Talk of Genocide

Zinaida Miller

There are currently two conversations taking place about genocide with regard to Israel and Palestine. One is a proper legal and political discussion about the killing of more than twenty thousand people and the destruction of vast swathes of the Gaza Strip. The other, which has featured prominently in the US Congress and on university campuses, is specious, fanned by a combination of historically conditioned fears and craven opportunism. When the Harvard Corporation reaffirmed its support for Claudine Gay, the university’s embattled president, it underlined her commitment to ‘redoubling the university’s fight against antisemitism’ and avowed that ‘calls for genocide are despicable.’ Of course, but they are not happening on college campuses.

At a congressional hearing on 5 December with the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT, Elise Stefanik, a Republican congresswoman, asked Gay if she agreed that the ‘call for intifada is to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally’. The university presidents’ tepid, legalistic responses to Stefanik’s questions were widely criticised, but the most harmful outcome of the hearing was the failure to contest her bogus premise. Conflating intifada with genocide makes both terms unintelligible.

As experts and ordinary Arabic speakers have been at pains to point out, intifada simply means ‘uprising’ in Arabic. Like its English translation, it crops up in many contexts. In recent decades there have been major intifadas in Iraq (1952, 1991, 1999), Egypt (1977) and Lebanon (2005) as well as two in Israel/Palestine (1987-93 and 2000-5). The Arabic-language media also initially used the term to describe the protests that eventually toppled a number of regimes in 2010-11. Neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinian communities, during either Palestinian intifada, ever associated the word with genocide – no matter how brutal, bloody and disturbing the Second Intifada’s suicide bombings were.

Under international law, genocide is defined as a series of acts committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, religious or racial group. Scholars, UN rapporteurs and human rights organisations are suggesting that what is happening in Gaza may constitute genocide for several reasons, including references by senior Israeli officials to Palestinians as ‘human animals’; the assertion that Gaza must be reduced to ‘rubble’; the restriction of access to food, water and medicine; the massacre of Palestinian civilians; and the internal displacement of almost the entire Gazan population. Doctrinal debates should not overshadow the serious nature of the claims or the atrocities they describe.

Supporters of Israel’s onslaught see the threat of genocide not in Gaza but on American university campuses, sometimes hallucinating genocidal speech where it simply does not exist. After a protest by students at the University of Pennsylvania in October, a widely circulated Instagram post falsely claimed that the demonstrators had chanted: ‘We want Jewish genocide.’ As an investigation by USA Today revealed, the actual chant was: ‘We charge you with genocide.’ The misinformation was repeated about a protest at UCLA.

Stefanik claimed that the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ was ‘advocating for the murder of Jews’. In the motion to censure the Palestinian American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib last month, the congressman Rick McCormick asserted that the phrase was ‘widely recognised as a genocidal call to violence’. He rejected Tlaib’s description of the words as ‘an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence’. But to impute genocidal intent requires either telling protesters that they don’t mean what they say they mean, or assuming that freedom throughout the territory necessarily and inevitably entails the mass murder of Israeli Jews. The fact that such slogans genuinely frighten parts of the Jewish community requires education, not prohibition and punishment.

Antisemitism is a problem on college campuses and elsewhere. It should be fought at every turn, and committees – congressional and collegiate – have been formed to combat it. Far less has been done to halt Islamophobic, anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian actions. On the contrary, falsely accusing student protesters of calling for genocide justifies and distracts from the punishment and harassment of advocates of Palestinian rights. Even worse, three Palestinian students were shot and wounded in Vermont last month.

In debates about Palestine and Israel, the stakes are high. But they are only meaningful if conducted accurately and in good faith. To mischaracterise calls for Palestinian freedom as appeals for Jewish genocide degrades those debates and distracts from the ongoing catastrophe in Gaza.