Weaponizing ‘Genocide’

I don’t dispute the humanitarian motives of most students and others protesting the war in Gaza, whether Jews or non-Jews.  Most undoubtedly believe the claim that Israel is committing genocide.

Under the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” passed by the United Nations General Assembly in Dec. 1948, genocide is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Israel is fighting a war provoked by a murderous military assault on its territory.  Way too many non-combatants have died in Israel’s counterattack, but Israel is not trying to exterminate the Palestinian people, “as such.”

My sense is that Israel is often violating the rule of “Proportionality” in international law. It stipulates that civilian casualties should be proportionate to the military value of a combat objective; civilians are suffering enormously as a result.

Yet it should be clear that Hamas invited this Israeli response to pursue its explicit objective of destroying Israel, whether it expected to advance this militarily or politically by undermining Israel’s moral standing. (‘I Asked Sinwar, Is It Worth 10,000 Innocent Gazans Dying? He Said, Even 100,000 Is Worth It‘.)  Sadly, given the density of Gaza’s population, innocent Palestinians would likely have perished no matter how Israel responded in its own defense.  

Still, not for a moment do I want to downplay the immense ongoing human catastrophe in the Gaza Strip today. The deaths of children and other innocents in Gaza, mostly from US-supplied weaponry, are what’s basically driving the protests. This is wrenching, but it’s not “genocide,” as the protesters and so many others insist.

If they opposed Hamas as much as they denounce Netanyahu and Israel, they’d merit more respect. (For a rare example of an anti-Israel writer in an anti-Israel publication excoriating pro-Palestinian leftists for ignoring Hamas’s atrocities and reactionary principles, read “The Palestinian Resistance is not a Monolith” by Bashir Abu-Manneh in Jacobin.)

Iconic Events and Imagery

21st Century communications are revealing the carnage of modern warfare almost instantaneously, with the profound tragedies of victimized families powerfully exposed to the entire world.  These graphic images and profiles should end warfare for all time — by all parties, governments and movements — but sadly, they don’t.

All too often they trigger more violence because they motivate revenge, as is likely to further result from this war. Revenge attacks are generally not against the actual perpetrators of civilian suffering; they often come in the form of random acts of terror against non-combatant targets of opportunity, or in violence against nearby “proxies” for the enemy. This explains physical or verbal assaults on Jews in countries far removed from Israel during outbreaks of armed conflict with Arabs in the Middle East, such as occurred in France during the Intifada of the early 2000s.

For Israelis, October 7th is a “date which will live in infamy” as much as December 7th and 9/11 are for Americans. In comparative historical terms, think of how the US responded to Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war in World War II, with the destruction of numerous Japanese and German cities.  Think of how the US responded to 9/11, with the overthrow of two governments and two costly wars.  These were wars in all their horror, but not genocide.

I thought back to just one incident in a true genocide, because the death tolls were so similar: during the course of two days (Sept. 29-30, 1941) over 33, 700 Jews were systematically shot to death at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev.  Again, this is not to minimize the suffering of Gazans, but to argue that genocide is not the applicable term.

It may be further argued that the “g” word is being “weaponized” against Israel’s legitimate use of military force (even if it were more measured and discriminate than evident today) to defend itself from violent attack. This is the obverse of the charge by many on the left that allegations of antisemitism are often deployed (“weaponized”) to deter criticism of Israel. The photo of a protester near New York University in Greenwich Village (courtesy of Lorraine Haber) illustrates this point perfectly.

rseliger@gmail.com Seliger Ralph