Interview with Dr. Anya Topolski, Center for Ethical, Social and Political Philosophy, University of Leuven (Belgium)
In this personal interview, Anya Topolski introduces herself and her work, reflects on philosophers and activists who have inspired her, and shares her thoughts on Europe’s past and future.
How would you briefly describe yourself and your work?
I have a rather hybrid identity – I’m proud to be a mutt! My national origins are Polish, I’m Jewish, I was born in Canada but have lived in Flanders for a decade. I’m attached to my Polish, Jewish, Belgian and Canadian identities, and I also feel strongly European.
My first degree was in biochemistry. I wanted to understand the Holocaust, and as an 18 year-old student I imagined that I could find the answers in science and the study of the mind. A few years later, I realized that I needed to look more at how people interact with each other, and that’s when I began studying philosophy, ethics, and politics. I sought to create a dialogue between the thoughts of Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas in order to think about new ways of human interaction that could prevent the type of dehumanization that led to the Shoah from happening again. Their thoughts on responsibility for the ‘other’ are important for all my work. My current project is to understand the origin and use of the term Judeo-Christian. More specifically, I’m looking at its development in Europe and the common roots of antisemitism and islamophobia.
What do you wish people asked you more often about your work?
As soon as people find out that I’m Jewish, they start looking at my work in a different way. Many immediately bring up the Israel-Palestine conflict, often without considering Europe’s responsibility. We need to consider how Europe, or rather the idea of Europe, creates exclusion and conflict, as well as cooperation and peace. One example is the recent European Parliament exhibition “Out of the Abyss: How Europeans Built Peace Together.” The first image shows Auschwitz and the sign “Arbeit macht frei.” It serves as a reminder not only of dehumanization, but also of efforts to prevent dehumanization through a new Europe based on cooperation and peace. Ironically, “Arbeit macht frei” also represents the recent idea that being European means the ability to work hard and make money. Europe needs to include people because they are people, not because they have jobs and make money.
Can you mention a person that you have come across in your career or research that is a hidden talent?
One inspiring person that comes to mind is Iker de Carlos, a Spanish locksmith. The crisis in Europe has left many people jobless and without the ability to pay rents and mortgages. Still, authorities continue to evict people from their homes, thus taking everything away from them. Locksmiths have an important role in evictions as they are needed to change the locks. On one occasion, Iker de Carlos arrived at a building in his town to change a lock, and witnessed a man commit suicide by jumping from the top of the building. Deeply affected by the incident, de Carlos began to refuse to change locks on homes where people were being evicted. He was joined by other locksmiths, and eventually a movement was formed that has spread across Spain and to other countries as well. These locksmiths have essentially made it more difficult for authorities to evict people. Like Iker de Carlos, we can all choose to say ‘no, not in my name, this is not the world I want to live in.’ De Carlos also represents Levinas’ idea of ‘after you,’ letting the other go first. We need to start thinking and caring about the other to create a new Europe.
Which article or book would you recommend for someone interested in your research?
One of my favorite works is an analysis of an EU propaganda video that I wrote for Open Democracy. “Does it get more transparent than this?” received over 2000 hits, and I got 100s of emails from people expressing their shock and interest in the idea of Europe. Another work I like is a chapter titled “An Ethics of Relationality: Destabilising the Genocidal Frame of Us vs. Them” in the new book Genocide, Risk and Resilience. Basically, the ethics of relationality challenges the mentality of us vs. them, and instead furthers the idea that we need each other, and that we are responsible for each other. We have to say no to fear and to start trusting each other.