Stephen Games

I make up the quotes, then I disagree with them

Northeastern University’s law professor Zinaida Miller decides to spin a tale

I have just been reading an article about genocide on the London Review of Books blog site. The author, Zinaida Miller, has X’d about it widely.

Zinaida Miller recently became a professor (i.e. lecturer) in both the School of Law and the International Affairs Program of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern University. She was previously an assistant professor (i.e. assistant lecturer) in International Law & Human Rights at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.

While at Seton Hall, she received five enthusiastic endorsements of her teaching by students on the website. The most recent of these says, “Dr. Miller is amazing. I had her for 3 classes and would have taken 4 if I had the space for it. I have learned so much from her classes, plus she is funny. I definitely have an academic crush on her. Take at least one of her classes. I heard she created a class about racism in IR and I really wish I took that.”

The next one reads: “Professor Miller is amazing! Her Human Rights Law & Policy class is so fun, the discussions are very interesting. She is very knowledgeable and very willing to answer questions. Very open to office hours, help with her class, general life advice, etc. She’s a blast!”

The other endorsements are similar. She is evidently a bright spark. As for her thoughts on genocide, she wishes to distinguish between two conversations on genocide currently taking place (it’s always handy to discuss complex matters by means of a simple binary opposition). One conversation she regards as “a proper legal and political discussion” about the killing of vast numbers of Palestinians and the destruction of property; the other she regards as a “specious” complaint about hate speech on US university campuses which she says is “not happening” but has been “fanned by a combination of historically conditioned fears and craven opportunism.”

She is speaking, of course, about the congressional hearing on December 5 at which Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik quizzed the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT about hate speech on campus. And what she says in her article is that Congresswoman Stefanik asked Harvard’s new but apparently “embattled” president Claudine Gay,

if she agreed that the “call for intifada is to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally.” [I quote her words verbatim.]

Miller falls in with the universal criticism that the university presidents’ responses to Congresswoman Stefanik’s questions were “tepid” and “legalistic” but judges that “the most harmful outcome of the hearing was the failure to contest her bogus premise. Conflating intifada with genocide makes both terms unintelligible,” she insists.

She then takes pains to clarify the meaning of intifada and the legal definition of genocide under international law. Regarding its meaning, an intifada is simply an uprising, she says, adding that in all the “major” intifadas that have happened in Iraq (1952, 1991, 1999), Egypt (1977) and Lebanon (2005) as well as two in Israel/Palestine (1987-93 and 2000-5), “neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinian communities … ever associated the word with genocide – no matter how brutal, bloody and disturbing the Second Intifada’s suicide bombings were.”

By contrast, she continues, genocide could be any series of acts aimed at destroying, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, religious or racial group, which is what “scholars, UN rapporteurs and human rights organisations are suggesting … is happening in Gaza,” on account of “references by senior Israeli officials to Palestinians as ‘human animals’; the assertion that Gaza must be reduced to ‘rubble’; the restriction of access to food, water and medicine; the massacre of Palestinian civilians; and the internal displacement of almost the entire Gazan population.”

In Zinaida Miller’s view, Israel’s supporters have muddied the waters by preferring to focus on the triviality of American campus protests rather than on the atrocities that such protests complain about in Gaza, “sometimes hallucinating genocidal speech where it simply does not exist.” As evidence of this, she quotes a widely circulated Instagram post which falsely claimed that demonstrators at the University of Pennsylvania in October had chanted, “We want Jewish genocide,” when in fact they had chanted “We charge you [i.e. Israel] with genocide,” as revealed in an investigation reported by USA Today.

She also debunks the notion that the phrase “from the river to the sea” is “a genocidal call to violence,” as claimed by Stefanik’s fellow congressman Rick McCormick in the recent motion to censure the Palestinian American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib.

Although it is generally understood that racial threats are legitimized by how they are heard by those at whom they are directed rather than by how the offending party may justify them, she asserts that “the fact that such slogans genuinely frighten parts of the Jewish community requires education, not prohibition and punishment,” because imputing genocidal intent requires either telling protesters that they don’t mean what they say they mean, or cravenly assuming that freedom for Gaza inevitably entails the mass murder of Israeli Jews.

Her conclusion is that debates about Palestine and Israel are only meaningful “if conducted accurately and in good faith,” adding that “to mischaracterise calls for Palestinian freedom as appeals for Jewish genocide degrades those debates and distracts from the ongoing catastrophe in Gaza.”

All very interesting, especially because Zinaida Miller bases her complaint about Jewish hallucination on what she says was Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s quizzing of Harvard president Claudine Gay over whether she agreed that the “call for intifada is to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally.”

Miller builds her essay around three things: what she regards as 1) the false equating of intifada and genocide; 2) the relative innocence of intifada; and 3) the reality of Israel’s genocidal intent in regard to Palestinians (and the inability of Jews and Israel’s supporters to recognize or acknowledge this), an interpretation which she does not consider that Palestinian sympathizers require educating out of in the way that “parts of the Jewish community” do – which seems to me like a double standard.

But here’s the funny thing. Elise Stefanik did not ask Claudine Gay the question that Zinaida Miller attributes to her and on which her defence of intifada is based. Stefanik did not use the word “intifada” to Claudine Gay even once. Her question, which she repeated, was: “At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment, yes or no?” No mention of intifada.

Was Zinaida Miller confusing Congresswoman Stefanik’s questioning of Harvard’s president with her questioning of the other two university presidents? Stefanik’s question for Liz Magill was, “At Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?” The discussion that followed then centered on whether or not the question was “context-dependent.”

The question put to MIT’s new president Sally Kornbluth ran the same way: “At MIT, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate MIT’s code of conduct or rules governing bullying and harassment, yes or no?” President Kornbluth’s reply was that such conduct would amount to bullying and/or harassment if targeted at individuals but not as a public statement.

The question was put again, and Kornbluth replied by saying that she had not heard calls for genocide of Jews on MIT’s campus. It was at that point that Stefanik rephrased the question in the way that Zinaida Miller takes exception to: “But you’ve heard calls for intifada,” implying that Kornbluth must have heard such calls and that the one amounted to the other. To this, Kornbluth replied, “I’ve heard chants which can be antisemitic, depending on the context, when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people … [which] would be investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.”

Now this is interesting. First, there is the fact that Zinaida Miller entirely fabricated the quotation that she then spent more than 700 words demolishing. That has to say something about the methodology, integrity and reliability of a Northeastern University “professor” employed by not one but two of its departments, and this matters. Reputations may hang on the false evidence that Zinaida Miller is willing to present as factual. And, by the way, it’s not difficult to check the wording of Congresswoman Stefanik’s questions. They are widely available on YouTube. Here’s one link to them, if it helps her:

The other curious fact – and, yes, it’s a fact – is that the university president to whom she did use the word “intifada” had no difficulty with the question. Sally Kornbluth could have said that the harnessing of intifada to genocide was inappropriate, improper, provocative, delusory, a mischaracterization of calls for Palestinian freedom, or a hallucinating of genocidal speech where it simply does not exist.

But she didn’t say this. What she actually said was, “I’ve heard chants which can be antisemitic, depending on the context, when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people.” Just to make that clear, President Sally Kornbluth of MIT said she had heard antisemitic chants. The only thing that qualified her to say whether such chants were in breach of MIT’s rules was the context in which they were made, and their pervasiveness and severity.

So here we have three university presidents all wishing to say that their institutions’ policies on bullying and harassment were robust enough to be applied to calls for genocide if the occasion warranted it, and all agreeing that under certain circumstances, university sanctions against perpetrators could and should be invoked.

At the same time, not one of the presidents objected to Stefanik’s question, or refused to answer it on the grounds that it was founded on a “bogus premise,” or that it was “specious,” nor did any of them suggest that they considered the question put to them was “fanned by a combination of historically conditioned fears and craven opportunism.”

So whereas there has indeed been outrage at the “tepid, legalistic responses to Stefanik’s questions,” all three presidents recognized that there could be a case to answer if persuasive evidence were brought. That is very different from Zinaida Miller’s invalidating of the question she imagined being asked.

There’s another issue raised by Northwestern University’s “funny,” “knowledgeable” law lecturer and international affairs expert. She quotes an investigation by USA Today which revealed that a widely circulated Instagram post had falsely claimed that demonstrators at the University of Pennsylvania had chanted, on October 16, “We want Jewish genocide.” This was Ms. Miller’s evidence for showing that “supporters of Israel’s onslaught … sometimes hallucinat[e] genocidal speech where it simply does not exist.” That is to say, demonstrators had not done so at that particular event and therefore no demonstrators had done so anywhere else.

She should have read further. USA Today went on to say that the October 16 rally, organised by the student group Penn Students Against the Occupation, had been promoted by a statement made by the same Liz Magill whom Congresswoman Stefanik had put on the spot, and who had condemned “Hamas’ terrorist assault on Israel and their violent atrocities against civilians,” without feeling she needed to balance this with a comment about the toll the war was having on Palestinians, who had at that point apparently suffered 2,670 casualties.

The fact is that, whether Zinaida Miller wants to acknowledge it or not, calls for the destruction or elimination of Israel and Jewish Israelis and Jews worldwide are common throughout the Arab and Moslem worlds and have indeed been heard on university campuses, and not just in the USA. If such calls are couched in abstract terms, it is very easy not to use the word “genocide,” and not go into detail about how such an elimination would be carried out, which is how such ideas are made palatable to those who casually promote them.

As Bruce Hoffman wrote in The Atlantic three days after the Hamas massacre of October 7, the 1988 Hamas Covenant (and the revised charter issued in 2017) is quite explicit about the necessity for Muslims to vanquish the Jews, and says so in terms that are not only “considerably shorter and more digestible than the 782-page original German-language edition of Mein Kampf,” but are also, “unlike Hitler’s seminal work, which was not published in English until March 1939,” written in excellent English translations which can easily be found on the internet.

One wonders why Zinaida Miller feels she has to deny the attraction of such language to Palestinian supporters (and, by the way, why she isn’t also outraged that the covenant claims, laughably, that “when the Jews conquered the Holy City in 1967, they stood on the threshold of the Aqsa Mosque and proclaimed that ‘Mohammed is dead, and his descendants are all women'” – evidently the ultimate Muslim insult, but not one that campus academics ever choose to complain about, no matter how committed they are to the feminist cause, because Islamism is always protected by exceptionalism, the very thing that Miller argues against in her teaching when it applies to America).

As for the term “genocide,” the word is often used because it offers an easy way to make sense of a complex situation, says Alexander Hinton, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University. That is to say, the attempt to lock the word into a single meaning needs to be read against the fact that people commonly use it in one of three ways.

First, he writes, “legal scholars contend that before violence is considered genocide, it is necessary to demonstrate that what occurred neatly matches what the UN Genocide Convention spells out.”

By contrast, “scholars in the social sciences and humanities” tend to apply it to “a range of cases and dynamics, including settler colonialism and enslavement,” as well as to multi-pronged attacks on a group’s political, social, cultural, economic, religious, moral and economic way of life.

And third, he says, it is used loosely by the public to refer to any attempt to destroy a large number of people, “and can mean not just mass death and destruction, but also things like abortion.”

It goes without saying that the whole issue of genocide is bogged down in disagreement but it also goes without saying that it is always best argued factually and objectively, and that introducing spurious and partisan evidence should reflect very badly on those who do so. I hope that Northeastern University will reprimand Zinaida Miller, at the very least. I do not expect the same of the London Review of Books, whose appetite for such sloppiness is now endemic, tragically for a once-admirable publication.

About the Author
Stephen Games is a designer, publisher and award-winning architectural journalist, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until Spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, habitually questioning its unwillingness to raise difficult questions about Israel, and was a board member of his synagogue with responsibility for building maintenance and repair. In his spare time he is involved in editing volumes of the Tanach and is a much-liked barmitzvah teacher with an original approach, having posted several videos to YouTube on the cantillation of haftarot and the Purim Megillah.