The fatal red thread connecting a long string of older and current legal, ethical, historical, and political controversies and warnings about Israel committing “genocide” appears to be none other than Israel’s longest-serving, revolving-door Prime Minister, Benjamin or “Bibi” Netanyahu.
Key to comprehending Netanyahu may be the heroic death of his brother Yonatan, a commander of an Israeli rescue operation at the Entebbe Raid in Uganda in 1976. That trauma may have unhinged “Bibi.” In his early political career, he was repeatedly identified as the leader of the gross public incitement, which led to the assassination of Israel’s dovish Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995, by a Jewish extremist.
Only two years after Netanyahu first became Prime Minister in 1996, Professors Barbara Harff and Ted Robert Gurr first listed Israel, among many other countries, as a potential perpetrator of mass violence, and Palestinians as Israel’s most likely target group, in their landmark article on “Systematic Early Warning.” At the United States Naval Academy, Harff developed this into a new model to predict and prevent “genocides and political mass murders” in “No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust?” When I taught a class on “comparative war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide” at Tel Aviv University to a multi-religious cohort of students in 2010, Harff’s inclusion of Israel on her “genocide” watch list was hotly debated. But in 2013, Harff even received the Raphael Lemkin Prize from the Auschwitz Institute.
However, during field work for an urban studies course on Jaffa and Tel Aviv in 2014, a different potential victim group kept popping up on the streets. In my Haaretz article “Say ‘No’ to Genocide,” I warned of Israel sliding into a “genocide” of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, with systematic racial profiling and persecution, round-ups, and mass deportations. This illegal operation was started by Netanyahu, who had returned to office again.
In 2018, Israel refused to recognize the “genocide of Armenians” – again mainly due to Netanyahu’s objections. However, this “genocide of Armenians” of 1915-1916 – with German assistance – had provided a significant precedent and case study for Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” during World War II and in exile. Since Nazi Germany’s Shoah was still ongoing at the time, it could hardly be researched, yet. So “Bibi” was already undermining the fight against “Holocaust denial,” and the foundations of the state itself.
Netanyahu was back in office, once again, when warnings of a Hamas attack began piling up last year, which he willfully ignored. Immediately after October 7, Hamas was accused of “genocide.” A public statement, signed by 240 scholars and legal experts claimed that the events “most probably constitute an international crime of genocide, proscribed by the Genocide Convention.”
Now, another major global debate about an Israeli “genocide” in Gaza is raging, including on the pages of The Times of Israel, The Guardian, Time Magazine, The New York Times, Haaretz, and Al Jazeera. The “genocide” rhetoric in the media has not always heeded any definitions, legal or scholarly, since language is malleable and developing as we speak. This is why I here use the term “genocide” in quotation marks throughout this article. Whatever it is in each instance, it’s bad enough, though.
A recent peak has been a public standoff between Jewish-Israeli Holocaust historians Omer Bartov and Dina Porat. Neither side claimed that a “genocide” was actually occurring in Gaza already, but Bartov insisted that the danger was real, and stressed the role of Israeli incitement. Few would disagree that Israeli incitement has crossed at least one red line, when Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu suggested “nuking” Gaza on radio. But incitement started already on October 9, when Netanyahu called for Gaza’s “Hurban,” which is the exact Yiddish word used for the Shoah.
For Israel – founded by the United Nations not least to absorb Holocaust survivors rejected by their home countries – the ongoing Gaza “genocide” debate is especially painful and terrifying. It questions the very ideological foundations of the state. But this is merely the last piece of a puzzle that includes incitement to the murder of an Israeli Prime Minister, mass persecution of African refugees, denial of the “genocide” of Armenians, and opening the gates to a Hamas-“genocide” of Israelis. So if the choice is between joining Joe Biden having “Bibi’s” back or rather safeguarding Israel’s global standing, ethical foundations, and long-term security, the choice should be clear. Yes, it’s time to investigate this specific person, Benjamin Netanyahu, in addition to his other plethora of pending legal cases, also for a persistent pattern of behavior in a list of violent incitement, humanitarian crises, “genocide” denial, and “genocides.”