The world, and the left, have been throwing around the charge of genocide* against Israel for a long time. The volume has become almost deafening during this war.
Israel has this very week been bombing a town where it had urged Gazans to flee to. The Gaza health system is collapsing. Food remains scarce. For sure, bombing a city where you have told civilians to flee is a war crime. It is also a crime against Torah. But does all this add up to genocide?
Over 20,000 Gazans have died** because of this war. The ratio of civilians to combatants, and the ratio of children to adults, are unbearable, almost unthinkable.
But does that make this genocide?
Until the war ends, the charge of genocide will only become louder. Jewish Voice for Peace began shouting “Genocide” from the very beginning of this war, along with many other groups, including some groups that are in fact antisemitic. Like many in the Jewish world, I have argued against making the charge of genocide. I felt sure up until recently about rejecting that terminology.
There are powerful reasons for resisting such rhetoric. Only a little bit of psychological analysis is needed to see that the accusation can easily be rooted in antisemitism. Often enough, charging Israel with genocide has at its roots the intention of equating Israel with the Nazis. That’s minimizing the Holocaust, which is inherently antisemitic. I did not want to support the use of rhetoric that could feed into that dynamic.
Accusing Israel of genocide also has an even more sinister element: it can become a facile way for European and other antisemites to brush off the guilt or moral burden of the Holocaust. There is a twisted, often subconscious logic that says, if they do it to others, they deserve it to be done to them. That is something all of us, no matter our politics, have an absolute obligation to fight against.
It’s also true that there are other wars going on elsewhere in the world right now that are explicitly genocidal. And war itself is not inherently genocide. Genocide after all has a definition. Among other things, the charge of genocide, at least initially, requires intention. That’s why slaughtering “only” 1200 people, as Hamas did on October 7, counts both as genocide and as a war crime. We know that genocide is the intention of Hamas’s military wing because they have told us so. But even though Israel’s current government includes ministers who are racists and fascists, genocide is neither a goal nor a tactic of this war.
At least not so far.
Nevertheless, Israel is creating conditions which will lead to indiscriminate mass death if they continue. That means if a lot of people begin to starve to death because food cannot reach them, or if they die because a cholera epidemic is spread by the lack of clean water, that is genocide. And it would be Israel’s fault, not Hamas, as Israel is the one stopping enough food and water from reaching the people in Gaza. If anything like that transpires, the charge of genocide will no longer depend on intention. (For yeshiva students: this is like p’sik reisha.)
The same holds true if one creates conditions which make survival of a culture or people on its land*** impossible. It no longer matters what policy or intention drive one’s actions, it still counts as a kind of genocide (“cultural genocide”**** to be precise).
That means if Israel floods Hamas’s tunnels with massive amounts of salt water from the sea, and that ruins Gaza’s aquifer, which would make Gaza essentially uninhabitable,***** that would count as genocide. (No one knows for sure if such flooding would ruin the aquifer, which is already in dire straits. But if it did, even if Israel were to bring in enough fresh water to keep people from dying, it would count as genocide as it is legally defined. Flooding the tunnels would also almost surely kill some of the hostages who are still alive.)
Moreover, if Israel forces Gazans who have fled bombing to leave the Gaza Strip and go anyplace else besides Israel/Palestine, that is the very definition of ethnic cleansing. The line between ethnic cleansing and genocide is too fine, and some believe that there is no line. And that very idea has been reported as a topic of conversation within Israel’s cabinet.
Somehow, 20,000 dead does not legally count as genocide, even though the proportion of dead civilians to dead combatants is so unbelievably high. That fact shocks some people, but it’s the legalistic truth: the death toll is counted as collateral damage because Israel has what are considered legitimate military targets and military objectives. Above all, the elimination of Hamas is a legitimate objective because Hamas itself is genocidal.
But we are reaching the limit of what that objective can justify. Many people who are not just knee-jerk anti-Israel believe the war in Gaza has already passed that limit.
For the reasons I’ve mentioned, charging Israel with genocide at the beginning of this war would have abetted grotesque hatred, not just toward the state of Israel, but also toward the Jewish people. The proof of that is the mushrooming antisemitism everywhere we look.
But as we inch toward more and more unthinkable consequences, it has become harder to feel like that dimension matters.
Even in a just war, it is incumbent on all to pay attention to the terrible consequences of war for civilians, for the innocent, for the land itself. And it is equally incumbent on all to pay attention to the moment when a justified war crosses the line into war crimes and into genocide. I pray that Israel changes tactics or stops this war, whether by victory or by negotiation, before that can happen anymore.
* “genocide” – In this article, I am exploring the current use of the term genocide to describe Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. However, there is a broader definition of cultural genocide, which could apply to the entire reality of the occupation, where genocide includes any action whose goal or effect is to make traditional Palestinian life impossible. See the second half of this article from my blog, about how the use of the term genocide in the Black community for slavery relates to its rhetorical application to Israel. See also Owen Bartov’s essay, “What I believe as an historian of genocide” in the NY Times, and this more recent interview. And see Masha Gessen, “Comparison is the Way We Know the World” for a different perspective. Gessen nevertheless also believes that “genocide” is not the right term for what has happened up until now.
** “20,000 Gazans have died” – Within the organized Jewish community, it is common to rebut this with the fact that “those are Hamas numbers” and therefore untrustworthy. There are two reasons why may not be relevant: 1) in past conflicts, Hamas casualty accounts have been found, in after-conflict analysis, to be pretty accurate; and 2) does it really matter from the perspective of moral urgency whether 21,000 have died or 12,000? Another thing to note, however, is that the Gazan Health Ministry does not separate combatant deaths from civilian deaths. Israel claims to have killed over 8,000 combatants, but that number is the one more likely to be inflated, since Israeli support for the war could wane if the public were not seeing “results.” At any rate, Israel in early December claimed that the ratio of civilians killed to combatants killed is 2 to 1, which they consider better than might be expected.
*** “its land” – Jewish claims to all of biblical Israel davka cannot include any of Gaza, which was never settled by Israelites or Hebrews or Jews. Gaza is in the area that was once controlled by the Philistines, from which the name Palestine was derived when the Romans renamed Judea. (Even in the West Bank, where those Jewish claims could be made, they can never justify forcing people to live under military occupation or forcing people to leave the homes and land that they own by right of tenure.)
**** “cultural genocide” – Cultural genocide was part of Raphael Lemkin’s original definition of the term, though it was not actually included in the Genocide Convention of 1948. However, many argue that cultural genocide is nevertheless implicitly a crime according to that convention, and in common parlance that seems to be the norm.
***** “uninhabitable” – Some people say that the water situation in Gaza already makes it unable to sustain its population. Exactly where the limit is beyond which Gaza becomes uninhabitable is not known for certain.