Israeli philosophy professor influenced by childhood, writes about personhood to understand Holocaust

Marlena Chertock

APRIL 13, 2011

Professor Yoram Lubling researches personhood to better understand the actions Nazis and others took during the Holocaust and other genocides. His newest and second book is “The Person Vanishes.” Photo by Brian Allenby.

Yoram Lubling always wanted to write. His undergraduate major was journalism. But after graduating, he never went back to journalism.

“I thought the best way to write was to study what to write about,” he said. “And the best way to do that was to study philosophy.”

The Elon philosophy professor’s motivation to write stems from a deep need to understand the events of the Holocaust.

“It still baffles and mystifies my sensibility,” he said. “I want to understand the ability of people to do what they did and to continue to do very similar things.”

To understand the terrible actions  people take, Lubling said he needed to understand what the person is. His research and work focuses on personhood.

Dewey defines personhood for Lubling

Department Chair of Philosophy Ann Cahill said the Elon philosophy department is fortunate to have Lubling as a member of the community.

“His work reminds people of the power and promise of philosophy,” she said. “Philosophy has an ability to illuminate hidden assumptions, clarify ethical problems and contribute positively to contemporary conversations.”

Lubling refers to John Dewey’s notion of personhood in his newest book, “The Person Vanishes: John Dewey’s Philosophy of Experience and the Self.” A person is not a spiritual, subjective idea but a scientific, empirical and natural organism, he said.

“Religions usually refer to persons as souls, entity-like or egos,” he said. “But people aren’t permanent and static.”

Dewey is the most eminent American thinker of all time, according to Lubling.

Dewey’s idea of a person, which emerged after modernism, said the person is engaged in an open-ended process.

“The person is transient, not a finality,” Lubling said. “It can only be defined by a growing event that constantly changes, adopts, reinvents its characteristics and place in the world.”

The shock of realizing who you are

The acts of Nazis and other people who engage in genocide shouldn’t surprise people, Lubling said.

“We should never think that the unjust killing of other people is some kind of an incomprehensible event that has to do with some deep, mysterious failure in human souls,” he said.

When people react shocked to the Holocaust, they’re not bewildered by how people could do that, but that they actually got caught.

“We do things like that and always did,” he said. “The Holocaust exposed us to who we really are, both Germans and collaborators who did it, as well as the rest of the world who stood silent and allowed it to happen.”

What scares people the most about the Holocaust is that it was done “by people exactly like ourselves,” Lubling said.

Preventing violence through a just society

The kind of anger and violence that happened through the Holocaust can be expected to erupt out of the conditions of poverty, hunger, disjointment from other people and hatred that people lived in, Lubling said.

“We have to create communities and conditions that prevent the need for this,” he said.

The only solution to reconstruct healthy persons is education and the just distribution of opportunities, he said.

“The world needs to be more available to average men and women,” he said.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

This would lower the amount of tension, envy and anger that groups of people feel toward each other.

“People think much better about life when there are opportunities to grow, be healthy and raise families,” he said. “When you don’t have these things, it leads to an extraordinary amount of violence.”

Society also needs to get away from the caveman mentality of property and ownership, he said.

“As someone who was born in Israel, I felt on my body the curse of property and ownership,” Lubling said. “Death and killing because of sand. Who owns the sand, who owns the rocks?”

Cultivated people should always be concerned with the welfare of others, according to Lubling.

“Not for religious reasons,” he said. “But for the simple reasons to avoid conflict, hatred, resentment and ultimately violence.”

He voiced these ideas in Labor newspapers during his time in Israel. He lived on a kibbutz, Kibbutz Hulda in central Israel, and agreed with the socialist, Labor-Zionist ideology. His father grew up in a Labor youth movement called Gordonia.

The Labor movement’s ideology is that work is to build and be built, according to Lubling. Work is not just an activity — it creates you in the process.

“Many people came to Israel because they thought it could become a model for justice,” he said. “The kibbutz was an example that it’s possible.”

Lubling left Israel for the United States in 1977.

Lubling lived in Tel Aviv for most of his formative years, he said. Photo courtesy of Yoram Lubling.

He won’t return to Israel because the values and culture has changed, he said. Kibbutzim have become capitalist and young people have lost the passion of their parents’ generation.

He studied in New York and came to Elon University 20 years ago as chair of the department of philosophy.

Lubling introduced Elon to the University of Haifa and a year later, study abroad opportunities included a program there.

He is teaching a course next fall under the new Middle Eastern studies minor, called “The Spirit of Israel.” It focuses on the achievements of Israelis and Jews.

“It focuses on the unique contribution of Jewish thought throughout western history — its uniqueness in terms of the emphasis on community, peace, social contribution, welfare, environmental concerns and happiness,” he said.

Despite Israel’s need to spend 70 percent of its budget to protect itself, the country has made significant contributions to science, medicine, technology and other fields, he said.

“There’s something to learn about the ability of people to do that,” he said. “It brings the question of what Israel would’ve been able to contribute if it didn’t have to spend so much energy and mind power on surviving.”

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