Journeys from the Abyss has been named Book of the Week by Times Higher Education. To celebrate, we sat down with Tony Kushner to discuss memory, humanitarian challenges and how his own background shaped his intellectual development.
Where were you born and where did you spend your early years?
I was born in Manchester in 1960 and brought up in its southern suburbs. My mother was a disabled widower and one of my brothers deaf blind, so dealing with difference was part of my family upbringing. Manchester has always been a city of migrants and as of third generation East European Jewish origin, I very much felt part of it. Growing up in the 1970s, the activities of the National Front were prominent and I was lucky that at my secondary school there were very few who were attracted to it. Indeed, we were loosely associated with groups such as Rock Against Racism. I was also fortunate that the Reform Jewish Movement saw education for young people against all forms of racism and intolerance was essential. That stuck with me probably than the more strictly religious side. Finally, as a football fanatic and supporter of Manchester’s only team (City), everyday racism was a fact of life. My eldest brother and his friends who I went to the games with would always challenge the barracking of black players (remarkably often of our own team with City’s close links to and presence in the city’s Moss Side).
Where did you go to university and how has that shaped your subsequent intellectual development?
I went to Sheffield University to study economic and social history (though soon my interest was on the latter at the expense of the former). This choice was deliberate – I wanted to study the lives of ordinary people and not just the great and the good. On top of this was that Sheffield was the only place where you could study migrant (and anti-migrant) history with the presence of Colin Holmes who was later my PhD supervisor. After Sheffield I did an MA in American history at the University of Connecticut. I studied with Bill Hoglund, an expert in American immigration history. Returning to Sheffield, my PhD focused on British Jewish history, especially that of antisemitism, with a study of Britain during the Second World War. At this stage, refugee history was a part of my interests, but it had not developed as strong as it has for the past two decades. Likewise the area of memory was one that came later after I had come to the University of Southampton in 1986 to develop the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations.
How do you feel that your own political commitments around human rights and particularly refugee policy have influenced your choice of research topics and the ways you have examined them?
Since school, I have always wanted the history I studied (and then researched and wrote about) to have an ethical element. At Sheffield, amongst other topics I became interested in slavery and the Holocaust and since then migration and refugee policy have been a part of that commitment. Indeed, I am strongly of the view that historians can be committed to their subject area without losing their authority. I became aware in the early 1990s that refugee history was particularly neglected. Within refugee studies, history is rarely considered and in historical studies, refugees because they complicate national stories are equally marginalised. Restoring their histories and responses to them (positive and negative), is thus important in itself and I have always found working with current day activists stimulating to them and to myself.
Can the material you have recovered dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, and even the 1880s, help us formulate responses to the major humanitarian challenges of today?
I think this is a two way process. We can understand some of the ‘classic’ refugee movements of the past with greater complexity if we consider what is happening today. Perhaps one of the most important ‘political’ messages is that the attempt to divide ‘deserving refugees’ (i.e. good) from ‘undeserving migrants/aliens’ has been happening for well over a century. Such distinctions are always in the eye of the beholder and it seems that the only truly ‘good’ refugees are those in the past. Many Jewish refugees from the 1900s or the Nazi era carried forged documentation but that did not make them somehow ‘illegal’ or dangerous. Ultimately, as Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, stated, ‘no one is illegal’.
Tony Kushner is Professor of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, Parkes Institute and History Department, University of Southampton.