Israel is not committing genocide in Gaza, some Jewish scholars stress
search
Israel at warA factual definition vs. the court of public opinion

Israel is not committing genocide in Gaza, some Jewish scholars stress

“This is not about semantics,” he said. “There is a legal definition of what constitutes genocide and what’s happening here doesn’t meet that definition.”

The Peace Palace, an international law administrative building in The Hague, the Netherlands (Photo courtesy of Velvet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Peace Palace, an international law administrative building in The Hague, the Netherlands (Photo courtesy of Velvet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nearly 80 years ago, Polish-born lawyer Raphäel Lemkin created the term “genocide” for his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.”

Lemkin lost much of his family during World War II and the Nazis’ attempt to eliminate the Jewish people. Wanting to create a word that described the mass murder of a nation or ethnic group, he combined the Greek prefix “genos,” meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix for killing, “-cide.”

In 1946, genocide was first recognized as a crime under international law by the United Nations General Assembly. Two years later, it was codified as an independent crime in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The official definition includes “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: a. killing members of the group; b. causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c. deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d. imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and, e. forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

There have been only three recognized genocides that have led to trial under the convention: Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia in 1995 and Cambodia under the 1975-79 Pol Pot regime.

Despite the focused brutality of those campaigns — and others not officially recognized as genocide (Saddam Hussein’s murder of the Kurds or Sudan’s crimes in Darfur, for example) — there is now a campaign to label Israel’s retaliatory war against Hamas in Gaza as a genocide.

Across college campuses and at protests in front of government buildings, Israel has been accused of the crime.

In fact, only 16 days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and a day set aside by the United Nations to remember the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust — the first genocide — South Africa accused Israel of the crime at the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, the body’s top court at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Speaking from Jerusalem, Rabbi Danny Schiff, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Gefsky Community Scholar, said it’s important to focus on the definition of genocide when making claims against Israel’s actions, especially the phrase “with intent.”

A genocide, he said, is not measured simply by the number of people that happen to die in a particular conflict.

“And yet, it seems that many people are now deciding to invent their own definition of genocide,” Schiff said. “Since the start of this particular war, people have decided they want to use the word genocide in very subjective ways. Almost always, it seems to me, those definitions they are conjuring up are there to undermine the state of Israel and its standing.”

Schiff wasn’t surprised by the South African government’s actions, saying that since the days of Nelson Mandela, the African National Party has seen its historic struggle closely aligned with Palestinians.

“It’s no secret that South Africa has embraced the cause of Hamas,” he said. “They hosted some from the Hamas delegation even after Oct. 7. So, their sympathy for the Palestinian cause is historically documented.”

Classrooms Without Borders Scholar-in-Residence Avi Ben-Hur, too, pointed to the United Nations’ legal definition of the crime.

“This is not about semantics,” he said, “There is a legal definition of what constitutes genocide and what’s happening here doesn’t meet that definition.”

Ben-Hur said he’s certain that any other democratic country would respond as Israel did following Oct. 7.

On the other hand, genocide was committed in October, when Hamas brutally attacked the Jewish state, murdering an estimated 1,200 people, Schiff said. He pointed to the Hamas charter, which he said articulates genocidal intent.

“That was quite clearly what they set out to do on Oct. 7,” Schiff said. “If we play forward what they would have done, if they met no resistance, to every Jewish Israeli they met, and a number of non-Jewish Israelis, as well. They would have happily continued their murderous spree throughout the entire country, as articulated in the charter.”

He pointed out that expanding the definition of genocide to prosecute countries defending themselves in war would open the door for many other cases, recent and historical. The United States would fall under that umbrella for using the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ben-Hur noted that after al Qaeda’s attack against Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. invaded two countries. He also pointed to Russia’s experience with the Chechens.

“Those countries did not experience what Israel is,” he said.

In the end, Schiff said that the crime of genocide, created to recognize the mass murder of Jews because they were Jewish by the Nazis, has to remain untainted by popular opinion or attempts to alter it.

“If that becomes the normative language then the word has lost all substance in terms of trying to point to the unique crime that genocide really represents,” he said. “I think that we have to insist that genocide maintains its legal and original definition. We have to insist the civilized world understands that that is something Israel has sought to prevent whenever possible.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more:
comments