The thin line between condemnation and incitement to genocide

Last year, long before the October 7 massacre, I engaged with a former colleague on social media. She claimed that as a supporter of Israel’s right to defend itself against terror attacks committed by Hamas, I was supporting child murderers, and, as a result she could never speak to me again. This accusation thrown at me by my former colleague was not new. I grew up hearing “child murderers” being yelled at anti-Israel demonstrations in Sweden, and this was not the first time I had been called one. But even beyond my personal experiences, the myth that Jews kill non-Jewish children has existed for almost as long as Jews themselves. It is known as the “blood libel” and has taken many forms over the years.

Blood libel accusations became widespread in Europe in the 12th century after the First Crusade. At that time, the accusation was that Jews murdered Christian children in order to use their blood to make matzah bread for Passover. In the early 1900s, blood libel charges in Eastern Europe frequently led to pogroms, or violent anti-Jewish riots. In 1903, a newspaper in Russia published articles alleging that local Jews were behind the murder of a Christian boy, causing three days of riots during which almost 50 Jews were killed, hundreds were injured, and hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed. From the 1920s onward, the antisemitic Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer frequently accused Jews of plotting elaborate murder plans against gentiles so they could use the blood of Christians in their rituals. We all know what these types of accusations ultimately led to in Europe, but even after the Holocaust, blood libel accusations continued to spur pogroms in the region. For example, in 1946, 42 Jews were murdered in Poland due to the false accusation that Jews had kidnapped a Polish boy and hidden him in the basement of a local Jewish Committee building.

In Arab countries, too, the blood libel accusations took hold in the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, Egyptian books with titles referring to “Talmudic human sacrifices” were published, and in 1983, the Syrian Defence Minister published a book called “Matzah of Zion”, which became a very influential and frequently cited authority that Jews were perpetrating ritual murders in Damascus. The book was still being printed in the 1990s and early 2000s, with one Syrian delegate citing to it at a United Nations conference in 1991. In 2014, a former Jordanian member of the House of Senate stated in a televised interview that the Gaza Strip is dealing with enemies of Allah who believe that matzah bread must be kneaded with blood, and who used to murder children in England, Europe and America. The same accusations were made by a member of the Egyptian Freedom and Justice Party in a televised interview in 2013.

The specificity of these false accusations needs to be noted. Since the beginning of time, Jews have been referred to as child murderers. And for practically as long as it has existed as a modern state, Israel, and supporters of Israel’s right to defend itself, have been referred to as child murderers. It is striking, then, that the October 7 massacre was marked, in particular, by the ruthless, horrendous atrocities Hamas carried out against children and babies specifically, with over 40 babies murdered and several of them beheaded in just one location. Many more children were tortured to death in other locations on the same day. This is not a coincidence. In the early 1990s in Rwanda, Hutu leaders repeatedly claimed that the Tutsis were conspiring to ethnically cleanse Rwanda from its Hutu population by throwing them in the Nyabaronga River. A few years later, the exact opposite happened. Between 500,000-800,000 Tutsis were murdered by the Hutus, with many of them thrown to their deaths in that very river.

In international law, this is a concept known as “accusation in mirror.” Accusation in mirror is one of many techniques used by genocidaires to incite people to commit acts of genocide. Direct and public incitement to genocide is an international crime, which is separate and distinct from the crime of actually committing genocide. Incitement to commit genocide is committed when one incites, or seeks to bring about through words of encouragement, the commission of genocidal acts. And one of the most effective ways to do so is to accuse the victim group of committing those same acts against them.

Hamas has, since its inception, meticulously studied this effective form of genocidal propaganda. It has, quite literally, taken notes on how to exterminate Jews in the most efficient way, as confirmed by a highly annotated copy of Mein Kampf found last week in a Gazan child’s bedroom concealing a Hamas tunnel entrance. Amongst the recent accusations made by Hamas spokespeople against Israel include that they are murderous terrorists, fascists, Nazis, occupying colonialists (or colonialist occupiers), and of course that they are committing genocide, by carrying out “the massacre of the century” against Palestinians. All this, from a Mein Kampf-reading, dictatorial, terrorist regime, that has held captive the civilian population in the Gaza Strip for twenty years, whose founding charter vows to eradicate Jews and other infidels from the face of the Earth, and who committed a massacre of unimaginable proportion against Israeli civilians just one month ago. Accusation in mirror.

That Hamas is genocidal is perhaps no great secret. But what is unique about their approach is the reach and impact of their accusations. One of the reasons accusation in mirror is so effective is because it invalidates any true claims of genocide from the victim population, and thus discourages bystanders from coming to their aid. The genocidaires will say, “you are committing genocide against us!” and the victims will respond, “no, you are committing genocide against us!” leading the bystander to shrug and say, “well it sounds like you are both committing genocide against each other, so who should I believe?” In that way, the victims are isolated, and thus more easily eradicated. This is what we are seeing in the strategy of Hamas. By provoking a military operation through the October 7 massacre, ensuring the deaths of their own civilians through their exploitation as human shields, inflating the number of casualties, and mislabelling their own rocket attacks as Israeli airstrikes, Hamas has created a smoke screen which has convinced not only their own members, but also the general public, that the accusations that Israel is committing genocide are indeed true. Thus, morality is obscured, and confusion ensues.

Israel is, of course, not committing genocide. The commission of genocide has very little to do with the number of casualties (inflated or not) and very much to do with possessing specific intent to eradicate a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, with the deliberate targeting of the members of such a group. Suggesting that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians by responding with military force to Hamas’s terror attacks would be tantamount to suggesting that Britain committed genocide against the Germans during the Second World War on the basis that far more German civilians died than did British. In his article Accusation in Mirror, which has informed much of this article, Kenneth Marcus quotes Coptic activist Mounir Bishai, whose community has faced false accusations and simultaneous attacks in Egypt for years: “Suddenly we have shifted from complaints [of] self-defense, from demanding [our] rights to convinc[ing] the public that we are not depriving others of their rights […] How have we suddenly turned from persecuted into persecutors, from the weak into the strong and tyrannical, from the attacked into the infamous attackers, and from the poor into the rich exploiters? How did these lies become widespread, without us gaining any ground or improving our situation one whit?” This is the effectiveness of the technique that we are seeing today.

To implement it on such a large scale, help from the media, whether deliberate or not, is essential. The media has been immensely powerful throughout history in spreading genocidal propaganda. Der Stürmer’s articles calling for the extermination of the “murderous Jews” is a prime example. Another famous example comes from the Media Case, the international trial of three Rwandan nationals who founded Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (“RTLM”), a radio station that for over a year broadcasted messages to the public warning of an elaborate Tutsi plan to overthrow Rwandan democracy and claim back the “power” from the Hutus through “force and trickery” and encouraging members of the public to take up arms and kill them to prevent this.

Also in this war, the media has helped spread Hamas’s message. On 17 October 2023, all major media outlets around the world, including Reuters, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, Le Monde, CNN, NBC, the New York Times, Washington Post and others published the false accusation that Israel had struck a hospital in Gaza, killing over 500 civilians. As a direct result of that story, which remains online despite having been disproven, violent protests broke out in the West Bank, Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Tunisia and Jordan, with dozens of protestors attempting to storm Israeli embassies, resulting in arsonists burning down a 16th century historic synagogue in Tunisia. Similar demonstrations broke out in Europe, with a Berlin synagogue, which also houses a kindergarten, attacked with firebombs.

By publishing information stemming directly from Hamas, including unverified figures of casualties provided by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, the media has continued to perpetuate the notion that Israel is ethnically cleansing the Gaza Strip of Palestinians. As a result, hundreds of thousands have marched in major cities around the world to “Stop the Genocide in Gaza.” The slogans chanted at these marches bear a terrifying resemblance to terms and phrases used in Nazi Germany. The terms Judenfrei (free of Jews) and Judenrein (clean of Jews) were used by Nazis before and during the Holocaust to symbolise locations that had been cleansed of their Jews. With this in mind, it is not hard to imagine that there is genocidal intent behind the now famous slogan from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free alongside placards depicting the Israeli flag in a trash bin with the words keep the world clean that have shown up at every major anti-Israel rally since October 7. And just as the violent pogroms of the 20th century resulted in the murder and assault of Jews and the destruction of Jewish property, Jews in Europe in 2023 are being attacked and murdered at anti-Israel rallies, with their residences vandalized and their businesses firebombed, all in the name of justice.

But it is not just the statements in the media or the slogans at the rallies that raise concerns. Governments are also adopting the frightening rhetoric used by Hamas in their official statements, such as Turkish President Erdogan’s speech this week branding Israel as a “terrorist state” and prophesying that its “end is nigh.” Voltaire once said, “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities,” and there is nothing preventing this from applying on a geopolitical level. And that is why it matters. There appears to be a thin line between condemning and inciting to genocide. For the sake of all of us, we must make it thicker.

About the Author
Olivia Flasch is an international lawyer who currently lives in London. She studied Public International Law in The Hague, and has a Master's in Law from the University of Oxford. Born into a Jewish family in Sweden, she writes about all things Jewish, as well as about Israel and the world from an international law perspective.