The world I knew, the one I counted on, turned upside down in the aftermath of the genocidal attack on Jews who were residents or just visiting near the Israel-Gaza border on Saturday, 7 October.
My older sister, who lives in Israel, told me the next day that it was already circulating that the devastation was far greater than first reported. Over the ensuing days the numbers of known dead increased and the number of those taken hostage grew. The details of the atrocities were revealed. I imagined I was there on one of the Kibbutzim, huddling and hiding, trying to protect my loved ones in a “safe” room and waiting for a help that never came. I wept as I watched and listened to those who were the fortunate ones, the survivors.
As I absorbed what happened I knew the forgone conclusion—Israel would respond, and that meant war. In prior wars the Israel Defense Forces needed to go after Hamas terrorists and their weapons inside and beneath the densely populated areas of Gaza. There would tragically be many Palestinian civilians dying. That number would grow as well, day by day, week by week.
I wondered how long it would take for the narrative to flip? How quickly the focus would shift from what Hamas intentionally perpetrated, the harrowing anguish they had caused and were still causing, to the unintentional and nevertheless devastating loss of life for civilians of Gaza. It would not matter if leaflets were dropped and phone calls were made to warn civilians to get out.
I was prepared for that sad, sobering inevitability. What I wasn’t prepared for was the many people, some of who I admire and previously saw as allies, disregarding the distinguishing motivations and intentions of Hamas and Israel. They went so far as to use the word genocide for what Israel was engaged in and incredulously avoiding the use of that word for Hamas which was, on 7 October, fulfilling its Charter of annihilating the Jewish people.
Dana Bash, host of State of the Union interviewed Bernie Sanders this week. Dana knows what genocide is—members of her family were murdered in Auschwitz. She showed Sanders a video posted by congresswoman Rashida Tliab which shows pro-Palestinian protestors with the bolded words: From the River to the Sea and ends with the statement: Joe Biden supported the genocide of the Palestinian people. Dana Bash asks Sanders, rhetorically, if he knows the definition of genocide. After providing the definition she asks him to weigh in on Tliab’s choice of words.
Bash: “Is that what Israel is doing right now?”
Sanders: “What’s going on right now is a horror show. We don’t have to quibble about words. Thousands of men, women and children are being killed. It’s got to end now.”
Bash: “I also know and you know that words matter. And I want to ask”—Sanders interrupts: “Look. Words matter. But what matters more is that you have a horrible humanitarian disaster that has to be dealt with right now. Call it whatever you want, it has to be dealt with right now.”
Words matter. Using the word “quibble” (which means arguing over matters that are trivial), is not “trivial.” It is critically important to distinguish between a genocidal mission and unintentional and unwanted loss of innocent life during a war. (I am avoiding using the term “collateral damage” because it is euphemistic for tragic loss of life). Genocide, by definition is intentional, it is deliberate. Calling attention to the horrors of war and how civilians suffer is morally commendable. Giving permission, as Sanders suggests, to “call it whatever you want” blurs a clear cut line between what is and what isn’t genocide. It hijacks its meaning and serves to manipulate emotions rather than communicate
Today, 9 November marks 85 years from the start of what would be the genocidal mission of the Nazis. It was the night of the broken glass. In the needed dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians who are still working toward mutual understanding and intent on peace, words matter. Let’s not quibble about that. While any loss of life is tragic, intention reveals what is in the human heart. That should be clear as Kristallnacht.