‘Genocide,’ ‘Ethnic Cleansing,’ and ‘Apartheid’ Don’t Describe Israel

Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is making daily headlines again, and the Internet is scrambling to put together the right words to condemn, defend, and/or grieve the current bout of violence. It has become increasingly common and popular to use three terms in particular to describe Israel during this social media cycle: genocide, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. None of these, however, is appropriate or accurate to employ.

Let’s break down some terms here:

Why is “genocide” inappropriate to use when describing Israel?

Genocide is defined as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.”

At the formal establishment of Israel, there were ~700,000 Palestinians, as well as thousands of Jews who had lived there continuously for thousands of years (even through violent mass expulsions), and more who immigrated back to their homeland (from which they had been forcibly expelled after living there for thousands of years, and many of whom then faced further persecution and expulsion from the countries in which they sought refuge) throughout the Middle Ages and Modern Era long before the British Empire dominated the region.

Palestinian people in the Territories now number 4.17 million (compared to the 6.5 million Jews living in Israel). Approximately 65,000 Palestinians have been killed since 1948, and 25,000 Jews — they have been intermittently at war that entire time. An almost 500% population increase seems difficult to qualify as genocide (compare that to a 6% decrease of 400,000 Darfuris killed in genocide since 2003, or a 50% decrease of 6,000,000 Jews killed in the Holocaust from 1941–1945).

The average lifespan of a Palestinian person is 74 years; significantly less than the 81 years of Israelis, five less than Americans, but notably higher than a place like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which underwent an indisputable genocide of 6 million people between 1996–2013 and has an average life span of about 59 years. Longevity doesn’t tell a full story, and certainly doesn’t tell you about quality of life, but it still says something.

Israel continues to violate the human rights of Palestinians by occupying the Territories, which must end. But this, to my knowledge, does not constitute “genocide” unless genocide is to be stripped of how we have described it in the context of the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust or any other gruesome event that is characterized by rape and torture and ultimately annihilation of entire populations.

What about “ethnic cleansing”?

Ethnic cleansing is defined as “the mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in a society.” Does it qualify in the case of Israel? Again, I would say no.

20% of Israel’s population is Palestinian — not imprisoned in territories, but full citizens with full and equal rights to Jewish citizens, political representation AND they do not have to participate in mandatory military service. 20% of Israel’s population is Palestinian because…

First, there is no “cleansing” of Palestinians happening from the country (much as some Jewish extremists would love there to be, not unlike how many Palestinian extremists would love for Jews to disappear from the land). To be clear, human rights violations are happening on a daily basis in the Territories, which should be granted full sovereignty 73 years ago. Part of the complexity of the Territories as an alleged “bargaining chip” or “safety precaution” is that half of Palestinian leadership (Hamas, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union) calls for the decimation of all Jews. Their charter cites:

“The hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say ‘Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’”

Israel should cede land but there can be no two-state solution because half of that refuses to recognize the existence of Israel no matter what — in spite of the fact that this is incontrovertibly ancestral, indigenous Jewish land (though it’s also ancestral to Palestinians).

Furthermore, while yes after official creation of Israel in 1948 (before which, Arabs and Jews were constantly fighting each other) hundreds of Palestinian villages were burned, driving hordes of people out, many Palestinians willfully left thinking that Israel and the Jews would be annihilated in the war so they could return home, which it surprisingly wasn’t.

The point is, it is a complex issue. The Arab empire from which many Palestinians descend expelled the Jews from their homeland over a thousand years ago. Jews are committing atrocities against them now. Both call it self-defense. The mutual hatred is not new, and both have legitimate land claims but I don’t think the current situation qualifies as “ethnic cleansing.”

Last but not least, does “apartheid” apply to the situation?

No. Interesting how many people have become overnight experts on South African history as well as Middle Eastern history and foreign policy to make such an astute comparison!

“Apartheid” is defined as a “policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race,” and was coined in reference to the atrocious events that happened in South Africa throughout the 20th century.

Apartheid in South Africa constituted a legally enforced system where nonwhite South Africans were forced to live in separate areas and use separate public facilities from white people. Intermarriage was illegal and “pass laws” were required for nonwhites in restricted white areas. For most of it, political representation for nonwhites was banned. For much of it, nonwhite people weren’t even allowed to vote.

Remember what I mentioned before? Palestinian Israelis are 100% full citizens with full and equal rights — except that they don’t have to do mandatory military service like every Jewish citizen. They vote, they’re in parliament, they can intermarry and go to school and brunch with Jews.

The invocation of this term seems somewhat deplorable because it is often a subtle nod to the whitewashing of Jews. Whether you like it or not, MOST OF ISRAEL IS BROWN! Mizrahi, Sephardi, Yemenite, Beta Israel, etc. Much as you’d like to make every Jew Jared Kushner, most of us worldwide are NOT white; in fact, most of us look a lot like Arabs and other Middle Eastern people (which our distinct, ethnically Jewish DNA corroborates). This is not a “white oppressing Brown” situation, even if it would feel personally familiar and comprehensible for one to employ the analogy.

This is a land dispute for two ethnic groups on their indigenous land. It’s not apartheid, even if Israel’s crimes in its territories that it shouldn’t have are abominable.

Why are people so insistent on invoking the terms “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” or “apartheid?” Hopefully I don’t need to tell you why you shouldn’t ever refer to Israelis as Nazis.

You can convey the urgency and devastation of human suffering in all its forms without needing a universal and singular lexicon to describe it. For instance, tens of millions died in World War 2, and there was grief and despair all around. Why the do we use the word “Holocaust” or “genocide” to describe what happened to so many Jews and Roma and LGBT people? A good antisemite would say “jEwIsH SuPrEmAcie!!” but the reality is, language is both powerful and imperfect in conveying the nuances of varied human experience.

Jews didn’t consent to fighting or being slaughtered, whereas many soldiers did (although conscription laws would suggest otherwise in many cases). But we have different terminology referring to different forms of the same concept (why specify “murder” or “manslaughter” or “suicide” and so on, when they all simply mean “death?”); the invocation of words that have historically applied in usually incontrovertible terms to phenomena of mass death such as “genocide” (except for cases such as Armenia, where over 1.5 million people were slaughtered but the United States neglected to acknowledge it for over 100 years to salvage political power and relationships — another example of the sheer weight and power of that word) are often intended to either reflect an almost inconceivable threshold of barbarism/atrocity and/or to galvanize action or reflection on an event of such earth-shattering proportions.

I’m not going to say one shouldn’t employ words like “atrocities” or “human rights violations” to describe Israel’s actions in the Palestinian Territories, because those are appropriate. I’m asking people to reflect on whether there is meaningful veracity in the use of these terms (knowing that yes, language is also subjective and changeable), or if their invocation is intended to undermine the actual genocide/ethnic cleansing that decimated HALF the Jewish population in the 20th century and weaponize Jewish trauma and defense to now accuse them of being neo-Nazis.

You can advocate for human dignity for Palestinians without masturbatorially and wrongfully accusing Jews of Nazism.

Lastly, an invitation to reflection:
What would you like to see happen to Israel? Would you celebrate if all 6.5 million Jews in Israel were killed and got their just deserts? If half of them perished? Three-quarters of a century into “official” statehood (thousands of years being rooted there, however, disturbed only by the gap during which we were forcibly expelled), where do you propose the Jewish people go? Shall we return to Yemen to be wiped out again there? Russia for more pogroms? Spain for a second Inquisition? Germany for the next Holocaust? Or do you think that Americans (home of “6MWE” and “Jews will not replace us” KKK) would love 6.5 million Jews delivered to its doorstep?

If retribution is all you seek and you’re a non-Indigenous, non-Black person in America or Canada, or a non-Indigenous person in Australia or New Zealand, reflect on what nationality means to you. Even if you firmly believe “Fuck colonialism! Fuck AmeriKKKA!” Are you leaving? Should you die for being here since it’s ALL Indigenous land?

If you are celebrating Jewish death, even if it feels worthy of celebration because of “self-defense,” please contemplate what kind of life you want to live and what kind of world you want to live in. At a certain point, celebrating death has no relevance to “justice,” whether or not your leftist bubble says it does. At a certain point, human beings need to recognize the inherent dignity and redemption existent in ALL life (even “problematic,” cruel and traumatized life) if we ever want meaningful peace or change. It’s not simple or easy, so please don’t pretend that it is.

About the Author
Mallory Mosner is a queer, non-binary (they/them or she/her) Jewish writer from Seattle, WA.
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