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Holocaust Historians, the Genocide Charge, and Gaza

The accusation is wrong on the facts and objectively serves to support the intent of Hamas to murder Jews with impunity.

· 11 min read
Holocaust Historians, the Genocide Charge, and Gaza
Protest in Washington D.C, October 2023 . Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash. Omer Bartov of Brown University (R). Wikimedia Commons

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. 

We are, however, also historians of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and we take issue with Bartov’s and Segal’s arguments. Segal has written on the Holocaust in Hungary, but he has also studied what he calls Israeli “settler-colonialism,” “Jewish supremacy in Israel,” “the distortion of the Holocaust to boost the Israeli arms industry,” and “the weaponization of antisemitism to justify Israeli violence against Palestinians.” When this kind of language is employed to describe, say, debates on the nature of antisemitism, it is hard to take it seriously. But Jewish Currents has been pleased to oblige.

When it was first printed in 1946, Jewish Currents was associated with the American Communist Party, and it is now perhaps the most anti-Israel Jewish magazine in the US. In an October 12th article for the magazine (published less than a week after October 7th), Segal calls Israel’s war in Gaza a “textbook case of genocide.” The Israelis, he alleges, are conducting a campaign aimed at expelling Palestinians from Gaza and into Egypt. Since Israel was accused of bombing the Rafah crossing on October 10th to make it impassable, and since the Egyptian regime would never agree to an influx of over two million Gazans anyway, it is hard to follow Segal’s logic on this point. His claims have nevertheless received attention in mainstream organs such as Newsweek.

Bartov is the more concerning case, owing to his long career as a very fine Holocaust scholar. He has studied everything from the German army’s involvement in Nazi atrocities to the local dynamics of genocide in Western Ukraine. He eschews the postcolonial parlance deployed ad nauseum by Israel-haters as well as overdetermined clichés like “textbook case.” He published his arguments in the New York Times on November 10th, having waited a few weeks to watch events in Gaza unfold. He then gave follow-up interviews to the New Yorker and to CNN, in which he discussed the arguments in his article. 

Israeli operations in Gaza, Bartov says, have created a humanitarian crisis that likely includes war crimes and crimes against humanity. He worries that these crimes, which amount to ethnic cleansing, may be a harbinger of genocide itself. Like Segal, he argues that “genocidal intent” is already apparent in a number of public statements made by Israeli statesmen and military officers, and that genocide itself could plausibly follow in the next weeks or months.

With arguments like these, Bartov and Segal draw attention away from the undeniable and existing link between genocidal intent and practice, namely the Hamas mass murder of October 7th. Hamas has plainly announced its determination to destroy the state of Israel in its charters of 1988 and of 2017—the former document is a tissue of naked religiously based Jew-hatred; the latter simply uses more sanitized language. Bartov’s attempt to blame Israel’s right-wing government and its “judicial coup” for the October 7th attack ignores basic chronology. Hamas’s planning, which included elaborate deception campaigns plus aerial and ground reconnaissance, was almost certainly in progress long before Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet adopted its disastrous domestic policies. 

The Ideology of Mass Murder
Hamas and the origins of the October 7th attacks.

Bartov and Segal both cite several statements by Israeli political and military leaders to demonstrate genocidal intent. Perhaps the most damning of these comes from former NSC head and retired IDF major-general Giora Eiland, who wrote that “a humanitarian crisis” must be created in Gaza to make it uninhabitable. Eiland noted that this was “a means rather than an end,” intended to achieve the destruction of Hamas’s military capability without a costly ground incursion. Israel has ignored this punditry and opted instead for the riskier option of invading the Strip. The strategic goal, however, remains the same—destroying Hamas military operations in critical buildings like the Shifa hospital, under which sit tunnels leading to a command complex. A nasty war against an embedded enemy that produces unavoidable collateral casualties is simply not the same—morally or legally—as a campaign solely intended to ethnically cleanse a population from a territory.

In the same vein, Bartov and Segal cite Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant, who said on October 9th that “we are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.” In addition, Bartov quotes Major-General Ghassan Alian, who said: “Kidnapping, abusing and murdering children, women, and elderly people [on October 7th] is not human. There is no justification for that … and the residents of Gaza, instead of being appalled, are celebrating. Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water [in Gaza], there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.” For Bartov these are signs of “dehumanization, which has genocidal echoes.” But unlike Hamas’s longstanding dogma, such comments reflect the sense of shock and anger Israelis felt only days after the worst massacre in their young nation’s turbulent history. (Segal actually detects dehumanization of Palestinians in President Joe Biden’s description of the Hamas massacre as “an act of sheer evil,” so clearly one can interpret “dehumanization” in many ways.)

More importantly, words like “animals,” dehumanizing though they may be, do not reflect Israeli government policy toward civilians. Bartov’s claim of Israeli war crimes seems to be based on the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, which protects civilians from deliberate or indiscriminate attacks, meaning attacks on military objectives that do not justify the potential loss of civilian life, or attacks with no military objectives at all. This is Israel’s fifth war with Hamas since 2007, and Hamas spokesmen have promised to commit further massacres. Hamas’s tunnels, headquarters, weapons stocks, and rocket launchers are all critical military targets, and Hamas is in unambiguous violation of the 1977 protocol by placing military targets in, around, and under civilian populations, and by prohibiting many civilians from fleeing.

Crimes against humanity, defined by the 1998 Rome Statute, are systematic and conscious attacks against a civilian population in peacetime or wartime, including crimes against one’s own citizens. Offenses include torture, rape, and murder. Hamas has routinely carried out such crimes against Palestinian “collaborators,” according to Amnesty International. And on October 7th, Hamas engaged in the deliberate and premeditated targeting of Jewish civilians with no apparent military objective in mind. Israel has indeed deprived Gazans of necessities and driven them from their homes during the current war. But blockades in wartime in service of a strategic aim are not illegal, and when civilians flee a war zone after being warned to do so, it does not add up to deportation under the statute.

This brings us back to genocide. Aside from misreading Israeli intentions, neither Bartov nor Segal mentions the lengths to which Israel has gone in its four previous wars with Hamas to protect civilian lives. Israel has sent thousands of texts and dropped thousands of leaflets to residents of Gaza warning them to leave buildings in which Hamas fighters are located. In this war, Israel urged civilians in Gaza to evacuate to the south before the invasion so that they would not be caught up in the fighting. A government intent on genocide would do just the opposite—it would attempt to keep civilians in harm’s way, which is precisely what Hamas has done. 

We are disappointed that Bartov, like so many others, relies upon civilian mortality figures (which now stand at over 11,000 casualties) issued by Gaza’s Health Ministry, an instrument of the Hamas regime there. For Hamas, ordinary Palestinians serve as human shields or jihadist “martyrs” and as propaganda pawns sacrificed to shift global opinion against Israel. Their deaths are an indispensable part of Hamas’s war-fighting strategy. The Gaza Health Ministry’s reported figures do not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths, nor between those killed by Israeli and Hamas fire.

The Ministry has already been caught lying about the errant rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters, which damaged the al-Ahli hospital. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is surely right when he says that “too many civilians” have died in Gaza. But the accuracy of the civilian death-toll is crucial when making accusations of genocide. Bartov reaches conclusions on the basis of “facts” that have yet to be established by credible sources, something that an experienced historian should not do.

Failing the Hamas Litmus Test
The inflammatory Al-Ahli hospital hoax shows that much of the Western media remains compulsively addicted to dangerous and self-defeating war journalism.

What then of the connection between today’s humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and the Holocaust? In the macro sense, this comparison encourages what historians call “Holocaust inversion”—the mischaracterization of Israel’s self-defense efforts as genocide, whereby the Israelis themselves become something akin to Nazis. For decades, this libel has been a standard trope of anti-Israeli propaganda, and Bartov speculates that because Nazi Germany’s war began “as an ethnic cleansing operation” and then devolved into genocide, Israel’s conduct in Gaza might well follow a similar trajectory. This comparison is ahistorical.

Adolf Hitler’s genocidal intent was evident in his infamous January 1939 prediction concerning “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Hitler drew no distinction between imaginary Jews running the British, French, and US governments, actual Jews serving in enemy armies, and Jewish infants yet to be born. Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 targeted millions of civilians after the Polish army collapsed. The Nazi campaign included the shooting and burning of Jews as well as schemes for Jewish reservations in places like Madagascar, which they knew was malarial. Systematic mass shootings of Jews began after the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, owing to their conviction that Judeo-Bolshevism was Germany’s greatest enemy, and to the delusion that an international Jewish conspiracy was now at war with the Third Reich.

As it happens, there is an interesting and challenging connection between the current Gaza war and Nazi Germany, but it is not the one Bartov proposes. It concerns the relationship between a terrorist dictatorship and the population over which it rules. Historians have long debated why Germans fought to the bitter end of the war, why the army never overthrew Hitler, and why there was no popular revolt against the Nazi regime. The famous term Volksgemeinschaft or “people’s community” captures the mixture of terror on one hand and popular consensus on the other that allowed Hitler’s regime to survive.

The relationship between the Hamas dictatorship and ordinary Gazans raises similar questions. After 17 years of Jew-hatred preached from Gaza’s mosques, taught in its schools, and beamed into its television sets, is it any wonder that so many civilians in Gaza seem to support Hamas? After years of pouring billions into tunnel construction, can there be any doubt that many thousands of Gazans were fully aware of Hamas’s intent to wage continuous war? Israeli soldiers are discovering tunnel entrances across the city and weapons stored in the bedrooms of affluent homes. Hamas trained openly for October 7th. How many Gazans knew about those preparations? Such questions do not justify intentional attacks on civilians, but they do offer some insight into military officers’ rage (and shame) two days after the worst case of mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust.

The question, therefore, is not how best to level another genocide charge against Israel. It is how to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. Much of the world insists on a ceasefire that would leave the Hamas leadership intact along with much of its massive tunnel structures. That would allow Hamas to declare victory and to prepare for the next round of rocket fire and face-to-face killing. Segal’s and Bartov’s arguments, and the demonstrations around the world denouncing Israel for war crimes, would consign Israel to live side-by-side with a terrorist state committed to its destruction. No state in the world would accept such a situation after an attack like the one Israel suffered on October 7th.

The best way to save civilian lives in Gaza at present would be for Hamas to surrender. And since that will not happen, the war will have to be fought and civilians will inevitably perish. But the genocide accusation is wrong on the facts and objectively serves to support the intent of Hamas to murder Jews with impunity. The state of Israel was established, in part, to end the many centuries in which murderers of Jews avoided reckoning for their deeds. Less than two months after the real act of genocide on October 7th, it is essential to focus on the actual event of mass murder rather than to denounce Israel’s efforts to defeat the perpetrators.

Norman J.W. Goda

Norman J.W. Goda is the Norman and Irma Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies at the Center for Jewish Studies, University of Florida.

Jeffrey Herf

Jeffrey Herf is Professor Emeritus in History, University of Maryland, College Park, and author most recently of ‘Three Faces of Antisemitism: Right, Left, and Islamist’ (Routledge, 2024)

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