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Israelis in Non-Israeli Universities
[Ex TAU, HUJ & CEU Hungary] A Legacy Tarnished of Yehuda Elkana

Late Prof. Yehuda Elkana

Editorial Note:

It is not everyday that an Israeli professor has his obituary published in British and Canadian papers.  But he was an Auschwitz survivor who pioneered - along with Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Israel Shahak - the genre of "nazification of Israel."  In 2004, the European Union Monitoring Center defined invidious comparisons between Israeli treatment of Palestinians to that suffered by the Jews during the Holocaust as anti-Zionism, a new form of anti-Semitism. 

In his 1988 Haaretz signature article "The Need to Forget," Elkana listed the alleged misuses of the "Holocaust industry," including the March of the Living trips of Israeli youth to Auschwitz. He contended that the trips help the right-wing to bolster nationalism and- together with other forms of commemoration - create a deep seated paranoia about the Arabs. Stopping just short of an outright comparison of the Israelis and Nazis, Elkana nevertheless stated that right-wing philosophy wrapped in the mantle of the Holocaust leads Israel into a wholesale repression of the Palestinians.

Elkana used his credibility as a survivor in other ways as well.  Recalling  his experience in a Soviet "liberation camp" - where he shared quarters with Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and others - Elkana noted that "there was not much difference in the conduct of many of the people I encountered.. it was clear to me that what happened in Germany could happen anywhere and to any people." Ironically, he exempted the Arabs and Palestinians from his generalization; on the contrary, he deemed them to be "rational" and inclined to peaceful behavior.

Elkana had a leading role in helping a younger generation of scholars to create a radical critique of Israel. As founder and director of the Van Leer Institute, Elkana was instrumental in launching the critical journal Theory and Criticism. Van Leer has funded and supported a long list of events highly critical of Israel, including the group of Marxist faculty seeking ways to revive communism in the Middle East. Elkana used his influence to create The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University which employed some of the most radical critics of Israel including Adi Ophir. In turn, Ophir and Rivka Feldhay- a student of Elkana - branched out to create Minerva Center for Humanities, arguably the leading center of radical scholarship in Israel.

Not surprisingly, they and others have perfected the line that Elkana popularized in "nazifiication of Israel:" Blaming the Holocaust for creating a nation of traumatized "victims" who blocked the peace process since they perceived the Palestinians as the threatening "other." Elkana's penchant for vilifying Israeli Jews while extolling the "rational" and "peace loving" Arabs and Palestinians has been enshrined in the analytic habit of critical scholars.  As IAM has frequently observed, their writings portray a reality in which Israel can do no right and Palestinians can do no wrong.


Auschwitz survivor criticized "Holocaust industry" and Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories



Professor Yehuda Elkana, who has died at age 78, was a historian and philosopher of science and a controversial critic of the "Holocaust industry" and Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Elkana was a survivor of Auschwitz, so when, in 1988, he published an article in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz on "The Need to Forget," few could question his credentials.

He recalled that he had been transported to Auschwitz as a boy of 10 and, after the camp was liberated, spent some time in a Russian "liberation camp," where he encountered Germans, Austrians, Croats, Ukrainians, Hungarians and Russians, as well as fellow Jews. Later he concluded that "there was not much difference in the conduct of many of the people I encountered. ... It was clear to me that what happened in Germany could happen anywhere and to any people."

Moving to Israel after the war, Elkana experienced profound unease with the way the Holocaust was being manipulated by governments of right and left to craft an atavistic Jewish national identity. He became convinced that the motives behind Israel's uncompromising approach to the Palestinians was "a profound existential 'angst' fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust and the readiness to believe that the whole world is against us, and that we are the eternal victim."

He observed parties on the right of Israeli politics had used trips to Auschwitz in his view to impart the lesson to young people that "this is what happens when Jews are not strong," thereby justifying a repressive approach to the Palestinians.

While all societies needed a collective mythology (and Elkana was critical of those in Germany who want to "close the chapter" of the Holocaust), "any philosophy of life nurtured solely or mostly by the Holocaust leads to disastrous consequences."

In a later interview Elkana spelled out his fears for where this philosophy was leading Israel: "We are heading toward turning 100 million Arabs into a terrorist army against us: the whole Arab world! The United States wants to support rational, moderate Arabs. And rational, moderate Arabs will tolerate Israel's occupation of Arab land less and less. So what is there to look forward to if we go on this way?"

Yehuda Elkana was born to Hungarian-Jewish parents at Subotica, in what was then Yugoslavia, on June 16, 1934. His father, an engineer, was a Zionist who travelled to Palestine in that year as a fencer and head of the Yugoslav delegation to the Mac-cabiah Games (an international Jewish athletic event held in defiance of the British Mandate authorities). "He wanted to remain in Palestine," Elkana recalled. "Mother refused and the fool listened."

In 1944 the family moved to Szeged in Hungary where, later that year, they were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz. They survived by sheer accident. As they were being lined up for the gas chambers, SS guards pulled them out of the line and sent them in a train with other Jews to clean up Allied bomb damage in Austrian cities. They made it to Israel in 1948.

After studying Mathematics and Physics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he took a PhD in the Philosophy of Science at Brandeis University in the United States and taught at Harvard for a year. His doctoral dissertation would form the basis for a book, The Discovery of the Conservation of Energy (1974).

He returned to Israel as chairman of the department of the history and philosophy of science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

From 1969 to 1993 Elkana was founder-director of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, which works to reduce tensions among the different groups in Israeli society and challenge taboos.

In 1960 he married Yehudit Keren, who became a prominent Israeli peace campaigner. She survives him with their two daughters and two sons.

Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun


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