A New Understanding of Crimes against Humanity

The term “crime against humanity” first found its way into diplomatic parlance in 1915 to describe Turkish massacres of Armenians. Soon forgotten along with the Armenian genocide itself, the term reappeared in 1945 in relation to the Holocaust and other atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Although the conventional usage of “crimes against humanity” refers to large-scale murder of civilians, the words themselves could be interpreted in an additional sense: crimes of dehumanization. And dehumanization is indeed a prerequisite for genocide and other forms of mass murder.

Certainly the Holocaust as we know it could not have happened without three levels of dehumanization.

First, there was the dehumanization of Jews by Nazis. This included calling us “untermenschen,” stuffing us into cattle cars, and forcing us to live in ghettoes and concentration camps in which we were more likely to treat each other inhumanely.

Second, the perpetrators (whether Germans or local collaborators) were also dehumanized. By consciously behaving in a sadistic manner, they were suppressing that which made them human.

Last but not least, significant portions of the local gentile populations also underwent dehumanization. The less sleep they lost over the murders of their Jewish neighbors, the more they lost touch with their own basic humanity.

In recent years, Holocaust Remembrance Day has begun to look like a miniature version of Yom Kippur. Many Israelis use this period to do cheshbon nefesh, an internal moral inventory. Should we be doing more to help Holocaust survivors? Can we be doing more to reduce the possibility of Iran producing nuclear weapons? Which lessons of the Holocaust should we be emphasizing?

One lesson I suggest is that we be more vigilant about dehumanization (crimes against people’s humanity) on all levels.

Are we losing sleep not only about the murders being perpetrated by members of ISIS, but also about the fact that the group is attracting tens of thousands of foreign recruits? And what about the fact that they teach ten-year olds to murder people in front of the camera?

Are we losing sleep not only because Hamas continues to build attack tunnels from Gaza, but also because by Hamas’ own admission over 160 Palestinian children have been killed in the building process? And how much sleep are we losing over the Gazans’ seeming acceptance of these deaths?

Are we losing sleep not only because Israelis are murdered by Palestinian terrorists, but also because Abu Mazen and the PA apparatus continue to glorify these murderers?  And what about the fact that many of our leaders turn a blind eye to this incitement?

At light night’s Holocaust Remembrance ceremony, Prime Minister Netanyahu accused many Western leaders of being “comatose” in relation to the Iranian threat. When it comes to the general problem of dehumanization, I’m afraid that many Israelis are also too well-rested.

Sometimes a little more insomnia would be a good thing.

About the Author
Reuven Resnick is rabbi of the Russian-speaking Yachad-Machanayim Congregation in Bat Yam. He is a founder of the Vayigash Movement, which is advancing a true peace process in the Middle East.