"Israel has a vast tradition of Holocaust remembrance, but a somewhat narrow take on mass murders in other places in the world," Prof. Neil Gandal said on Tuesday, at the opening of the three-day International Conference on Genocide Prevention at Tel Aviv University.
The conference organizers hope to change that and turn Israel into a world leader in the field of genocide prevention.
The conference marks the 61st anniversary of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was initiated by Polish Jewish human rights activist Raphael Lemkin, the man who first coined the term "genocide."
"We have so many Holocaust survivors who found refuge here and we have so much knowledge of dealing with the issue of trauma that we should be exporting that knowledge. We should be leading the world, but we are behind and silent," said conference organizer Romi Kaplan.
"Israel doesn't have a voice on the international stage when it comes to genocide prevention and awareness... I thought that if we could stimulate those elements of the society, which exist, and bring them out to a forum like this, bringing together academics and activists and artists, then I believe that we can create a society that is able to show that humanistic side to the world," Kaplan said.
The conference includes lectures, seminars, panel discussions and workshops, all aimed at increasing awareness of genocide and finding ways to prevent current and future mass murder. The evenings are dedicated to cultural events, which include a screening of the film The Last Survivor and visiting a photo exhibit of images from Darfur.
Israel Prize laureate Prof. Yehuda Bauer from the Hebrew University was the keynote speaker, delivering a fiery lecture on the inadequacy of the genocide prevention convention in the face of geopolitical realities.
"The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was passed 61 years ago and has been totally ineffective and absolutely useless as far as practical policies are concerned. It has never been used and the way it is framed I am doubtful if it can ever be used," Bauer said.
The convention is ineffective because it depends on the UN Security Council to be implemented and the veto-carrying countries on the council stop any action in regions where they have national interests, he said.
However, Bauer said he doesn't suggest the convention should be abolished or ignored, because it has symbolic importance and can be used as a threat against those who are thinking of committing genocide.
"We are, all of us, predatory mammals," he said. "But because we are physically weak, in order to exist, we need to cooperate. We need coherence of human groups. We need societies. We are herd animals. We cannot exist individually...
"When another group comes in we have four options. We can either absorb that group or we can enslave that group or we can tell them to go to hell or we can kill them. And that is what humans have been doing since time immemorial.
"Genocide is not the invention of the 20th century. It has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. It is an instinct that we inherit and that we carry on forward. Everyone in this room has a tiny bit of a Himmler or an Eichmann inside them," Bauer said.
However deeply genocide is ingrained, it is an instinct that can be countered by the opposite instincts of sympathy, love and morality. "We are a murderous human race, but we are also rescuers who want to live in peace and quiet, in sympathy and understanding with others," Bauer said.
Nothing can be done to stop the genocide now taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan, Bauer said, because China has oil interests there. "China has indicated that it will veto any kind of resolution that will put pressure on the Bashir regime in Khartoum," he said.
Moved by economic imperatives, Beijing requires vast amounts of resources, and it will not be swayed by moral arguments, he said.
According to Bauer, the global economic situation also ties the hands of the US government, which is deeply in debt to China.
"The two economies and therefore the governments are inextricably combined and dependent on each other. In that situation any prevention of genocide in Darfur is impossible," he said.
It is only in cases where no interest of the major powers in involved that the United Nations can act to prevent genocide, Bauer said.
He gave the examples of Macedonia and Kenya, two cases where internal fighting might have led to unstoppable violence had it not been for international involvement.
Bauer said that to act in the realm of genocide prevention, activist must become "morally motivated cynics."
"If you are not morally motivated, you won't do a thing. If you are not cynical, you will not succeed in anything," he said.
The only way to affect change is to yield market-oriented strategies to reduce China's interests to allow genocide to take place, he said.
"It is a long road and I can promise you there will be more genocides until we get there," he warned.
In conclusion, Bauer spoke about Israel's treatment of genocide victims seeking asylum within its borders. "The attitude of the Israeli government to refugees, their children and especially to victims of actual or potential genocide is, to put it very mildly, scandalous," said Bauer. "Every avenue should be taken to amend this."
"Yehuda Bauer is a great example of a person who has made the leap from studying the Jewish Holocaust to seeing it as a part in a continuum of genocides that continues to this day," said Kaplan.
"He doesn't feel that he denigrates the experience of Holocaust survivors or those of us who inherited its legacy by saying that the Holocaust happened in its own particularity and we must learn from the experience to stop contemporary genocide."