Navigating the Language of Genocide


Recently, some activists called for the U.S. to formally charge the self-proclaimed Islamic State with acts of genocide. I can use the word informally on a blog post, but Secretary of State Kerry’s hesitation to use the word formally proves the power of language. If he makes a formal accusation of genocide, the word brings certain political ramifications, and expectations that may not be fulfilled.

U.S. officials have avoided using the word in the past, in order to avoid necessitating political and military action. During the Clinton Administration, U.S. officials were explicitly told to refrain from using the word genocide to describe the situation in Rwanda, which is now recognized as very obviously a genocide. Reluctance alone to use the word allowed the U.S. to justify not intervening.

This is where language falls short: refusing to call something murder does not change the fact that it is murder. Regardless of whether or not Secretary Kerry calls the destruction of Yazidi, Shi’i, Sunni, and Christian life genocide, that destruction counts as genocide.

However, there is a deeper, more complex narrative. To begin with, most of the groups pushing for a formal accusation are Christian organizations, and focusing on the Christian victims alone risks ignoring the multitude of other victims of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Kerry would also need to contend with the fact that the U.S. has supported other genocidal regimes in the region complicit in aiding the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is religiously and politically invested in the destruction of Shi’i Muslims and Sufi shrines. Turkey, another U.S. ally, is involved in crimes against its Kurdish population, another group the Islamic State has targeted.

There is also Palestine. While the contexts and implementation for the Israel and the Islamic’s State’s actions against innocent civilian populations differ in a few crucial ways, they are overwhelmingly similar. Palestinians, in many cases children, are held captive without just cause; the Israeli military regularly encroaches upon Palestinian land, removes the indigenous population by force, and occupies it by destroying local property and replacing it with Israeli property. If the U.S. accuses the Islamic State of genocide, which it should, the U.S. would be remiss if it did not make the same accusation against the Netanyahu Administration, which it should.

The issue of language is complex; the word genocide holds so much meaning, but we often ignore the meaning of its absence, and in its absence genocides continue to occur. History has proven this, and it proves it now. There is no way to measure suffering, and I do not intend to give that impression. All victims of genocide deserve justice, Jews, Palestinians, homosexuals, Kurds, Bosnians alike. Ranking the suffering of others is the heart of the problem: it allows those who can stop the slaughter to pick and choose who deserves to be salvaged, and if he is a responsible leader, Secretary Kerry will acknowledge all acts of genocide in the region rather than a select few.


3 thoughts on “Navigating the Language of Genocide

  1. Daniel Foster

    Distinctions and nuancing are so important. For instance, you claim that “This is where language falls short.” It is not the language that is falling short as there is a sign for the act of systematically annihilating a people group of particular racial, ethnic, religious, etc. affiliation. The failure is to use the sign and with the political system that and legally invested sign so that their use necessitates a particular response. Now one problem with the language is that the sign “genocide” has been made too inclusive and ambiguous by individuals wishing their group to be afforded the political promised protections for those facing genocide. When systematic annihilation of a group is the definition of genocide, which some group offer, then the pre-meditative murder of a family of four would qualify. Language does become problematic when we conflate such areas of distinction.

    I certainly agree that the systematic killing (largely males) and enslavement and rape (primarily females and children) by the IS is genocide whether the group is Kurdish, Christian, Sunni, etc.

    Where I would push back is extending the term to the State of Israel’s response to ongoing, continuous acts of aggression by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Making the comparison is poor, which is born out with credible sources. A large population of Palestinians live as citizens in Israel. There are Palestinians in Jordan (should research their treatment over the years) and the West Bank. Additionally, a plan that eliminates enemy combatants embedded in a population is not genocide (see hyperlink you provide). Please do not understand. Relations and actions on both sides of this ongoing blood feud leave much to be desired -and I would support Israel more often than naught- but Israel has not conducted acts of genocide. Additionally, the plan proposed by a sub-cabinet member do not constitute genocide either – unless we are living in world in which Minority Report is now a reality.

    Love you contribution and your thoughtfulness. Enjoy reading your work.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. keeneshort Post author

      Thank you for contributing to this complex dialogue, Dan!

      First, I should make it clear that I recognize the complexities involved in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, genocide, international law, and a plethora of Middle Eastern military and geopolitical situations, and by no stretch of the imagination do I hope to solve any of these issues, or come anywhere close to a clear resolution, in a meager blog post. Quite frankly, the only thing I’ve ever accomplished with this blog has been to seduce people, but I persist in my interest in history nonetheless.

      Regarding language: Genocide as a sign for, as you say, “systematic extermination” puts certain limitations on what qualifies, and differs from the definition(s) I was working with. Primarily, I tend to use the definition of genocide found in Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which defines genocide as “acts committed to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” through “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction, in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

      Now part of the problem here is that, in this strictly legalistic framework, genocide can only be committed against racial, ethnic, national, or religious groups–meaning homosexuals and communists killed in the Holocaust or in the Gulags under Stalinism are not recognized as victims of a genocide. You may be using different definitions, but in this framework, genocide is pointedly exclusive, rather than inclusive.

      That being said, genocide is a sign for something else. There must certainly be distinctions between genocide and homicide, and the distinction, I think in most definitions, is to remove a distinctly identified group, a people, a culture, a nation. Forced removal/forced deportation qualifies as ethnic cleansing, which is an attempt to remove a people from a specific location; U.S. policy against Native Americans throughout the nineteenth century counts as ethnic cleansing because the intention was to remove indigenous groups from certain areas, or forcibly relocate them to reservations, but not to destroy them entirely. In strictly legalistic terms, intention is what matters.

      For members of a group who find themselves victims of genocidal acts regardless of the perpetrator’s intention may take a different position, because if languages, cultures, religions, entire ways of life die out as a result of ethnic cleansing, forced relocation, and most importantly the removal and indoctrination of children by another group and in another location, then members of a targeted group may feel that genocide has been committed, even slightly unintentionally. In this sense, genocides can still occur regardless of intention, and we can distinguish that the way we distinguish first, second, and third degree murder, as well as reckless endangerment.

      This is where I find the legal definition useful. It emphasizes that genocide is not simply “systematic extermination” of people, but of identities. Genocide, in a more abstract sense, is an assault on culture. Cultures change, creolize, evolve, develop, and in many cases die away; so too do people. Cultural murder, however, ought still be recognized as a crime.

      Moving on to Palestine: Like most world conflicts, the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict starts with the British, and certainly if I had my druthers, the British would be made to apologize for the vast plethora of evils they have sparked, directly or indirectly. Again, we hold people and nations responsible if they intend to cause harm and also if they cause harm through reckless behavior. The British have committed both intentional and unintentional crimes against humanity, and their behavior has allowed for circumstances in which crimes against humanity are deemed permissible. Palestine’s history is long, ancient, allowing for centuries of creolization of local and foreign customs. Arab culture became dominant by 1099 BCE, when Europeans sacked Jerusalem and killed not only Muslims, but Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians, all of whom worked and lived in harmony prior to European invasion. One poignant example of this is in Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, in which he describes Palestinian Jews’ defense of Jerusalem early in the siege, until the Frankish make it into the city, where they proceed to lock the doors on a synagogue in which the city’s Jews are hiding, and burn it down, eerily similar to Kristallnacht.

      What we see, then, is a harmonious unity in medieval Palestine against a European invasion. We see a pluralistic society. Centuries later, that pluralistic society changed hands; it fell into Ottoman possession (which warrants criticism, certainly), and into British hands. Historian Ira Lapidus writes that “in 1917 the British issues the Balfour Declaration and promised to favor a Jewish national home in Palestine. The British imagined that a Jewish national home would serve as a pretext for British claims to administer the country” (557). It’s crucial to understand the context; Britain was engaged in the First World War, and alongside its sidekick France wanted to break up Ottoman territories and colonize them. Britain, which has its own history of anti-Semitism (in the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe, as two of countless examples), capitalized on an idea by Theodor Herzl, who outlined his idea for a Jewish national home in his 1896 The Jewish State. After the Ottoman Empire dissolved in the aftermath of the War, the British seized Palestine and ruled it for a bit as a colony, similar to Iraq.

      It’s important, then, to situate the following century in Palestine and Israel as a process of colonialism, as overlapping colonialisms, and to see the conflict as a distinctly colonial situation. The British gave up on direct administration over the decades, mostly after the Second World War because the sudden use of the word genocide drew attention to their own horrors. Aime Cesaire points this out in his Discourse on Colonialism, pointing out that the Second World War, in his view at least, represents every horror European colonists invented to suppress Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Americas turned on one another–a point I disagree with, as the Second World War was more about colonialism turned against Europe’s historical “others,” but his point, I think is important anyway. Genocide on European soil drew attention to genocide outside of Europe, across Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, North America. The British and French were responsible for the fact that the indigenous population of Newfoundland no longer exists, that languages across the world are dying, that class and society are stratified in India. The horrors of American slavery were mostly British inventions extended into the Americas. British and French colonialism in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia pitted locals against one another, or situated one intellectual group against another. Palestine and Israel should be seen in this context, then.

      Israel is most accurately constructing an apartheid state, something I lament not making clear in my blog post. That is, probably, the most accurate terminology, and it differs from genocide in many ways. However, recent developments should be taken into consideration. What we see in Palestine (Gaza and the West Bank) is a process of neocolonization. First the British seized the territory politically, and now Israeli contractors are physically colonizing the land.

      This has been documented in a number of ways. Five Broken Cameras documents peaceful Palestinian protestors trying to prevent Israeli contractors from building on their land; these workers respond by burning down olive trees and arresting children, at night, in their sleep. Multiple sources have confirmed Israeli police’s excesses against Palestinian children, not just a successful yet strangely Dickensian documentary that warms, then immediately breaks, any viewer’s heart (and I cannot recommend Five Broken Cameras enough. I also recommend Budrus as another example).

      There is evidence in the news as well. Here’s an example ffrom Al Jazeera: “According to prisoner support group Addameer, at least 876 Palestinians, including 133 children, have been arrested since October 1 across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Israel. According to figures collected by the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, at least 60 children were arrested in Jerusalem during the first two weeks of unrest.”

      If you don’t like al Jazeera, here’s an example from The USA Today: “Currently, Israel is holding 420 Palestinians under the age of 18 for alleged attacks in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, according to Israeli Prison Service statistics.”

      Here’s another from The Guardian: “Many are exhausted from sleep deprivation. Day after day they are fettered to the chair, then returned to solitary confinement. In the end, many sign confessions that they later say were coerced.”

      One from “The Palestinian rights group Addameer says keeping the girls in this prison amounts to psychological torture because they are isolated from other Palestinian female political prisoners, who are held at Hasharon prison.”

      Returning to the legalistic definition of genocide: “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” qualifies as an act of genocide, or attempted genocide, or a part of ethnic cleansing, or simply a crime against humanity. But there it is in the definition of genocide that was created to account for the death of six million Jews and five million other groups in Europe. The forced transplantation of children is a unique circumstance that insurmountably changes the future of a people. And yes, Israel can and should defend itself against terrorist attacks. It is important to note, however, that Israel is responsible for the creation of Hamas, and this has become fairly common knowledge. From an Israel Today article from 2008: “The office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted on Wednesday that it is allowing the transfer of hundreds of millions of shekels to the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip every month.”

      Israel funded, largely created, Hamas to distract the Palestinian Peace Movement from the growing popularity of secular leadership. This does not excuse violence against Israelis, and in no way do I want to discredit the suffering of Israelis. However, the situation is similar to that of South Africa under apartheid, or any colonial regime in the past five hundred years: the colonizing entity has the economic, military, territorial, and political upper hand against the subaltern. The problem in Israeli is colonialism, which powers enact against bodies in a multitude of ways. Slavery used human bodies as property for labor, service, and sexual abuse. Colonialism against Native Americans resulted in massive displacement of indigenous groups. Israeli colonialism acts somewhat differently, and for me it is difficult to read about. Wars of liberation, terrorism, wars against terrorism, territorial disputes, anti-colonial campaigns, counter-campaigns are all troubling enough, but they should never, eve be enacted through children. Never. Palestinian protests have used children in similar ways, by bringing them to protests front and center, as mantlepieces for peace, almost baiting soldiers to attack them. This is also painful to watch.

      Here, I think, is one of the most complex situations today, and I don’t think we can simplify it to a “victim and perpetrator” dichotomy. Most genocides are more complex than that anyway, but this one is especially frustrating. Howard Zinn describes something similar in an early chapter in A People’s History of the United States: “And the lines are not always clear. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on one another” (11). Similarly and far more eloquently, Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi articulates the complexities of victim-perpetrator dichotomies in his idea of the “Gray Zone,” his notion that moral ambiguity excels in oppressive, genocidal spaces such as Auschwitz. In these spaces, victims become complicit in inhumanity and perpetrators, sometimes, have moments of hesitation. That level of moral ambiguity is rife in Palestine.

      My larger point is not necessarily about guilt, but about an unfortunate popular discourse that presumes genocide from one group but assumes the impossibility of such an act from another group, despite overlapping similarities. To begin with, it falls into neo-Orientalist discourse that is quick to portray Muslim activity as the worst possible (here I do not intend to excuse the Islamic State; they are monsters who torture children and should be prosecuted as such). However, cruel and harsh treatment of children (which, I should also point, should not have a place in any counter-terrorist campaign) from another group (Israel) warrants a different interpretation, simply by virtue of the fact that it is Israel. They should not be given a free pass from investigations, from checks and balances, and ultimately that’s all a formal accusation should warrant–an investigation, rather than a full-fledged D-Day-like onslaught. Israel, I believe, should be investigated for its treatment of Palestinian children, but not just because that treatment might count as genocide. The goal should be to find evidence and decide who is responsible, and to put a stop to Israel’s mistreatment of children, who, I would like to emphasize, should not be held responsible for a handful of terrorists, nor held captive to squeeze an entire culture into submission.

      I hope that this has clarified my points a little, and if I have left anything a bit under-explained, please let me know and I can go into greater detail. I think we’ve started some kind of discourse, which is what I’d hoped would happen with this post, and I am eternally grateful for your interest! Thank you, Dan!




  2. Pingback: Navigating the Language of Genocide by Keene Short | Israel Genocide?

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