Of all the deplorable crimes ever conceived by the human mind, one stands alone in its utter depravity, as the very epitome of evil.
The English word for it, ‘genocide’, was first coined by the Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, who had narrowly avoided becoming a victim of genocide himself, having been forced to flee Europe when the Nazis invaded Poland. As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, I shudder to think what he would have made of the increasingly frequent, disingenuous misappropriation of the term, not least the recent representations made by the South African government at the International Court of Justice.
Lemkin wrote that genocide is, “…the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves”. After a lifetime of campaigning, his definition was later enshrined in international law as, the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
What is clear from this wording is that the difference between the tragic loss of civilian life in a just war and the crime of genocide, lies in the purposeful annihilation of a people as an objective in and of itself. It is a crime in which no distinction is made between the combatant and the non-combatant, because both are ‘other’. It is a crime fuelled by hatred and dehumanisation, rather than any desire for peace or security. It is a crime characterised by the absence of any objective at all, beyond the erasure of the victims.
This context makes abundantly clear the spurious nature of the claims of ‘genocide’, made by a number of agenda-led, opinion journalists, politicians and campaigners. It should be obvious that if Israel’s objectives were genocidal, it could have used its military strength to level Gaza in a matter of days. Instead, it is placing the lives of its own soldiers at risk in its ground operations, securing humanitarian corridors and providing civilians with advance notice of its operations, even to the detriment of its military objectives.
Indeed, to make the case that genocide is taking place, one would have to ignore the scores of military lawyers, engineers and humanitarian aid coordinators working within the Israel Defence Forces, who spend hours every day, planning how they might strike targets in a way that minimises collateral harm, facilitating the entry of aid into Gaza, collecting intelligence about civilian presence around targets and aborting attacks accordingly. One would also have to ignore the fact that Israel has begun formulating proposals for how Palestinian civilians in Gaza might yet govern themselves, freed from the tyranny of Hamas, when this conflict is over.
These are not the actions of a state motivated by murderous intent, waging a war without limits. They are the actions of a State fighting a defensive war it did not seek, in what must surely be the most challenging urban context ever faced by a modern democratic state. The simple enduring fact is that this war would end tomorrow if Hamas released Israel’s hostages and laid down its weapons. That alone should preclude any allegation of genocide.
Nevertheless, we have watched in horror as people have rushed to invoke the crime of genocide – some within days of the 7th of October. Fringe academics and their partisan cheerleaders have selectively quoted Israeli politicians to paint a picture of a country bent on annihilation, whilst ignoring the fact that Israel’s most significant political and military leaders have repeatedly made it abundantly clear that this is a war against Hamas and not against innocent civilians.
No decent person could be unmoved by the tragic suffering of innocent Palestinians. The ongoing debate about how this war can be prosecuted in a way which minimises that suffering is more than legitimate. It is vital. Yet, the enthusiastic clamour by some to declare it as something which belongs in a different moral category to the many other just wars with horrific humanitarian consequences, represents a moral failure built upon a foundation of hatred and disinformation.
That failure is compounded by the inescapable truth that if there is indeed a genocidal force in this conflict, it must surely be Hamas, whose rape, sexual mutilation and cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians, which it proudly broadcast to the world, is clear evidence of its dehumanisation of Jews. It is the leaders of Hamas who have made it clear that they will repeat their atrocities “again and again” and whose founding charter makes it clear that killing Jews is among its very reasons for existing.
The Biblical Prophet Zecharia declared, “Love truth and peace!” Sadly, truth is often the first casualty of conflict. When facts are presented selectively and truth becomes inverted, peace drifts yet further away.
Next week, on Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis simply because they were Jews, alongside millions of other victims. It is also a day when we recall more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The misappropriation of the word ‘genocide’ is an affront both to the victims and the survivors of these unspeakable crimes.
Its use in the context of this conflict is the ultimate demonisation of the Jewish State. It is a term deployed not only to eradicate any notion that Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens, but also to tear open the still gaping wound of the Holocaust, knowing that it will inflict more pain than any other accusation. It is a moral inversion, which undermines the memory of the worst crimes in human history.
Israel finds itself caught between the anvil of Jihadism on its border and the hammers of a global hatred whose proponents seem to care more about demonising the world’s only Jewish state and lionising terrorists, than about peace. Those are conditions which have already inspired a widespread view within Israel, that whatever it does, it can never win. If we are to yet make any meaningful contribution towards forging a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians, the world must ensure that its discourse around the conflict is far more sober and honest. The destructive and manufactured hyperbole, which reaches its nadir with the accusation of genocide, can only harm the cause of peace.
Sir Ephraim Mirvis is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth