NEW YORK–The Center for Jewish History On Sunday November 15 hosted an international conference titled “Genocide and Human Experience: Raphael Lemkin’s Thought and Vision,” featuring 13 internationally renowned scholars of both genocide and of the life and legacy of Raphel Lemkin.
A Polish-born lawyer, linguist, and scholar, Lemkin escaped to the United States during the early years of World War II. He coined the term “genocide” and is considered as the architect and chief motivating force behind the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
More than 250 people attended the conference, which focused on specific aspects of Lemkin’s original formulation of the concept of genocide. The first panel spoke on the notion of cultural genocide, one of Lemkin’s prime areas of concern, although its definition was not ultimately included in the UN Convention. The second panel focused on economic and social genocide. The third dealt with the role and place of international law in our understanding of genocide. The conference also included several presentations from individuals, including opening remarks by Vartan Gregorian, the president of the Carnegie Corporation.
The conference was held to coincide with the opening of the landmark exhibit organized jointly by the Center for Jewish History, Yeshiva University Museum, American Jewish Historical Society: “Letters of Conscience: Raphael Lemkin and the Quest to End Genocide.” The exhibition explores the life and legacy of Lemkin. From a young age, Lemkin was obsessed with a relatively simple question: “Why is it a crime for one man to kill another, but not for a government to kill a million?” Inspired after reading the great work of historical fiction, Quo Vadis? Lemkin began to explore cases of unique persecution throughout history. The exhibition presents four case studies based on Lemkin’s own research, collected and housed by the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History. These include explorations of the treatment of early Christians in the Roman Empire, the 200-year genocide perpetuated against Japanese converts to Catholicism, the Armenian Genocide, in which more than 1.5 million Armenians were systematically displaced, disenfranchised, and murdered by the Ottoman government, and the Holocaust, which claimed almost 50 members of Lemkin’s family.
The exhibition explores not only the process of composing and lobbying for passage and ratification of the UN Convention, but also presses forward to explore the tragic ways in which the world has remained unchanged, despite Lemkin’s life work. Ultimately, since his death in 1959, the world has been witness to genocides in Guatemala and El Salvador, in Cambodia, in Rwanda and the Sudan, in the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.
Lemkin lived his life as an activist, a man who believed in the power and right of international law. It is this legacy that the exhibit is proud to present and explore