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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Online webinar
Event date: 
Thursday, 22 October, 2020 - 17:15 to 18:30
Event organiser: 

MES Public Talks Seminar given by Dr Hizky Shoham, Bar Ilan University

The Hebrew word Shoah has become a standard term for the 1940s genocide of European Jewry, and also entered the vocabularies of several other languages. Why did this historical event necessitate a different entry in the socio-political lexicon at all? Based on archival, literary, and media sources from before, during, and after the war, my talk tracks the conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte) of the term Shoah in Hebrew, and its gradual appearance as the most common designation for the annihilation of European Jewry, overshadowing traditional terms such as hurban (destruction), on one hand, and the newly coined Hebrew term “retzah-‘am” (genocide) on the other. I argue that while alternative Hebrew terms had verb form and therefore suggested a dynamic element, Shoah was heard as a static notion and its use reflected an inadvertent de-historicizing of the historical event. This process ensued from the interplay between two Zionist narratives about antisemitism: an “ethnocentric” narrative that singled out the Jews as the victims of the world’s villains; and a “polycentric” one, which depicted the Jews suffering as a result of “irrational” management of the public sphere. The adoption of a noun without verb form stemmed at first from the theodicy of the dominant optimistic, polycentric narrative, which lacked conceptual and lexical tools to cope with the murderous breakout in Europe. In due course, ironically, this inadvertent de-historicizing was mobilized for a more pessimist, ethnocentric Zionist narrative that used the term Shoah to de-historicize antisemitism in its entirety. The conceptual result of the new lexical entry was the dominance of “singularity of the holocaust” narrative among Jews in Israel (and elsewhere).

Hizky Shoham is an associate professor in the Graduate Program for Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies, and co-director of the Center for Cultural Sociology, Bar Ilan University, Israel; and a research fellow in the Kogod Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies at the Shalom Hartman institute in Jerusalem. His works consist of anthropological history and cultural sociology of Zionism, the Yishuv, and Israel; and cultural theory. His publications include Carnival in Tel Aviv: Purim and the Celebration of Urban Zionism (Academic Studies Press, 2014); and Israel Celebrates: Festivals and Civic Culture in Israel (Brill, 2017).


Dr Assef Ashraf: