2017-01-18 / Voice at the Shore

Young Israeli professor brings new energy and insight to Holocaust studies at Stockton

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Raz Segal, an Israeli who recently joined the Holocaust and Genocide Studies faculty at Stockton, embraces the challenge of making Holocaust studies relevant to younger generations. Raz Segal, an Israeli who recently joined the Holocaust and Genocide Studies faculty at Stockton, embraces the challenge of making Holocaust studies relevant to younger generations. “Right now, the U.S. is the place to do Holocaust studies,” according to Raz Segal, a young Israeli who is Stockton University’s new assistant professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Segal, who studied under renowned Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer at Tel Aviv University, ultimately received his Ph.D. in Holocaust Studies from Clark University in Worcester, MA. After spending several years teaching at Israeli universities, Segal began teaching at Stockton in September.

The American students he teaches now are very different from their Israeli counterparts, he noted. First of all, Israeli University students are older and more confident, having already completed several years of military service, often followed by several months of traveling the world.

“Also, just because they’re Israelis, they can’t shut up!” said Segal. “The challenge there is to stop discussion; here the challenge is to get the undergraduates talking.” Conversely, he added, American students are more likely to do the assigned reading than Israeli students.

Perhaps the biggest difference, however, when it comes to teaching Holocaust studies, is their frame of reference. “In Israel, everyone has something to say about the Holocaust. It’s part of the political atmosphere, and many people have family stories. That is not the case here,” said Segal, noting that most of his students are South Jersey natives who are largely non-Jewish. “Why would they be interested in learning about the Final Solution?”

Making the material relevant is a paramount challenge—and one that Segal is well trained to take on. Indeed, how academics approach the Holocaust and seek to make it relevant for the younger generation—both Jews as well as non-Jews—is currently a huge and sometimes contentious topic in the world of Holocaust scholarship, Segal indicated.

While the Holocaust was once understood and studied solely through the lens of anti- Semitism, that is no longer true, said Segal. Initially, scholars studied the Holocaust as part of the study of Jewish history. The Holocaust was understood as a unique and unprecedented horror motivated by anti- Semitism—a crime against humanity perpetrated on the Jewish people unlike any other such incident in all of human history. Among the many anti- Semitic events experienced by the Jewish people throughout history, it stood out as unique in its scope and its horror.

The belief that “the Holocaust was unique”—that it was “a massacre like no other”—is widely held by Jews in Israel as well as the United States, said Segal. According to this point of view, “the Holocaust is considered to be an eruption in the 20th century that is unlike anything else in the 20th century,” he noted.

Yet from a scholarly perspective, this view is problematic. “The Holocaust can’t be unique, yet also have lessons to teach us” relevant to students today, explained Segal. That is why Holocaust and genocide studies have been joined into one department at many American universities—including Stockton as well as Clark University, where Segal earned his Ph.D.

“If we don’t put Holocaust studies together with genocide studies, in a decade we won’t have Holocaust studies,” Segal declared. Putting the two together “offers new insights and understandings” and makes the topic more relevant to the younger generation, who have an awareness of the pervasiveness of genocide, having seen them continually unfold during their lifetime in Sarajevo, Darfur, and elsewhere. “As we sit here, there is a genocide unfolding in Burma of Muslims that has many similarities to the Holocaust in Germany,” added Segal.

Yet many people, especially in Israel, are threatened by the prospect of looking at the Shoah in the context of other genocides, rather than as an entirely unique event, he said. “Dealing with the Holocaust in Israel is always very emotional and political,” noted Segal, who finds many people there are threatened by the new generation of scholars that he is part of, who look at the Holocaust and genocide in a broader context. “There is a lot of suspicion in Israeli Universities about what we do, why we do it, and what is the political agenda behind it,” he explained.

Nevertheless, Segal insists these new perspectives on the Holocaust are essential to keeping Holocaust studies alive. “It’s not a threat, it’s the way forward. This new research opens a window to the complexity—and this complexity is more relatable to the younger generation.”

Segal’s own journey through academia illustrates the sometimes conflicting approaches taken to understanding and teaching about the Holocaust. Notably, Segal does not come from a family of Holocaust survivors. “My family is from Bulgaria and Romania. They survived the war without being deported.” Eventually, they immigrated to Israel, where Segal was born.

After serving in the army and traveling through India, Segal decided he wanted to study “something meaningful.” He chose to study the Holocaust, pursuing a master’s degree in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. It was there that he met the famous Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, whom Segal described as “the founder of Holocaust scholarship.” Bauer, a longtime professor at Hebrew University who was then semi-retired, happened to offer a special seminar at Tel Aviv University, and Segal signed up. (Bauer was also a two-time visiting scholar at Stockton.)

“I was very awed by him,” Segal recalled. Bauer likewise recognized Segal’s potential. “He encouraged me to do a master’s with him. I was his last student.”

The view that the Holocaust was a unique historical event pervaded Segal’s graduate classes at Tel Aviv University. “I was very much tied to this point of view,” he recalled.

But his point of view changed radically as a Ph.D. student at Clark University, where Segal went to study under another well-known Holocaust scholar, Deborah Dwork, who founded the University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Under Dwork’s leadership, the Strassler Center stressed the importance of viewing the Holocaust from a larger context than he had seen it from as a graduate student.

“I began rethinking my understanding of the Holocaust,” Segal noted. Given that anti-Semitism was around in the 19th century and medieval times, he began to reflect on what it was about the 20th century that made an event with the proportions of the Holocaust possible. While doing research on Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust for his first book, “Genocide in the Carpathians: War, Social Breakdown, and Mass Violence,” he found he needed to understand mid-20th century Hungary in its own context to fully understand how its treatment of the Jews fit into the picture. “I realized I was really writing about modern European history,” said Segal. This way of looking at things “was a major shift,” he added.

Both Dwork and Bauer served as Segal’s doctoral advisors. “They were like my doctoral father and mother. Who I am today is a result of the influence of those two advisors.”

Yet as Segal began to understand the Holocaust from a new historical context, he found himself more and more at odds with Bauer. “At this point, he and I don’t agree on much but we’re still good friends,” said Segal, adding that Bauer still pushed him to continue his work despite their disagreements. “I owe him a lot. He believed in me.”

Meanwhile, Segal continues to come up with new ways to teach the lessons of the Holocaust so that they are relevant to his students. He is already planning a new workshop for next fall entitled “The Matter of Black Lives and the Question of Genocide.” 

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