Following the Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians on October 7th, accusations of genocide can be heard from the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the United States. These accusations, however, are not being made against the massacre’s Palestinian perpetrators. They are intended to indict the prosecution of Israel’s military retaliation in Gaza and the consequent death toll there. From countries like Iran and Iraq, this kind of perversity was predictable. The virulent antisemitic reaction to the October 7th attacks in the West—which began before Israel attacked Hamas targets in Gaza—is more shocking. In the US alone, those who have taken the opportunity to accuse Israel of genocide include congressional staffers, a congressional representative, numerous university students, and a significant number of university professors.
This is not the first time that Israel has faced accusations of genocide. During the 1982 war in Lebanon, Israel acted to neutralize the bases from which Palestinian guerillas were attacking the country’s north. An Israeli-backed Christian militia was ordered to clear the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, from which Israeli soldiers had taken fire during the campaign. In response to the recent assassination of Lebanon’s Christian president Bashir Gemayel, the militiamen killed a number of fighters and a still-unsettled number of Palestinian civilians. To this day, there is no agreement on how many were killed. The Red Cross said 460. Palestinian scholar Maher Sharif insists that the figure might have been as high as 4,500. Such is the politicization of casualty figures.
These events provoked global outrage, but it is important to note that they also provoked outrage within Israel itself. The 1983 report of the Israeli government’s Kahan Commission held the IDF indirectly responsible for the massacre and led to the resignation of defence minister Ariel Sharon. The UN General Assembly, however, went further than this, voting in 1982 to condemn the killing at Sabra and Shatila as an act of genocide, even though the UN had not investigated the crime. As the Soviets put it during the UN debate, Israel’s purpose “is to destroy the Palestinians as a nation.”
But “genocide” isn’t simply a word for reprehensible conduct in war. The term is defined by the 1948 UN Genocide Convention as the demonstrable intent to destroy a national, racial, or religious group in whole or in part. Not only was the UNGA’s claim of genocidal intent and practice inconsistent with Israel’s own self-critical investigation of wrongdoing, but up to 300,000 Palestinian refugees still live in Lebanon today. The accusation of genocide, international-law expert William Schabas later wrote, was simply used by the UNGA “to embarrass Israel rather than out of any concern with legal precision.”
So, here we are again. Only this time, the accusers include two scholars of the Holocaust, Raz Segal of Stockton University and Omer Bartov of Brown University. It is one thing when an academic like George Washington University’s Lara Sheehi, a Lebanese-American with a long record of antisemitic vitriol, refers to Israel as “a genocidal state.” It is quite another when Holocaust scholars weigh in on the matter. They have, after all, spent their professional careers studying the Nazi project to rid the world of Jews and of their supposedly destructive influence on civilization. Segal and Bartov are Jews and Israelis to boot. Intentionally or not, their credentials provide an imprimatur to those eager to accuse Israel of perpetrating genocide.