The Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has a packed fall 2018 semester of programming, ranging from book talks to guest speakers.
The semester kicked off in earnest Sept. 12 with a discussion about a book that’s grabbed headlines and flown off the shelves. Madeline Albright’s Fascism: A Warning is a New York Times bestseller, and it will be broken down in three more sessions at the center throughout the fall.
The initial meeting of about 35 students attracted people with a confluence of backgrounds and ideas, including Albright groupies, history buffs, politics nerds and people who thought the center made a poor decision in choosing the book.
Jennifer Rich, the center’s co-director and an assistant professor at Rowan University, and her colleagues welcomed them all. The center, after all, is designed to study issues related to the Holocaust and other genocides, anti-Semitism and racism. It also aims to help people draw lines between the past and the present without promulgating extremist ideas.
“We picked the book knowing, of course, it would be controversial,” Rich said. “If there’s one rule, it’s that the conversation remains respectful. We do feel like it should be a safe space for people to come.”
“The choice of the book and the current state of affairs really had some resonance,” said Stephen Hague, the center’s director. “It’s clearly creating a buzz and we had some good discussion.”
Albright, the first woman to serve as Secretary of State, has been a harsh critic of President Donald Trump, and in the book she writes that Trump has sown division and worked to discredit democratic institutions. She also condemns Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un for employing similar tactics used by authoritarian leaders in the 1920s.
Hague recalled a student last year comparing Trump to Hitler. Hague said he hoped discussion about Albright’s book would help students develop a more “nuanced” perspective on issues of that ilk.
“It’s a dangerous comparison and an inaccurate comparison,” Rich said.
Rich also works at Rowan’s College of Education, where she helps guide future teachers on how to talk about current events in the classroom in a politically-charged climate.
“I hold teacher conferences [at the center] to help them think about the danger in drawing inaccurate historical comparisons,” Rich said. “You can draw lines between current political climate and past climates. How you can talk about nationalism without jumping to fascism and how you can do that in a way that seems comfortable.”
Both Rich and Hague pointed to Nov. 15 as the semester’s most exciting day.
That’s when Taner Akçam, a Turkish-German historian and professor at Clark University, will come to the center for the annual Dr. Paul B. Winkler Lecture. Akçam is an expert on the Armenian genocide, and his presence proves timely given the 100-year anniversary of World War I.
“He’s extraordinarily distinguished,” Hague said of Akçam. “He’s on our running list of speakers that we’d really love to have here.”
“The Armenian genocide is interesting and can be slightly controversial,” Rich said. “Students can get involved and engaged and think about why would this be controversial.”
The center will be home to several more events throughout the semester, including the showing of The Act of Killing on Sept. 20.
“We welcome anyone who wants to be part of the conversation,” Rich said. “The more voices, the more opinions, the better. We’re always happy to have whoever wants to come.”