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The Abuse of the Term “Genocide”

Why do we need lawyers if Holocaust and genocide historians can now also present legally complex facts that are subject to a certain burden of proof?
[additional-authors]
November 28, 2023
Keith Lance/Getty Images

In the context of the Israel-Hamas War, there is an almost torrential interest in accusing the state of Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of genocidal intentions. For example, since October 7, a series of articles have appeared that identify the situation as “textbook genocide,” followed by a warning of potential genocide in Gaza as of 15 October. It is important to note that none of these articles have been authored by people who were asked to provide a historical expert opinion or such a statement. Although they are not legal experts, they have simply taken it upon themselves to offer opinions that deal with legal terms and ramifications. The question, then, is: Why do we need lawyers if Holocaust and genocide historians can now also present legally complex facts that are subject to a certain burden of proof?

In response to demands for accountability for the terrorist, antisemitic and racist attacks and mass murders by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and its supporters—which can now be seen everywhere on social media, and incudes the participation of civilians of all ages and genders—from Gaza on Israel, the quote by Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, who spoke of “human animals” and ordered the complete siege of Gaza, is often cited and used as evidence for Israel’s alleged genocidal intentions. The reality is the opposite: The IDF is building corridors for the civilian population and allowing aid supplies into Gaza. This is not genocide. Moreover, on social media we see only a clip of Gallant’s speech, and it is very difficult to obtain access to the full version. What did he say before or after?

The interpretation of this phrase in his speech is explained in different ways: Some say it was aimed at “all Palestinians,” while others say it was directed only toward the perpetrators of Hamas and their supporters. Depending on one’s political agenda, the order can be constructed in such a way as to suggest that Gallant advocated for complete annihilation of all Palestinians. But such an interpretation means that a historian is working dubiously and should not be taken seriously. The “human animals” reference was aimed at the perpetrators: Hamas. In the name of freedom they beheaded, raped, tortured and took hostages into Gaza. Ultimately, however, war would not have been necessary if Hamas had laid down its arms. In many cases, without showing any empathy for the 1200 victims and hostages taken to Gaza or naming specific perpetrators and their deeds such as rape, manhunts, cold-blooded murder of children and young people, it seems that the tools of the historical trade are being used for their own political agenda, which shows par excellence that historians perhaps focus far too often on theories in their textbooks at the expense of what is happening in the real world.

Questions about the difficult, sometimes unambiguous, definition of the term “genocide” were recently discussed against the backdrop of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. However, it is clear that it takes more than quoting from the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948, often out of context, to certify genocide. It is very surprising that some Holocaust and genocide researchers very quickly came to the conclusion that a genocide is currently taking place in Gaza or warn that one could take place. It is also very astonishing that snap judgments and one-sided citations led to the attestation of a genocide. It seems that academic language is being politically instrumentalized in the published statements, articles and “open letters” of the past weeks. As a rule, there is no comparison of sources in these statements. In many cases, when it comes to the perpetrators, Hamas and their supporters, their ideological foundations (even if not every single perpetrator will have read the Hamas charter from 1988 and its amendments from 2017) are completely ignored.

Consider, for instance, the thoughts of Raphael Lemkin (Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide”) on genocide: “Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.” Moreover, in these statements too often a perpetrator-victim reversal can be observed here, or the terrorist attacks are seen in the context of the Palestinian “struggle for freedom” or as a reaction to attested occupation and oppression and not in the broader context of nationalist, Islamist movements worldwide. Thus, for some Holocaust and genocide researchers, October 7 was apparently “not surprising.” Obviously, they ignore Hamas’s eliminatory ideology, which is at the forefront of the October 7 massacre. This is in the tradition of Holocaust and other researchers who, for example, superimpose the population policy goals of the Nazi regime to the antisemitic ideology of extermination.

Journalists are doing the same. Al Jazeera’s English-language website quickly recorded so-called genocidal acts in Gaza and was able to describe the “Palestinian blitzkrieg” in admiring terms as early as October 7. A few days later, the comparison between the “people of Gaza” to the “Warsaw Uprising” was noted, and finally, on October 18, the question was raised: “Analysis: Will Gaza be Israel’s Stalingrad?” Journalists want to attract readers and convey their political world view. But what do historians want? Perhaps they want to control the narrative and interpretation of the Israel-Hamas war.

One of the most important tools of the historian’s trade is source criticism: a tool that is clearly not being used enough in many of the stated opinions of these scholars. Source criticism means looking at printed, photographic or film sources, as well as oral testimonies and first-person documents, in their respective contexts and interpreting them against the background of their time. Ideally, historians also examine sources that contradict their working hypotheses in order to obtain a complete picture. In their work, historians are as objective as possible, but in reality many external factors influence their work. It is their own historical school, contact with colleagues, knowledge of secondary literature, career thinking and, most important, a political agenda. Naturally, their work can never fully reflect historical reality. Finally, the selection of sources also plays a role; it is always important which quotations from the sources are used to support one’s own theses in an apparently historically sound manner.

Ultimately, only by compiling and analyzing sources that contradict one’s own theses can historical reality be made comprehensible. This is because selective, de-contextualized citations can lead to false conclusions. In day-to-day political business, deliberately selective quoting without context can be dangerous and is ultimately not scientific. All historians, including those researching the Holocaust and genocides, must face up to this problem.

For today’s historians of the Holocaust, it is a matter of course to use both the perpetrator sources and the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. This was not the case for many decades; Holocaust research was based on the perpetrators’ sources until the 1960s, and in Germany even until the 2000s. Another “open letter” was finally published on November 20 by, as the German publication SPIEGEL wrote, renowned historians and antisemitism researchers, which shows that it is perhaps less about comparisons and more about the fact that some would like to have the authority to interpret the current Israel-Hamas war while they demand that others refrain from comparing the mass atrocities by Hamas and its supporters with the Holocaust. Since the Holocaust was the point of reference for the United Nations Genocide Convention as of 1948, why should no comparisons be made? Why should the numerically largest mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust on October 7, 2023 not be used as a comparison? Why do Holocaust and antisemitism researchers reject this? And wouldn’t it also be time to point out that the UN Genocide Convention has far too broad a scope of interpretation? Raphael Lemkin himself, founder of the Genocide Convention, mentioned then that the new word “genocide” is an “old practice in its modern development.” In his approximately 670-page book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: laws of occupation, analysis of government, proposals for redress,” which refers to ideas dating back to the 1930s, he explains the genesis of the term “genocide” in detail.

However, one does not have to like comparisons between October 7 and the Holocaust. The latter was a process that took place in various stages of escalation. Of course, history does not repeat itself one-to-one. The numbers of Jewish women, men and children murdered and the geographical scope of Europe and North Africa during the Holocaust cannot be compared either at the present time. But since the Holocaust—the genocide of six million Jews by Nazi Germany, actively and passively supported by large sections of German civil society—is the blueprint for the United Nations Genocide Convention, why shouldn’t comparisons be made? Why should the numerically largest mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust on October 7, 2023 not be used as a comparison? That some Holocaust and antisemitism researchers oppose this is extremely problematic.

It is obvious that the details of the mass crimes show certain similarities and of course also differences. Among other things, Hamas terrorists attempted—based on orders from the higher ranks and implemented through army-like structures—to exterminate, rape and kidnap as many Jews as possible. This can be defined as the (fantasized) starting point for the destruction of the State of Israel—the liberation of Palestine from Zionist occupation” (Hamas: General Principles and Policies, 2017). In an attempt to carry out a comprehensive, dehumanizing extermination campaign against Israel, they also murdered Arab Israelis and Bedouins. They raped and tortured Israeli women and killed and kidnapped Israeli babies and other civilians and took them hostage. Similarly, the Nazis held Jewish hostages in Bergen-Belsen and other camps, for example. Hamas slaughtered whole Jewish families in an act of intimate violence in their homes and justified their murderous actions by an allegedly assumed process of “liberation,” They proudly filmed their murder campaigns and spread propaganda to deceive the world. And, shockingly, large parts of Western human rights and aid organizations and even Holocaust-related institutions stayed silent, also when it came to crimes against women and children or the condemnation of the murderous acts as such. And this is despite the fact that excerpts from the interrogations of the perpetrators of October 7 are widely available on TikTok or other social media, proving that there were systematic orders for the brutal execution of rape and kidnapping. Incidentally, it is very likely that the thinkers and perpetrators of Hamas and their supporters took into account how Israel (generally speaking) would react to the terrorist attacks. Such reactions should be seen as part of a toxic manipulation.

To come full circle, historians do not usually prove their theses with one single quote or draw selectively on source material that reflects a preconceived opinion, regardless of whether it was about the genocide of the Armenians or the Herero or Tutsi in Ruanda. Historians actually put forward a working hypothesis, the pros and cons of which must be discussed academically. What have we learned in the past few weeks? Even intellectuals and Holocaust, genocide and antisemitism researchers are not immune to manipulation.


Dr. Verena Buser is a historian in Berlin and associated researcher with the Holocaust Studies Program/Western Galilee College.

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