Words Continue To Matter
My friend Jonathan Cunningham has spent a lot of time over the past few days writing about Israel and Gaza in a state of understandable rage. He reblogged a couple of my posts, furious that I refused to comdemn only Israel for what he termed a genocide against Palestinians.
We’ve gone back and forth on this issue on Twitter, but I wanted to take a few minutes to write a bit about the problem that Cunningham faces, as well as to provide my reasons for refusing to go nuclear on the topic of Israel.
First, I should begin by noting that I don’t think Hamas rockets and Israeli airstrikes should be thought of as being similar in any way. I condemn both of them, but they aren’t comparable. I’m tired of seeing Facebook and Tumblr posts about the terror of Hamas rocket attacks, as if a) they occur in a vacuum and b) they are somehow terrorizing the Israeli populace in even a remotely similar way that Israeli airstrikes are terrorizing Gazans. But I’m also tired of the Facebook and Tumblr posts about how the ineffectiveness of the rocket attacks somehow means that they are the equivalent of not shooting rockets at civilians.
In other words, it’s possible for the Israeli government to be acting immorally and it’s possible for Hamas to also be acting immorally … even if the results of their immoral behavior are not equally terrible. There’s no moral high ground here. The fact that Hamas rockets aren’t killing more Israeli civilians doesn’t negate the fact that the intention of the shooters is to kill Israeli civilians. The fact of Israel’s reprehensible treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza doesn’t give Hamas carte blanche to attempt to terrorize and kill Israeli citizens. But nor do Hamas rockets give the Israeli government carte blanche to terrorize and kill Gazans. Nor is there any reason, as far as I’m concerned, for Israel to maintain its abusive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Now to the specific issue at hand, namely Cunningham’s use of the word genocide to describe what is happening in Israel/Palestine:
The reason I’m unwilling to use the word genocide is because this is not a genocide. That doesn’t mean that it’s absolutely terrible, that Israel isn’t committing violations of international law by employing collective punishment and by targeting civilians areas and infrastructure, or that the Israeli government might be rightfully accused of a policy of ethnic cleansing. It is only to say that genocide is a specific term with a specific meaning … and that what we have seen and are continuing to see in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza does not meet the definition of that term.
In one of his first posts on the matter, Cunningham quotes the Genocide Convention:
…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Cunningham focuses on (c), above, and concludes:
It’s obvious Israel’s goal is to remove the Palestinians (even and especially the nonviolent civilians) by “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.
Unfortunately, this isn’t obvious. While it’s certainly true that Israel is inflicting on Gazans terrible “conditions of life,” there is absolutely no reason to conclude that Israel is doing so in order to bring about the “physical destruction in whole or in part” of the Palestininan people.
If Israel intended to commit genocide, I think we would see very different results from this week’s airstrikes against Gaza. Those who condemn the Israeli massacres in Gaza are right to point out the number of civilian casualties because any such casualties are abominable … but they ought to recognize that, given the remarkable firepower and tactical capabilities of the IDF, the number of casualties is surprisingly low (especially if they want to include a charge of genocide in amongst their condemnations). To put this in the starkest possible terms, if the Israelis wanted to bring about the destruction of the Palestinian people — in whole or in part — they could do so at any time (but especially at this time, when they have been bombing the densely-populated Gaza Strip for days). That civilian casualties are as low as they are suggests that genocide is not what the Israeli government intends. Indeed, as I’ve argued previously, what the Israeli government intends, with an election on the immediate horizon, is to perpetuate the conflict and to make themselves (and their particular brand of sabre-rattling and non-negotiation) seem indispensable to the populace.
Of course, Cunningham has argued that I’m just playing a semantics game here while innocent people are being killed. I’ll leave aside the whole argument that words matter a great deal in international law because, for example, the Genocide Convention has an operative clause. Even though I find this line of argumentation compelling, I know a lot of people think that international treaties aren’t worth the paper on which they’re printed. So instead, I’ll focus on the idea that words matter because opponents of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians do themselves no favors at all by going nuclear about what Israel is doing. Here’s my argument, in Twitter form:
What I would suggest is that the actions of the Israeli government — now in Gaza and in the past in both Gaza and the West Bank — are bad enough without crying wolf about genocide and that when you cry wolf about genocide you invite people to completely tune out the very real and very terrible things that are being done … and these people are already very interested in tuning out complaints about these terrible things.
It’s sufficient to say that Israel shouldn’t be killing civilians, to argue against those who would justify those killings, and to work to bring this tragic violence to an end.