Eugene Korn

The Death of Genocide

Since October 7 “genocide” has rolled effortlessly off our tongues. To Israelis, Hamas’s murder, rape, and kidnapping of more than 1,200 people prove that Hamas is committed to its goals of making Palestine Judenrein through violent jihad and exterminating Jews. To many on campus, social media, and in the partisan halls of the United Nations, Israel’s response to Hamas’s orgy of death is self-evident genocide. This rhetoric is awash in certainty, even though factual analyses yield little evidence of actual genocide.

Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” after reflecting on the mass slaughter of civilians in World War II. He understood genocide as a particularly heinous crime distinguishable from other war crimes, defining it as “the intent to destroy a human group as such, directed at individuals only because they belong to that group.” More simply, the Encyclopedia Britannica defines genocide as “the deliberate systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race.” In 1951, the crime of genocide gained legal force when the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was ratified by more than 130 countries.

Mass killing by itself does not constitute genocide, and World Wars I and II demonstrate the distinction. The Carnegie Institute estimates the number of World War I war-related deaths at 16-17 million, yet only the Ottoman murders of Armenians (1-1.5 million), Assyrians (750,000), and ethnic Greeks (348,000) were genocidal. World War II was far more lethal. Estimates run from 70 to 85 million people killed but deaths from systematic group extermination comprised but a small fraction of these: Jews (5.9 million), ethnic Slavs (2-2.5 million), Roma (250,000), Freemasons (80,000-200,000), disabled persons (250,000-300,000), and homosexuals (10,000-15,000). Thus, only 16% of World War I and 10-13% of World War II deaths were the result of genocide.

Many point to the large number of deaths in Gaza as proof of Israeli genocide. As of May 17, Reuters reported that the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health claimed 24,686 Gazans have been identified killed in the war and another 10,000 are missing. If we assume the worst case that all the missing are dead, approximately 35,000 Gazans have died from the war. Israel maintains that more than 14,000 of these deaths were Hamas combatants. If we accept these unconfirmed figures, approximately 21,000 Gazan civilians have died, albeit some were killed by misfired Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad rockets.

To determine whether these deaths constitute genocide, compare the Gaza war to other modern wars: The percentages of Gazans killed (1.59%) and civilians killed out of the total population (0.95%) are all dramatically lower than their corresponding categories in other major wars. During World War I, 3.8% of all Russians died, while 8.57% of its civilians were killed. In World War II, 6.1% of German citizens died and 1.13% of German civilians were killed, while 10.5% of all Russians and 4.1% of Russian civilians were killed. In the Korean War, 12-15% of North Koreans were killed, while 10.2% of North Korean civilians died.

None of those campaigns were categorized as genocide since they reflect only the lethal nature of these wars. If those vastly more lethal campaigns were not genocide, it is difficult to see how the Israeli campaign in Gaza, with its immensely lower percentages of population and civilians killed, could qualify as genocide.

We can also analyze how 1.59% of Gazans killed compares to the corresponding percentages of the actual genocides against the Armenians in World War I (80%), the Jews (67%) and the Roma people (25-33%) in World War II, and the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 (85%).

The percentage of Gazans killed relative to the group population is at least 15 times lower than the percentages of the populations killed in the above genocides. The discrepancy is even greater if we consider all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, over which Israel has substantial military control. In that case, the percentage of Palestinian people killed (0.68%) is more than 39 times lower than the percentages killed in any of the genocides. Again, the results of the Israeli campaign bear no statistical similarities to actual genocides.

Another important indicator of genocide is the ratio of civilian casualties to enemy combatant deaths. If the intent is the destruction of a group, qua group, then civilians will represent a high casualty ratio relative to combatants. Conversely, a low ratio of civilian-to-combatant deaths augurs for general lethality, not genocide.

In the non-genocidal campaigns of World War II, the civilian-to-combatant death ratio was approximately 2:1; in the Korean War, it was 3:1; in the Persian Gulf War, it was 9:1; and in the Iraq War, it was 2:1. In the present Gaza war, it is 21,000/14,000 or 1.5:1.

The low 1.5:1 Gaza ratio is notable because the war is being fought in dense urban areas where civilians have little protection, while Hamas fighters are protected in underground tunnels. Moreover, Hamas has positioned its military assets in and under schools, hospitals, and residential buildings. The Gaza fighting is comparable to the 2016-2017 international campaign against ISIS in Mosul, which was also fought in dense urban areas. The Mosul civilian-to-combatant death ratio was 9:1, as is the UN’s estimated ratio for urban warfare, so the civilian-to-combatant death ratio in Gaza is approximately six times lower than that of standard urban warfare.

In sum, the Gaza deaths resemble the pattern of general warfare and are manifestly dissimilar to instances of actual genocide. There is no statistical warrant to justify the claim that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.

No person who values life can remain insensitive to the immense tragedy in Gaza. William Tecumseh Sherman was correct: War is hell. However, lethal war by itself is not genocide. Unfortunately, fact-based analyses will not stop many from uncritically insisting that genocide is occurring in Gaza. Emotional recoil easily overcomes careful thinking. More pointedly, there is great political value for some in describing Israel’s actions as genocide: it condemns Israel of the most heinous of crimes, thereby strengthening the radical argument to dismantle the Jewish state.

THERE ARE also moral and historical consequences to this error. As the false claim goes viral, genocide becomes conflated with the general hellishness of war and loses its unique descriptive and prescriptive meaning. If the war in Gaza constitutes genocide, then so do World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and all conflicts with horrific lethality.

This logic’s trajectory denies legitimacy to any middle ground between peace and genocide, rejecting any moral position between pacifism and all-out conflict unbridled by moral rules. The Nazi extermination campaigns against Jews, Roma, ethnic Slavs, and homosexuals, qua peoples, become no worse than any bloody war.

Should this occur, genocide as a distinctive concept of extreme evil will have died, as will our conviction to prevent its recurrence. “Never Again” will become “Again” in history, perhaps in our lifetime.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is an ethicist living in Jerusalem. His most recent book is Israel and the Nations: The Bible, the Rabbis, and Jewish-Gentile Relations (Academic Studies Press)
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