Raphael Lemkin and the Quest to End Genocide
Tue, 05/03/2011
Letters of Conscience: Raphael Lemkin
Letters of Conscience: Raphael Lemkin

In early 2009, I was invited by the Center for Jewish History to serve as an academic advisor for and to give a paper at a conference entitled “Genocide and Human Experience: Raphael Lemkin’s Thought and Vision.” The occasion brought me to the Center for the first time. I recall walking into the spacious foyer and feeling that this was not an ordinary research institution sandwiched into a row of buildings on a lower Manhattan street; it was a building of elegant spaces on several floors that contained layers of cultural presentation and intellectual resources, including archives, a library and public reading room, an impressive auditorium and exhibit spaces which that contained various shows at any given time. It struck me as the kind of dynamic institution for which every culture wishes.

The Raphael Lemkin conference, which convened on Sunday, November 15, 2009, was groundbreaking in many ways. It brought together important scholars from around the world to discuss the impact that this international jurist had on the intellectual and moral world by defining events of political mass killing that had occurred throughout history — and were happening again in the twentieth century — as genocide. Until recently, Lemkin was portrayed often as an obsessive and one-dimensional character, whose perspective was tied only to international law.

The conference changed this perspective by drawing on his unpublished archival works housed in the collections of the American Jewish Historical Society, one of the Center’s partner institutions. It featured panels on the complexity of Lemkin’s thought, including the central themes of Culture, Economics and International Law. A film interview made by Dr. Donna-Lee Frieze (Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia) of Raphael’s Lemkin’s nephew Saul was shown. The president of the Carnegie Corporation, Vartan Gregorian, gave a keynote address which that was followed by a series of panels on topics which that influenced Lemkin’s intellectual thinking. Scholars from Australia, Canada, Bosnia, Ireland, and the United States gave papers. It was the most comprehensive and far-reaching conference of its kind, and brought Lemkin, whose work has oddly been neglected for decades, into the scholarly and public consciousness in an important and public way.

The conference also opened up Lemkin’s pioneering work on genocide in broad and unprecedented ways as scholars explored Lemkin’s notion of genocide in its global context from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust, from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Complementing the symposium, the Center for Jewish History organized an exhibition entitled, “Letters of Conscience: Raphael Lemkin and the Quest to End Genocide,” curated by the Center’s partner, Yeshiva University Museum. The exhibition featured artifacts, manuscripts and images never seen before, including audio recordings of Lemkin, film footage and even Lemkin’s tie, an object given to the Center for the exhibition by Nancy Steinson, a dear friend of Lemkin’s.

Perhaps most significant was that the occasion of the conference provided both the funding and the impetus for the Center to digitize its entire collection of Lemkin papers. If the conference was groundbreaking in bringing together scholars from around the world to explore the complexity of Lemkin’s pioneering thinking about genocide as a crime in international law, the digitization of a major segment of his papers makes the richness of Lemkin’s work and thought accessible to scholars in perpetuity.