The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council named a new director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum this week who is known for his position on the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
Steven Katz, a 50-year-old professor of history and religion at Cornell University, will succeed founding director Jeshajahu Weinberg, 76, who is retiring.
Katz’s appointment has refocused attention on the debate over the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a historical event. It has also raised questions over the role of a federally funded museum in promoting the particularist vs. the universalist point of view in that debate.
Katz rose to the front lines of Holocaust scholarship this year with the publication of “The Holocaust in Historical Context, Volume 1: The Holocaust and Mass Death Before the Modern Age.”
The 700-page volume, first in a projected trilogy, sets out to prove the uniqueness of the Holocaust as the only true example of genocide in history through comparisons with other events of mass death.
“He is a person of vision and high abilities and great research capacity,” said Rabbi Irving Greenberg, praising Katz’s appointment. Greenberg was director of the 1976 presidential commission that led to the museum’s founding.
Greenberg said Katz is an ideal person to help the museum continue balancing the tensions between looking at the Holocaust as uniquely Jewish and generally relevant.
“If you pursue the universal too much, you end up denying the dimension of demonic specificity against the Jews,” said Greenberg. “Taken to the other extreme, it becomes so self-contained you can’t learn anything from it.
“The book made him an ideal candidate for the kind of leadership this project needs, to continue to avoid becoming so particularistic that it disconnects from non-Jews, or so non-particularist it becomes tribal,” said Greenberg.
Katz’s election was announced Tuesday, following balloting by the 65-member U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. His was the only name submitted for the full council’s approval, following a five-month search that culminated in his unanimous nomination last month by the council’s search committee.
In announcing the appointment, Miles Lerman, chairman of the Memorial Council, said of Katz: “He is a deep and creative thinker, with a demonstrated understanding of both the historical and moral lessons of the Holocaust.
“His selection underscores the museum’s commitment to Holocaust education at every level, including the expansion of our archives, the strengthening of the current international community of scholarship and the training of our next generation of scholars,” Lerman said.
Katz will take over the directorship in March.
Since opening in April 1993, the museum has received nearly 3.5 million visitors. Sixty percent of its $41 million annual budget comes from the federal government, with the rest coming from private donations.
In selecting Katz, the museum’s search committee passed over Michael Berenbaum, currently director of the museum’s research institute and a candidate for the post.
In his book, Katz argues that the uniqueness of the Holocaust does not lie in the number of deaths, or in the percentage of Jews murdered.
Instead, the Holocaust is unique, writes Katz, because “never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized policy, to annihilate every man, woman and child belonging to a specific people.”
Nonetheless, he rejects the view that the Holocaust is so unique that it stands outside history and rational discussion.
Only by comparing the Holocaust to other mass tragedies, he writes, is it possible to establish its uniqueness and to comprehend it.
In the volume already published, Katz compares the Holocaust to Roman slavery, medieval anti-Semitism, and medieval persecution of witches, homosexuals and heretics.
The second volume, which Katz hopes to publish within two years, will be much more politically charged.
Titled “Mass Death in the Modern Age,” it will discuss black slavery in the New World, the decimation of native Americans and the mass killings this century in Armenia, Biafra and Cambodia.
Already, Katz has taken aim at feminists who have referred to witch hunts as “Gynocide,” and books about Native Americans which refer to an “American Holocaust.”
Regarding present-day events, Katz said in an interview that the killings in Bosnia are “clearly not genocide.”
But he said the museum’s current exhibition on Bosnia is “clearly appropriate.”
“The object of the museum was to provide a kind of concern for the human condition,” he said.
“By stressing the particularity of the Holocaust, it has allowed people to grasp a very powerful image of what prejudice and stereotypes can lead to.
“What the Holocaust has taught us is that we have to be concerned with all kinds of tragedies, that human life is a valuable thing.
“The crime of the Holocaust doesn’t mean that other deaths are inconsequential. When I talk of all these other events, I never intend to denigrate or reduce the suffering of others, or make improper moral comparisons. All these other events are immoral,” he said.
Katz’s approach has drawn fire from other historians.
“If one happens to be interested in the problem of uniqueness, then I don’t believe one can bypass the work done by Katz,” said Raul Hilberg, author of “The Destruction of European Jews.”
“The question is whether you consider uniqueness important, and whether you define uniqueness in terms of your own choosing. Any historical event is unique, but by the same token every historical event lacks uniqueness if you bring it into a broad context,” said Hilberg, a former member of the Holocaust Council.
More critical still was David Biale, professor of Jewish history at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
Reviewing Katz’s book in the January issue of Tikkun, Biale questions its premise that it is undertaking a historical examination.
“What is the point of undertaking this enormous enterprise if it not some kind of extra-historical claim?” writes Biale.
For Biale, the need to defend the Holocaust’s uniqueness is “a way of defending the particularity of Jewish identity, a new secular form of the chosenness of the Jews.”
And Biale worries that “if what happened to the Jews is unique, then what kind of solidarity becomes possible with others who suffer other forms of evil?”
But Katz received strong support from at least one of the members of the Holocaust Council who has long taken the more universalist side in internal museum debates.
Father John Pawlikowski, professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said he was “in very substantial agreement with the orientation” Katz took.
Pawlikowski said he anticipated possible disagreement – when Katz reaches his third volume, covering the Nazi regime – over the role of the handicapped, the Gypsies and the Poles as planned victims of genocide.
But whatever their disagreement, said Pawlikowski, “Katz has amply demonstrated his understanding of and compassion for the many victims of human brutality throughout history.”