in the United States; Bill Cooper, in fact, enjoys a certain cachet in segments of the black community, notably the Five-Percent Nation. I would encourage anyone interested in the history of the patriot movement to check out Mark Jacobson’s Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America.

I attribute QAnon’s success as a conspiracy theory to its participatory character as well as a certain complicity on the part of producers of popular culture. “Q” refers to an anonymous poster on 4Chan (subsequently migrating to 8Chan and then 8Kun) who periodically posts “Q drops” – highly cryptic and sometimes entirely nonsensical missives concerning an ongoing attempt on the part of Donald Trump and his allies in the upper echelons of government to sabotage the “deep state” and expose the Satanic cabal. Q followers coordinate to decipher and interpret (or “bake”) Q drops to discern what is happening behind the scenes of the political arena and the corrupt corporate media. QAnon gives adherents the opportunity to participate in a detective drama and Armageddon – a final battle between forces of good and evil – at the same time. Followers often explicitly celebrate that their lives become more meaningful, interesting, and cinematic upon joining the movement. A couple prominent QAnon slogans – “Where We Go One, We Go All” (WWG1WGA) and “the Calm Before the Storm” – are in fact ripped directly from Ridley Scott’s 1996 film White Squall. In general, Q supporters display little self-awareness about the extent to which their cinematic experience of the movement follows dependably from the movement’s reliance on cinematic narratives for structure. In other words, QAnon blatantly models its narratives on (certain kinds of) blockbuster films, and yet Q supporters are routinely mystified and enchanted when “reality” turns out “just like a movie!”

All this indicates that QAnon’s factuality is less important than its galvanizing, participatory function. Above I indicated a certain complicity on the part of corporate producers of popular culture. Much of this is accidental – the eschatological structure of Q’s narrative allows supporters to reach back into the annals of film and television and conclude that pretty much any representation of a hero taking on shadowy government forces on behalf of democracy (think: The X-Files, National Treasure, Outbreak, etc.) was a prophetic warning, or perhaps an early attempt at public disclosure. More insidious is the ongoing decision of media outlets such as History Channel and Gaia.com to capitalize on generic, formulaic, and vague insinuations of conspiracy. The narrator of Ancient Aliens, for instance, might not explicitly say that the Satanic pedophile deep state is responsible for suppressing information about extraterrestrials, but someone certainly is. In other words, the show’s formula is successful precisely because it allows armchair historians to fill in the conspiratorial blanks episode after episode in any number of idiosyncratic directions. The viewer is encouraged to feel both more intelligent and less trusting of established academic and political authorities. The result of such programming, as QAnon hero General Michael Flynn so darkly puts it, is that “the American people [have] decided to take over the idea of information.” One wonders which Americans he means.

I mentioned QAnon’s demonization of the Rothschilds above, which ought to set off familiar anti-Semitic alarm bells. Somewhat more difficult to discern is the fact that QAnon is ultimately a contemporary iteration of “blood libel.” The blood libel was a family of medieval conspiracy theories alleging that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children every Easter in order to ensure return to Jerusalem. QAnon is deeply anti-Semitic at its core, though many followers lack the historical awareness to identify this, and many opponents are (rightfully) concerned with the various other modalities of hate (anti-black racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) endemic to the movement. The erasure of this anti-Semitism in some ways speaks to the “ancient” inspiration of QAnon’s eschatology. Many contemporary American evangelical readers of the Book of Revelation– with ahistorical blinders supplied by e.g., Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series – assign a marginal role to Jews during the End of Days, one largely contingent upon their conversion by some admixture of rhetoric and violence. More proto- than anti-Christian to the evangelical QAnon mind, the Jewish people remain peripheral to the drama unfolding between Christian patriots and the Deep State. This is in contrast to other more urgent and “evil” threats posed by LGBTQ+, Islamic, and racial justice activist communities. What makes QAnon all the more disturbing, then, is that card-carrying, blood-libelous Neo-Nazis can march alongside relatively oblivious evangelicals, Instagram wellness gurus, and Reptilian-fearing new agers* without anyone experiencing a modicum of cognitive dissonance. The “Satanic pedophiles” trafficking our children are Jewish for those who want them to be, and “elitists,” “globalists,” or “Illuminati” for those who would rather not think of themselves as anti-Semitic.  By dint of historical ignorance, this modern blood libel expands to encompass ever more non-Christian, non-White groups.

Is QAnon a new digital religious movement or an extremist sect with deep historical roots in mainstream Christendom? The answer is yes. We can attribute its existence to the effects of the post-truth media environment and/or we can perceive the strong resonances of Tertullian’s “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est” (“it is certain because it is absurd”) and Paul of Tarsus’ conviction that the proclamation of “Christ crucified” would be “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). I recommend Tara Isabella Burton’s theory of “remix religion” in Strange Rites: New Religions for A Godless World as a tool for thinking through this bizarre duality and the convergence of ancient and modern religious sensibilities on this belief in absurdity for its own sake. In any case, we must recognize that QAnon does not care whether its theories are “real” or “invented.” The price of ideological admission– believing patent absurdities – is high enough to create an uncommonly strong sense of camaraderie in the face of persecution. Q’s predictions and supporters’ interpretations will have been proven real and true (for them) in all relevant senses if and when QAnon assumes power and squashes dissent. We shouldn’t assume that they won’t; it has happened before. More and more otherwise “normal” and “respectable” people are falling under its spell and, in truth, I don’t know what to do about it. That said, education is never a bad start. What follows is a list of resources that you might find useful for understanding what’s happening in our country right now, and perhaps also for deprogramming friends and family members who may be succumbing to the lure of easy answers, empty revolt, and corrosive hatred.

*Prominent British conspiracy theorist David Icke circumvents the anti-Semitism of the Protocols by claiming that the text actually refers to shape-shifting Reptilian extraterrestrials.

Articles

Jerusalem Post –  “Capitol Riots – What Far-Right Hate Symbols Were on Display?” by Laura E. Adkins and Emily Burack

The Atlantic – “The Prophecies of Q: American Conspiracy Theories Are Entering a Dangerous New Phase,” by Adrienne LaFrance

The Conversation –  “QAnon and the storm of the U.S. Capitol: The Offline Effect of Online Conspiracy Theories,” by Marc-André Argentino

Anti-Racism Daily –  “Condemn QAnon,” by Nicole Cardoza

Teen Vogue – “QAnon Conspiracy Theories Are Driving Families Apart,” by Fortesa Latifi

“How to Convince Loved Ones to Change Their Political Perspectives,” by Sophie Vaughn

 Podcasts

QAnon Anonymous

  • The first episode of this podcast provides an excellent overview of QAnon and their most recent episode covers the events at the Capitol. I cannot recommend their work enough for those interested in developing a holistic and critical understanding of contemporary conspiracy culture.

 

Books

A lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, by Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead

Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House, by Mike Wendling

Antisocial: Online Exremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, by Andrew Marantz

A Rumor about the Jews: Conspiracy, Anti-Semitism, and the Protocols of Zion, by Stephen Eric Bonner

Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth, by Magda Teter

Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Trump, by Daniel C. Hellinger

Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, by Talia Lavin

Cyber Racism and Community Resilience: Strategies for Combating Online Race Hate, by Andrew Jakubowicz, Kevin Dunn, Gail Mason, Yin Paradies, Ana-Maria Biluc, Nasya Bahfen, Andre Oboler, Rosalie Atie, and Karen Connelly

Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights, by Jessie Daniels

Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America, by Vegas Tenold

Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion, Edited by Asbjørn Dyrendal, David G. Robertson, and Egil Asprem

Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right, by Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Neoreaction a Basilisk: Essays On and Around the Alt-Right, by Elizabeth Sandifer

Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America, by Mark Jacobson

Plots, Designs, and Schemes: American Conspiracy Theories from the Puritans to the Present, by Michael Butter

Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination, by Alexandra Minna Stern

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, by Ruha Benjamin

Race After the Internet, Edited by Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White

Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us: by David Neiwert

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and their Surprising Rise to Power, by Anna Merlan

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, by Tara Isabella Burton

The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town, by Edward Berenson

The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner

The Nature of Conspiracy Theories, by Michael Butter

You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (forthcoming)

Benjamin J. Austin is a PhD candidate at Boston University specializing in the philosophy of digital religion. He works in the areas of continental philosophy, phenomenology, aesthetics, media theory, ritual theory, and esotericism. He holds a B.A. in International Relations and Religious Studies from Boston University as well as an M. Phil in Interreligious Studies from Trinity College Dublin. Benjamin’s dissertation research brings together media theory, ritual theory, and phenomenology in order to theorize the transition from analog to digital life as a traversal of a liminal state or space—a rite of passage.

Image: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Jew and the African American Who Saved America

by Michael Zank, Director EWCJS

Next year, at this time, when the pandemic of 2020-21 will be a distant memory and the vivid impressions of the violent assault on the nation’s Capitol we are still processing now will have receded, we should remember this: on January 5, 2021, Georgia turned blue. Georgia, formerly a solid red state, now resembles the rest of America: a state with an increasingly diverse population concerned with the major issues threatening our common future: healthcare, the environment, and economic justice.

I am writing to celebrate the election of the first African American senator from Georgia, the Reverend Raphael Warnock, and the election of the first Jewish senator from Georgia, Jon Ossoff.

I am also writing to celebrate the durability of the rule of law and its institutions that make the United States of America the beacon of liberty that it is and remains. Every attempt to subvert the results of a fair election has been foiled by the judges and officials, no matter their party affiliation, who determined the groundlessness of the many legal and illegal challenges launched by the president and his enablers. Men and women stood their ground, calmly and with determination. The institutions held because the people did.

One of those who literally stood his ground, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, paid with his life. Our heart goes out to his family. May his memory be for a blessing!

While some elected representatives opportunistically exploited the chaos that followed the November elections and culminated in the January 6 storming of the Capitol building that many have called an insurrection, most have condemned it. Many have found clear and heartening words to strengthen the nation’s resolve to resist the attempts of a few to destroy this democracy.

The election of two democratic senators from Georgia flipped the Senate and, with any luck, much good will come from it. But not everything will be well by January 2022. All of us need to be vigilant and remain engaged. We cannot go back to sleep. Liberty, the right to vote, civil and human rights, including reproductive rights, the functioning of democratic institutions, and the rule of law are precious goods to be defended and further developed, not just at home but also abroad.

The rule of law is fragile. It can be easily undermined, hollowed out, overturned by would-be autocrats who stoke the emotions of a violent minority and exploit the lethargy of an indifferent majority. Indifference, as the late Elie Wiesel has warned, inevitably allies itself with hate. It enables the fear-mongers and conspiratists. We must not be indifferent. History, including Jewish history, offers us countless lessons. Ignoring them will only force us to repeat them.

For now, let us thank the good people of Georgia for renewing our confidence that change is possible. I am particularly heartened by  Republican voters who turned their backs on the extremist rhetoric and over-the-top populism of one of their party’s candidates. They made the right choice, the choice for what is right.

I want to end with a note about the people who broke into the Capitol on Wednesday, January 6. Many of them believed they were patriots defending the republic. They clearly did not know that they had placed their trust in a con-man and a liar. Do they understand it now? They are the one’s who are losing their jobs and going to jail. The rioters committed criminal acts and should be prosecuted. But they should not be dismissed as “deplorables.” They were a small group but they represent a significant minority. Only because they don’t look like us or think or speak or act like us, they are no less part of America; a part, some of us may not like or wish to exist, but they are still fellow citizens. We are all obliged to engage, to listen, to hear out one another’s grievances and, if possible, find common ground on which to move forward, together. Those who represent a danger to the rule of law must be contained. But those who have been misled by a cunning demagogue and trapped in a web of disinformation  need our compassion. And, of course, our republic needs to strengthen its institutions and brace itself for future onslaughts. But perhaps, by January 2022, you and I will have met and spoken with one or two of those we don’t usually want to hear or speak to, and perhaps we may have learned something new about ourselves and about our own “bubbles,” the safe spaces of privilege we live in and cherish, but that also prevent us from seeing others as fully human.

Reflections on Dr. Marbury’s Lecture about Moses in the African American Tradition

Guest blog-post by Katya Tsvirko (CAS ’21), an International Relations major and currently a student in CASRN101/JS120 The Bible with Professor Zank.

Dr. Marbury’s lecture left me reflecting on the power of biblical interpretation; his presentation answered one of the biggest questions I had since I first started reading the Bible this September: how do these chapters and verses impact their readers? In answering this question, Dr. Marbury looked at the cyclical interpretations of the Bible and biblical figures through the lens of racism, feminism, patriarchy, and oppression.

One part of the presentation that strikes me is the story of Gronniosaw, an enslaved man on the boat who encountered the Bible for the first time. Through Dr. Marbury’s summary, I understand the story this way.  Gronniosaw sees his white captain reading a book (the Bible) aloud and decides to attempt to hear the book on his own; however, when he puts his ear on the book, it doesn’t speak. His conclusion is that the book, like everything else in his world, hates him because he is Black. To give context to Gronniosaw’s actions and deep hurt, Dr. Marbury explains that in traditional African religions, spiritual objects such as talismans often speak to people and believers. It is for this reason that the main character in this story feels so defeated and rejected that the book which spoke to the white man chose not to speak to him. What was particularly striking in Dr. Marbury’s retelling of this story is his analysis that, naturally, the book was silent to both men, but their separate politics is what fills that silence— “the vanquished versus the conqueror.”

In extending this story to the larger history of African Americans in the United States, Dr. Marbury introduced a conceptual framework for looking at the African American interpretation of the Bible: mythic cycles. He proposed the idea that during slavery, the promised land meant emancipation; from the mid 19th to the early 20th century, the promised land meant self-development, and during the Civil Rights era, the promised land meant equal civil standing. This idea of a mythic cycle also extended to the time of the Harlem Renaissance, in which the promised land now equaled the product of self-improvement, rather than self-improvement by itself. Dr. Marbury gave an extensive outline of the African American experience in WWI, from the creation of a new urban Black working class, to the recruitment and authoritative experience of Black men serving in the U.S. army during their deployment in Europe, and then the desire for authentic Black representation in art; this was the context to Zora Neale Hurston’s book Moses, Man on the Mountain.

Dr. Marbury’s clear analysis of the book was compelling, and I hope to read the book myself sometime soon. I was fascinated by the feminist lens he adopted in his analysis of Moses’s sister Miriam. His argument that her imagination is what forms the glory and legend of Moses was incredibly thought-provoking. Perhaps it even ties into recent discussion during a RN101 lecture in which it was pointed out that much of the backbone of religion is human fantasy; although it is powerful and incredibly significant for its followers, the fantasy is what drives the religion. Thus, Dr. Marbury posits that it is a woman’s fantasy/imagination that establishes, for an entire community, this idea of Moses and his glory. The woman, Miriam, is able to enjoy community leadership and authority, until Moses returns and can’t accept female leadership. Then, she is made powerless against him and even feels that he controls the power of life and death. In essence, this relationship compels the readers of Hurston’s book to consider the odd fact that Moses, a figure whose glory is owed to Miriam, ends up overpowering her.

With this message, Dr. Marbury concluded his lecture, saying that Hurston’s biblical interpretation attempted to give the power of religion back to the people; it was people that could lead themselves to transcendence, they didn’t necessarily need to wait around for an individual, a messiah, to lead them.

All in all, Dr. Marbury’s presentation was thought-provoking, compelling, and clarifying for a student who began reading the Bible only three months ago. Entering a sphere as complex as religion is a difficult and rewarding task, but understanding how people interpret religious texts makes it easier to read the Bible as literature. The authors of the Bible were driven by their political and social issues, and readers are also susceptible to interpret it according to their socio-political needs. I wonder what religious texts would look like if they hadn’t been written with an angle? Would people still have felt drawn to them? As Dr. Marbury quoted, “‘Gods always love the people that create them,’” and with this in mind, I hope to continue neutrally analyzing religious literature while exploring its social and political interpretations.

If you missed Dr. Marbury’s lecture, you can watch it on our YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/m4JQghlWGX4.

Finding Moses. The Search Continues

Last Monday night, about 100 viewers joined our webinar with Professor Shari Lowin (Stonehill College), a specialist in comparative early Islamic and Jewish intellectual history and literature.

Shari introduced us to some of the ways the greatest prophet of Jewish tradition appears in the Qu’ran and Hadith. We learned that Moses, Nebi Musa in Arabic, is the most frequently mentioned prophet in the Qur’an, before Abraham and Jesus. Muhammad himself, to whom the Suras that make up the Qur’an were revealed, is not the subject of the Qur’an. Much of the holy book of Islam consists of angelic speeches that remind the prophet and his audience of the antecedent sacred history, which is seen as a continuous  history of divine revelations and admonitions that  culminate in the messages conveyed by this final messenger. The aim is to establish God’s rule over humanity, starting with those who submit to his command.

Shari compared stories about the birth of Moses and the role of his divinely inspired mother and stories about the birth of Prophet Muhammad and his divinely inspired parents, showing that the Hadith (stories about the prophet and his companions) casts Muhammad as a new Moses. Moses and Muhammad even meet during the famous “Night Journey” to the “distant sanctuary” (see Sura 17), the only truly miraculous event in the life of the prophet, as recounted by the traditional biographers.

To understand why Moses matters so much to the early Muslims one needs to know that 7th-century Arabia was a world of trade and exchange, not just of goods but of stories and ideas, a world that connected the three ancient continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and that was alive with debates between Jews, orthodox and heterodox Christians, Gnostics, Zoroastrians, and others. The choices made by the early Muslims and the messages of Prophet Muhammad himself reflect the outsized role of Moses in the political and religious imagination of late antiquity.  The idea of divine rule on earth had been proclaimed by Byzantine Roman Emperors long before the institution of the Caliphate arose. Since the writings of Philo, whose Life of Moses decisively shaped the Christian understanding of the biblical prophet, Moses was perceived not just as the lawgiver of the Jews but also as king, prophet, and high priest. Moses served as the model by which Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea cast his Life of Constantine. And Moses served as the model of striving for the highest human perfection for Gregory of Nyssa, whose allegorical interpretation of the Moses story harks back to Philo. Gregory, who took on the responsibility of a prince of the Church only grudgingly, emphasized Moses’ search for spiritual perfection, deliberately tamping down the political dimension emphasized by others.

It is into, and out of, that world that the Moses of the early Islamic isra’iliyyat is spoken: affirming, correcting, and carrying forward the legacies of Judaism and Christianity as they existed and interacted then and there.

Shari Lowin’s lecture reminded us of what scholars have long since come to see, namely, that Islam did not arise from nowhere but in many respects represents the coming together and culmination of late antique culture. Or, more simply put: without Moses, no Muhammad.

 

The Sense of An Ending. What I learned from Aviva Zornberg

This post is by Tiffany Leigh  (CAS ’21)                   Tiffany Leigh pic CU

Dr. Zornberg looks at Moses’ role as a leader, specifically focusing on the end of his life. She refers to the book The Sense of an Ending to demonstrate how humans must imagine and anticipate the end of a story in order to give significance to one’s own life. She mentions how you must imagine the end of your life to help you evaluate its meaning. We know the beginning of our stories, but we have hopes and expectations for the future. Viewing time as a series of events that have not yet occurred helps us to organize our lives by providing a framework for the future. This alludes to the idea of “kairos” which is eventful time, and “chronos” which is undistinguished time. Our desires for the future provide significance to our current life, as seen in the life of Moses.

Moses’ goal was to cross the Jordan River and enter into the promised land. However, there is a deviation to the imagined plot Moses had for his life. Dr. Zornberg recounts the book of Deuteronomy and how Moses essentially begged God to let him enter into the promised land, yet was refused by God. Moses’ persistent prayers for his one main goal in life showed that he expected God to eventually open the gates for him. Moses thought that his personal goals and plans for his life will be brought to fruition by God. Yet, as Avivah Zornberg eloquently stated, the nature of human life is incompleteness. Kafka said Moses was able to see Canaan in the time leading up to his death but could not enter “not because his life is too short, but because it’s a human life.” Part of being human is dying without achieving the goals you spent your whole life dreaming about.

God was angry at Moses for continually praying to cross over into the promised land. God interrupted Moses and refused to listen, differing from their past interactions. Prior to this, God had always listened to Moses, and he was seen as someone who always had access to God. Moses was always heard by God, but his final plea was not heard. Recounting the interaction Moses had with God must have been extraordinarily humiliating and upsetting because he was silenced by the same God that encouraged him to speak up to the Israelites. The disappointment Moses felt after acknowledging that his future aspirations will never be fulfilled didn’t demolish him. Instead he spoke with power and leadership to the Israelites about what had happened. The goal he had for the end of his life, crossing over the Jordan, was now replaced by the desire to look after the welfare of the Israelites.

I think Dr. Zornberg’s takeaway from describing the end of Moses’ life shows us that we can’t change the future. Imagining how our life will unfold gives us the feeling of control and of purpose. But the passages of Deuteronomy show us that our purpose is not to complete our own goals, but to fulfill God’s plans for us. The sense of incompleteness in human life is encompassed by Moses emphasizing to the people that they will cross into the promised land, when they would rather stay on the fertile side they are currently on. While Moses, who wants to cross over more than anything, will die without having done so.

 

How I discovered Elie Wiesel…

This post is by Verónica Rodríguez (COM ‘20)

Verónica is currently studying for my master’s degree in Public Relations at the College of Communications at Boston University.

I have used this time at BU to explore my interests, discover passions, and reflect about where I am and where I want to go. This year, I started working at Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, where I have been creating social media content and working on ways that the center can reinvent themselves during these hard times. Although many know the Elie Wiesel story, I didn’t. Most of my life as young Latina woman, I have been immersed in Catholicism: its practices and rituals. I grew up in a small, traditional, family-oriented neighborhood in Puerto Rico, where most people are Catholic. I went to a Catholic private school for twelve years, attended mass on Sundays with my family and have always been a believer. However, I did get to see more of the world as I was fortunate enough to travel to many places with my family where I learned about and was able to appreciate different cultures. When I was in eighth grade, we got to visit Auschwitz, coinciding with the time during which we studied the Holocaust in school. Perhaps, this was the last time I thought  deeply about the Holocaust. Five years later, I attended Boston College as an undergraduate and, during these years, I became the best version of myself, in large part thanks to the Jesuit values that permeated through the entire experience. 

During our many team zoom sessions, my boss asked me, “Vero, do you know who Elie Wiesel is?” I thought to myself, “I did research before but I don’t know who he is before, or never read about him during my high school years….” How could it be that I have never heard about Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel. Could it be because of my religious beliefs, my past education, my surroundings, ignorance? I didn’t know who Elie Wiesel was because of academic and educational background. By knowing who Elie Wiesel is, I feel enriched by not only an influential figure in history, but also about a new tradition and culture I have never been exposed to before.

Avivah Zornberg and Pandemic Reflections

 

A post by Tallulah Bark-Huss (COM ’21)

 “To discover firm standing ground, it is necessary to explore, to stumble, even to fall, certainly to survive the chaotic vibrations of a world that refuses to be.” (Avivah Zornberg)

It’s times like these when I turn towards sage advice. Contemporary Torah scholar Avivah Zornberg’s quote above has resonated with me since high school. I actually had the privilege of meeting Zornberg on a chance encounter during Shabbat in Jerusalem. I don’t know many teens who would be starstruck by a Torah scholar, but I definitely was one. 

“Firm standing ground” doesn’t exist, in this turbulent world. The “chaotic vibration of the world that refuses to be” constantly pushes, pulls, and knocks us down. It’s words like these that I find myself coming back to in times of discomfort or uncertainty. Zornberg’s observation of our unsteady world comes from studying Genesis. Adam and Eve commit moral transgressions yet, become closer to God through them. It’s a testament to our relationship with God. It suggests that, to discover God and ourselves, we must allow ourselves to stumble. Becoming closer to God, or whatever it is that makes you feel whole, is that firm standing ground.

Falling is inevitable, and we shouldn’t attempt to avoid it. Life is not meant to be smooth sailing no matter how hard we wish it was. Obstacles will always be thrown our way, but our true selves are shown by how we respond to these obstacles; by how we adapt and turn our challenges into advantages. Your failures are not measured by how many times you didn’t succeed. Your failures are only measured by how many times you refused to try. These “falls,” as Zornberg puts it, are something that should be embraced, not feared. If you never fall, you’ll never know how to get back up, dust off your shoes, and work even harder to achieve your goals. Your losses are a measure of your strength, because, when you get back up and prove to the world that you will not stay down, in Zornberg’s terms, you will have “survive[d] the chaotic vibrations of a world that refuses to be.”

So when the dust settles, where will you find yourself? Will you remain knocked down, or stand and show the world that its punches only made you stronger?

 

Desiring Memorials: A Conversation with Dr. Sultan Doughan

Sultan Doughan earned her PhD in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and currently serves as post-doctoral fellow at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. We spoke with her about her current Anthropology course on the meaning of memorials. The conversation is edited for clarity.

EWCJS: Why do we put up memorials? What’s their purpose? 

Sultan Doughan:  When I say memorial, I refer to public sculptures and monuments as well. A memorial is characterized by its function to prompt us to build a particular relationship with a past event. We put up memorials to make claims about the past in the present, but we also do it for future generations. We memorialize important events or personages we associate with such events. Consider war memorials for example. They remember the fallen soldiers and immortalize them as foundational for the national-political order. The memorial commutes the soldier’s death into a sacrifice and also keeps his or her memory alive to the community. Memorials of this sort are a recent phenomenon, because they combine political events with a notion of history that orients the modern state and its legal institutions toward the future. 

EWCJS: Surely there have been memorials from time immemorial.

Sultan Doughan: There were older monuments and sculptures of course, and in a sense temples and houses of worship are memorials, too, but religious sites prompt and organize memories to cultivate a tradition that transcends our secular-historicist understanding of past, present and future. However, modern memorials have a very different function; they organize and trigger very different practices. The purpose I think is most important: remembering the dead and offering a form of grief, or bringing justice by displaying their death publicly as something that served a greater political purpose. Or a memorial can point to death that still needs to be reckoned with such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the  Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The Lynching Memorial commemorates a particular form of murderous crime that Black communities have been experiencing since the abolition of slavery. As a site that thematizes lynching, it still asks for justice by displaying unresolved and ongoing injustice. Those who visit might see a warning from a racist past, but also the possibility to reflect on the ongoing racism and inequality. The memorial lends itself to both of these perspectives, by having names etched into the hanging slabs and short case descriptions on placards. It is a memorial that warns and prompts to reflect on an unfolding history. 

EWCJS: You grew up in Germany, a place many associate with its Nazi past, but that is also hailed for the way it has been coming to terms with that past. How would you characterize the difference between German and US memorial cultures? 

Sultan Doughan: In the German language there is a crucial difference between ‘warning memorials’ (Mahnmal) and ‘thinking memorials’ (Denkmal). Warning memorials can display a catastrophe and a stain of shame and guilt such as the various memorials that are dedicated to Jewish suffering and death under the Nazi-regime. Some of these memorials include photos of Nazis, but the purpose of the site is clear, and it is obvious that what is on display is not to be celebrated or engaged with in a casual manner. 

‘Thinking memorials,’ in contrast, have a wider range of expression and can be dedicated to all kinds of historical events and public personages. The main objective is to make you think, wonder, and reflect. In a way, the German memorial landscape provides you with a normative map, whereas in the US, you can have many different memorials standing equally next to one another without that distinction in naming, but you might see differences in material, form, color and structure. 

In the US, a widely-held assumption seems to have been that all these different and mutually exclusive memories can coexist peacefully. But as we have seen over the last few months, with statues beheaded and monuments defaced or disputed for what they represent, it has become clear that these memorials are not necessarily growing out of a historical past, but are often the result of a desire to shape the political present through myths that have sustained a certain social hierarchy. Many of the confederate statues were built not right after the Civil War but during the Jim Crow era that cemented racial segregation. So clearly these were not warning memorials meant to remind citizens of a catastrophic past, but they served to display a reclaimed and renewed past through the towering figures of confederate generals. Memorials that came directly out of the Civil War and honored the Confederacy were usually commissioned by the “United Daughters of the Confederacy” and here is an interesting gender-aspect to it. As widows, mothers, wives, sisters and daughters these women were grieving the loss and defeat of their male kin and remembering them as unjustly broken and killed heroes. As women and relatives no one could possibly deny their felt grievances. Certainly showing grief was more acceptable for women than for men. Building monuments to remember confederate soldiers as honorable heroes meant to keep up a certain spirit, even when that spirit is nominally defeated. In other words, even those memorials were not simply expressions of grief over private loss but the expression of a patriotic spirit with all its nationalist, mythical, and racial imaginaries. Perhaps it is no coincidence that over the years these memorials have acquired celebratory status and are not associated with rites of mourning. 

EWCJS: What exactly is at stake here? Is this about contested pasts, about resistance to change, or a struggle for the future? Can there be memorials that overcome, rather than enhance, the racial and political divides?

Sultan Doughan: So, this is a really interesting point.  First of all, I think US-Americans (please allow me that generalization, I will specify in a bit)  have a curious relationship to history. In a way, I think that Germany, my primary research context, and the US have a lot in common: a fascination with, and an anxiety about, their own past. History, in this sense, means to be able to tell a story, to have a narrative about a place, to come to a certain judgment on an era or a political event. History, as an object of national story-telling, is often reenacted by volunteers, who participate with a sense of pride. But the way history is displayed in monumental ways seems like an anxious gesture to meticulously reproduce artefacts of evidence that Americans are really rooted here as a nation, when in fact the most iconic memorial sites point to the inability to be one nation. Consider for example some of the monuments on the National Mall in DC, such as the Lincoln Memorial, or the Vietnam War Memorial that caused a controversy because it was designed by Maya Lin, an Asian-American female architect. History as a narrative of certain events that can be memorialized then remains fragmented and points to divisions within larger society. These divisions are never fully articulated in monumental display, but what event becomes memorialized and which communities are included in public display is telling in itself. It is no coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr. chose those particular stairs in front of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his famous “I have a dream” speech. Besides the fact that Lincoln led the Civil War to abolish slavery and promised some form of basic equality, the memorial itself can be understood as a tribute to this incomplete promise. Dr. King literally stepped into the Pantheon of the United States to bear witness to the absence of African-Americans from these sacralized spaces and laid a claim for a different future.

EWCJS: This is very interesting. Can you say more about that? 

Sultan Doughan: Absolutely. And here I want to become more specific about my earlier claim about US-Americans. African-Americans are never fully present in these grand histories about the US. I think scholarship on African-American history is an absolutely vibrant field, but it’s knowledge and archive is barely reflected in public memorials and monuments. There are of course initiatives to build memorials to major events and eminent personages in African-American history such as “The Embrace” Boston is planning to honor Marin Luther King Jr’s non-violent legacy, or memorials to slavery such as the one on the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, campus. But one also has to keep in mind that most parts of the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, were built by Thomas Jefferson’s slaves. Some of those campus sections are a UNESCO world heritage site. They may as well be a memorial site in itself, bearing witness to what African-Americans have contributed to this country by their very labor, while being excluded from benefiting from it. But what do these memorials tell us about the conditions of African-American life right now? What do they tell us about the incomplete achievements of political equality, given that African-Americans remain underrepresented in elite spaces like the university? Given that Black lives are systemically victimized by the manner in which law and order is administered across the country, what do we make of a memorial that tells us that we should be proud of Dr. King’s non-violent legacy? Why do we exceptionalize non-violence when we memorialize African-American history? Is it because, deep inside we know that the violence of 400 years of brutal inequality could have begotten far more violent reactions from African-American communities? My point here is that these clearly designated memorials seem to give shape to a present anxiety of wanting to correct history, when simply all the signs point in a different direction. 

EWCJS: If I understand you correctly, there is more to memorials than just the commemoration of a past.

Sultan Doughan: History in itself is more than just a narrative account of past events. Genre and emplotment shape our understanding of a certain history, but also the kinds of concepts we use in telling the story. And I am obviously saying this as someone who engages with history not as a historian, who reads archival documents, but as an anthropologist. My basic unit of analysis is the subject whose actions are embedded in a particular practice and rationale. From this perspective, memorials are a fairly recent phenomenon. Communities and groups have built these types of monuments with the intention of shaping a particular kind of modern subject, one that thinks within the horizon of the nation-state. 

On the one hand, the desired subject of these memorials is aligned with a particular public narrative, a politics of memory, if you will. By virtue of that narrative, communities re-organize and synchronize themselves within the time of the nation-state. This may include claims to transitional and racial justice. On the other hand, as objects embedded in a practice and a particular narrative, memorials change because the commemorating subjects change due to generational shifts, due to the emergence of different sentiments, due to shifts in political orientation. In other words, changes in the political present make it possible to forge a different attitude toward a memorialized past event, such that it can no longer be reconciled with the promise of national belonging, citizenship, or justice. Memorials can turn into empty symbols or remainders of broken politics. At the peril of making a presentist argument, I would say that memorials also have the function to sustain a political order in the present. When that political order crumbles, memorials lose power as well. The desire to break them is interesting in itself, because most often something is left when a statue is removed, an empty pedestal or pieces of the monument point to the absence of something that used to be there. Perhaps not visible anymore, removed out of sight, but those who know the history can see behind the absence another layer of a present past. Ruins are examples of indexing absence through presence. The full meaning and effect of such a ruin is a fascinating subject of research. I am mostly thinking of confederate and colonial statues in the US, Germany, and the UK. For many people who have been active protesting on behalf of Black lives, confederate statues are a materialized piece of segregationist terror that Americans of color have lived with. In the UK, the story is about addressing post-colonial inequalities, decolonization in its materially inflected sense. In Germany, a consequential debate about Germany’s colonial past has not really started yet.  But in all of these cases, a more thorough discussion about racial inequalities is needed. These sedimentations of historical events have shaped us as communities, societies, and nations. They shape the way we approach these built artefacts with our senses and sensibilities. These sedimentations are only epitomized in the memorial, but never just residing there. History education and public commemoration inculcate a form of experience that is expected by institutions of power. 

 EWCJS: Who is responsible for creating memorials?  In Boston, the Jewish community raised money and helped build a highly visible and public Holocaust memorial. The Irish famine memorial was funded by a trust supported by private donors representing Boston’s Irish-American community. Doesn’t this suggest that many memorials we see here are simply a reflection of the multi-ethnic makeup of American society? 

Sultan Doughan: Ideally, the community affected has a say in the memorial, as in the examples you have mentioned. But there is something fascinating about your examples, because they reflect a passage from the old world and its burdens to America as the newly found safe haven. To memorialize the Irish famine and the Holocaust here and now associates geographical relocation with the judgement that things have been better since the arrival in the New World. In a way, this dovetails well with the story of the US about itself as a liberated post-colony. Europe is a space of terror, injustice, scarcity and poverty, while America provides space for betterment and communal revival. There is certainly an old world/new world divide here, but also a promise of those who left not to forget and from this pledge to cultivate their own communal identity. 

In my survey of memorials in the US, I have noticed that memorials of tragedy are usually attributed to the outside. This outside is either territorially external, as in the Vietnam War Memorial, or it is a spirit of evil that should be banished and removed. Monuments that commemorate slavery and violence against African-Americans in this country reverses this logic in that it casts the US as a territory of captivity and tragedy. It therefore counters the narrative of freedom and democracy that the US has produced about itself and exported to the rest of the world. 

EWCJS: What’s the history of changing and removing memorials? How does a memorial change once it is placed in a museum or a collection designed to remind us of a bygone part of history, good or bad?

Sultan Doughan: I think a memorial can only change when it does not produce the same sensibilities anymore, and rather becomes a disturbance or a stain. I do not know the history of removing memorials, but I know that for example the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue was a big media event.  The image circulated widely and was taken as evidence that Iraqis have finally liberated themselves from their dictator. Documentary footage, however, showed later that a group of men were brought in a bus from outside of Baghdad to do this act, and they were also aided by an American tank. In other words the toppling was staged. Of course, we don’t really know the motives of the participants, but it seems that the act of visible destruction was powerful enough to stand as a claim in itself. Famous cases of toppling memorials occurred in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, where gigantic statues of communist leaders such as Lenin and Stalin were torn down. It turns out that the Russian government actually saved many of these sculptures by dumping them in the sea. From memorial to museum is an interesting question, one that has been on my mind recently, when the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque, once again. The building was originally a Byzantine Roman imperial church that, after the Fall of Constantinople became a mosque and that the Kemalist Republic of Turkey turned into a museum. To turn it back into a mosque, as was just done, demonstrates the decline of the Christian community, and – as a mosque in a country full of mosques – it is a site of Sunni-Muslim supremacy and an expression of religious-nationalist politics. I am not sure if it’s worse than having it kept as a museum;  this would be an empirical question for the affected communities. It remains to be seen who will use this converted site for regular prayer. In this case, we went from claiming the site of another community as something that, while passé, is a cultural heritage worthy of preservation to claiming that same site for the purposes of majoritarian politics. This form of converting the meaning and function of a heritage site is not unique to Turkish politics. For example, a former Palestinian mosque in Safad was recently turned into a fancy Israeli restaurant. It seems that the mosque was partly destroyed and not in use anymore, but what became of it was decided by agencies and rationales from outside of the community that was originally attached to the site. 

EWCJS: So what do you do in your course?

Sultan Doughan: My course on memorials deals less with these actions of repurposing. Instead I bring together notions of racial and transitional justice, after violent events, with the emergence of a built site. I want to understand how memorials become sites of evidence and claim-making as well as the kinds of practices they trigger and invite. For communities that have been the victims of violence, memorial sites become a place to unload and organize sentiments of grief, despair, hope, or even just a site to cultivate these sentiments. At the same time, memorials can also be completely co-opted by a nationalist politics or politics of denial or refusal, for example, when they are built by the community of the perpetrators who now want to help repair and reconcile. I am thinking for example of the war memorial built in Germany during the 1990s that commemorated all victims of war of all wars. This gesture also included Jewish victims, but the statue was a version of the Pieta leaning over her son, turning a specifically Christian image of a mother crying over her killed child into a universal gesture. But the Pieta, a well-known image, still represents the Virgin Mary. It is circulated as a Christian image of compassion. So how are we to understand this gesture in a memorial site that is supposedly also inclusive of Jewish victims? And should all victims be grouped together when there is a glaring inequality in the distribution of compensations? Does grouping them together enable a better or fairer distribution of justice? Again, I am obviously speaking here from the research case of Germany that has generated these partly unresolved questions. In the US-context we might see more of that in the future, as the demand for reparations gains more traction. This demand will have implications for other groups as well, such as the indigenous First Nations. So, in this sense I am interested in memorials as these ambivalent artifacts that have an effect on us and shape how we mourn, seek justice, remember, and imagine past and future in a nation-state founded on originary violence. In the course, I explore different historical cases and complicate notions and concepts that grow out of human rights discourse. I ask how these concepts, which emanate from those in power, develop a life of their own as they are perceived by social collectives. These concepts become organizing devices for certain groups to orient themselves in new experiences of violence.

EWCJS: Many thanks for speaking with us and good luck with your course! 

A High Holiday Message from Director Michael Zank

Dear Students and Friends of the Elie Wiesel Center at Boston University:

As we enter the Jewish New Year and the season of High Holidays known as yamim nora’im, or Days of Awe, we celebrate the renewal of creation. We proclaim divine kingship by listening to the call of the shofar, and we prepare to give account on the Day of Atonement. The German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) emphasized that Jewish ritual centered on the purity of the soul, which he took as a task we must take upon ourselves every day. The creator renews our soul every morning, but we must purify it ourselves as we stand before the Eternal Judge on the Day of Atonement and every day of our lives. Our tradition requires confession of sins before we can be forgiven. Our ritual prayers state this confession in the first person plural. Why? Because all sins, even those between us and our Creator, affect those around us. No human being is an island. Hence, we are told, God cannot forgive us unless we first ask forgiveness of those we have failed. 

This year, we must ask the forgiveness of our Black and brown sisters and brothers whose rights to equality and justice we have ignored too long. We must ask their forgiveness especially now when we find that African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities are particularly hard hit by a pandemic that our nation failed to address as quickly and as forcefully as the obligation of pikuah nefesh would have required. We must ask forgiveness of all of our fellow creatures whom we failed to protect when we ignored, year after year, the signs of climate change and global warming. Our planet, the habitable world that came into being in the beginning when God spoke it into existence, feels the force of human hubris that some say was instilled in us by the very words of Sefer Bereshit: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, lord it over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, and all of the living things crawling the earth!” What does it mean that God created us in his image and his likeness? According to the great medieval Andalusian philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), better known as the Rambam, we are alike God only in regard to our share in reason. As Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) wrote in his posthumous Ethics, acting with reason is the condition of human happiness. 

Spinoza also makes it clear that it is reason that teaches us to prefer long-term advantages over short-term satisfactions. We all know what needs to happen and what we need to do, in order for this globe to remain habitable, but we blind ourselves to the consequences science tells us are inevitable if we don’t act now. We have to change our habits. We need to stop ignoring science and act with reason, even if it means that we have to make do with less now so that those who come after us will have something. 

Hermann Cohen believed there was a deep agreement between progressive social and legal reform and the Jewish idea of the messianic age, that progressive politics, the promotion of well-being for all, was not just a rational human obligation but an ideal guarded by Jewish religious life. As we prepare for the High Holidays, let us remember that tikkun olam, the repair of a broken world, while it may be too much for any one individual to accomplish, remains our collective obligation.

May the New Year be blessed and sweet for all of us.

Michael Zank, PhD
Professor of Religion, Jewish, and Medieval Studies
Director, EWCJS
2020-21 Honorary Starr Fellow, CJS, Harvard University