Prof. Yehuda Bauer speaks after being awarded the Nahum Goldmann Medal in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: ANDRES LACKO)
Generally speaking, recipients of prestigious awards are notified in advance of the honor to be bestowed on them.
This was not the case with internationally renowned historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who last Thursday, was a panelist at a symposium on “Whither Europe: Has the death knell on liberalism and tolerance been sounded?” Towards the conclusion of the evening, Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, who heads the Israel branch of the World Jewish Congress, declared that Bauer, whom he described as “a man with breathtaking intellectual horizons,” was to receive the WJC’s highest award, the Nahum Goldmann Medal, named for the founding long-time president of the WJC.
Usually awarded to statesmen and other leaders in recognition of their services to world Jewry, it was awarded to Bauer in recognition of his contribution to Jewish scholarship and education.
Bauer, 91, an emeritus professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who in addition to being a historian might well be described as a professional iconoclast, did not make the usual acceptance speech.
Acknowledging that the award was unexpected, Bauer said that he had known Goldmann “and he didn’t like me. I think he’s turning in his grave.”
Earlier in the evening, Bauer had been the first of the panelists to speak at the symposium that was held at the Herzl Lillienblum Private Museum in Tel Aviv under the joint auspices of the Bulgarian Embassy – within the framework of its activities during the Bulgarian presidency of the council of the European Union – and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
Weinbaum, who is also director of the ICFR, recalled that when he was a high school student in New York the definition of a conservative was a liberal who had been mugged.
Too often, he said, people think that the word “liberalism” is a definition of where they stand on the political map.
Bauer took this a step further, saying: “We hide reality behind words.” As examples, he cited the European Union – “European, yes. United, no”; the African Union – “African, yes. Union, no”; United Nations – “193 nations, yes. United, no;” the Security Council – “A council, yes. Security – don’t be funny.”
In this context, and partially in relation to mounting disputes between Israel and Poland regarding the memory of the Holocaust, Bauer, who is one of the world’s leading experts on Holocaust history, questioned what the word “Holocaust” has to do with the genocide of the Jews of Europe.
Holocaust, he said, derives from an ancient Greek word.
It means the burning of an animal sacrifice to God.
He also discussed the migration crisis, not only as it affects Europe, but also Israel. Bauer is opposed to the deportation of African asylum seekers, saying that it was wrong to put all African refugees under one label because conditions were different in every country and people were fleeing for different reasons.
He was particularly scathing in his condemnation of Israel’s policy of treating African refugees as infiltrators and economic migrants.
“It’s a discriminating terminology,” he said. “People who run away from the Central African Republic are not the same as those from Mali or Eritrea. You can’t deal with them as one group.”
The same applies to different types of migrants streaming into Europe, he said, making it clear that “Europe cannot exist without migration because of the low birth rate.” Europe is growing old and cannot maintain its economy without a young labor force, he said.
As for migration in general, Bauer declared: “We’re all wanderers or descendants of wanderers.”
Aware that he was risking rabbinical ire, Bauer also dismissed the concept of genetic Jewishness, stating: “Jews are as pure genetically as a Tel Aviv poodle. We are as genetic[ ally Jewish] as anyone else.”