There is no need here to waste words explaining why South Africa’s allegations that Israel is committing genocide are absurd. But it would be foolish and irresponsible not to take some time to think about the wasteful words voiced by politicians and public figures that now form the basis of these accusations, to consider how we should have reacted to them then, and how we can take responsibility for them now. It is not easy to be self-critical when the world’s criticism is so hypocritical and false. But that makes it no less necessary.
This is not an exercise in victim-blaming. I am not claiming that it is Israel’s fault that South Africa is accusing it of committing genocide. Such accusations have been made against Israel since its founding. Nor am I belittling the rightful and righteous feelings of rage after the horrific butchery committed by Hamas on October 7th. I felt them too. But we do need to recognize that if Israel had really acted in line with that rage and had been guided by the irresponsible comments of many members of the government and of many others whose words were granted airtime and legitimacy, these accusations would actually be true.
Israel’s defense at the Hague asserts that it upholds the moral foundation of international humanitarian law, the basic principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and it is thankfully rather easy to demonstrate that the IDF’s policies on the ground were designed to meet this requirement. But much of the rhetoric that passed without criticism in the media in the days following October 7th explicitly denied this principle and often belittled it. There were frequent claims that “there are no innocent Palestinians in Gaza”, or that after what was done to us, we need to fight “without any restraints.”
Some of those voices are still trumpeted to this day. Perhaps the masses can be forgiven for speaking in this way out of the initial rage and trauma of those difficult days. Perhaps. But at the very least, the role of responsible leadership should have been to lead, by clearly insisting on the moral compass by which the IDF operates, by clearly delineating the moral difference between a war of justified self-defense, and acts of unjustifiable, wanton vengeance, and by clearly condemning incendiary rhetoric and holding to severe account anyone who undermines these moral commitments.
We often take the nations of the world to task for virulent antisemitic speech that they allow to pass and to become commonplace within society. We never accept the excuse that these are “just words” and are not meant to be taken seriously. We now find ourselves in the awkward position of needing to make just this excuse, and regarding the words of decision-makers with the power to make them a reality. We need to expect more of our leaders, and more of ourselves, and not only because we are now in hot water in the International Court of Justice. The arguments now being made against Israel should serve as a wake-up call. We need to demand leaders that reflect our best moral aspirations in their actions and no less, in their words. For too long, we have made do with far, far less.