Again, cries of “end the genocide” can be heard at Palestine solidarity rallies around the world. Again, historical comparisons are made between contemporary Zionist terrorism and 20th century Nazism. Again, the Israeli and Western media have gone into overdrive in an attempt to vilify and silence voices critical of Israel’s actions.
How exactly should the left respond, and how should we characterise the ongoing process of Zionist expansion in historic Palestine?
The following article by Mick Armstrong was published in the magazine Socialist Alternative in April 2010. The text is unchanged from the original, and therefore slightly dated, but the arguments put forward are worth revisiting.
“It seems that even the most horrendous crimes, such as the genocide in Gaza, are treated as disparate events, unconnected to anything that happened in the past and not associated with any ideology or system … But there is a clear pattern [of genocide].”
– Israeli historian Ilan Pappé
There has been considerable confusion and debate on the left about whether to describe the atrocities committed against the Palestinian people as genocide and about whether direct comparisons should be made between the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews and the current treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli state. These questions are connected to a broader issue – the consistent charges of anti-Semitism against anyone who dares to criticise Zionism.
Genocide is a loaded term. What is classified as genocide is much contested politically. The left in Australia long campaigned, in the face of vociferous right wing opposition, to establish that the destruction of Aboriginal society by British imperialism, and more recently the Stolen Generations, were acts of genocide. Similarly the British establishment has never conceded that the great Irish famine of the nineteenth century was genocide and the Turkish government stridently opposes the designation of the Armenian massacres as genocide.
On the other hand the right, for their own cynical reasons, have labelled the dispossession of white farmers in Zimbabwe and the massacres in Darfur as genocide. When it comes to popular usage, genocide has come to mean pretty much any atrocity, massacre or slaughter. So for example the war in Iraq is commonly described as genocide, as is the Sri Lankan government’s war against the Tamil Tigers.
The term genocide was first coined in 1944 by Jewish law professor Raphael Lemkin, a campaigner against the Armenian massacres. Lemkin defined genocide in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. He uses the term, not only to describe policies of outright extermination against Jews and Gypsies, but for less immediate Nazi goals. In Lemkin’s analysis Nazi Germany sought the demographic restructuring of Europe.
Therefore he also used the word genocide to describe a “coordinated plan of different actions” intended to promote such goals as an increase in the birth rate of the “Aryan” population, the physical destruction of the Slavic population over a period of years, and policies to bring about the destruction of the “culture, language, national feelings, religion” and separate economic existence (but not physical existence) of non-German “Aryan” nations. Lemkin states:
“Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation… It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”
Lemkin’s definition became the basis for the definition of genocide used by the UN, the international courts, the US Holocaust Museum and similar organisations. Nonetheless right from the start the definition of genocide was a highly politicised question, and at Stalin’s insistence the UN excluded mass slaughters of a class of people or carried out for political reasons from its definition of genocide.
The UN definition of genocide includes specific acts that kill a few hundred people. So for example the UN General Assembly voted that the massacre of the Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in the 1980s by the fascist Lebanese Phalangist militias (with the backing of Israel) was genocide. But more than that, the legal meaning of genocide and Lemkin’s definition specifically say that physical killings don’t have to occur.
So in the case of the Aborigines, the very policy of assimilation was genocidal. Assimilation was about eliminating the race by “peaceful” means. The UN definition of genocide also includes “forcibly transferring children of the group”. An important example of this is the Stolen Generations. The Stolen Generations were about taking the children away, “breeding out the race” etc., not physical killings. Indeed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when children were still being taken away, the Aboriginal population rose.
On the basis of this officially-accepted definition of genocide there is no doubt that the horrors inflicted on the Palestinian people qualify as genocide. So there is no reason why socialists should hold back from using the term genocide to describe what is happening to the Palestinians. Left-wing Jews such as Ilan Pappé and prominent supporters of the Palestinians such as John Pilger have been increasingly outspoken on the issue. All around the world Palestinians and their supporters raised the slogan “stop the genocide in Gaza”. To oppose them doing this on the basis of a quibble over the precise meaning of a word that is bandied about all the time to refer to other atrocities would simply serve to down play the atrocities the Palestinian people face.
It needs to be emphasised that there is no reason that genocides have to fit the pattern of the Holocaust, Rwanda or the Irish famine, where a tremendous slaughter took place in a concentrated time frame. In contrast the Armenian genocide extended over decades. In North America and Australia the genocide lasted hundreds of years. At times there were massacres, but in Australia they were usually in the tens, not in the tens of thousands. At times the US and Australian authorities retreated from genocidal policies and reached agreements with the Indigenous peoples, but over the long haul it was genocide. It flowed from the logic of a colonial settler state.
More Palestinians have been killed over the last decade (let alone the last 70 years) than were killed in Bosnia by the Serbs, yet Bosnia is widely considered to be genocide. The numbers killed during the 2009 war on Gaza are just the tip of the iceberg. Many, many more Palestinians are killed by the blockade, by starvation, disease, denial of medical facilities, torture and so on. According to the detailed estimates by the Jewish scientist Dr Gideon Polya, there are 7 million Palestinian refugees and 85 per cent of Christian Palestinians have fled.
The 1.5 million Palestinians who reside within the borders of the Israeli state live under race-based apartheid laws (including the requirement to carry compulsory race-based ID at all times; race-based marriage prohibition laws; race-based discrimination over property acquisition, property rights, social participation, travel in their own country and family reunion). Four million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are held as virtual prisoners in increasingly abusive conditions. They are held without charge or trial in what are effectively concentration camps in Gaza and the West Bank; and their capital city has been stolen. Post-invasion excess deaths (i.e. avoidable deaths from bombs or bullets or deprivation) now total 0.3 million.
On top of this an estimated 24 million excess deaths occurred in the countries partly occupied by the state of Israel in the last 60 years – Egypt 19.8m, Jordan 0.6m, Lebanon 0.5m, Syria 2.2m. Polya argues:
“This racist, genocidal horror was inevitable from the outset in the late 19th century when the Zionists set out on a program of racist colonisation to mimic what Western Europeans were already doing… the Americas (genocide of the Indigenous Indians…); horrendous racist colonisation and mass murder in West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa; the Aboriginal Genocide in Australia…and mass murder in Asia (excess deaths from the British enslavement of India…total 1.5 billion; excess deaths in China from the Opium Wars and the Tai Ping rebellion totalled 20-100 million).”
The long term Zionist colonial project is genocidal, whether or not one labels the specific military attack on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 as genocide. The same logic is at work in Israel as in Australia and North America, because of its origins as a white colonial settler state and its relationship to imperialism. White colonial settler states are under constant pressure to behave in a genocidal way towards the native population in order to secure their position.
In the case of Israel, as long as the Zionists attempt to maintain a predominantly Jewish state they are pushed to be genocidal – witness the repeated wars, the continuing destruction of Palestinian society in the West Bank, the relentless stealing of land, the continuing military incursions and massacres, the destruction of the Palestinian economy and the blockade of Gaza. This is remarkably similar to what happened to Native Americans as they were dispossessed of their land and driven onto reservations that were constantly encroached on. It took hundreds of years for the US state to dispossess them and complete the genocide. The weaker Israeli state by comparison has only been at it for a bit over 60 years.
Should socialists refer to the genocide of the Palestinians as a holocaust?
The term holocaust has been used since the 18th century to refer to the violent deaths of a large number of people – a disaster or a catastrophe. The term holocaust is originally derived from the Greek word – holos (completely) kaustos (burnt) – used to describe a sacrificial offering to a god. However over the last 40 years, the term has taken on a very specific meaning. Holocaust has increasingly become the word used to describe the barbaric slaughter of European Jewry by the Nazis. The Holocaust was not simply mass murder. It was one of the highpoints of capitalist barbarism in the 20th century. It was an attempt by an advanced imperialist power to use modern capitalist industry, science, technology and regimented methods to systematically exterminate a whole people.
For this reason socialists should not loosely describe every massacre or horror committed by capitalism as another Holocaust. But this does not mean that other people who use the word holocaust to describe specific atrocities (there is for example an Irish Holocaust Society to commemorate the great famine) or who compare the atrocities in Palestine or other parts of the world to the Holocaust are being anti-Semitic or are deliberately downplaying the significance of the Holocaust as the Zionist establishment repeatedly proclaims.
The question of anti-Semitism
One of the reasons that some people draw back from using the term genocide to describe the horrors inflicted on the Palestinians is that they inevitably face the charge of anti-Semitism. But there is nothing anti-Semitic about saying the Palestinians have endured genocide. It would be like saying it is racist to Indonesians to acknowledge the genocide in East Timor, or racist to Turks to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Describing the Stolen Generations as genocide, even though it did not involve state organised mass murder on the scale of Nazi Germany, is not to belittle the Holocaust or to pander to anti-Semitism.
The fact that the issue of anti-Semitism is constantly raised in connection to the Palestinian struggle reflects the weight of imperialist propaganda and its deep permeation in countries like Australia. Israeli Jews do not suffer from anti-Semitism. They are part of an oppressor nation that is backed to the hilt by US imperialism. Similarly the situation of Jews in the West has changed dramatically since Israel became a key prop for US imperialism. Unlike 60-70 years ago there is no significant section of the Jewish population in the West that is racially oppressed or involved in any struggle against imperialism. Quite the reverse. The Western Jewish populations are overwhelmingly supporters of imperialism and the Zionists are lionised by the political establishment as heroes. Kevin Rudd faced not even a peep of criticism in establishment circles when he officially celebrated the terrorist war that set up the state of Israel. Imagine if Rudd hailed the accomplishments of the IRA in founding the Irish Republic! Respectable opinion would be outraged.
It is many decades since papers like The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald unleashed racist campaigns against Jews. Today The Age seeks to use spurious charges of anti-Semitism to discredit socialists and supporters of Palestine. The US and Australian ruling classes constantly harp on about the evils of anti-Semitism in order to justify their imperialist project in the Middle East, to attack the Arab masses and Western supporters of the struggle against imperialism and to divert attention from the atrocities they are carrying out.
Socialists don’t want to fall into the trap of downplaying what is happening to the Arabs because of concerns about whether the horrors inflicted on them are as bad as what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust. Socialists need to orient to those fighting against imperialism today – the Arab masses and their Western supporters – not to those supporting imperialism.