Some of Israel’s defenders want to do away with the concept of genocide in hopes of washing away its war crimes. Any redefinition would allow the U.S. to disappear the many genocides it has committed domestically and internationally.
“We maintain, therefore, that the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.” We Charge Genocide, Civil Rights Congress, 1951
Wall Street Journal editor Adam Kirsch recently penned an opinion piece entitled, “Is It Time to Retire The Term ‘Genocide’? The Meaning of Genocide “. Why would anyone want to stop using the word genocide? To make a 1,700 word story short, the goal is to defend Israel and argue that it is not committing genocide against the people of Gaza.
The tortured and long winded supposition just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Genocide was very clearly defined by the United Nations in its 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide .
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- 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.
These criteria certainly apply to the ongoing crime against Palestinians in Gaza, which includes bombing homes and hospitals, depriving access to water and electricity, extra-judicial killings, and arbitrary arrests and detentions. They also apply to U.S. wars ranging from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Libya and to the enslavement of Africans and the destruction of indigenous communities, theft of their lands, and the present day domestic mass incarceration system. There are a plethora of instances of genocide in United States and world history. Surely there is no logical reason to end the use of this very important word.
Unless of course the rationale for doing so is political. Nowhere in Kirsch’s piece does he reference the United Nations definition, which has been universally accepted since 1948. The truth is just too inconvenient for the United States and its close ally Israel, which was founded as a Jewish state and makes the World War II genocide of European Jews a defense for its very existence and for all of its actions.
The word genocide quite rightly conveys very grave violations of human rights. In this latest effort to silence critics of U.S. and Israeli policy the word itself is under attack. As such it is especially important for Black people to be part of this discussion and debate.
It was Black led organizations such as the Civil Rights Congress which dared to name the evil, to say that genocidal acts extended far beyond Nazi death camps in Europe.
Now Black people have been targeted in this latest wave of censorship and punishment. It is Black students at Harvard and other universities who were harassed and doxxed and lost job opportunities. Black members of the Congressional Black Caucus Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman are facing primary opponents as punishment for being insufficiently pro-Israel. The liberation struggle is itself under attack if the word genocide is suddenly downgraded in importance.
The effort to defend Israel must be opposed for obvious reasons. The people of Gaza are under a brutal assault while the world watches as if nothing can be done. The U.S. is the one nation that could stop the carnage but won’t because it is on the same page with the Israeli state and its goal of ethnic cleansing in Gaza.
If the concept of genocide can suddenly be cast aside, if the concept of a settler colonial state is declared illegitimate for the sake of Israel, lies can be told about any crime. Rhetorical defense of oppressed peoples will be delegitimized and state terror will no longer be named as such.
It is not only correct but necessary for Black people to speak of ongoing genocides in this country. If one perpetrator is allowed to weasel out of culpability, even in language, atrocities of many kinds will be considered acceptable.
The word genocide is a useful and righteous weapon. That is why it is now being called into question. The guilty want to appear innocent and in the process disappear their criminality. So no, it is not time to disappear a word that is universally accepted and upheld as a necessity to protect humanity. Imagine how much worse the suffering will be if the ability to name a crime is removed from discourse.
Already the deaths of six million Congolese are rarely called genocide when they should be. Indigenous Americans and African descendants are sneered at when speaking of their experiences as genocides. The United Nations got it right in 1948. The intent to destroy a group was given a name and no one should be allowed to throw it out. Genocides have been committed throughout human history and they should be known as such.