As he prepares to take on his new role as Executive Director of the Save Darfur Coalition, Jerry Fowler, former Voices on Genocide Prevention host and Committee on Conscience Staff Director, reflects on his time at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: With me today is Jerry Fowler, former host of “Voices on Genocide Prevention” and staff director of the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Jerry will soon be leaving the museum to take over the position of executive director of the Save Darfur Coalition. Jerry, thank you for joining me today.
JERRY FOWLER: It’s my pleasure.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I wanted to start actually with your time before you came to the Museum. You were working as a well paid, successful lawyer in a private firm and you gave up that to work on human rights issues. Can you talk about that decision and why you made it?
JERRY FOWLER: Well, I was working for a big law firm here in Washington and I think I was enjoying it. I mean it was a good firm. It was intellectually stimulating work. But what happened was that I started representing political asylum seekers from Nigeria by happenstance. At that time, Nigeria had a very brutal military government. And my first client in particular really changed my life. He was this incredibly dynamic, independent journalist. And the thing about Nigeria at that time is that a lot of people in the political class basically went along and sold out. And it was very easy to do. I mean that was really what the government wanted you to do. And this guy insisted that what he wanted to be was an independent journalist and report the truth as he saw it. And at one time, he was arrested and basically thrown in a dungeon and they broke his hand to keep him from writing. Another time, they came looking for him and they couldn’t find him so they arrested his pregnant wife. Anyway, he was just this guy of just incredible courage and principle. And it was very inspiring to me. And in representing him --- and then I continued to represent again on a pro bono basis other asylum seekers -- they really reoriented me towards what was important to me and what I’d like to be spending my time doing, which was working to promote human rights.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And when you came to the museum, there had been some work on how this institution would deal with issues of contemporary genocide. Some very impressive people had lent their names and their efforts. But there wasn’t a focused program, a regular day-in and day-out staff working on it. What drew you to come first to this institution and second to take on that challenge of creating a new program?
JERRY FOWLER: Well, I should add that before I came to the Museum and after I was practicing law, I worked for some period of time for a group that at the time was called the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and is now called Human Rights First. So I had the opportunity to get into full-time human rights work. And it is true, as you say, the Holocaust Museum, which had opened in 1993 and now we’re talking about the late 1990’s, had this idea that it had a voice or it should have a voice in addressing contemporary genocide. And it was part of the original vision of Elie Wiesel and many of the founders. But it was very incremental in trying to figure out exactly how to use that voice, what was the proper role for a Holocaust memorial, how could it honor the past by addressing the present. And so, when they decided that they would hire a director for the Committee on Conscience, it appealed to me because it was the opportunity to come to this incredible, world-class institution that I think everyone agreed should play a role and help figure out well, what is the role that the memorial can play because, you know, it’s one thing to say, “Well, we’re going to be activists on an issue.” It’s another to say, “We’re a memorial and we’re going to honor the past by trying to influence the present.” And so, it presented a lot of challenges.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What in Holocaust history inspired you or has reinforced your work on contemporary genocide? What are parts of the history that you find particularly compelling?
JERRY FOWLER: Well, I think the more you learn about the history, the more compelling stories that you hear about-- I mean that you learn about. But I think personally from having grown up, a book that had a tremendous amount of influence on me and my view of the world was a novel actually called “Mila 18,” which was about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. And it was a novel but it basically tried to tell the story in a very straightforward way. And in general, the courage and resolve of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto who decided that they would not acquiesce to their liquidation was just always an inspiration to me.
One story that figures in this novel that is a true story and something that really resonates with me here at the museum has to do with what, in fact, is called the Oneg Shabbat Archive, which was this project in the ghetto organized by an historian named Emanuel Ringelblum. And again, I’m telling the real story now not the way it was recounted in the book although the book was very, you know, true to life I think as I recall. But Ringelblum decided that life in the ghetto needed to documented. And so, he and a bunch of people who were working with him started collecting all the documents that someone in the future would need in order to understand as best they could the ghetto: diaries, pictures, decrees, official documents, all kinds of stuff. And as the ghetto was being liquidated, they collected this archive and they buried it in milk cans.
To me, that was just such an incredible statement of hope and faith in the future that as everything that they knew was being destroyed, they were burying this history with the idea that sometime someone would find it who would care. And in fact, after the war, two of the milk cans were found and one of them is on display in the museum. And every time I take someone through the permanent exhibition on the Holocaust, I always stop and tell that story. And to me, it’s just-- it’s an incredible statement of people’s ability to humanize even the most dehumanizing situation.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And moving a little bit out of the discrete history of the Holocaust, can you talk a little bit about how do we as an institution at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or anyone really move from learning about a particular historical event into trying to engage ongoing, emerging, dynamic conflicts today, particularly cases of genocide obviously?
JERRY FOWLER: Well, I think the first way I think about that is to have a little bit of caution about-- and it’s rooted in what you said. We’re starting with a particular event and this institution as a memorial to a particular event. And you don’t want to lose sight of the particularity of the event. I know sometimes there’s a tendency of people to say, you know, is this like the Holocaust. Was Rwanda like the Holocaust? Is Darfur like Rwanda? And if you lose sight of the particularity of each of these events, it ends up, I think, obscuring more than it illuminates. So I think it’s very important to treat each of these events and its particularity and respect the particularity. But at the same time, you can also find at a broader level commonality. In particular the commonality of people who are targeted for their identity rather than for anything that they’ve done. I think that that’s the universal thread that this institution has tried to follow in addressing situations such as Darfur. It’s not that the institution is saying, “Well, this is like the Holocaust” because in many, many respects, it’s not. But you do have that common thread of civilians targeted for destruction because of identity. I think that provides a basis both for a moral response, which is what the Holocaust Memorial Museum wants to stimulate but also a political response.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Are there any moments at the Museum -- activities -- that you were engaged in or that you started that you’re particularly proud of, that you look back and you say, “Yes, that’s something I did at that institution and I want that, you know, on my resume,” as it were?
JERRY FOWLER: Well, “Voices on Genocide Prevention” and I’m sure it’ll be in good hands with you as the host. I just think that the Holocaust Museum has played an important role in stimulating this movement that has arisen around Darfur. I’ve felt for quite some time that what is needed in the world is a constituency of conscience that responds to genocide and threats of genocide and massive crimes against humanity on the basis of conscience, because countries are very good at responding to things on the basis of interest, but conscience usually doesn’t have much voice. But I always felt that there was a constituency out there that could respond. I think that’s what we’re seeing with Darfur. A long, long way to go, but at the same time, we have to appreciate that we’ve come a long ways from where we were. I think being associated with this larger movement and helping to have the Holocaust Memorial Museum play a role in that larger movement is what I’m proud of.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And I want to talk a little bit more about Darfur and your personal involvement. It seemed to me, as a colleague who worked with you, that when you came back from Chad in May 2004, which was very early on particularly in the public profile of the conflict, and you had visited refugee camps, people who had just made it across the border from Darfur into Chad, that you came back a changed person and that trip seemed to light a fire. And if you could just talk a little bit about that trip and-- if you agree, if you feel like it was the changing point?
JERRY FOWLER: Well, I think we’re always changing. I think that was a very important trip for me personally. I mean it gave me-- well, it gave me a very personal connection to the suffering of the people that I met and the stories that I heard. And it made me a-- it gave me a sense of responsibility, a deep personal responsibility to tell their stories. I think one thing that was really impressed upon me was how eager people were to tell me their stories on that trip and how much they felt that if someone knew what was happening to them that there would be a response, that there would help. It really reminded me of what I’d heard from many Holocaust survivors that I’ve met who felt abandoned during the Holocaust. And 60 years later, they still carry this feeling of being abandoned. What I saw in these refugee camps were people who were desperate not to feel abandoned. I did feel a sense of personal mission, but I also felt a sense of institutional mission that that’s part of what we stood for as an institution is not abandon these people.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Since that time and, you know, Save Darfur is obviously a part of this, but the entire field of response to genocide has shifted. It’s changed fundamentally. You now have more groups who are working on the issue. You have initiatives to try to talk about an international responsibility to protect civilians. And I wondered if you could take out your crystal ball and give a sense of where you think this movement is going.
JERRY FOWLER: Well, I think the first thing is to agree with what you’ve said, that it is remarkable developments and that there are organizations today, the Enough Project, the Save Darfur Coalition itself as a huge coalition, the Genocide Intervention Network, none of this existed four years ago. I think it’s reflective of the creation of this constituency of conscience that I referred to. I think it’s going to continue to grow. I think it taps into something deep inside human beings. I think human beings are capable of mass murder but human beings are also capable of mass empathy. And what this constituency is tapping into is that second capability in trying to give it a voice and make it real. I think it’s going to continue. I think it’s going to be a long struggle. I think it’s a generational struggle. I think that after Darfur, there will be new challenges, but I don’t think it’s a movement that’s going away. I think it’s a movement that’s only going to get stronger.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And do you think genocide will be the rubric under which we continue to respond to massive threats against civilians?
JERRY FOWLER: Well, you alluded to the responsibility to protect which is an emerging concept that was articulated by an international panel of notables that had been convened by the Canadian government and has been to some degree endorsed by the United Nations. And the terms of that are along the lines of: there’s a responsibility to protect civilians from war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and genocide. So from a legal sense it’s a little bit broader. I think that’s really where we’re moving. Genocide is this word that’s got an incredible moral resonance but it also has a very technical legal definition. My sense in talking to a lot of members of this constituency of conscience, that a lot of lay people when they think of genocide, they’ve got a little broader concept than the technical, legal definition. I think ultimately that’s what it’s about, is protecting people from this array of massive human rights abuses.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And, you know, this is depressing work. We’ve talked about it at times and brought in people to even talk. I’m just curious, for you, when you find it most overwhelming, is there-- what’s your touchstone for staying engaged?
JERRY FOWLER: Well, people ask that a lot. And I think I have three touchstones. I would identify three. The first is my family and my kids. I have, as you know, two daughters and they keep me very grounded. When I focus on them, that’s a very-- I mean raising kids is a huge thing but it’s something very concrete to focus on. So that’s one important thing. I think a second thing is something that I’ve learned especially at the Holocaust Museum is something in Jewish tradition which is the idea that you don’t necessarily have to solve a problem. You just have to take the steps that are available to you. And I think that becomes most overwhelming when you-- to me, it’s most overwhelming if I think I have to solve this because it is a huge problem and it’s part of the human condition. And what we’re trying to do, as I said, is tap into a different part of the human condition. But I focus on the fact that I don’t have to solve it. I just have to do what I can. And then the third thing which is related to that is it’s overwhelming if I think it’s about me somehow or it’s about what I accomplished. And it’s not. It’s about a movement. There are so many people who are involved in it. As I’ve traveled around the country and I’ve met people, it’s constant inspiration to know that it’s-- I’m not just one person working on an overwhelming problem, I’m part of a big movement that is growing. And I think that sense of solidarity is very, very important.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I think I can say on behalf of the Museum and personally that we will miss you very much here. But we think Save Darfur is very lucky as well?
JERRY FOWLER: Oh, thank you.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: All right. I forgot I have one final question. Can I have your parking spot?
JERRY FOWLER: You’ll have to talk to the powers that be about that.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Thank you.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/conscience. There you’ll also find the Voices on Genocide Prevention weblog.