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Educating against genocide

TAMPA, Fla. -- The recipe for genocide isn’t unique or original or difficult to follow. The ingredients -- if measured out in the right proportions -- can turn neighbors who once got along into mortal enemies.

Edward Kissi, an associate professor in the Department of Africana studies at the University of South Florida, wants to help nations avert such tragedies everywhere in the world, especially Africa.

Kissi was invited by the prestigious Salzburg Global Seminar, an independent organization dedicated to solving major global problems located in Austria, in June, and by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in September, to join with some of the best minds and stakeholders in Holocaust and genocide education in Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, to make prevention a reality.

“We like to assume that crimes, such as genocide, can’t happen in enlightened societies and be perpetrated by enlightened people,” Kissi said. “The Holocaust was not perpetrated by a different category of human beings; educated and ordinary people were involved. It can happen anywhere.”

“We must demystify genocide. Even though it is a disease of temperament originating in the psyche, it can be held in check. Education aimed at promoting respect for human dignity is a key to taming the genocidal impulse. When and where it is misused, education can be a tool for nurturing extreme temperaments and divisive attitudes. We’ve seen this in Chile, in Rwanda and in Cambodia. It’s time to use education for peace.”

Kissi would like to see his birthplace, Africa, take a more prominent role in global education-for-peace.

“Africa should be a leader in this effort,” Kissi said. “Africa played an important role in the defeat of Nazism. Subjects of colonialism shed blood in that fight.”

Kissi points out that Ethiopia was the first victim of fascist aggression when Mussolini attacked it in 1935 and also the first nation to ratify the UN Genocide Convention of 1948.

“Interestingly, Africans who have suffered prejudice throughout their history, around the world, can relate to the Jewish experience under Nazi domination and are all too familiar with how pressing an issue genocide is. When you look at slavery and colonialism and racial prejudice as phenomena within relatively recent history, with apartheid the most extreme expression of conquest and control, it’s hard to fathom how the genocidal conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan are still possible as the latest examples,” Kissi said.

But then the recipe is always the same.

“Take a society that has prejudice or some form of bigotry in its history and culture that also has a religious or ethnic group perceived as outcasts or outside of mainstream society. In times of worsening economic conditions, groups regarded as outsiders could also be considered as a threat to the nation and, therefore, expendable,” Kissi said. “Add to this mix the influx of large numbers of displaced people fleeing war and persecution in their own societies and desperately searching for new life and new identities. Imagine the possible reactions to this group of refugees at a period of economic crisis.

“You put all of these circumstances into a cauldron and a catastrophe is what you get. But it can only happen where there is little or no tolerance for difference and no empathy for those whom circumstances render vulnerable among us. The teaching of the Holocaust and genocide in Africa -- as well as the rest of the world -- must be made an educational priority to alert us to these possibilities and reactions.”

Kissi feels that each forum he participated in made it possible for him to make important progress in his quest.

“I found myself in Austria and then in South Africa with different sets of people getting to the root of how countries with little knowledge of or no relation to the Holocaust can use this moral catastrophe as an entry point for the discussion of related issues within their own borders.”

It won’t be easy.

”There is a pedagogical challenge,” Kissi said. “Africa’s teachers require training to teach this subject matter. But first, the continent’s education policy-makers need to fully comprehend the extent to which genocide is both a moral and economic catastrophe and immediately relevant to their societies.

“Understanding why and how genocide occurs is the best way to prepare a modern nation to prevent genocide and its destructive impact on a nation’s psyche and human capital.”

Kissi knows from experience that an important part of meeting this challenge involves the development of a curriculum that reaches teachers and their students. He has offered advice, in the past, to a State of Florida Task force on Holocaust Education that updated the statewide high school curriculum.

“It all comes down to what happens in the classroom,” Kissi said. “If we want to promote peace and ethical behavior, the teachers must be familiar with the literature on the Holocaust and other cases of genocide and they need to be able to make connections between these cases and their own national histories.

“The Holocaust demonstrated clearly where prejudice and the wrong use of education and knowledge could lead. For the first time we saw how a modern nation and its generation of educated people used their knowledge of science and technology for extremely evil purposes: to exterminate particular groups with clinical and managerial efficiency. They showed the ability to plan, execute and justify evil.”

In Salzburg, participants in the conference, titled “Learning from the Past: Global Perspectives on Holocaust Education,” discussed the topic’s overriding issues and Kissi led a session on “The Holocaust and Genocide Education.” There were representatives from more than 25 NGOs, research institutes and academia, from countries as diverse as Korea, Ukraine, Argentina, Rwanda, Morocco, Cambodia and Turkey.

In South Africa, Kissi met with representatives from UNESCO and senior representatives from the ministries of education of 14 sub-Saharan African countries (Benin, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote D’ Ivoire, Ethiopia, Republic of Mauritius, Namibia, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo and Zambia) to find ways to address the problem of genocide in the most practical ways.

UNESCO is tasked with implementing the UN mandate of making Holocaust and genocide education a key part of the UN’s international outreach programs. UNESCO invited Kissi to the regional consultation of senior representatives of African ministries of education held in Cape Town, South Africa, on the topic “Why Teach About Genocide? The Example of the Holocaust.” Kissi was asked to speak about the role of genocide and Holocaust education in the prevention of mass atrocities.

Both gatherings confronted the same problems.

Kissi observed that African nations have to teach about the Holocaust to a generation of students who may know nothing at all about what happened in Europe in the 1940s. Worst still, when one considers how limited the resources are for education and training in Africa, one wonders where Holocaust and genocide education fit in the priorities of poor nations. Kissi believes that since many African nations are multi-ethnic in population and have histories of admiration for difference as well as hostility towards it, and harsh economic conditions stir up extreme temperaments, “what happened in Nazi Germany could offer salient lessons for African nations. Holocaust education can serve as a framework for reflecting on key national concerns.”

The involvement of the UN augers well for the global reach of Holocaust and genocide education, but Kissi is particularly pleased with where the groundwork is being prepared.

“It’s symbolically and strategically important to have South Africa involved in such a central way in the UNESCO project,” Kissi said. “Here is an African country with its own atrocious past striving to be a beacon of hope as it creates a post-apartheid ethical society. Discussion of the Holocaust can serve in Africa as an entry point for discussing the terrible past, the complicated present and the practical future.”

The South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation in Cape Town hosted one session. While there, Kissi met the director, Avital Nates, who comes to USF on Dec. 4 to speak about “Holocaust and Genocide Education in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”

“I hope to see more collaboration with the Johannesburg Holocaust Foundation since USF has so much to offer,” Kissi said. “Africana Studies offers a certificate program in Genocide and Human Rights and the USF Library has a wealth of information to share as well.”

One of the most pressing issues about Holocaust and genocide education in Africa is the need to make what information is available to meet the needs of the populations who need it.

“The materials need to be accessible at the local level and in local languages in order to make sure the central issues are discussed in local terms and not seen as a foreign imposition,” Kissi said. “Rightly so, Africans are very skeptical about top-down initiatives. The content must come from Africans themselves as they strive for a moral order that meets their aspirations. If we do that, people in Africa can use the Holocaust to engage in national discussions about genocide and how to prevent it.”

To prepare teachers, Kissi said workshops, in-service opportunities, new tools and technologies are needed to bring teachers together to share their experiences in Africa and at USF, if possible.

“Addressing the complexities of African languages has to be a long-term effort with substantial input to cover such a large and diverse continent. Only the UN could take on such a large-scale project. USF will be a strategic partner and offer whatever support it can to policy makers on the continent. Our expertise will be at their disposal.”

Making these new connections, at this point in his career, is something Kissi finds exhilarating.

“I feel this is the first direct and practical opportunity I’ve had to use my education in a way I’ve always been looking to do, that is, reach beyond USF, to put my research and experience at the service of the African continent. It’s a thrill for me as an African scholar.”


Filed under:Arts and Sciences     
Author: Barbara Melendez