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Genocide awareness panel hosted in honor of Holocaust remembrance week

Credit: Theodore Teichman/ Credit: Theodore Teichman/

This past week, people across the world held events for Holocaust remembrance week. On campus, the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh organized a series of events and installed an adaption of the famous poem, “First they Came,” on The Cut, where they held a vigil on Thursday. One of these events was a Genocide awareness panel featuring professors Jay Aronson, Michal Friedman, and Ricky Law.

A genocide is ideologies of sovereignty implemented to the most violent extremes. It is the worst in humanity. It is a lack of respect for humanity. Most members of society can assert that it is important to study past genocides in order to prevent them from happening again, and it was with this attitude that these three professors held this panel.
No genocide has been studied more commonly in American society than the Holocaust, but there have been plenty of lesser-known catastrophic genocides in the past century; the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, Bosnia’s racial cleansing, and Cambodia’s killing fields. American slavery, though sometimes not categorized as a genocide, systematically dehumanized people on the basis of their race, resulting in the death of an estimated two to five million people.

All genocides stem from a sovereign group’s attempt to dehumanize a target group and show that they are lesser, but Professor Aronson poses that defining genocide may not be the most productive effort. “I don't know how productive generalizing genocides is for the future. I don't know how useful coming up with a caricature of genocide is helpful to preventing them.” He argues there are factors in every conflict that don't carry over.

When studying the past, Professor Friedman asserts that it is important to learn about the victim’s culture beyond their destruction. One example he gave was that the Rwandan genocide was the result of a post-colonial conflict, not a major war breaking out.

Professor Friedman asked students to focus on the lives of victims beyond the genocide to remember the victims and what their cultures valued, reminding, “Their individual lives were powerful.” Aronson added that the victims lived through our memories of them and that the day we forget is the second time the victims die. He says that his son often quotes a line by Macklemore in an assertion of this idea, “heard you die twice, once when they bury you in the grave. And the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name.”

It was apparent that each professor did not simply consider genocide a historical concept. There are always cultures and people in conflict with one another, and national powers are constantly attempting to rewrite and manipulate history.

You may be wondering, all these points are grand, but how can I — one single person — do anything to help prevent genocides?

“Don't be complacent,” answers professor Law. As a society, he asserts, people need to be wary that anything from the past can come back. “I am very alarmed that the themes I developed in understanding the 1920s and 1930s are so present in 2018. It keeps me up at night.”

Professor Aronson extended this point to our reception of the news. He warned never to assume that resolution in the news means a legitimate resolution of the conflict. “Be vigilant about not accepting the first story you hear.” It is important, Aaronson pushed, for everyone to pick topics that are important to them and become citizen experts. “Be vigilant about trusting one source, especially when it validates your views.” Friedman noted the conflict between the Spanish and the Catalans as one to keep watching and added that, if you are bilingual, reading the news of other counties' local papers in their local dialect is an important source to utilize.

Though the discussion was empowering, it focused primarily on staying informed about the horrors of the world, which can take a toll on students. Aaronson took a moment to acknowledge the need for self-care in the pursuit of being informed. “One more piece of advice, keep your sanity. There is a sense of trauma that you receive from following the news today and seeing images. I would recommend taking breaks. The world won't stop spinning because you stop following the news for a day.”