The Jewish people have been accused of many things. Jean-Paul Sartre put it most succinctly when he wrote that antisemites “delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.” In the Middle Ages, we were the killers of Christ. In the twentieth century, we were the source of Germany’s inter-war turmoil. And today, we find ourselves yet again in the dock of history, this time as the perpetrators of the very crime that we suffered at the hands of the Nazi enterprise. Yes, the particular accusation is different (and so is the accuser), but the absurdity is all the same.
Once a beacon of hope throughout the world, South Africa has assumed the torch formerly kindled by Christian Europeans by declaring war on the Jewish people. It has done so by accusing Israel of “genocide,” a term coined by Rafael Lemkin in 1944 to describe the systematic extermination of European Jewry. At the time, there was no term for the destruction wrought by the Nazis and nor was there a mechanism to protect European Jews from it. In fact, the modern-state of Israel was created because the governments of the world shut their borders to Jewish refugees. It was the mass murder of Jews in Europe—that is, a real genocide aided by European nations and even the United States—that made Jewish statehood a humanitarian imperative.
Now, that Israel was established as a nation of Holocaust survivors—with the explicit raison d’être of protecting the Jewish people from the gas chambers—is not enough to dispel the absurd accusation that it is committing genocide in Gaza. South Africa’s charges may be cruel and offensive, but their sheer chutzpah will not prove the IDF’s innocence ipso-facto. Instead, Israel’s defenders at the ICJ—which includes renowned jurist and Holocaust survivor Aharon Barak—will have to demonstrate that its war against Hamas is not motivated by “genocidal intent.” Fortunately for them, Israel has nothing to hide — and a lot to show.
The tragic civilian death-toll in Gaza notwithstanding, there is no nation in the history of warfare that has done more than Israel to protect innocent civilians when faced with comparable threats. The use of military force is never morally uncomplicated, especially when fighting against a terrorist group that purposefully situates itself in populous areas. While far too many Palestinians have died during the past three months, high civilian casualty rates are unavoidable when arrayed against an enemy that seeks to maximise collateral damage as part of an egregious public relations campaign.
Israel has not avoided these complexities, and it has at times stumbled (even very badly). But Colonel Richard Kemp has pointed to a decisive truth: “No army,” he says, “takes such risks in order to protect civilians as the Israeli army does.” A retired British officer who toured Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, Kemp is ideally situated to understand the moral dilemmas of urban warfare and he has consistently reiterated that Israel’s war against Hamas does not meet the threshold for genocide outlined by the U.N. Convention. Genocidal armies do not open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee to safe-zones in southern Gaza. They do not distribute leaflets warning civilians to leave areas that are about to be struck. And they decidedly do not send their own men into harm’s way when a less intimate—and less discriminate—option is available.
In fact, there is only one party to the conflict that repeatedly calls for genocide — and it is not Israel’s War Cabinet. Founded in 1987 as an Islamist alternative to Fatah, Hamas seeks Israel’s destruction through Jihad and the annihilation of the Jewish people. It may be venerated amongst segments of the far-left as nothing more than a group of noble revolutionaries resisting the yoke of colonial oppression, but its motives could not be clearer. According to its own leading official Fathi Hammad, Hamas was founded to “cut off the heads of Jews” and it acted on this so-called divine imperative on October 7th. In its deeds as well as its rhetoric, the group’s barbarism has been well-documented and it will be laid bare at The Hague. Indeed, though Israel begins this trial as the party under legal scrutiny, the footage of militants massacring, raping and burning scores of innocent Israelis will render Hamas the moral convict, and South Africa the shameful interlocutor.
In bringing this case, President Ramaphosa has guaranteed not only legal defeat, but disgrace to a nation that has served as a cauldron of crime and political incompetence in recent decades. It takes temerity of the highest order to accuse a nation of Holocaust survivors and their descendants of genocide, especially when your own country is amongst the most corrupt in the world. With a world-leading homicide rate of 41 murders annually per 100,000 people, post-apartheid South Africa has fallen far from its original promise. In his own words, Nelson Mandela hoped to establish a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” on the ashes of one of the most morally repugnant regimes of the 20th century. As of 2024, South Africa is not an advanced multiracial democracy, but a hotbed of human trafficking, drug dealing, carjacking, burglary and every other crime, civil and political, under the sun. Even worse, it is a nation that has alienated its sizeable Jewish population—and its allies in the West—by subjecting Israel to a show trial for its legitimate war against Islamic fundamentalism.
Advocating for the Palestinians is noble, but accusing Israel of genocide—when it has employed substantive measures to protect innocent Palestinians—is simply beyond the pale. There is no moral or factual basis for South Africa’s charge. There is only a political one. The party of Mandela has been so degraded as to do the bidding of Iran and its terrorist proxies. A country once revered as a symbol of justice in an otherwise unjust world has embraced the language of human rights not as a genuine commitment, but as a convenient guise for its own domestic inadequacy. In the context of this awful war (which Israel did not start), South Africa could have used its moral authority to condemn Hamas war-crimes and acknowledge Israel’s basic right to self-defence against an enemy that vows to finish what the Nazis started.
Mr Ramaphosa has done neither of those things — and for that, he can never be forgiven.