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Particularity within Coexistence: Atrocity Meaning Production and a Call for Emancipatory Universality

By Salam Al Sayed

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum [Photo of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photo Credit: Angela Failler]

At my second virtual CRiCS Research Talk this year, I had the opportunity to observe two approaches to doing Cultural Studies scholarship. Dr. Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba (Department of English) operated from an exploratory framework in his presentation on “Darfur Children's Atrocity Drawings and the Holocaust,” while Dr. Matthew Flisfeder (Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications) took a theoretical debate approach in his talk “On the Persistence of the Jewish Question in Socialist Struggle.” The variety in presentation styles and theoretical lenses employed by Drs. Anyaduba and Flisfeder made this event particularly engaging and gave participants a lot to unpack.

Dr. Anyaduba’s talk critically examined the Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative—a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)-Google partnership in which 18 drawings of atrocity in Darfur, drawn by Darfuri child artists and their arts teacher, who lived at the Farchana refugee camp in Chad, were exhibited at USHMM. He also presented quotes from interviews conducted by Holocaust oral history projects, which the USHMM holds, and examples of Western media representations of Igbo suffering in the Biafran war, in which Jewish victims and Igbo victims were constantly being compared. Dr. Anyaduba observed that Igbo suffering was talked about and represented through narratives associated with the Holocaust, which negated the specificities of the Biafran war. 

Interrogating memory studies scholar Michael Rothberg’s notion of “multidirectional memory” (where accounts of different histories inform each other), Dr. Anyaduba argued that the USHMM exhibit is an example of how Western museums often play the role of “social actors” and one-sidedly produce meanings of African atrocities from their own vantage rather than that of their subjects. He described this sort of “entanglement” as the process through which “Holocaust memory/consciousness revitalizes itself in contemporary humanitarian practices at the same time as it regulates the meanings of atrocities in African conflict zones.” Not having much of a background in art and museums, I wondered, how does such a process take place?

I was intrigued when Dr. Anyaduba commented that one of the children’s drawings from the exhibit brought him back to his own drawings as a child, which imitated the scene of a video game that he loved to play. His personal anecdote illustrated the dissonance between the context of his childhood and the context of the 18 drawings and concretized the notion of meaning-making. Although they might appear similar, his childhood drawings were about a game while Darfur’s children’s drawings were an articulation of their lived experiences with atrocity, further driving home the point that imposing a framework of understanding from one context onto another can obscure their particularities. 

Switching gears from Dr. Anyaduba’s dynamic exploration, Dr. Flisfeder grappled with the sidelining of the fight against antisemitism in socialist struggle and proposed socialism and internationalism as a political framework for Jewish and Palestinian liberations. I am reminded of the relevance of the topic of antisemitism in light of the recent targeting of a Colleyville, Texas synagogue by a gunman, during which a number of congregants and a rabbi were held hostage. Stressing that his commitment to this framework is a response to the liberal, capitalist, and competition-driven ideology, which puts the Jewish and the Palestinian questions in opposition, he argued for a universalist humanist paradigm of global emancipation. Through his proposed approach, Dr. Flisfeder envisioned coexistence as an attainable long-term goal, where Jewish and Palestinian peoples would live in “a single, bi-national, federated state with equitable representation for both peoples.” 

Dr. Flisfeder’s talk constructed a notion of Zionism quite different from the one I was familiar with. Growing up in Syria, I was exposed to a certain narrative about Israel-Palestine, which centred Palestinian rights and subjectivity and portrayed Zionism as a racist violent movement and ideology. When I was in high school, we often went on organized protests to show our support for the Palestinian cause, supervised by school staff to ensure we did not dip and go for ice cream instead. This concern for Palestine struck me as being somewhat hypocritical with the political reality I was living in Syria, a country that has been governed by an authoritative regime since 1970 (Rabbat). As I thought through Dr. Flisfeder’s talk in conjunction with my own experiences, I appreciated that there are different understandings of Zionism within the larger context of nation-statism. 

In a 1998 lecture by influential Palestinian postcolonial scholar Edward Said, titled “The Myth of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’,” Said advocates for a notion of coexistence between communities, in which difference is preserved but not seen as a cause for tension. Arguing that seemingly opposing cultures can only be understood in relation to each other, Said unsettles the idea that a pure homogeneous civilization exists, proposing a shift in discourse toward harmony rather than antagonism. When asked about how this notion of coexistence relates to the question of Palestine, Said describes the human rights situation of Palestinians as “verging on the catastrophic,” drawing attention to some of the specific and particular injustices that Palestinians endure, caused by oppressive policies of the Israeli state. As a framework for liberation and peace, he proposes that Jewish and Palestinian peoples, who share a land, work together. He also addresses his Jewish friends, emphasizing the importance of their “recognition of what Israel cost Palestinians.” Walking away from the event, I began to realize that perhaps in its embodiment of the humanist tradition, cultural studies makes room for both particularity and universality. 

(Thank you, Drs. Angela Failler and Sabrina Mark, for your editorial assistance.)

Works Cited

Rabbat, Nasser. “Anatomy of the Syrian Regime.” London Review of Books, vol.38, no.14, 2016, ​​www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v38/n14/nasser-rabbat/anatomy-of-the-syrian-regime. Accessed 27 January 2022. 

Said, Edward. “The Myth of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’.” Youtube, uploaded by Palestine Diary, 13 May 2011, https://youtu.be/aPS-pONiEG8.