By Tamir Sorek & Sonia Boulos

Tamir Sorek, Liberal Arts Professor of Middle East History, Penn State University, USA 

Sonia Boulos, Associate Professor of International Human Rights Law, Nebrija University, Spain

Abstract: Both societies, Israeli and Palestinian, harbor a collective trauma of annihilation and a national ethos of victimhood. While it is understandable that both sides see themselves as victims of genocidal acts in the current unprecedented wave of violence, when the term “genocide” is used in Western academia and public debates to describe the Israeli attack on Gaza, it is highly policed and is quickly associated with antisemitism. Considering that the Gaza Strip has lost almost one percent of its inhabitants while Israeli leaders use explicit annihilatory language, language policing surrounding genocide has become fatal for Palestinians.

The recent unprecedented wave of violence in Israel and Gaza prompted academics, civil society, and politicians to resort to the language of genocide in condemning the massive killings of civilians. Both Hamas and Israel were accused of harboring a genocidal intent in killing civilians. 

According to the Genocide Convention of 1948, genocide is “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, 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; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.  

What distinguishes the crime of genocide from other international crimes is the ultimate goal of the genocider: the targeted annihilation of a group of people, even partially. This special intent requirement stands at the heart of the controversy over the use of the term genocide to denounce Israel’s actions in Gaza. Unfortunately, legal debates over the applicability of the term genocide (or other international law norms) to the situation in Gaza quickly spiraled into a discursive battlefield of language policing aimed at normalizing the mass killing of civilians.

The purpose of this article is not to evaluate the validity of the legal claim that acts of genocide are being committed in Gaza. Instead, we argue that genocide is a contested concept that leaves room for multiple discursive strategies to construct its meaning as a legal and a political concept. Therefore, confining it to international law contours underestimates its potential to politicize complex destructive processes. We discuss the social dynamics and political agendas that shape the use of the term, objections to using it, and the actual implications of this discursive battle on human lives in Gaza. 

Both Israeli and Palestinian societies harbor a collective trauma of annihilation, and a national ethos of victimhood. This, in turn, has implications for the mutual perception of the other’s actions, and the way in which each side treats its enemy. Discourses containing “destruction” utterance against Palestinians were once a fringe, messianic discourse in Israel. But, in recent decades, their promoters have gained a more central place in Israeli military, politics, and media, using biblical codes in a manner that conveys genocidal rhetoric. The mass murder committed by Hamas on October 7th, which constitutes an atrocious war crime, pushed this discourse to the mainstream. In addition to the close-range killing of adults and children in dozens of massacres, there were also reports on cases of rape and mutilation. As a result, few Israeli Jews dispute the assertion that extermination of epic proportions, reminiscent of the Holocaust, is around the corner: if not today, then tomorrow. If not Hamas, then Hizballah, or Iran. The prevalent sentiment in Israel today is that only a similar response in Gaza, one which many honestly admit will include massive death of civilians, would restore deterrence and prevent a supposed Holocaust from taking place.

Beyond understanding the cognitive, emotional, and sociological mechanisms that evoke Holocaust memories, the instrumentalization of these remembrances can generate dangerous or even criminal political goals. On November 16, a group of UN experts joined the genocide debate by issuing a joint statement pointing out “a genocide in the making” and expressing alarm over “discernibly genocidal and dehumanizing rhetoric coming from senior Israeli government officials, as well as some professional groups and public figures, calling for the “total destruction”, and “erasure” of Gaza, the need to “finish them all””. It is only logical to connect the elevated numbers of civilian casualties and the unprecedented level of destruction in Gaza to such rhetoric.  

There are many Jews for whom news from Gaza also awakens their memory of the Holocaust. However, in Western academic, media, and political circles, the invocation of genocide language to denounce Israel’s actions in Gaza is perceived as crossing a red line. The highly controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism, which was endorsed by 43 countries, indirectly associates claims Israel is committing genocide as antisemitism. Academics and experts are harassed and accused of antisemitism for daring to use the language of genocide. Even the UN, including Secretary General António Guterres, had to endure accusations of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli bias for denouncing Israel’s actions in Gaza, even without using the “G” word. 

Some of those who argue that Israel is not committing genocide in Gaza—such as Omer Bartov, an authority in the field of Holocaust and genocide Studies, and the Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard—do not dispute allegations that grave violations of international law are taking place. They simply doubt that Israeli decision-makers possess the specific intent listed under the genocide Convention. Legitimate concerns over trivializing the crime of genocide should not be exaggerated or weaponized to intimidate those who criticize Israel´s policies. However, contesting its legal meaning or invoking the term in non-legal ways is not inherently harmful. In the context of Gaza, as Dirk Moses reminds us, genocide claims are invoked to “expresses outrage and grief about the destruction of bare, less “grievable” life”. It is a way to make this violence on an apocalyptic scale intelligible.

When academics, activists, or ordinary people invoke the term genocide beyond its legal limits, they articulate a specific way of understanding this ongoing violence. They do so by connecting the high number of civilian casualties to repeated statements by Israeli officials that resonate with the language of destruction, including declarations such as “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” as said by Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog. In less than two months, the number of civilian casualties in Gaza (at least 14,800 civilians, including 6,000 children) surpassed the number of civilian casualties in the Ukraine war since February 2022 (10,000 civilians, including more than 560 children). In this sense, the use of the term genocide is synonymous with demanding an international intervention to stop the bloodshed.

Others oppose using the term genocide to shield Israel from any critique and accountability as a matter of principle. This narrative argues that those who were victims of one of the most horrific genocides of modern times are categorically incapable of committing one. Challenging this narrative is dismissed as expressing anti-Semitic views. Gordon argues that accusations of new anti-Semitism produce the very vulnerability that they aim to protect. While traditional anti-Semitism relied on a series of abstractions to produce the “othering” of Jews, accusations of new anti-Semitism constitute Jewish “difference” by using a series of abstractions that produce an affective bond of all Jews to Israel.

The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz once said that one of the tragic aspects of the Holocaust is that for Jews (as Jews) there is no lesson to be learnt from the Holocaust. Those who are supposed to learn a lesson from the Holocaust are the societies from which the perpetrators of the genocide emerged. If the "context" of what happened on October 7 is the Holocaust, then the explanation for what happened is hatred of Jews. In other words, Israeli Jews are Jews and Jews are victims by nature—the ultimate victims. They are not an active agent in history, things just happen to them because of who they are. They have nothing to do but defend themselves and kill their enemies to deter them.

In this equation, the Palestinians simply do not exist, except as implementers of an ahistorical and eternal mission of harming Jews. The Palestinians are one of many incarnations of the Pharaoh, Amalek, and Hitler. According to this logic, Hamas' atrocious crimes are outside history and sociology, because they could only be explained through the eternal essence of the Jews as victims. There is no need to talk about the Nakba, the blockade of Gaza, and the almost 8,000 Gazans that Israel killed between 2000 and 7 October 2023. There is also no ability to judge Israel by its actions and there is no morality in protecting its own victims. 

Therefore, in a worldview where only Israeli Jews can be victims, civilized Israel is exercising its inherent right to self-defense against savages and framing this situation differently is simply unfathomable. The discursive elevation of the right to self-defense to a supreme right that trumps all other international legal norms generates discursive resistance. Those who invoke the term genocide contest States’ historic tendency to treat law of self-defence and prohibition on the crime of genocide as mutually exclusive. They insist that even in the framework of self-defense, a genocide is still possible.  

Amidst this legal linguistic war, we should not forget that, in eight weeks, the Gaza Strip has lost almost one percent of its inhabitants, when signs show that Israeli leaders “lifted all restrictions”. As Eghbariah highlights, this linguistic war has contributed to the dehumanization of Palestinian victims and renders them “potential “terrorists” to be “neutralized” or, at best “human shields” obliterated as “collateral damage””. The dehumanization of Palestinians reached shocking levels that even those who call for a ceasefire (as opposed to humanitarian pause) can find themselves under attack. This language policing surrounding genocide has become fatal for Palestinians.

Tamir Sorek, Liberal Arts Professor of Middle East History, Penn State University, USA 

Sonia Boulos, Associate Professor of International Human Rights Law, Nebrija University, Spain

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Nov 29, 2023
Public Policy


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