Obituary: Professor Yehuda Elkana

The subject of this obituary remembers as a 10-year old being lined up for the gas chambers. “They survived by sheer accident. As they were being lined up for the gas chambers, SS guards pulled them out of the line and sent them in a trainwith other Jews to clean up Allied bomb damage in Austrian cities. They made it to Israel in 1948.”
This notion of being about to enter the gas-chambers and then suddenly and incomprehensibly being saved, is a recurring motif in Holocaust folklore. I don’t buy it.

Professor Yehuda Elkana, who has died aged 78, was a historian and philosopher of science and a controversial critic of the “Holocaust industry” and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Yehuda Elkana

Yehuda Elkana
Elkana was a survivor of Auschwitz, so when, in 1988, he published an article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on “The Need to Forget”, few could question his credentials.
He recalled that he had been transported to Auschwitz as a boy of 10 and, after the camp was liberated, spent some time in a Russian “liberation camp”, where he encountered Germans, Austrians, Croats, Ukrainians, Hungarians and Russians, as well as fellow Jews. Later he concluded that “there was not much difference in the conduct of many of the people I encountered … It was clear to me that what happened in Germany could happen anywhere and to any people.”
Moving to Israel after the war, Elkana experienced profound unease with the way in which the Holocaust was being manipulated by governments of Right and Left to craft an atavistic Jewish national identity. He became convinced that the motives behind Israel’s uncompromising approach to the Palestinians was “a profound existential ‘angst’ fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust and the readiness to believe that the whole world is against us, and that we are the eternal victim”.
In a later interview he observed that parties on the Right of Israeli politics had used trips to Auschwitz to impart the lesson to young people that “this is what happens when Jews are not strong”, thereby justifying a repressive approach to the Palestinians. In this belief he saw the “paradoxical victory of Hitler”, whose appeal to the German people had also been based on the central idea of victimhood.
Two Jewish nations had emerged from Auschwitz, he observed: “a minority who assert: ‘this must never happen again’; and a frightened majority who assert, ‘this must never happen to us again.’” While all societies needed a collective mythology (and Elkana was critical of those in Germany who want to “close the chapter” of the Holocaust), “any philosophy of life nurtured solely or mostly by the Holocaust leads to disastrous consequences”.
In a later interview Elkana spelt out his fears for where this philosophy was leading Israel: “We are heading toward turning 100 million Arabs into a terrorist army against us: the whole Arab world! The United States wants to support rational, moderate Arabs. And rational, moderate Arabs will tolerate Israel’s occupation of Arab land less and less. So what is there to look forward to if we go on this way?’’
Yehuda Elkana was born to Hungarian-Jewish parents at Subotica, in what was then Yugoslavia, on June 16 1934. His father, an engineer, was a Zionist who travelled to Palestine in that year as a fencer and head of the Yugoslav delegation to the Maccabiah Games (an international Jewish athletic event held in defiance of the British Mandate authorities). “He wanted to remain in Palestine,” Elkana recalled. “Mother refused and the fool listened.”
In 1944 the family moved to Szeged in Hungary where, later that year, they were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz. They survived by sheer accident. As they were being lined up for the gas chambers, SS guards pulled them out of the line and sent them in a train with other Jews to clean up Allied bomb damage in Austrian cities. They made it to Israel in 1948.
The 14-year-old Yehuda joined a kibbutz and won a scholarship to the Herzliya High School in Tel Aviv, where he developed an interest in the philosophy and history of science. After studying Mathematics and Physics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he took a PhD in the Philosophy of Science at Brandeis University in the United States and taught at Harvard for a year. His doctoral dissertation would form the basis for a book, The Discovery of the Conservation of Energy (1974).
He returned to Israel as chairman of the department of the history and philosophy of science at the Hebrew University.
From 1969 to 1993 Elkana was founder-director of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, which works to reduce tensions among the different groups in Israeli society and challenge taboos. He was proud of the fact that the Institute was a place where people could come and listen to Wagner and Strauss. At the same time he also ran, at Tel Aviv University, the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, which he co-founded in 1983. From 1995 he was Professor of Theory of Science at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zürich.
In 1999 Elkana was appointed president and rector of the Central European University in Budapest, which had been founded by the international financier George Soros in 1991 with the aim of educating a new cadre of regional leaders to help usher in democratic transitions across the old Soviet bloc. Under Elkana’s leadership the university was transformed from a regional experiment in post-communist education into a major graduate institution of the social sciences and humanities.
The author of many books, including Essays on the Cognitive and Political Organisation of Science (1994), Elkana was also a permanent fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin and co-founder and editor of the journal Science in Context. He spent a year as fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University and was a visiting fellow at All Souls, Oxford, in 1977-78.
After retiring in 2009 he went on to oversee an international programme aimed at reforming undergraduate curricula. He was the co-author, with Hannes Klopper, of The University in the 21st Century: Teaching at the Dawn of the Digital Age (2011).
In 1960 he married Yehudit Keren, who became a prominent Israeli peace campaigner. She survives him with their two daughters and two sons.

Professor Yehuda Elkana, born June 16 1934, died September 21 2012

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