At the United Nations, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asserted last month that Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens have amounted to “genocide.”
He did so, in language never remotely reciprocated by Israel, despite well knowing the nature of his current partners in Hamas, which had violently ended Abbas’s rule in Gaza, tossing his loyalists off buildings there.
In 1948, three years after the end of the Holocaust, two events represented a pivotal rejoinder to that most systematic of genocides. The State of Israel was founded – stemming a 2,000-year Jewish exile pervaded by persecution. And the U.N. General Assembly adopted its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to help ensure that no people would again be subjected to massive violence of the most unprovoked, calculated and indiscriminate kind.
The world body’s adoption of the Genocide Convention was celebrated as a deeply hopeful achievement by Jews. Yale legal scholar Raphael Lemkin – a Jewish émigré who lost nearly his entire family to the Nazi atrocities – coined the term genocide in 1943, defining it as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.” Later, he drafted the Genocide Convention.
While the Holocaust was a distinct event in history, the appeal “never again” must apply to other people as much as it does to Jews.
However, not every loss of life can be labeled genocide. If genocide means everything, it could, dangerously, come to mean nothing.
Some of the world’s worst violators of human rights have an interest in stripping the term genocide of its purpose and potency through misuse.
More generally, ours is an era of stridency and populism, too often lacking nuance. When it comes to the most grave of charges, though, context matters and details matter, concerning both intentions and actions.
Iran pledges Israel’s destruction while illicitly pursuing nuclear capabilities and sustaining the groups, including Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, responsible for perennially forcing Israeli counterterrorism. Despite this, some commentators condemn as overblown any comparison of the Tehran regime to those, historically, who made good on remarkably open threats of monumental aggression.
By contrast, the subjection of Israel to the most inflammatory of rhetoric has again over recent months been met with astounding silence.
Iran’s supposedly moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, accused Israel of a “huge genocide” in Gaza – this from the leader of a government enabling bloodshed in Syria that has claimed far more Arab life in three years than Israel has in sixty-six.
Not given pause by the absence of gas chambers or crematoria, Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Israel has “surpassed Hitler in barbarism.”
And in an interview with the BBC, Hamas’s official spokesman (who, separately, alleged that Jews use Christian blood in matzo) charged Israel with “Nazism.” The allegation was met with a bumbling response from the BBC’s normally opinionated interviewer.
All this is not without consequence. Singular abuse of Israel in international forums creates the distortion that Israel has one of the worst, not one of the best, records as a progressive society.
When 56 U.N. member states – including nearly all of the world’s foremost oil exporters – belong to the Arab and Muslim bloc, a Human Rights Council resolution on Gaza can assail Israel but not even mention Hamas. And, of course, countries deemed to be perpetrating crimes like “apartheid,” genocide and Nazism – all-too-often interchanged – are expected to be dealt with accordingly.
If Israel has intended apartheid, it has proven mind-bogglingly inept, having created the freest and most pluralistic society in the Middle East in the face of relentless warfare.
And if Israel has intended genocide, it is among history’s most abysmal failures. Despite its military abilities, the population of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs has multiplied dramatically, even as the number of Jews, Christians and other minorities has tellingly plummeted elsewhere in the region.
After the genocides of the last century, there were among the victims no “victory” parades, as there were in Gaza after the latest hostilities. There was silence.
And during past genocides, there were no refusals of ceasefires by the beleaguered or pledges of new violence, as by Gaza’s factions – typically because the victims were not doing the firing.
Notably, despite the rush to equate Israel with Hamas in indiscriminate fire, males of fighting age appear to have been the most overrepresented group among recent Palestinian casualties in Gaza, the overwhelming majority of which went untargeted by Israel.
These facts, though, don’t suffice to penetrate international politics. Not in an age when a pop culture personality like Russell Brand can smugly invoke Israeli “occupation” in questioning Hamas’s categorization as a terrorist movement. No matter that Israel, which has supported a two-state peace, completely withdrew from Gaza in 2005 – and that if Jews lack even a right to exist in their historic homeland then Brand would hardly have a right to legitimately reside anywhere.
The British funnyman even likened Hamas to Gandhi – a comparison that might be worth discussing if not for Gandhi’s insistence upon non-violence, and the fact that Gandhi never aspired to the obliteration of Britain itself.
The continuing Arab-Israeli conflict has unquestionably claimed all too many lives, and those losses are heartrending. But not all loss of life constitutes murder, let alone genocide.
In the 1940s, in the face of a fascist onslaught, Britons and others responded, despite the heavy toll, not with complacency but with the necessary force. Today, an array of countries is committed to combating such groups as Boko Haram, al-Shabab, Jemaah Islamiyah, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS.
As Palestinians again threaten to take Israel to the International Criminal Court over its struggle against fanatics deliberately operating among, and targeting, non-combatants, we must consider the implications of precluding counterterrorism by recklessly mislabeling it as genocide.