Weil Fellowship at the Strassler Center

February 3, 2011

In the 1990s, Clark University in Worecester, USA, created the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, one of the nation's first academic centres devoted exclusively to those topics. Debórah Dwork, who helped create the Strassler Center and remains its director, explains why:

– Newly erected Holocaust museums and memorials had changed the landscape of many cities across the western world. Yet, there were no doctoral programs to train future generations of scholars in the history those monuments honored. Who, I wondered, will have the expertise years hence to ensure accuracy in exhibitions or educational programs?  Who will have the expertise to combat deniers, for that matter? Then too, while survivors still live, memory is a bridge to the past.  But when they are no longer with us, history will need to provide that bridge.

What you hope to achieve with the Center’s research?

– The aim of the research we do at the Center is to understand the complex processes of genocide, in the hope of imagining possibilities for humanitarian intervention and, even better, political prevention.

How did the Weil Fellowship – a fellowship in the name of Proventus' founder and owner Robert Weil – come about?

– Graduate student probing opened the prospect of studying the psychology of genocide. They approached my colleague, the eminent social psychologist Jaan Valsiner, to ask him if he would lead a seminar on the psychology of perpetrators. “Sure!” he replied. That was followed by doctoral student interest in the psychology of silence in the face of mass murder, which they explored with Jaan as well. Clearly, the psychology of genocide would be a fruitful avenue to explore, we realized. And thus a new doctoral track was initiated. Thanks to Robert’s generosity, we had the support we needed to admit our first student, Cristina Andriani. And the Psychology Department took it from there, hiring a fabulous assistant professor, Johanna Vollhardt, whose area of scholarship falls right in this field.

Cristina Andriani, the Strassler Center's first Weil Fellow, has now pursued her second year of Ph.D. work and we asked her to tell us a little more about her research.

– The topic/current title of my dissertation is: "Holocaust collective memory meaning making within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli
context: a weapon of war or a tool for peace?". I am going to research how Jewish-Israelis make meaning of Holocaust collective memory and how affects their perception and experiences of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as vice versa, that is, how experiences of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict influence the meaning they make of Holocaust collective memory.

Why did you choose this topic?

– Because it brings together two of the topics I am most passionate about under this new interdisciplinary track I am on: the aftermath – and most importantly the resolution – of trauma, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is the accumulation of many years of study and experience: my expertise as a trauma counselor for the last 9 years on the one hand, and my research of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while I was in the Conflict Analysis and Resolution program (from which I got my second master's degree).

What methods will you use studying this?

– I will use mixed methods, although will mostly be relying on qualitative data. The research is split into two studies: the first is an email survey that will gather both quantitative and qualitative data, and will serve as a recruitment tool for the second study in which I will conduct face-to-face narrative interviews in Israel with Jewish-Israelis.

Can you give us some preliminary results or is that too early yet?

– There are no preliminary findings, although I would say it is previous research with Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian emigres in the US that made me interested in the topic. We found that both Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli sense of collective identity was connected to the conflict.

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

– I hope to challenge this sense that collective trauma of the Holocaust in Israel cannot be transformed to achieve positive results. If my results do show that there can be a ways in which the Holocaust can be remembered that are more conducive to peaceful attitudes, then I think there will be one more "small" step (among many that need to be taken on both sides) towards the peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Homepage of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies

Read an article in the Boston Globe about the programme