Conversation with…Dr. Israel Charny

By Cindy Mindell

Dr. Israel Charny

Dr. Israel Charny

A world premiere exhibition on the pioneering work of genocide scholar and psychotherapist Israel W. Charny will open at the University of Hartford on Monday, Sept. 23.

Born in Brooklyn in 1931, Charny has lived in Israel since 1973. He completed his training in clinical psychology in the U.S. at the University of Rochester in 1957. Over the course of his career, he has become one of the world’s leading experts on genocide, a pioneer in the field of genocide studies, and the founder of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, all the while remaining a practicing psychotherapist and acknowledged expert on marriage and family therapy in Israel. Charny is now retired professor of psychology and family therapy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University.

“Genocide: Israel Charny and the Scourge of the Twentieth Century” will be on view in the Museum of Jewish Civilization at the University of Hartford through April 2014. The presentation charts the life and career of this pathbreaking scholar, while highlighting photography of sites where three 20th century genocides took place: the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust or Shoah of European Jewry, and the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

A co-founder and past president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), Charny is editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Genocide, (ABC-Clio Publishers, U.S. and UK, 1999) and author of Fascism and Democracy in the Human Mind (University of Nebraska Press, 2006), both works selected by the American Library Association as “Outstanding Academic Book of the Year.”

Charny is executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, which received the 2011 Armenian President’s Prize, “in recognition of his decades-long academic work and activities contributing to international recognition of the Armenian Genocide and his researches of denials of genocides.”

He is founding editor of GPN Genocide Prevention Now, (

On the eve of the new exhibition honoring Charny and his career, he discussed his work with the Ledger via email.


Q: Why did you decide to devote so much of your professional life to the understanding and prevention of genocide?

A: I had not planned as such to study genocide, but it came to me, so to speak, and told me that I had to devote myself to this subject. It was some six years after my PhD in clinical psychology when I successfully passed the examinations for the highest certification (the “Boards”) in my profession. I went to sleep happy with my success and awoke with a dream about the Holocaust, and specifically the pounding question of how could they have done what they did to us Jewish fellow human beings – men, women, and children. I realized with horror that in all of my wonderful training at an outstanding American university and several psychiatric hospitals, in those days I had never been trained in any aspect of human violence or destructiveness, let alone any effort whatsoever to understand the Holocaust and other genocides. It was then that I resolved that, along with the practice of psychotherapy, which I love to this day, I would devote myself to the study of genocide. In time my decision became two-fold: first, in my own researches to contribute to the understanding of the psychology of genocide, and second, to seek at the same time to contribute to the development of an interdisciplinary, as well as multi-ethnic, discipline of genocide studies.


Q: What has kept you engaged for so many decades?

A: Believe it or not, I have found that my deep devotion to the subject of genocide studies has added perceptibly to my pleasures of life and to my very deep commitment to the sacredness of human life. Some Holocaust/genocide researchers indeed end up bitterly depressed or burned out, but there are any number who are led to savor life’s beauties all that much more. When I taught undergraduates a course on the Holocaust and genocide I would tell them that there will be nights when they will feel terrible over what they learned and saw in films that day in class but then suddenly there may come a wave of hunger for the best hamburger in town or a hunger for their boyfriend or girlfriend, and my advice to them was to go get it– because that is the point of our fury and condemnation of those who destroy human life.


Q: What are your professional experiences with and findings regarding children and grandchildren of Holocaust and genocide survivors? 

A: There have been many, many studies of children of Holocaust survivors in particular; less of the children of other peoples who have suffered genocide. The main findings make a lot of sense to me and also fit my clinical experiences as a therapist: The second generation is unbelievably successful in its achievements, and scared to death of intimate emotions and especially wary of any kind of anger – including perfectly normal anger – towards loved ones. It is also a generation pursued by obligations. I saw one couple in treatment because they were fighting too much and too strongly and the key turned out to be that she – a second-generation daughter to two full-blown Auschwitz survivors – had been so obligated in her childhood and teenage years to tread softly on the floors of their house so that her nervous and irritable parents would not be upset that she literally had a need to explode now that she was free and married – and was she one powerful and delightful fighter, but obviously too much so.

I am less knowledgeable about research taking place about the third generation, but what I see in my practice are third generation offspring who have grown up with parents who could not give them the full range of emotions. Commitment? You better believe it – overwhelmingly so. Caring? No doubt whatsoever. But intimacy in tenderness and loving, including a freedom to allow angry emotions both in the parents and the child, were not expressed sufficiently.


Q: At what point does behavior described as “civil war” cross the line into “genocide?”

A: For me, genocide is the purposeful killing of masses of unarmed civilians without there being a strategic military intention to the attack. In other words, collateral damage to civilians in the course of a military operation does not qualify immediately for a concept of genocide, although if the collateral damage is very large, the legal definition moves towards a possible definition of “crimes against humanity.” There have been any number of Holocaust and genocide scholars who have wanted to insist that genocide has to be a purposeful effort to destroy a given people entirely – such as the Nazis’ intention to destroy the Jews. But life is far more complicated and genocide comes in many different packages. The Cambodians destroyed one third of their fellow countrymen, the majority of whom had no significantly different identity – the killers and victims were of the same people. In Rwanda we are told that the distinction between Tutsi and Hutu was a very artificial and recent construction by the Belgian colonizers; moreover, there are a great number of accounts of Hutu also slaughtering fellow Hutu in the process, let alone an unbelievable number of accounts of the genociders slaughtering members of their own extended family.

Some years ago I published a satire in a journal for social science teachers in which I described several all-too-able genociders like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot seeking legal advice to help them continue their activities because a kind of “heat” was beginning to build up against genocide in the international system. I sent them to a firm of international lawyers that was named “Whore, Satan, and Conformist – Attorneys at Law.” The learned defenders of justice gave several pieces of advice among which stood out the recommendation that when the genociders want to kill a specific people – as called for by the definitional purists – they should henceforth be careful to kill them in a situation where they are mixed with many other peoples who are not defined as specific targets of the genocide, and this will complicate legal charges of genocide against them.

For me, civil war that includes killing of masses of helpless civilian human beings is very much genocide.


Q: A propos, how would you define the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria?

A: Yes, what is happening in the civil war in Syria includes a great deal of out-and-out genocide. That certainly is the proper description for the indiscriminate poison gassing of many hundreds of people, not to mention the wildly indiscriminate shelling and shooting killings of huge civilian populations in many Syrian cities. When the ugly shebang first began, we at GPN Genocide Prevention Now proceeded quite promptly to identify the murdering that then numbered in the single-figure thousands as genocide, and we tracked the progressive development of what we came to call “unfolding genocide” from issue to issue. Incidentally, when it all started, one of the too many virulent antisemites in academia in our times, who is otherwise a very gifted scholar of many aspects of genocide, insisted publicly that GPN’s criticisms of the killing in Syria were hardly the issue in the Middle East, and that the only real source and risk of genocide in the Middle East is – you better believe it – the State of Israel.


Q: How does the State of Israel define and deal with the Armenian Genocide?

A: Shamefully. Cowardly. Disgustingly pragmatically. I too have made decisions not to tell a truth when I felt that the truth could lead to real harm to human beings. Thus, in 1982 when I launched the First International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide in Tel Aviv, the Turkish government objected strenuously to our allowing several presentations on the Armenian Genocide (six lectures out of a scheduled 300), and enlisted the efforts of the Israeli government to close the conference down. The Turks made their characteristic wild threats that sounded like Jewish lives in Istanbul and especially Jews escaping from Iran through Turkey might really be at risk. For several months I did not say a word publicly about what was happening, even as my colleagues and I continued to work adamantly towards continuation of the conference to include every one of the papers and a film on the Armenian Genocide (the conference did take place very meaningfully). When the time came, I told the whole story as it really was to the world press and it received a good deal of coverage – including in the New York Times – as a case history of standing up against governments.

Official Israel denies recognition of the Armenian genocide, but thank God the Israeli people and the Israeli culture very much recognize the historical validity of the Armenian genocide. One small example is that to this day, the Forty Days of Musadagh is an inspiring piece of Zionist education, let alone one heck of a great read.

So much of Israeli government denial of recognition has been unnecessarily obsequious and downright cowardly and kowtowing even in situations that hardly involved major security and political considerations. When my late brother, poet, translator and editor, T. Carmi (Charny) was editor of a wonderful multi-language magazine called Ariel that was published by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there was a touching story about the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the course of which there was all of a brief reference to the Armenian genocide and the many orphans of that genocide who found safety settling in our good old Jerusalem and elsewhere in Palestine. The issue had already been printed in thousands of copies in several languages – rare in those days, on expensive glossy paper – and you wouldn’t believe it, but the Foreign Ministry stopped the distribution to cut the page out, replace it and rebind the magazine.

The people of Israel, indeed the Knesset of Israel, have shown themselves entirely ready to recognize the Armenian genocide; it is the political leadership of Israel – of all political parties to date – that has continued a realpolitik of currying the mad Turkish insistence on denial.

Would any of us ever agree to denials of our Holocaust – for any political or commercial or even less than critical security considerations?


Q: One common characteristic arising from genocides or “ethnic cleansing” is the semantic challenge exemplified by Bill Clinton regarding what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, and the resultant foot-dragging on the part of the UN countries capable of helping. How do you explain this reluctance on the part of world leaders to call a genocide what it is?

A: For quite a while, we believed that once a genocidal event was labeled as a genocide in the international system, such as by the United Nations or by the United States as the world’s leading democracy, there would follow an imperative of intervention to halt or reduce the ongoing genocide. The delays on such recognition were unconscionable. At the time of the Cambodian genocide, the United Nations Human Rights Commission called for a study of the dilemma that the killers were destroying fellow countrymen and not an “other” people, so how could it be genocide? They called for a report on the dilemma to be given no less than a year later – during which hundreds of thousands more, of course, were killed. In recent years we have learned the further sad truth that even when proper recognition of a genocide does take place, such as nowadays in greater Sudan, the world as a whole does not necessarily take action – even to help starving uprooted refugees in the Nuba Mountains as winter closes in at this time.

The huge question is, why in hell has humanity avoided recognizing the Number One killer of human life – genocide?

Genocide is a massive experience of death, and I think that so much of our personal human machinery and our societies’ ways of organizing our lives are devoted to an overwhelming denial of – what we all know is totally true – the impending death of every one of us. Indeed, one of the conclusions I have come to about terrifying readiness of human beings to commit genocide is that it serves, unconsciously, as a form of sacrificing others to a death we fear for ourselves: I make you die because I am God-like in my powers and I will prove it with your death, and since I am God-like I will absolutely ensure my true goal of staying alive forever.


Q: Do you see signs of hope in our world regarding genocide prevention?

A: NO – and yes. My “NO” is unfortunately stronger than my Yes, but thank God there is a degree of “Yes.” If we only have the time before our quite stupid species destroys itself on this planet, then the facts are that we have been making a great deal of, in fact wonderful, progress over the last 30 years in identifying the previously unnamed crime of genocide.

The word-concept “genocide” was first coined by a very special survivor and escapee from the Holocaust, a Polish jurist, Raphael Lemkin, who lost virtually all of his family in the Holocaust even as he made his way first to Sweden and then to the US. After the war, he is credited virtually singlehandedly with bringing about the United Nations Convention on Genocide. Ever since there are new developments in the legal system, including international courts that have functioned with some meaningfulness in the cases of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and more recently the development of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. There are increasing researches and professional journals of genocide studies in the intellectual and academic world, and we now have professional organizations of genocide scholars that number in the hundreds. Back in the early 1980s, the best we could do at first was to identify three American-Jewish scholars who published works on the subject of genocide and then a handful more who joined us in the continuation of that decade.

And if for many years the subjects of discourse in the field were the definition and identification of genocide and understanding the characteristics of the genocidal process, in recent years the word “prevention” has been added to the focus of the genocide scholar. It is, I suggest, something like a medical-scientific process where first the phenomena of a disease – say, like cancer – are identified and described, and then some years later major efforts begin at developing treatment and prevention.

GPN Genocide Prevention Now is clearly dedicated to furthering our human society’s very underdeveloped capacities to reduce genocide, stop genocide, and prevent genocide.

Shana Tova from Jerusalem in our tumultuous conflict-ridden world.

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