Elihu D. Richter
Elihu D. Richter

Genocide, Human Choice, and Bystander Indifference: Real Cows and Phantom Elephants in India and Israel

2016 marks the fifth year of genocidal mass murder and massacres of possibly 400,000 by Bashir Assad’s forces and 20,000 by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Both have carried out mass executions, torture, rape, mass expulsions, forced migrations and other unspeakable atrocities. Chemicals are again back in use as agents of war. There have been ever more attacks of genocidal terror across the globe in the name of Islamist Jihadists, working as small cells or so called ‘lone-wolves’ — a misleading term. These attacks, in Boston, Paris, Toulouse, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, Tel Aviv, and Rouen have been motivated, inspired and triggered by Jihadist Islamist ideology.

2017 will mark the 70th anniversary of the partition of the Indian subcontinent into two new countries: India, which is mostly Hindu, and Pakistan, which is nearly all Muslim. In the war between Muslims and Hindu following the partition, some 1.5 million perished; there was the forced expulsion and the flight of an estimated 15 million people in both directions.

2018 will mark the 70th anniversary of the ratification of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on December 9, 1948. One day later it ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Genocide is defined by acts undertaken with the intent to destroy a population in whole or in part, by murder, starvation, destruction, expulsion, or the transfer of children. Intent is the operative word in the definition of genocide. Genocide is man-made and its prevention is man-made.

Because human life, limb and safety are imperiled, there is an ethical import not to delay intervention. In short, Moral Agency and Moral Urgency are central to Precaution, Prevention and Protection.

The clock is always ticking.

In June, I returned from an international conference on Mass Violence and Memory held at Jindal Global University near Delhi in mid-May. The conference, attended by some 35 participants, was sponsored by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and was superbly organized by Drs Rohee Dasgupta and Navras Afreedi and their colleagues, with back up sponsorship by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Jindal University has a brand new gleaming campus just outside of Delhi. We ourselves were housed in a nice new hotel 10 km away, next to a patch of land being grazed by cows and water buffalo. It was reassuring to see that both remain citizens of stature throughout India. Our hosts spared no effort to ensure seamless and safe transport from A to Z, and delicious food and great lodgings for their guests – no mean feat during a heatwave.

Indian Eternities Cows, Calves and Water Buffalo
Indian Eternities Cows, Calves and Water Buffalo

One of the participants, Emeritus Professor Suzanne Rutland from Australia, has published an elegant summary of the conference.

The conference brought together Indians and guests from the US, the UK, South Africa, Israel and Australia with backgrounds in human rights, genocide, anthropology, history, political science, education and public health. The Indians were looking at the injustices they see in India and elsewhere, relating to the caste system, Hindu-Muslim-Sikh tensions and more.

The conference featured a powerful opening talk by Professor David Patterson of University of Texas. He showed a photo taken from the inside of a Nazi gas chamber by the victim-to-be. One of the photos showed an empty dark grey space bordered by the jagged edge of the incinerator. Patterson saw the photo as a metaphor for the emptiness of total evil.

I asked the participants if they were ready to address the dismal fact that in the last five years there has been a collapse of the four foundational moral pillars of the post Holocaust vision for a safer more humane world: the UN Charter guaranteeing that nations be free from aggression, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention banning Chemical and Biological Warfare.

I was looking for a conference statement calling for the reassertion of Moral Agency in the light of the collapse of these foundational pillars.

That statement never came.

Addressing the current genocidal threats – especially from Jihadist Islamist regimes and movements and their allies – took a backseat to discussions on memory and narrative, now major themes in genocide conferences.

My concern is that memory of the horror of past man-made evil should not be used to divert and distract from predicting and preventing the same evils by perpetrators here and now. No time was devoted to current genocidal threats to Christians, Ezidis, Kurds, Armenians, Jews and many other minorities, including Muslims from Jihadist Islamists. There was a similar selective almost total blotting out of Jihadist Genocide at the recent well-publicized Jerusalem conference of the International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS).

Neither conference devoted prime time to the urgency of prevention and protection for these groups.

Neither addressed the threats posed by the pandemic of Jihadist genocidal incitement and its role as an enduring warning sign and trigger for mass murder, rape, torture and expulsions throughout much of the Muslim world. The toll in the Muslim world since World War 2 has been estimated to be some 12 million deaths from genocide, war, mass murder, massacres and terror, with many millions more refugees and displaced persons.

And finally, neither the Jindal Conference nor the INOGS Jerusalem conference devoted attention to the Iranian government’s continued incitement to genocide, its role as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, its role as an enabler of Syria’s mass murder, its suppression of human rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its continued development of ICBM’s. The selective blindness shown at the Jindal Conference and Jerusalem conference of the International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS) reflected all of the shortcomings of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal between the P5+1 powers and Iran.

My concern: mobilizing Moral Agency to address current threats based on hard evidence has taken a back seat to narratives, memory and stories. The result has been Moral Equivalence.

In Jindal and Jerusalem, scholars were distracted from all of the above by Holocaust-Naqba comparisons, which I consider grotesque. I will return to this bizarre exercise in distraction and diversion towards the end of this essay.

Israel and India

In India-Pakistan, over one million people were killed and 15 million displaced.

In the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, 6000 Jews – one percent of the population – were killed, and best available estimates are that some 7,000 Arabs were killed. Around 700,000 Arab refugees were displaced, together with a much smaller number of Jews who were forced to leave the areas conquered by the Jordanian Legion in the Old City and around Jerusalem. Close to a million Jews were displaced from the Arab world in the years following the 1948 war. Today there are less than 4,000 Jews left in the Arab-Muslim world.

Professor Rutland, who presented these data, showed clear parallels between the end of British rule on the Indian sub-continent and in Israel. In both cases, partition and statehood produced war, massacres, expulsions and flight. However, in both India and Israel, the leaders moved forward and found ways to feed, house, and provide work for their new populations. For populations who have been through hell, there was no whining about refugee victimhood. Two lessons emerge from the Indian-Israel comparison:

(1) Continuing to move forward is healthier than wallowing in victimhood

(2) Memory should be redemptive, not vindictive

Public Hangings in Iran and Murders of Dalit in India

Iran has the highest per capita rate of hangings in the world, and the number of hangings has been rising since the Western deal with Iran. More than a thousand Iranians were sent to the gallows in 2015. Incitement, support for terror, and missile development has also been rising. I asked one Indian scholar why there is no outrage in India about the fact that Iran sends more than a thousand people to the gallows each year. His answer was, “look at India, four Dalits (untouchables) are murdered everyday – clearly an outrage.” Many Dalit murders are carried out by other Dalits.

I found this comparison, made with the best of intentions, to be misleading. The Iranian hangings are carried out by an evil government using the hangings to intimidate its population. Under the so-called moderate Ruhani, the number of hangings has increased, and Iran sent more than a thousand people to the gallows in 2015, many on flimsy trumped up charges. Our own research at the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention shows that hangings increase when international pressures on Iran are relaxed, and are fewer when these pressures are increased.

By contrast, the Indian government has shown Moral Agency towards the Dalit. It has worked hard to stop Dalit murders, and there are results. Over the years, the annual death toll has fallen. In 1997, Indians even chose a Dalit to be their President.

The risk of being hanged by the government in Iran, with a population of 80 million, is still greater than the risk of being murdered among the 200 million Dalits in India.

The 2002 Massacre in Gujarat: From Governmental Bystanderism to Prevention

Muslims can be victims of massacres in India. In Gujarat in 2002, Hindus massacred an estimated 2000 Muslims on a pilgrimage to a holy site in Gujarat. This violence was triggered by a Muslim ambush and murder of a group of Hindu pilgrims. A well informed Zoroastrian friend in Gujarat personally told me that the police and government officials were told to look the other way as rampaging Hindu mobs pillaged and killed.

In 2008, it looked as though there would be another massacre of Muslims by Hindus. I happened to be in India at that time and I watched the TV images of the Flag March down the main boulevard of Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat. This time, there were no riots and no one was killed.

Quiet was maintained thereafter, but hardship remained. In 2009, I personally visited a camp of impoverished victims, living in huts of cardboard and corrugated metal on a small dirt patch. In June, shortly after I returned to Israel, I read that a court in India found 24 people guilty of involvement in one of the massacres during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.

The story of the Gujarat massacre is a classic example of how bad things happen when officials remain bystanders, and how good things happen – the return of safety, quiet and a semblance of normal everyday life – when they do intervene. The Federal Flag March down the main boulevard of Gujarat is a role model for all in genocide prevention, locally and globally.

I ask: what if the world powers, or even the US alone, had shown the flag at the beginning of Bashir Assad’s murderous war on his subjects? What if they had bombed Assad’s headquarters after the gas attacks or had bombed ISIS’s headquarters massively after the capture of Mosul? Those who wish to prevent Genocide need to remember that Evil results from Human Choice and Bystander Indifference.

Israel and the Palestinians: A late night hotel conversation with a Muslim Kashmir gynecologist

Even in faraway India, this Israeli was assaulted by questions about “the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” In the hotel, I had a late night conversation with a group of Kashmiri doctors about Israel. In the hotel lobby, a bearded fiery-eyed gynecologist jawed away at me over the details – downloaded from his smartphone – concerning the deaths of three children playing on a beach near Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, from shrapnel from an Israeli rocket. He was unwilling to hear any explanation in terms of how things can go badly wrong in war.

He demanded an apology on the spot, accusing me of complicity in Israel’s war crimes. I was struck by the penetration throughout the Muslim world of every story about Israel, true or untrue.

But my Kashmiri medical colleague did not want to talk about Hamas’ rocket attacks indiscriminately aimed at Israeli civilian sites. Oddly, he seemed unmoved by the fact that since World War II, millions of Muslims have been killed by other Muslims. He did not question the number, but said it was a matter for Muslims and was none of my business. I said it was a matter of humans killing humans.

To me, this conversation was just one more example of how obsession with Israel’s deeds, right or wrong, diverts and distracts millions in the Muslim  world – and much of the world – from the major tragedies. My theory is that there is a cause-effect relationship between the obsession with Israel and the neglect of the major catastrophes in the Middle East and Africa happening today. But upon further reflection, I realized something else: Israel’s conduct of its military operations has enormously improved as a result of international microscopic scrutiny. What a better world it would be were the same scrutiny applied to all.

Are Israeli textbooks racist?

According to Nurit Elhanan-Peled from Israel, who presented both at Jindal and Jerusalem, Israeli textbooks present motifs of racism and promote war. Elhanan-Peled blames the Israeli administration in the West Bank and Gaza for the murder of her daughter by a Palestinian terrorist in 1997 in the Ben Yehuda Street bombing.

She presented what to my mind was a highly subjective and biased assessment of peace education in Israeli textbooks. It was puzzling to see this presentation receive pride of place at both Jindal in Delhi and INOGS in Jerusalem, given the heavy criticism of her work by reputable scholars from IMPACT-SE, a Hebrew University based think tank that evaluates textbooks in the Middle East. Yet she has had nothing to say about motifs of demonization and delegitimization concerning Israel and Israelis in the Muslim world, including Palestinian textbooks.

To demonstrate one example of Israeli textbooks providing negative stereotypes of Palestinians, she showed a picture of a Palestinian plowing his land. In my view, this was not a negative image. It accurately represented Palestinian attachment to the land, It is factually accurate. Until recent years, some 70 percent of the Palestinian population has worked in agriculture, with most using traditional methods.

Dr. Peled- Elhanan also showed an illustration of two Israeli soldiers pointing rifles, one straight ahead at the reader, and the other sideways, as an example of education for war. It turns out that the second rifle was pointed at the head of another Israeli soldier. In my view, the picture was an all too accurate description of safety lapses still present in everyday Israeli soldiering.

She  claimed that the standardized methods for studying the texts do not pick up the subtexts — a point deserving careful study. And she claims that her interpretive methods uniquely enable her to discern what these subtexts are. The question is how does she determine what these subtexts are?

She had nothing to say about the omission of Israel from maps in Palestinian textbooks or Israelis being presented as normal human beings and other very clear examples of delegitimization and demonization.

Phantom and Real Elephants in Jindal’s Seminar Room

Throughout the Jindal conference, real cows and water buffalo continued to graze outside our hotel, undisturbed by what we had to say. However, according to one Jindal participant, we were ignoring a big invisible elephant in our conference room. He called that elephant the Israeli-Palestinian Holocaust.

Here was one more tiresome example of grotesque Holocaust-Naqba comparisons going along with ”narratives” promoting motifs of Moral Equivalence. In response, I repeated the question that I had asked at the beginning of the conference: why was the conference silent about the real elephant in the room? Why did it remain silent about the mass murder, massacres, crimes against humanity, and forced expulsions in Syria and Iraq being perpetrated by Bashir Assad and ISIS, as well as Iran’s role as an enabler of Syria’s mass murder and Hezbollah’s terror?

All of these issues were raised in an emergency parallel workshop during the INOGS conference, hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention on Genocidal Threats to Minorities in the Mideast — despite the objections of the INOGS conference organizers.

My theory, based on experiences at four academic conferences on genocide – one in Winnipeg, another in Yerevan, and now in Jindal and Jerusalem – is that worldwide academic obsession with the phantom elephant – meaning Jews/Zionists/Israel – has distracted and diverted attention from what should be the major concern: how to predict and prevent the horrendous death and suffering from the collapse of the Islamic world.

Phantom Elephants: When Narratives Overwrite History and When Historians Tell Stories

Dr. Adam Sutcliffe of King’s College London gave an elegant keynote address on the evolution of Memory and Narrative, i.e., stories. However, I am concerned that Narrative – ‘My Story’ – has come to replace History – ‘His Story’ – the milestones, hard data of who did what when and where to whom, and hard timelines of History. I ask: when ‘Narrative’  trumps History, does Moral Equivalence trump Moral Agency? Is the emerging fashion among certain academics to equate Naqba with Holocaust an example of Narrative trumping History and Moral Equivalence trumping Moral Agency?

Dr. Sutcliffe’s statements suggesting that Ben-Gurion used the Eichmann trial to shape Zionist identity and legitimize Jewish claims to Israel as the Jewish national home could not have fallen farther from historical truth. His presentation did not recognize the importance of the San Remo Conference in 1920, which incorporated the Balfour Declaration into the first international legal document recognizing a future Jewish State. His presentation contained no reference to the Hamas’ Charter calling for the extermination of Israel.

All the early Zionist thinkers subscribed to the three core principles of the Zionist idea: that the Jewish people had a right to return to their ancient homeland, that Jews must take responsibility for their own fate, and that they had to respect the rights of those already in Palestine. The Zionist ethos defined Jewish peoplehood in terms of what Jews would do, and not by victimhood – what was done unto them. In doing so, the Zionist leaders had to wrestle with how a new nation would live with its non-Jewish inhabitants. It did so in its Declaration of Independence.

Dr. Sutcliffe alluded to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a roughly symmetric conflict in terms of national, religious, and ethnic lines, but ignored Hamas’ genocidal charter. Likewise, he ignored the PA’s delegitimization of Israel’s identity, its glorifications of perpetrators of terror as martyrs, as well as the wider context of Muslim hostility to Jews and the role of the Grand Mufti as a cheerleader for the Nazi Holocaust. He ignored the 1939 British White Paper as an eventual death sentence for much of European Jewry, and Palestinian Holocaust denialism. He did not address motifs calling for the elimination of the State of Israel, on permanent display on the website of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. And now there are current statements emanating from the Palestinian Authority about suing Great Britain for issuing the Balfour Declaration.

Yet Ben-Gurion presciently anticipated the dangers of Holocaust denialism and minimalization. The Eichmann trial went a long way towards correcting negative stereotypes in Israeli society towards Holocaust survivors. Interestingly, the Eichmann trial is seen by experts in international criminal law as one of the first precedents for universal Jurisdiction.

At Jindal, one paper from Israel showed how teaching of the Holocaust, once peripheral to Israeli education, has come to take an ever more prominent role in the curriculum. In my point of view, Holocaust education in Israel needs to emphasize the universal responsibility to prevent genocidal threats to all groups. Formal Israeli education programs have failed to recognize the ever-increasing body of knowledge of the continuities between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Few Israelis know that the precursors to the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust can be found in German concentration camps in Southwest Africa, in which the Herero peoples were incarcerated at the turn of the century.

I call upon Yad Vashem to include an exhibit on the continuities between Herero concentration camps, the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. I, for one, take exception to Israel’s failure to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

I believe that an emerging sense of shared responsibility for humankind should be coming out of these educational exercises, but sadly this is not happening enough in Israel.

Hiroshima and Mass Killing: Moral Agency and Moral Dilemmas

The Jindal Conference Organizers exploited the simultaneous Hiroshima Commemoration of the 70th year of the US dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and President Barack Obama’s visit to the city. There was a Skype lecture with a European authority on Japanese culture and history. He probed Japanese attitudes concerning the decision by the US to use the A-Bomb. Everyone knows the reason for the US decision: a huge number of lives would have been lost had the United States found it necessary to invade Japan. However, nobody can be at ease with the need to be faced with this choice.

At Jindal there was no discussion of how Japan, even today, has never come to terms with the ethics of its never-punished use of agents of biological and chemical warfare. During the 1930’s and 1940’s in Manchuria, Japan’s notoriously evil Unit 731 killed untold numbers of Chinese in horribly cruel experiments on humans. Japanese scientists carried out live vivisection. They exposed populations to experimental airborne strains of plague and anthrax bacillae. They carried out experimental dispersion of toxic aerosols in which large populations were exposed.

Putting Moral Agency into Education and Policy

At Jindal and Delhi, a young Armenian scholar talked about Russian aid to the Armenians during the Genocide in terms of motives of altruism and realpolitik. When I asked her what she thought about current Israeli sales of drones to Azerbaijan, she told me that many countries, especially Russia, sell drones to both the Armenians and the Azeris. At the breakout session organized by the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention in parallel with the INOGS Conference, Uri Bank, a Knesset staffer, presented a legislative proposal initiated by Professor Yair Auron to ban Israeli arms sales to regimes that are gross abusers of human rights.

After 70 years, it is now time to reassert the foundational principles of the UN Charter, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the bans on Chemical Warfare. The challenge remains: to channel these sentiments into genuine political action for predicting and preventing. My concern is that too many Genocide Scholars equate the posture of bystanders with scholarly objectivity. They do not see themselves as being required to have any Moral Agency on all issues, except, perhaps,  the Phantom Elephant in the Jindal Seminar Room that reappeared in the INOGS conference.

I am concerned that “Genocide Studies” are in danger of becoming one ongoing Tuskegee Experiment, one of the most notorious examples of how doctors fell down the slippery slope.

In the 1940s and 1950s, doctors in Tuskegee Alabama committed evil when they withheld penicillin from poor Afro-American sharecroppers in the Deep South who were suffering from syphilis so as to advance knowledge on the natural history of the disease. Penicillin cured syphilis, but the doctors wanted a control population, so patients died who could have lived.

Do we need more “control” populations for “genocide studies” or do we need to advocate for more Flagmarch Interventions to prevent genocide in all its forms?

Scholars ‘studying’ genocide need a Code of Ethics to protect them from becoming complicit bystanders. Once the murdering, raping and plundering starts, it is already too late. Because life is the most basic of human rights, genocide and incitement to genocide represent the most extreme assaults on that right. Therefore, there is an ethical import in not allowing genocide and incitement to genocide to move forward. The clock is always ticking…

Many thanks to Gabriella Levy, Daniel Mazur, and Talya Markus for research and editing.

Elihu D. Richter MD MPH is Associate Professor in Occupational and Environmental Medicine (retired) at Hebrew University-School of Public Health and Community Medicine. He is Director of the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention. He applies epidemiologic models and tools prediction to prevent genocide and genocidal terror, with specific emphasis on incitement.


About the Author
Dr. Elihu D Richter is a founder of the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention
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