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What’s Happening in Gaza is No Genocide

The war in Gaza is no genocide, and labeling it as such contributes to the most virulent type of Jew-hatred.
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January 5, 2024
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I think I first learned about the Cambodian genocide when I was in elementary school, probably when I was in fourth grade, in 1979. Maybe it was as part of a current events curriculum, or maybe I saw coverage about it on the nightly news with my parents. By that time, I’d already learned about the Holocaust, so the idea of another genocide wasn’t too difficult to fathom. In time, I would learn about other attempts to exterminate whole peoples in places like Armenia and Rwanda.

Yesterday, I took my family to the killing fields just outside of Phnom Penh. In that one location, more than 21,000 souls were brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. Throughout Cambodia, somewhere between two and three million people were slaughtered. We saw a memorial where more than 5,000 skulls of the murdered were stacked in silent judgment of a world that largely did nothing to stop the killing. Additionally, we visited a tree upon whose trunk Khmer Rouge soldiers crushed the skulls of babies.

I’ve been to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, Babi Yar and Birkenau.

When I see these places and learn about the complex and well-planned operations designed to exterminate the lives of children and women, whole families and villages, ethnicities, nationalities and religions, I am both horrified and mystified. How could a person—whole groups of people in fact—perform such acts?

The recorded history of genocide goes back to biblical times. This week, we begin the book of Exodus. Our Torah tells us of the genocide that Pharaoh plans against the children of Israel. At the end of the first chapter, we read: “Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, ‘Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live’” (Ex. 1:22).

It doesn’t make sense to me, how anyone ever could order such a thing or do such a thing.

I reflect on all of this as I read about how Israel is being accused of perpetrating a genocide in Gaza. Such an accusation insults the memories of those killed by the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis. Urban warfare in a place as densely populated as Gaza will inevitably result in civilian casualties, even in the thousands. That Hamas uses its people as human shields as a strategy makes matters much worse.

Such an accusation insults the memories of those killed by the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis.

The IDF’s bombing is not “indiscriminate,” and the current campaign does not constitute genocide any more than the Allies’ bombing of urban targets during World War II. In both the European and Asian theatres, hundreds of thousands of non-combatants were killed. This was not a campaign to erase Germany or Japan from the map of the world or to exterminate an entire ethnic group; rather there were clear military objectives at play. We sought to end the murderous German and Japanese occupations of sovereign nations, free hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers and civilians dying in Nazi and Japanese prisons and concentration camps, and eliminate Hitler’s control of Germany’s government and armed forces as well as the military cabal leading Japan.

The IDF, too, has military objectives—and a widely known ethical code—guiding their campaign. The IDF aims to destroy Hamas’ ability to murder and kidnap Israeli citizens via rocket fire and cross-border invasion, return the remaining hostages to their homes, and free Gaza from Hamas’ jihadist leadership that turns billions of dollars in international aid into vast networks of tunnels hidden under hospitals and mosques, filled with weapons. (They also use those same aid dollars to fund private bank accounts for themselves in Qatar and elsewhere.)

As regrettable and heartbreaking as the loss of non-combatants in Gaza is, it is not the goal or strategy of the IDF. Certainly, it would be to Israel’s advantage not to kill any Gazan civilians. And unfortunately, it is to Hamas’s benefit for innocents to die in Gaza, preferably at the hands of the IDF.

To call what is happening in Gaza a genocide is to intentionally, and without regard to objective reality, equate the IDF, Israel and, by extension, even Jews who don’t live in Israel (like American college students being assaulted verbally and physically on university campuses) with the worst of the worst: the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge.

This is an act of demonization of the most despicable level, one that, ultimately, God forbid, might be used to justify an actual attempt at genocide on Israelis and the Jewish People.

It is just such an act of demonization on Pharaoh’s part that makes his attempted genocide of the children of Israel possible. He accuses us, a tiny fraction of the Egyptian populace, of being “too numerous,” a fifth column that might lead to Egypt’s downfall.

The real threat to the Egyptians, of course, was Pharaoh himself. Just as Hitler was to Germany, and Hamas is to Gaza.

I’ve been to the killing fields and to extermination camps. I’ve studied genocide and I’ve seen its terrible and tragic consequences. The war in Gaza is no genocide, and labeling it as such contributes to the most virulent type of Jew-hatred.


Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is the Senior Rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, California.

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