Using the term “genocide” regarding Gaza is a dangerous misuse of the word

Posters accusing Israel of genocide, such as this one at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, are common in anti-Israel events. Courtesy Southern Jewish Life.

by Jay Michaelson

(The Forward) — Last week, I argued in these pages that Israel’s military operations in Gaza, however horrifying, do not fit the international legal definition of “genocide.” Moreover, I continued, misusing the word in this way dilutes its meaning, ultimately harming the most vulnerable populations in the world.

I received many thoughtful responses to that column, and want to address where I think those responses are right, and where they err, about the emotional power of the word.

In reading the responses to the column, it’s clear that we lack the words to describe what’s going on in Gaza. Even if the operation is justified by Hamas’ hideous actions and the threat it poses, it is still objectively horrifying that 8,000 people — mostly innocent civilians, including children no less innocent than the ones massacred by Hamas — have been killed.

Yes, these civilians were not deliberately targeted, as Israel’s victims were. Yes, Hamas is hiding in mosques, hospitals, schools and apartment buildings. Yes, Hamas bears ultimate responsibility for what is happening. But none of those facts change the catastrophe that is unfolding.

Indeed, the rush to justification often evinces a kind of moral cowardice among Israel’s staunchest defenders, a refusal to face the facts, view images of innocent Palestinian victims, and face the reality of what the Jewish state is doing — even, once again, if the operation is necessary, justified and lawful.

“Genocide” may not fit this situation legally, but it resonates emotionally, to the point where my objection to the term has been seen as somehow missing the point. We don’t have a word for the horror of what’s happening in Gaza, and “genocide” fills that gap.

I think that’s right, as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go far enough.

First, as I discussed in detail last week, advocates and even government officials use the term “genocide” far too sloppily. Genocide requires the explicit intent to annihilate an ethnic group. That’s not happening now. True, as many commenters pointed out, some in Israel (and in my social media feed) have been using genocidal rhetoric, which is to be condemned, and, which for good measure, significantly harms Israel’s case as well.

But it’s not Israel’s official position. Wise or unwise, Israel has articulable strategic goals in the Gaza operation, and has taken some (though perhaps not enough) steps to minimize the loss of life. Not only is there no affirmative evidence of genocidal intent, there is significant evidence of its absence.

Again, this is not to minimize the horror. But there have been non-genocidal but still horrible losses of civilian life before: the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden come to mind. There has to be a better way to describe what’s happening than by misusing a term that is a critical protection for vulnerable populations.

Some of those populations are at risk right now, such as the Massalit ethnic group in Sudan, where the genocide of the 2000s appears to be happening once again. A recent outbreak of violence has seen numerous massacres of Massalit by Sudanese militias, and over 5 million people have fled their homes (yes, more than twice the population of Gaza) to escape the violence. According to a recent report by Michael Brand, a professor of genocide studies and human rights at the University of Connecticut, “in Darfur, non-Arab unarmed civilians have been hunted down and massacred, according to eyewitnesses and survivors. Women and girls have been subjected to systematic rape, sexual violence and trafficking.”

“Many of the same perpetrators of the genocide in the early 2000s are committing atrocities again now, observers say, in a testament to the dangers of impunity,” Brand continues.

That is what a genocide looks like.

Ultimately, one must hold two truths: that Israel’s operations in Gaza are exacting a terrible human cost, and that they do not constitute the specific crime of genocide. We may lack the language to describe what is happening, but we should not abuse the language that we have.

There is a second reason why the emotive turn to the word “genocide” is so unhelpful, which is what it says about Israel — and, by extension, Jews.

Genocide charge is inciting

It’s hard to think of anything worse than genocide. If anyone I knew supported it, I wouldn’t merely “unfriend” or “unfollow” them. I would utterly reject them. I would condemn them as evil. I would ensure that no one I knew had anything to do with them, and would alert others to their immorality.

Is that true of anyone who supports Israel right now?

I suppose some of Israel’s supporters might be merely ignorant of what they are supporting, but plenty of people, myself included, are looking clearly at the situation and supporting some form of military response. We might disagree about the extent, priorities, or wisdom of Israel’s response, but we agree that there must be some response, lest Hamas win a moral victory and other terrorist organizations be encouraged to imitate them.

But if this is genocide, we are all evil. We are like slave traders in the 19th century, Nazis in Germany, Chinese Communists in 1950s Tibet. We are not merely wrong — we are despicable.

And when the genocide charge is leveled not only at supporters of Israel but at Jews — as has explicitly been the case in several antisemitic attacks of late — anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism. The word genocide adds fuel to the fire of hate: Now it is Jews who are despicable, evil, no better than Nazis. And so we deserve to be spat at, harassed, and attacked in public.

Of course, there are many who use the word “genocide” but are not antisemitic. But to them, I say: Look at what your incendiary words are lighting on fire. Look at who are you are inciting. And look at the consequences.

Oppose Israel all you want. Condemn its actions. But when you call those actions genocide, you’re inciting violence. Sooner or later, Jewish blood will be on your hands.

Rabbi Jay Michaelson is a columnist for Rolling Stone and the author of 10 books. He recently won the 2023 New York Society for Professional Journalists Award for opinion writing. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.