Jewish Life Op-Ed Columns Opinion

Do they even know what “genocide” means?

By Rafael Medoff

A new poll claims that 22 percent of American Jews believe “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” That would be alarming—if they actually know what genocide is. But do they?

There is reason to suspect that as the word has become common place in public discourse, its meaning has been diluted and compromised. The unexpected ways in which the term “genocide” often is used today suggest it is no longer necessarily understood the way its originator intended.

The word “genocide” was coined by the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin in 1944. Lemkin was haunted by the failure of the international community to act against Turkish officials involved in the slaughter of more than one million Armenians in 1914-1918. He believed that to galvanize a more effective response to future atrocities, a new word was needed to label such a unique type of crime. 

Lemkin took his inspiration from George Eastman, who invented the word “Kodak” because he needed a short, unique, and easy-to-pronounce name for his camera.

Lemkin’s efforts to popularize the term “genocide” were crowned with success in December 1948, when the United Nations adopted its Genocide Convention, an international treaty criminalizing genocide. It defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group, as such.”

Over the years, pundits and even some scholars have occasionally used the term “genocide” rather loosely, as if it’s interchangeable with “war crimes” or “ethnic cleansing.” It’s not.

For example, the war crimes committed by the Syrian government, such as its use of chemical weapons against its civilian opponents, do not constitute an attempt to destroy a particular national, ethnic, racial or religious group. This fact does not make those crimes any less heinous, or any less worthy of a forceful international response. But that is not what Lemkin intended the word “genocide” to mean.

U.S. government officials have made matters worse by sometimes refusing, for political reasons, to apply the genocide label when they should. Recall the almost comic lengths to which some leaders went to avoid acknowledging the Armenian genocide, as when President Barack Obama invoked the Armenian term for the slaughter, “Meds Yeghern,” but would not say it in English. (President Joe Biden finally acknowledged it earlier this year.)

As the genocide in Rwanda unfolded in 1994, Clinton administration officials debated how best to respond. Susan Rice, who was director of African Affairs for the National Security Council, argued against calling it “genocide” on the grounds that, as she put it, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] elections?”

In the spring of 2003, human rights groups began using the term “genocide” to characterize the mass slaughter of non-Arab blacks in Darfur by Sudanese government-sponsored Arab militias. It took the George W. Bush administration until September 2004 to publicly concur.  According to The New York Times, the 16-month delay was due in part to the fact that the administration was “concerned that threats and punishments against Sudan would antagonize the Arab world.”

Consider, too, how the word has been distorted in recent popular discourse.

Anti-abortion activists frequently cry “genocide.” Ben Crump, the attorney in some of the recent police shooting cases, is the author of a book called “Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People.” Oklahoma Native American activist Casey Camp Horinek says pollution of wells in her tribe’s territory is “environmental genocide.”

Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-Fla) recently claimed America is threatened by “cultural genocide,” while his colleague Rob Bishop (R-Ut) has charged that “the ideas behind the Green New Deal are tantamount to genocide.” And a Minnesota professor has claimed that black-on-black shootings constitute “genocide from within.”

This freewheeling use of the term “genocide” in situations that do not meet the definition undermines the public’s understanding of what the term really means. It would not be surprising if the word has become little more than a casual synonym for injustice in the minds of a part of the public.

The younger generation is particularly susceptible to such rhetorical excesses. Social media have been flooded in recent weeks by wild anti-Israel accusations from cultural celebrities, including the invocation of “genocide” by Roger Waters of the rock group Pink Floyd, social media star Mia Khalifa, and the actor Mark Ruffalo (although he later backpedaled). Others, including popular singer Dua Lipa and Canadian musician The Weekend, used the only slightly less incendiary term “ethnic cleansing.”

Impressionable young people pay attention to what their cultural icons are saying. It may not be a coincidence that in the new poll about Israel, the percentage of respondents who were aged 18 to 34 was 24%—almost identical to the number who said Israel is guilty of genocide.

Ultimately, then, the problem with the poll may be that the “genocide” question assumed that all the respondents understand what “genocide” means. Imagine if, instead, the question had briefly explained what it was talking about—something like: “Genocide means ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic racial or religious group’—do you think Israel is doing that to the Palestinians?”

It is highly unlikely that 22% of American Jews would have answered “yes” to such an obviously false allegation. Even many of those who are not well educated on the subject understand that “destroying” means wiping out, or at least significantly reducing, the targeted population, while the Palestinian Arab population has increased dramatically since Israel’s creation in 1948.

It may well be that a small number of American Jews are becoming more extreme in their criticism of Israel. But a casual embrace of poorly-understood language is not necessarily evidence of a serious trend in Jewish public opinion.

This article was first published in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles  ( July 14, 2021).

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about American Jewish history and the Holocaust.

Main Photo: Keith Lance/Getty Images

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