The Meaning of Genocide

by Josh Pollack

I've just stumbled across An Auschwitz Alphabet and the rest of The Ethical Spectacle in the course of random exploration. It's very interesting, well-written, and forceful, all unusual qualities for what tends to wind up on the net, excepting forcefulness. Projects like yours are what make the WWW worthwhile.

Still, I am troubled by some of what I have read here. In your mission statement, you dedicate The Ethical Spectacle to, inter alia, "Examining what commonly used words and phrases really mean, as contrasted to what they appear to mean." Presumably this means ferreting out euphemism. But I hope it also signifies a commitment to upholding the integrity of the language of moral and ethical judgment upon which your project depends.

This is why your use of the important term "genocide" in the subsection of An Auschwitz Alphabet titled Yesterday and Today strikes me as deeply flawed. Here, you cite other examples of genocide: against the Tutsis of Rwanda, the Muslims of Bosnia, and some of the aboriginal peoples of the United States. These comparisons, surely, are valid. I might also mention the Armenians. But your further references to Vietnam and Deir Yassin have the unfortunate effect of robbing the word "genocide" of meaning.

As my copy of Webster's New World has it, genocide means "the systematic killing of, or a program of action intended to destroy, a whole national or ethnic group." This is the sense in which the word is normally used. It does not (or should not) mean "a lot of meaningless killing" or even "atrocities committed against members of another ethnic group." Elsewhere, I have seen it applied to cases of oppression or even of prejudice. When everything is genocide, nothing is genocide.

So, when you write, "In 1948, the Israelis committed genocide at Deir Yassin," I wonder if you haven't missed something. The residents of Deir Yassin did not compose an entire national or ethnic group, unlike the Palestinian Arabs at large, whose experience was not that of Deir Yassin. Nor is this the only problem here. Using broad language such as "the Israelis" doesn't strike me as far different from "the Jews killed Christ," or, to paraphrase Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's response to Christopher Browning, "the Germans perpetrated the Holocaust." A more meaningful and less incendiary sentence might read, "In 1948, members of the Irgun and Lehi Jewish terrorist organizations committed a massacre at Deir Yassin." Even just "Israelis committed" would serve the truth better and stir violent passions less than "the Israelis committed."

Far more than My Lai, Deir Yassin remains a complex issue entangled in a web of rival discourses, a kind of land mine in the no-man's-land of Middle Eastern hisory. Arab propagandists see it as a touchstone for understanding Israel, the centerpiece of a carefully constructed plot to chase the Palestinians off the land -- a plot for which there exists no credible evidence. Similarly, the likes of the Zionist Organization of America would have us believe that no civilians died at Deir Yassin -- a contention for which there exists no credible evidence.

Perhaps the most thorough examination of the facts of Deir Yassin has emerged recently in a study conducted at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, which helps to put the massacre beyond the possibility of denial by establishing the individual identities of the victims, but also establishes that the number of the dead and the nature of the atrocities were exaggerated by those anxious to see an invasion of Israel by its neighbors. The usual suspects have already latched on to different aspects of this study to "prove" their versions of events, naturally.

Thus, your choice of words tends to play into the hands of those who see all victimization on one side and all victimhood on the other, the sort of people who are capable of talking about the Deir Yassin killings for hours without once mentioning their context: military operations against the ongoing siege of Jewish Jerusalem. This is no accident: the siege prominently featured terror attacks and the massacre of unarmed supply and medical convoys, before and after Deir Yassin.

Far be it from me to judge your motives in writing about Israel. I would suggest, however, that many of us feel uncomfortable with Jews, members of a traditional victim people, putting themselves in a position to victimize others -- in effect, a betrayal of the cause!

I strongly believe it is a mistake to think about the State of Israel in this manner. Zionism is many things, but first and foremost it was and is a process of banding together to resist antisemitic violence. It gained strength after the Russian pogroms, the Holocaust, the invasion of Israel by its neighbors and the expulsions of Arab (or "Oriental") Jews from their home countries. I am among those who question this as an animating philosophy for life. Still, I cannot dismiss the repeated vindication of Zionism by its enemies.

Would you? In your article Israel Resumes Sealing of Houses as Punishment, you seem to be unaware of it. You write:

It is not well known today that Herzl, who wanted a state for the Jews as the only way to protect them from the hatred and contempt of other people, would have been happy to go to Uganda; religious men among the Zionists prevented this plan from realization, insisting there is no place for the Jews but Palestine. If Herzl had founded the Jewish state in Uganda, it would have been another South Africa-- because Israel is in fact South Africa, with the role of black people played by the Palestinians. The democracy of some, with the subjection of the rest, is no democracy.

A few important clarifications are in order here. First, the territory identifed in the "Uganda plan" is today what we call Kenya, not Uganda. Second, few if any religious men were involved in Zionism in Herzl's day. The "Palestinian" party in early political Zionism was constituted of secular Russian intellectuals such as Ahad Ha'am ("One of the people," the pen-name of Asher Ginsburg), who felt a strong sentimental attachment to the ancient Land of Israel. Third, the comparison of Israel to South Africa is inaccurate, not to say odious and inflammatory. Palestinians are not second-class Israelis; they have their own nationality and destiny. The entire intifada was meant to demonstrate this very point, so it should not be lost on their sympathizers. Israeli Arabs, on the other hand, while they do face discrimination in Israeli society, are fully vested in their citizenship, possess full suffrage, and play a significant role in national electoral politics. This is hardly "the democracy of some." The problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations today is not inequality; it is military occupation.

(However, I should acknowledge my belief that the primary goal of the Netanyahu government is nothing less than the establishment of an old-South-Africa-style apartheid regime, involving the absorption of the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza into Israel, with tiny, quasi-autonomous Palestinian Bantustans here and there, and Palestinian nationality made a joke. But that goal is far from an established fact or a matter of national consensus.)

The Middle East is a difficult area. Saying anything is sure to enrage someone somewhere, and possibly everyone. Saying something without knowing enough perhaps merits such harsh responses. There is an important difference between voicing outrage at specific goals (see above) or policies (e.g., jail without trial, torture, the demolition of houses, the revocation of "permanent" residency status in Jerusalem) and vituperating an entire nation.

You have, of course, faced criticism on these matters in the past, but your response only digs you in deeper. You write:

What do these two events--the murder of Bernadotte, and 'ethnic cleansing' at Deir Yassin--establish? That the state of Israel is rooted in the blood of one of its native populations, the Arabs. Two men, Begin and Shamir, later leaders of their country, were terrorists who planned and executed murders, and a third, Ben-Gurion, knew of murder and made secret deals protecting murderers.

First, in "ethnic cleansing" we have another matter of abused terminology. Ethnic cleaning once referred to the somewhat less vicious phase of Serb policy towards neighbors in the early 1990s -- expulsion rather than genocide. Now it seems to mean just about anything.

Second, neither Count Bernadotte -- a Swede -- nor the villagers of Deir Yassin can sensibly stand in for the Palestinian Arabs at large, just as the Irgun and Lehi cannot stand in for Israel at large.

Third, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, did not, to my knowledge, make any secret deals protecting the terrorists. His knowledge of the identity of the killers appears to have been limited to unproven rumors. After Bernadotte's assassination, however, he moved to outlaw the Lehi, whose leaders were tried, convicted and jailed. It is worth noting that they subsequently received amnesty, but this fact alone cannot justify claims of "secret deals."

You write about the terrorist organizations of the 1940s without appearing to recognize that these were small dissident groups, as opposed to the terrorists who dominated Palestinian society at the time, and without recognizing that the emergent Israeli military eventually put these groups down by force and effected their dissolution. By highlighting the reactionary minority philosophy of Revisionism, without even mentioning the origins of the 1948-9 war, you manage to cast Israel in a false light.

Turning to Prof. Beit-Hallahmi only gets you into further trouble. You quote him as follows:

It was easy to make the Palestinians pay for 2,000 years of persecution. The Palestinians, who have felt the enormous power of this vengeance, were not the historical oppressors of the Jews. They did not put Jews into ghettoes and did not force them to wear yellow stars. They did not plan holocausts. But they had one fault. They were weak and defenseless in the face of real military might, so they were the ideal victims for an abstract revenge...

"Abstract revenge" does describe the psychological makeup of certain right-wing Israelis very nicely. Some Jews have taken the Holocaust as proof of the utter hostility of all non-Jews. But Beit-Hallahmi fails to acknowledge that Muslims, Christians and Jews do have a history in the Middle East. What occurs in Israel is not simply an echo or reversal of Europe. The Jews of the Middle East were consistently persecuted by their neighbors throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. In Palestine in particular, Jews were massacred by Arabs during the riots of 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1936-9. From 1921 onward, the Palestinian Arabs were led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a raving antisemite who did in fact plan a holocaust, or so the German records of his meetings with Hitler in Berlin would indicate. You are familiar with at least some of the crimes of Jewish terrorists, but you may not have heard of Fawzi al-Kutub, a veteran killer of 1936-9 and the Mufti's arch-terrorist during 1948, the graduate of an SS Commando training course conducted during WWII. Despite being imprisoned with Jews in a concentration camp for refusing an assignment, he returned to Palestine to resume killing Jews at his first opportunity.

Beit-Hallahmi's concept of the uses of military might is also flawed, as he fails to acknowledge that the Israelis conquered areas of Palestine not apportioned to them by the UN in 1948 only after a simultaneous invasion by several Arab states. Israeli forces came into possession of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank only after an Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian alliance formed to invade and destroy Israel in 1967. As the rhetoric of Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian leaders makes clear, had they succeeded in 1967 -- or 1973 -- you would today be writing of the resistance in the twenty-five or thirty years before the second Holocaust.

As someone who believes in peacemaking and the establishment of a Palestinian state, I find it unpleasant to dwell on these facts. They are more often cited by the propagandists of the Israeli and pro-Israeli right, who use them to argue that Israelis have never harmed Palestinians and that peace is impossible due to Arab antisemitism. However, I offer them here as a corrective to erroneous and decontextualized views. I would not argue for the innocence of Israel, especially after 1982. But calling Israel "a country founded in blood--built on the backs and the corpses of a group of its inhabitants" requires an assumption of total passivity by the others who have in fact launched genocidal wars and countless massacres against Israel, Israelis, and Jews, and, I must concede, initiated every conflict between Arab and Jew.

Without the benefit of hindsight, Israeli military supremacy has never been a given -- least of all in 1948, presumably the date of Beit-Hallahmi's "original sins." Israel's military organization is a matter of pragmatic calculations supplementing moral ones, i.e., the only means to assure survival. We should not criticize its success. Instead, we should focus our energies on what must come after the struggle for survival: calling for the emancipation of the occupied areas and the establishment of peaceful relations.

When you write that "When the Israelis learn to police their own lunatic fringe, can avoid offering with one hand what they withdraw with the other, and face the Palestinians with firm honesty, there will be a chance," I believe you are right. But the Palestinians, who until recently were led by their own violent lunatic fringe, and many of whom still speak and act in terms of death and destruction, must reciprocate. Peace requires partners. When Labor returns to power in Israel, I hope that the majority of Palestinians will still be ready for peace.

As for The Ethical Spectacle, I hope that you will recognize that power is morally ambiguous and history is complicated. It may not be fair to identify Palestinians with the Nazis, but it is even less fair to identify Israelis with them. If you take genocide seriously, do not lump it in with lesser, albeit serious crimes, and if you take those crimes seriously, do not lump them in with self-defense. In short, I encourage you to take Middle Eastern history as seriously as you have taken European history.

Best of luck.

Josh Pollack