Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

The Language of Genocide

Tomorrow, 27 January 2024, marks Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Today marked the preliminary finding of the ICJ, with regards to the South African charge of genocide in Gaza. It charged Israel to “prevent genocide” but did not call for a ceasefire, yet calling the claims “plausible.” The juxtaposition of these ideas and days is one of the most horrifying outcomes of this war. That said, in a way it’s almost symbiotic — as we remember the outcomes of the words of Adolf Hitler and his cronies, we too are reminded of the fact that the beliefs that led to the Holocaust did not actually die. Genocide has a language unto itself. It requires demonization, division, euphemisms, dehumanization. And since October 7th, it has been revealed that the language carefully crafted by genocidaires of the past is once again being summoned in the present.

Although the Holocaust is remembered as one of the most heinous acts of barbarism and violence, it is perhaps lost to some that the Holocaust was itself legal in Germany. That it was the result of words: words that became laws, words that upended traditional versions of morality, words that dehumanized and othered to such an extent that the act of killing civilians was no longer seen as murder. As the presidents of Harvard, MIT and UPenn equivocated about whether “calls for genocide” were seen as problematic — and one even argued that “calls” for genocide were only an issue when they turned into actions — it is shocking that even our most educated are unaware of the danger of language. I would have to imagine that many Jews who had lived through the 1930s in Germany (sadly few of which are alive today) would see alarming parallels in many of these speech patterns. 

The Holocaust was rooted initially in language and actions that classified groups as “us” versus “them.” Jews were considered alien and separate across Europe, subject to regular chants of “go back to Palestine!” They were foreign, not of European stock. German/ British scholar George L. Mosse argued that German antisemitism was rooted in the ideas of blood and soil — that Jews could never be part of the Volk, could never be German, because they did not come from the soil of Germany. They came from the deserts of Eretz Yisrael, and were therefore similarly dry and arid people. That they were fundamentally an “other.” Goebbels and his ilk built on this, particularly relying on dehumanizing language, describing the Jews as “vermin” – cockroaches and rats most especially. To hate or kill vermin is not a crime, of course. Hamas adopts the same language as their German forebears, regularly recasting Jews as only worthy of death. The Palestinian ambassador to South Africa — oh the irony — argued after October 7th that “Hamas did not target civilians but settlers in Palestinian lands.” Even a Yale professor, Zareena Grewal, has publicly argued that Israelis are not civilians, “they are settlers” – saying that the distinction is “not hard.” As people flock to social media repeating this language, do they recognize that they are actively participating in the dehumanization of a group of people by choosing to strip them of their humanity — and in one quick jump that both the Nazis and Hamas made, of also their right to life? It is hard to believe that these language choices are not intentional.

Perhaps, one could also reflect on the language that argues the Jewish conspiracy to control the world. The last Tsar of Russia was in favour of widely publishing of a text called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion an (almost laughably ridiculous) document that describes the minutes of a meeting in which world Jewry plotted world domination and control of information. One that received many fans around the world, including Henry Ford, but most especially Adolf Hitler. Goebbels’ propaganda machine regularly used the motif of this Jewish conspiracy — that Jews are fundamentally behind all actions that are perceived as negative to oneself. They represented the USSR, the UK and the USA; both communism and capitalism, and even ecclesiastical policies. This belief has not, it appeared, been recognized as fundamentally ridiculous. At the Charlottesville riot, one white nationalist earnestly described “the left, the corporations and the state” as being “all on the same Jewish side” — when one was there ostensibly to protest the removal of a state of Robert E. Lee.

In Canada, one Fred Hahn tweeted a celebratory statement on October 7th, which happened to fall on Canadian thanksgiving. Awkwardly for him? He’s the head of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the largest union in Canada. When he got in trouble for arguing that one should be thankful on Thanksgiving that “resistance is fruitful and no matter what some might say,” CUPE fired back, releasing a statement that he and CUPE were being “targeted by a highly organized pro-Israel lobby that seeks to control the anti-Palestinian narrative.” He’s not alone among public Canadians. When NDP Candidate Sarah Jama made a controversial statement three days after the attack which condemned “violence and retaliation rooted in settler colonialism” without mentioning the Hamas massacre — prior to military action beginning — she was removed from the party caucus. Her response? That the well-organized and well-funded “Zionist lobby” was behind her censure. It is of course not either of their responsibility for tweeted praise or tactic acceptance for the outright murder of 1,200 civilians and the kidnapping of 250+ others. It is the Zionist’s responsibility that they got in trouble for advocating violence on a social platform. This complete abnegation of responsibility and belief in international Jewish conspiracy is one of the hallmarks of traditional antisemitism. 

A new antisemitic trope that has developed in the years since the Second World War, perhaps unsurprisingly, is claiming the Holocaust was less significant or didn’t happen at all, or accusing Israel of committing genocide and being equivalent to the Nazis. This has never been more true than now. Today the ICJ argued that South Africa’s meritless claims were “plausible” due to the scale of death in warfare. Repeatedly people accuse Israel of genocide on social media, and it’s becoming so ubiquitous that Joseph Goebbels would be proud – after all, it is he who said that a lie is up and around the world before the truth has the chance to pull its pants on. 

But words and language retain their power. Genocide does still have a definition. Despite the reshaping of language and history to suit a particular political or ideological agenda, there are (and should be) historical facts. Per the United Nations, genocide is a “crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.” In the 1940s, when the Final Solution was adopted by the Nazis, they swept Europe for its Jews, even going so far as to divert sorely needed materiel and men away from the Eastern Front towards completing their genocidal tasks. Jews (and others) were starved, systematically ghettoized, and then deported to Death Camps where 6,000,000 Jews died in a few short years — 1/3 of the global population. 5 million other untermenschen (subhumans) were also killed. In Rwanda in 1994, the Hutu majority was determined to wipe out the Tutsi minority — based on their perceived sins of the past — and managed to kill almost a million in 4 months. How were Tutsis described by these genocidaires? Cockroaches. These are acts of genocide, pure and simple. They involve non-combatants being targeted specifically on the basis of their racial or ethnic identity, and singled out for murder not because of something they did, but because of who they are. 

The Israel-Hamas war, while horrible to watch and experience, falls short of this definition on every level. The scale of civilian deaths is horrifying – on both sides. But it is not genocide. It is death in wartime, which, while horrible, is a historic reality. If a war started in a response to an attack, and the response perceived as “disproportional” — something that only the Jewish state is questioned about — then by that definition the American army when it entered Afghanistan is genocidal. So too is the military coalition in Mosul. Or the Russian and British armies when it entered Berlin in 1945 — or the Americans when it firebombed Tokyo or laid waste to Hiroshima. The Afghan war particularly resulted in far more civilian deaths than the 3,000 killed in the World Trade Centre — where were the accusations of genocide then?

When Hamas entered Israel on 7 October 2023, it did so to murder as many civilians as possible, take as many hostage as possible, and to invite this war into their borders. Hamas, an organization whose founding ideology is the destruction of Israel and the genocide of all Jews around the world. Since the attacks, many spokespeople have repeatedly argued — on live TV, no less — that they plan to repeat similar massacres against the Jews. That they are not interested in a two-state solution or a pathway to peace. That the only morality they recognize is that of the destruction of a people and a country. When Israel responded in the predictable way — outright war — immediate accusations of genocide were thrown around.

This bastardization of language has one purpose: the delegitimization of the Holocaust and the State of Israel. It is not supported by facts. After all, if the Israelis were genocidal towards Palestinians, would they not have murdered the Arab-Israelis as well, many of whom have admitted that they support this war against Hamas? Would they be allowing aid into Gaza to feed said people? Would they offer pauses in fighting in exchange for hostages? I admit that my extensive research in Holocaust history never revealed the Nazis taking similar actions.

It is particularly galling for Jews to be called Nazis or genocidal. And yet is becoming regularly more frequent, a common refrain. Jews, of course have been living under existential threat for a century (if not a millennia). Therefore, to associate Jews as being Nazis is one of the most troubling and deeply antisemitic tropes of the modern age. Why is it so troubling? Because many of those who, absent knowledge, scream for genocide, are often the same who like to draw comparisons between the Jews and the Nazis as a way of undermining Israeli legitimacy. There also seems to be a bizarre sense that our being the world’s most famous victim of genocide has given some sense of power, and to accuse us of the same rips out the undergirding of the Jewish place in North American life. There is almost a fetishization of linking Israel and genocide, underpinning this strange belief that Jews have a sense of power and belonging that came from the Holocaust, and thus when they commit “genocide” themselves, it further reinforces a lack of need for the Jewish state. 

This may be the most difficult Holocaust Remembrance Day to live through, as a historian and a person. To remember and be simultaneously experiencing a wave of violent antisemitism. To feel parallels to those who came before – in the conspiracies, beliefs, othering, demonization and dehumanization present around us daily. As nations wield the word “genocide” as a weapon, as social media is replete with the language of genocide towards the Jews, the very history of the Holocaust itself is being summoned to repudiate the rights of Jews — both nationally and personally. It is, in many ways, this language that is more troubling than even the violence of October 7th itself. One can to a certain extent expect little better from a genocidal death-cult like Hamas. But international response that would make Joseph Goebbels smile with satisfaction is far more alarming, and more worrying for all of us moving forward. It is this language, the justification of violence, the stripping of Jewish humanity, the dehumanization of an entire people — that is what we must remember on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Although it would be great if the world was not making the need to remember so evident. 


About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works as a Jewish history teacher. She writes about Jewish food history on Substack @bitesizedhistory and talks about Israeli history on Insta @afanjoysilver.