Gaza and the dilemmas of genocide scholars

It is interesting that it was Israeli leaders and their allies in Washington who first brought the term “genocide” into the Gaza conflict. In the aftermath of Hamas’s attack on October 7, they repeatedly brought up references to the Holocaust.

A number of Holocaust and genocide scholars and centres followed suit in condemning Hamas. This included a group of more than 150 Holocaust scholars, who signed a statement released in November condemning Hamas’s “atrocities … [which] unavoidably bring to mind the mindset and the methods of the perpetrators of the pogroms that paved the way to the Final Solution”.

This prompted another group of more than 50 Holocaust and genocide scholars to publish a statement on December 9, condemning Hamas, but adding a warning about “the danger of genocide in Israel’s attack on Gaza”.

An endless stream of interventions in the media accompanied and followed these initiatives, exhibiting mounting polarisation and politicisation. A number of prominent intellectuals –  from Germany’s “left-wing” philosopher Jurgen Habermas and French intellectual-activist Bernard-Henri Levy to American political theorist Michael Walzer and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek – also joined the fray.

This public split among scholars prompted the Journal of Genocide Research, the leading and oldest periodical in the field, to organise a forum on the topic “Israel-Palestine: Atrocity Crimes and the Crisis of Holocaust and Genocide Studies”. It invited a small number of leading figures in the field to put forward their contributions with the goal of injecting more restraint and judiciousness into the debate. I was one of the scholars asked to join.

Like all fields in the social sciences, Holocaust and Genocide Studies has a paradoxical relationship to its subject. As a “science”, it must distance itself sufficiently from it to gain “objectivity” and authority. But it also needs to be sufficiently engaged to achieve relevance and impact. Another dilemma stems from its subfield, Holocaust Studies, insisting on its singularity and uniqueness. If these characteristics are accepted, this hinders the drawing of lessons relating to prevention and the “never again” determination.

These two paradoxes converged in the current Gaza conflagration, as academics readily abandoned their authoritative ivory towers in the direction of partisanship. The unique significance of the Holocaust was affirmed and simultaneously denied to condemn Hamas’s October 7 attacks as a repetition of it. It was also used to shield Israel as a self-declared symbol for Holocaust survivors from condemnation of its indiscriminate retaliation on Gaza and characterisations of its actions as genocidal.

The challenge for participants in the forum was to be sufficiently non-partisan in their writing to project authority while staying relevant to address the question of the day. With that challenge in mind, the organisers invited scholars who represented a broad spectrum of positions.

In this brief critical review of the debate, I concentrate on just two points: the key question on whether Israel’s actions in Gaza qualified as genocide and to what extent the field of Holocaust and Genocide Studies has been revalidated (or harmed) by taking the lead in this debate.

With regard to the first question, Martin Shaw affirmed in the first intervention, Inescapably Genocidal, the genocidal consequences of Israel’s massive bombardment of Gaza, which “represented a strategic choice” rather than a tactical mishap. In this sense, the term “genocide” remains relevant and cannot be replaced by “alternatives”. However, Shaw adds that Hamas has knowingly provoked Israel’s genocidal acts, and thus is complicit in it. In this sense, Hamas was genocidal on October 7 and is also guilty of luring Israel into its own genocide against the people of Gaza.

Zoe Samudzi, in her article “We are Fighting Nazis: Genocidal Fashionings of Gaza(ns) After 7 October”, concludes that Israel has committed “nearly every act outlined in Article II [of the Genocide Convention] … that accounts for the more totalized ‘destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group’”. The author critically engages with a number of points that would appear to be mitigating circumstances, like using artificial intelligence (AI) targeting systems. She adds that “the use of algorithmic logics … is not necessarily illegal” since it operates within the colonially constructed international legal system of “genocidal statecrafting”. Due to Israel’s de facto “legal impunity”, “the question of genocide in Palestine transcends the applicability of the Genocide Convention”, Samudzi argues.

In his “Gaza 2023: Words Matter, Lives Matter More”, Mark Levene concurs with Shaw that the word “genocide” is inescapable in this context. He writes that early on in the conflict he recognised Israel was “on the cusp of committing genocide in Gaza”. Using A Dirk Moses’s concept of “permanent security” as an alternative to genocide, as well as terms, such as “urbicide”, genocidal warfare, social death, etc, he tries to avow making a determination of genocide. But whatever term is used, it is clear, he argues, that “the Israeli state this time has dissolved any remaining vestige [if ever there was one] of moral unassailability”.

Levene’s important insight is that this genocidal trajectory has roots in the fact that “Israel’s entire reality since 1948 … has been predicated on preventative securitization, tantamount to a perpetual state of war”. The trigger was not Hamas’s attack, but the trauma it evoked, calling for the “final obliteration of that perceived as having caused the insult”. In the light of the vocal calls for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians trapped in Gaza by extremists in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the “charge of genocide [becomes] legitimate”.

In her “A World Without Civilians”, Elyse Semerdjian discusses Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s October 13 remark that the entire people of Gaza are responsible for the October 7 attacks as part of a wider phenomenon of modern war where the targeting of civilians is increasingly prevalent. Gaza, as the theatre for the “First AI War”, has also become “a laboratory for necrocapitalism”, where weapons are field tested on Palestinians to “fetch higher dollars at market”. However, these “smart” bombs levelled whole neighbourhoods “as crudely as a Syrian barrel bomb”.

Given the scale of destruction of civilian infrastructure, however, it appears the distinction between targeted “humane” bombing and indiscriminate bombing in Gaza – as in Syria and Chechnya – has largely vanished. Highlighting the added dimension of settler colonial “slow genocide” and its “eliminationist logic against the native”, Palestine becomes a case in point, where slow violence can do the work of nuclear weapons.

For his part, Uğur Ümit Üngör begins his contribution “Screaming, Silence, and Mass Violence in Israel/Palestine” by wondering why mass violence perpetrated by Israel attracts more attention (and outrage) than the much more massive genocidal violence in neighbouring Syria; or why the conflict in Gaza is more on focus than similar ones in Darfur, China, Armenia, etc. Many inconclusive answers are given and refuted, with a faint suggestion that Israel is probably being held to a higher standard.

Üngör also suggests the October 7 attacks may fall in the category of “subaltern genocide”, where subaltern violence breeds feelings of humiliation, fear, and indignation among the stronger party, and a disproportionate revenge. At the same time, he adds that the current Israeli onslaught on Gaza is “annihilating entire communities”, aimed at making “Gaza unlivable and render a future unimaginable”. The segregationist logic underlying this genocidal dynamic, maintained by “militaristic self-aggrandizement and racist denigration”, will outlive the current war, Üngör concludes.

In his “Gaza as a Laboratory 2.0”, Shmuel Lederman argues that Gaza has not become just a laboratory for testing Israeli weapons and security technologies, but also for the pulverisation of human dignity through multiple indignities. Since October 7, it has become additionally “a laboratory for genocidal violence”. Lederman intentionally avoids labelling Israel’s action as genocide, arguing that Israel’s intention is to suppress Hamas as a military and political power, and cause enough suffering to deter Palestinians in Gaza from supporting Hamas again – even though he accepts that the indignities visited on its people encourage “extremism”. His nuanced analysis accepts that Hamas has multiple objectives and fears that have prompted its attack that represented a literal manifestation of a colonial “boomerang effect”.

Finally, my own intervention, “The Futility of Genocide Studies After Gaza”, starts by refuting the “subaltern genocide” thesis generally and in Gaza’s case in particular, pointing to the near-consensus in the field that genocides are almost invariably perpetrated by states. A garrison state like Israel could not be threatened by an impoverished and besieged enclave like Gaza. By contrast, the genocidal intent and consequences of the Israeli assault are becoming indisputable by the day.

You cannot perform all that indiscriminate devastation if you care about human life. Noted is also the fact that the Palestinian question is rarely approached through the prism of genocide, even though some authors have begun to describe the Nakba and its aftermath as a “slow-moving genocide”, while others have linked it to settler colonialist genocides.

The paper concludes that Genocide Studies is under threat since its normative presuppositions are under attack. “The field espouses a firm alignment against mass atrocities, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators or their excuses, and assumes a firm international convergence on this. In the absence of either or both, its cohesion is threatened, and its audience disappears. That is not only a crisis for a field, but a calamity for humanity.”

This leads to the second core point of the debate: the “crisis” of the field of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The debate has been sparked, as Samudzi and Shaw remind us, by the discordant scholarly responses to the Gaza war, “mired in competing historical and socio-legal interpretations of the very concept of genocide”.

With the Holocaust as an exemplar of genocide, this has overshadowed the field’s purpose of accounting for a global scope of genocidal atrocities. In this sense, the epistemic divergences challenging Holocaust-centric conservative interpretations of genocide “represent an overdue disciplinary engagement of the so-called ‘Palestine Question’”, Samudzi argues.

Most interventions refer to A Dirk Moses’s concept of “permanent security”, on how insecure regimes seek “absolute security” through protection against current and future threats, real or imagined. Probably a better term would have been “permanent insecurity”, which aligns with what I call “hyper-securitisation”. Moses wants his term to replace “genocide”.

However we look at it, Israel appears to be in a permanent and frantic search for an illusive total security, namely through “the creation of separation barriers … [that] enabled Israelis to pretend Palestinians were living in some other far-away universe” – as Levene notes – and occasionally through trying to uproot and obliterate them.

Overall, in the forum, there was uneven worry about the health of the field, but near consensus that what Israel is doing in Gaza is certainly “genocidal” if not outright genocide. In my view, if an action is so outrageous that people are debating whether it is genocide or not, then it is evil enough to be condemned and harmful enough to make its prevention urgent.

I also stand by my point that the increasing polarisation and partisanship in the field, together with the “major democracies” simultaneously assuming the role of participants and deniers, is a very serious blow to the whole endeavour of genocide prevention.

This forum was called before South Africa brought its December 29 case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging that genocide is being perpetrated in Gaza. Nevertheless, several contributors referred to it. Its outcome may call for revisions of some claims and expectations about Israel’s legal immunity, or about strictures that make the UN Genocide Convention un-implementable.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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