Dem 51
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GOP 49
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The War in Israel, Part X: Genocide in Gaza?, Part I

Please indulge as we begin with a brief story. It's one we've mentioned before, but it's germane here, so we're going to repeat it. About a dozen years ago, (Z)'s department chair asked him to come in for a meeting. At that meeting, the chair said: "I'm going to have you teach California history on a regular basis." "I don't have any expertise in California history," (Z) responded. "You'll figure it out," said the chair.

So, (Z) got to work prepping a California history course. And when it came time for the lecture on Native Americans in California, he noticed that the events of the 1850s quite clearly comported with the definition of the word 'genocide.' "How come I've never heard of this before?," (Z) said to himself. And he consulted with some actual, trained California historians, in search of any explanation for why the term 'genocide' did not appear in any of the literature. They bent over backwards, forwards and sideways to explain why it wasn't a genocide. For example, one elderly (and now deceased) expert said, without blinking, that genocides can only target Jewish people. Hmmm; the Jewish person who coined the term (Raphael Lemkin) didn't seem to think that was the case. Fortunately, for the sake of the historical record and of truth in general, the literature has now caught up, and there are numerous works that describe the California genocide for what it was, among them Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846-1873 (2015) and An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (2017).

When (Z) tells this story as part of that lecture, the point is that there are sometimes benefits to being a non-expert—in this case, not being constrained by the preconceived notions of the field. For purposes of this item, however, the story serves a different purpose. 'Genocide' is a powerful word, and for a very long while there was reluctance to use it, even when apropos, for fear of watering it down and/or dishonoring the victims of the Holocaust. These days, the pendulum is definitely swinging in the opposite direction.

And that brings us to the (generally very heated) verbiage being used in relation to the current conflict in Israel. Unless you've been living in a cave, you know, at this point, that the last week or two has seen a constant stream of accusations levied at Israel, its leaders, and/or Joe Biden as perpetrators of genocide. In our questions mailbox, we got the first "Does this really count as a genocide?" message about 2 weeks ago. And we've gotten at least 50 or 60 e-mails on the same theme since.

All right, then, let's do this. We're going to start by running down the case for Israel as committer-of-genocide. The current residents of Gaza are mostly the descendants of Palestinians who were forcibly dislocated from their homes 75 years ago and have not been allowed to return. The people of Gaza are largely denied freedom of movement, are kept under strict control by the Israeli government, and have little in the way of economic self-determination.

Meanwhile, in terms of the current conflict, the Israelis have now killed an estimated 10,000 residents of Gaza, of whom only half are believed to be members of Hamas. In the past several weeks, access to basic necessities, including food, water, and fuel, has been limited or cut off entirely. There have been ongoing bombing campaigns.

Philosophically, key members of the Israeli government have expressed genocidal notions. Benjamin Netanyahu has compared the Palestinians to the Amalekites, referencing 1 Samuel 15:

Samuel said to Saul, "I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy[a] all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'"

Netanyahu ally and Knesset member Galit Distal Atbaryan has decreed that Israeli officials must invest all their energy "in one thing: erasing all of Gaza from the face of the Earth." And a report produced by Israeli intelligence discusses the possibility of engaging in ethnic cleansing in Gaza.

And now, let us turn to the definition of genocide. There are actually several of them, but the one that's usually regarded as definitive is laid out Article II of the Genocide Convention, adopted in 1948:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
  1. Killing members of the group
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

If one squints very carefully, it is possible to see elements of genocide in the Israeli handling of Gaza. But... just barely. Certainly, the remarks from Netanyahu and Atbaryan could speak to intent, but the words of a couple of politicians (even the PM) do not a national policy make. To deploy a parallel, Donald Trump and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) have said some very problematic things about Muslims, but that does not mean that the United States has engaged in a program of genocide against Muslims or Muslim-majority nations.

Similarly, the actions of the Israeli government in the past 75 years do not meet the bar envisioned by the actions listed on the checklist. One might point to the last couple of weeks and connect that with "Killing members of the group." One might point to the last couple of generations and connect that with "Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." But remember that, to be genocide, the goal has to be intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.

There is much about Israel's handling of Gaza that is reprehensible, but there's no evidence that steps have been taken, or are being taken, to destroy the Palestinian people. The killing of civilians, even if that killing becomes mass killing or indiscriminate killing, does not constitute genocide, absent government-sanctioned intent to destroy the race/culture/religion. If it did, then nearly every war of the last 150 years (or more) would be genocidal. Similarly, internment/apartheid-like conditions do not constitute genocide, unless the intent is mass destruction. That is why the Nazi concentration camps of World War II were genocidal but the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II were not.

Put another way, there are many offenses against humanity, including many very bad ones, that do not rise to the level of genocide. And so, that's our answer to the question: There are arguments here for genocide, but we don't find those arguments to be persuasive. Certainly, a criminal prosecution of Netanyahu by the International Criminal Court, on the charge of committing genocide, would fail. The U.N. has said as much; its official position is that there is currently "a risk of genocide against the Palestinian People." We would concur with that, but of course, there is a world of difference between "a risk of genocide" and "genocide."

That said, human beings are prone to miss nuances like this, particularly if their personal goals and/or their emotional state encourages them to do so. And so we have the folks who have jumped right to Final Jeopardy and have levied damning judgments of Israel, its ongoing genocide, and its genocide-enablers, like Joe Biden. Some have been particularly shocking in the carelessness of their words.

The poster child here is Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who has not only levied the charge of genocide against Israel and Biden, but has made a habit of repeating the slogan "from the river to the sea." This slogan is, and has been, code for the destruction of Israel. In other words, the slogan expresses antisemitic, genocidal intent. In any other circumstance, if Tlaib was advised that her words had some problematic or offensive subtext, she would undoubtedly stop using those words. In this case, she has been challenged several times, and has refused to change course, insisting that it's merely a statement of support for the people of Palestine. That just isn't how American culture works, when it comes to problematic language, and it's part of the reason that Tlaib was censured last night by the members of the House, with 22 Democrats crossing the aisle to join with 212 Republicans to pass the measure.

And with all of this said, now we get to the actual point we hoped to establish in this item. We gave our opinion on "genocide or not?" because we were asked. But the fact is that, whatever we might think, many, many people are absolutely persuaded that a genocide is underway and that the President of the United States is enabling it. This response was almost instantaneous, and emerged despite the factual problems with that assessment, and despite the fact that previous harms inflicted on the Palestinian people (by Israel, but also by Syria, Egypt and other nations) passed without comment. The response has been extremely visceral, and has caused many people to behave in ways that are not only very emotion-driven, but that are inconsistent with the way they would generally behave (for example, Tlaib's unwillingness to temper her words).

If this was mid-December of 1941, and everyone was suddenly talking angrily about sneak attacks by the Japanese, then that would make sense, given what happened at Pearl Harbor. But it's not so clear as that, in this case. And so we believe there is something more going on here, something that is not 100% evident at first glance. We think that something more should be examined, and that it presents serious problems for both Biden and Israel (far more so than some dumb poll). This is what we will talk about in the Part II, on Friday. (Z)

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