HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 2, 2008
Hitler and Pol Pot - and Olmert?
Israeli Genocide in Gaza?

James Adler


I sent this inquiry to Professor Ilan Pappe, a longtime Israeli historian at Haifa University and recent author of the controversial and probably imbalanced but influential work, "The Ethical Cleansing of Palestine."  He has recently moved to a teaching position in Great Britain.  The letter has been on Pappe's website for a few weeks (at www.ilanpappe.org/Letters.html ) but the site has -- it would appear mysteriously -- either just shut down or been shut down.

Dear Professor Pappe:

Recently you wrote in the Independent, that "Not long ago, I claimed that Israel is employing genocidal policies in the Gaza Strip. I hesitated before using this very charged term and yet decided to adopt it."

I've always much admired you Professor Pappe, and your work and especially your courage, and still do. But I don't understand why you're calling the Gaza situation genocide.

It seems to rob the word of its meaning. Suppose extremist Rwandan Hutus had been very nasty to the Tutsis. It would have been terrible. But it is only because they tried to and succeeded in systematic slaughter of as many of them as they could that we call it the Rwandan genocide and one of the infamies since Hitler, and a benchmark of modern evil.

North Korea's tyrannical Kim Jung-Il runs perhaps the most implacably brutal regime in the world, and there are concentration camps and torture practiced there too, but no one uses the term "genocide" about this maybe most horrific regime on the planet. Why? Because it doesn't involve the successful systematic slaughter of as many as possible of a certain class of people.
How can there not be genocide in North Korea but Genocide in Gaza? It just doesn't make sense to me. It seems to rob the word of its meaning.

If Pol Pot had been a brute to his people, as he was, but if hadn't successfully and systematically slaughtered the intellectual classes and whole villages in an effort to slaughter as many as possible of all "bourgeois Cambodians", no one would call it a genocidal regime, or speak of the Cambodian genocide, and another benchmark of modern evil.

But then it just doesn't make sense to lower the bar so much, and call what is happening in Gaza "genocide."

The same with the situation in Sudan. It is genocide because of one thing and one thing only. And generalized nastiness does not nearly approach genocidal extermination. I'm sure the victims' survivors think: "If only there had just been generalized nastiness."

The last example is Nazism and the Jews. Suppose as happened the Nazis has been vicious and punitively hostile to the Jews. Kristalnacht had happened, the Jews had been forced out of their professions, and paraded and mocked in the streets, and denigrated and humiliated and most Synagogues destroyed and robbed of their homes and belongings at all levels of society in Germany. Suppose the Polish Jews had been rounded up and forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, and fenced in, and isolated in it, and the infamous Warsaw Ghetto was just as it infamously under the Nazis became. Suppose there were concentration camps, terrible labor camps. Suppose all this had happened.

Well, still, if at the end of the war those 6 million Jews who perished had actually remained alive, to pick up the pieces slowly but surely where they had left off, no one would ever have called it, or today call it, the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Because it wouldn't have been genocide. Terrible for them for the Jews of Germany and Poland and Russia etc. for 12 years, but not genocide, the term "genocide" would never once be used about what Hitler had done to the Jews.

I'm sure the surviving Jews wished with all their hearts, minds, and strength that this is exactly and precisely what Hitler had done to them--Kristalnachts and Warsaw Ghettos, and on and on, instead of -- in other words -- Genocide. And it says something about Genocide that it would make you wish with all your heart that simply Kristalnachts and Warsaw Ghettos had happened.

Another illustration. Take the Warsaw Ghetto again, and see it just as it was under the Nazi regime. But the inmates had remained imprisoned in that terrible Ghetto prison for the duration of the war, and never been taken from there to any death camps. Then no one would have called that terrible Warsaw Ghetto for twelve years the genocide of the Jews. No one. Because it wouldn't have been.

More precisely here one can see how your loose use of the term "genocide" robs it of its meaning. If the Warsaw Ghetto, but before the Jews were sent to the Death Camps, were already victims of "Genocide," then what would you call it after they were then sent to the Death Camps? There would be no remaining word.

The misuse of the world eliminates the distinction between the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and what happened to them after.

This trivializes what happened to them after, and it robs them and the whole world of the key word that describes what happened to them after. And there is power as well as accuracy in words, words give us both accuracy and power.

We would just have to invent a new word to describe the After-Warsaw-Ghetto Death Camps and Ovens, and to distinguish it from the Warsaw Ghetto.

But why not just keep the word we have now, Genocide, rather than have to go to the trouble of inventing new one?

Keep the word to use to describe what happened to the Jews, Roma etc. under the Nazis, and Cambodians and Rwandans, etc?

Why invent a new word?

And if we did invent a new word, I'm afraid Professor Pappe that you wouldn't be satisfied with the term "Genocide" anymore and would appropriate the new word, invented to distinguish the Warsaw Ghetto from the Death Camps later and use it, also, to describe Gaza. And then the Jews, Roma, Rwandans, Cambodians, etc., would be disempowered of the word that describes the singular awfulness of what happened to them, once again.

And then a newer invented word to replace the already newly invented word once again to describe what happened after Warsaw.

And then you would appropriate that. On and on forever. Why don't we just keep "Genocide" and use it to describe what happened, the fate that awaited them, the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto, after they were put on the trains for different fate?

Kim Jung-Il is a terrible torturing-and-killing tyrant.  But genocide?

And this doesn't even take us yet to the next basic question.  What about Sderot?

Again please let me express my admiration and respect for your courage and your work.

Sincerely,
James Adler


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