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If It’s Not Genocide, What Word Should We Use?
A DISSENT FROM OUR EDITORIAL ON THE BLACK LIVES MATTER PLATFORM
by Dorothy Zellner
From the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
I TAKE ISSUE with the Jewish Currents editorial, “Supporting the Black Lives Matter Platform, Its Slander of Israel Notwithstanding” (Autumn, 2016), in which the magazine unfortunately joined the pack of the hands-in-the-air-I’m–shocked-and-horrified Zionist groups that condemned the Movement for Black Lives — a very large coalition of which Black Lives Matter is one organization — for using the words “genocide” and “apartheid” in relation to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people.
The editorial acknowledges agreement with several of the points raised by this prodigious platform statement, and expresses the hope that liberal Jewish groups will not be turned off by it. However, at the same time, the editorial goes to considerable lengths to disparage the platform, by using, in addition to “slander,” such language as “self-important jargon,” “an affront,” and “posturing.” It ends with a gratuitous patronizing remark (not much appreciated by the Black community, surely) that the “#Black Lives Matter movement would be well advised to follow the example of Dr. King. . .” (my italics).
Since the Movement for Black Lives is, in my opinion, one of the most important coalitions to arise in decades, what JC says about it is correspondingly important. In this response, I am not dealing primarily with the word “apartheid” as it relates to Israel, since by now it has wide currency, ranging from statements by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and rock stars to UN conventions and reports by B’tselem, the well-respected Israeli human rights group, that as long ago as 2004 declared Israel’s road policy to be an apartheid practice.
Let me deal, instead, with the word in the platform that caused the commotion: “genocide.” First of all, let’s go to what the platform says, under the heading Invest-Divest:
The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people. Palestinian homes and land are routinely bulldozed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. Israeli soldiers also regularly arrest and detain Palestinians as young as 4 years old without due process. Every day, Palestinians are forced to walk through military checkpoints along the US-funded apartheid wall.
NOW, FOR SOME BACKGROUND:
Some of your readers may know that the Black community has had a long and tormented relationship with this word, “genocide.” In 1946, a year after the end of World War II, the National Negro Congress petitioned the United Nations for help in dealing with systemic racial discrimination in the U.S. The NAACP followed suit in 1947, with its “Appeal to the World,” similarly urging redress, written by Dr. W. E. B. DuBois and two other Black scholars and lawyers. The UN did not respond.
On December 9, 1948, the UN approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. What the Convention actually says is:
The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.
In the present Convention, genocide means 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; and
d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The following acts shall be punishable:
b) conspiracy to commit genocide;
c) direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
d) attempt to commit genocide;
e) complicity in genocide.
In 1951, Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson, head of the Civil Rights Congress, presented the 100-page, flawlessly documented petition, “We Charge Genocide,” to the UN, seeking justice for African Americans using the convention it had so recently approved (as pictured at the top of this article). Patterson, a master of impassioned prose, described the misery suffered by the Black population in the U.S. in the introduction to “We Charge Genocide”:
Out of the inhuman black ghettos of American cities, out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty and disease . . .
Patterson offered important clarifications:
It is sometimes incorrectly thought that genocide means the complete and definitive destruction of a race or people. However, the Genocide Convention . . . defines genocide as any killings on the basis of race, or, in its specific words, as “killing members of the group.” Any intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, ethic or religious group is genocide, according to the convention.
Needless to say (or perhaps it is not needless?), these giants of the Black community got nowhere with these efforts. In fact, for their trouble, the U.S. government seized the passports of Robeson and Patterson, who were then unable to travel outside the U.S. for several years, and subjected them to a host of other punishments. (The U.S. government lifted DuBois’ passport in 1951 for other reasons.)
At the time — the near-height of McCarthyism, let us not forget — there was little support for the idea that Black people could claim to be victims of genocide. The press, by and large, ignored “We Charge Genocide.” However, I.F. Stone, the independent American journalist, was favorably disposed. And so was . . . drumroll . . . none other than Jewish Currents, in its original incarnation, Jewish Life.
ACCORDING TO Jewish Currents’ Sid Resnick Archives, not only did Jewish Life reprint a speech from Patterson (January, 1952) about “We Charge Genocide,” it used the word in the headline of an article (“Genocide in Florida,” February, 1952) and it editorialized (February, 1952) as follows:
While recognizing this common enemy [racism and fascism], it is a disservice to fail to grasp that the situations of the Negro and Jewish peoples in this country are qualitatively different. There is a tendency to make careless and superficial parallels of the situation of the two peoples. Such comparisons obscure the fact that the Negro people, as a people, are subjected to second class citizenship and Jim Crow so as to enforce on the whole Negro people unrelieved oppression that adds up to genocide.
It should come as no surprise that the Movement for Black Lives would choose to apply this particular word, since it has lived in the DNA of the Black community for nearly sixty-six years. For example, Dr. Joy James reflected in 2009 in her article, “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” on the “absence of analysis engaging antiblack racism and genocide in Western democracies,” and commented:
Harvard scholars have published tracts on the word nigger, tracing the etymology and reflecting on emotional connotations. Yet genocide, which has a much more fearful impact on national consciousness and material well-being, is less rigorously analyzed as part of the black condition . . . For those who disdain or refuse the term genocide, despite the compatibility of black conditions with the standards of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Elimination of Genocide, one must ask, ‘What language would you use?’”
Now to the merits of the case. Can the word be used by Black people to describe themselves? Can the word be used by Black people to describe others? Is the word accurate?
There are actually well-respected entities that agree that the State of Israel is guilty of genocide. Chief among them is the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which issued a paper in August, 2016 that quoted Martin Shaw, a scholar of genocide, who wrote in his article, “Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide” [Holy Land Studies, 2010]: “Genocidal action aims not just to contain, control or subordinate a population, but to shatter and break up its social existence. Thus genocide is defined, not by a particular form of violence, but by general and pervasive violence.”
The CCR paper said that “While there has been recent criticism of those taking the position that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, there is a long history of human rights scholarship and legal analysis that supports the assertion.” CCR concluded that
the killings of Palestinians and their forceful expulsion from mandate Palestine in 1948, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and the violence and discrimination directed at Palestinians by the Israeli government have violated a number of human rights protections contained in international human rights law, genocide being among them.
Finally, though your editorial describes the reaction to the statement’s use of the word from many organizations (the Zionist Organization ofAmerica, the Anti-Defamation League, Tru’ah, the movement for Reform Judaism, and J Street), for some unfathomable reason you neglect to say one word about Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the fastest-growing Jewish organization on the left, which now has 225,000 people on its list and sixty-five chapters throughout the country. Within a matter of days, JVP went publicly on record endorsing the BLM position paper “without reservation.”
TIME FOR FULL disclosure: I know only too well that the word “genocide” is controversial (to say the least), and I also know that some people on the left whom I respect -- people who support the Movement for Black Lives and who do feel that Israel has violated countless international human rights standards -- think the word has become too broad. I confess that I myself probably would have hesitated to use the word for another reason: after fourteen years in the Israel/Palestine movement (and several trips to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza), I knew only too well what was going to happen. Here at home I have been called everything you can imagine -- by people in our community who would not know a thoughtful dialogue if they fell over it -- because I’ve witnessed and felt and spoken about the problems cited by the MBL statement and CCR.
But after hesitating, I looked up the actual words in the Convention and did some research, especially about how some in the Black community have viewed genocide, and came to see that I was wrong and these young Black activists were right. They tried to get people to think. They thought it was worth it. They were brave and they paid the price. If readers want to know their reaction, they can see Rachel Gilmer, one of the named authors of the Invest-Divest section of the Movement for Black Lives’s position paper, talk about it at jewishvoiceforpeace.org/galleries/nmm-2017-virtual-access.
To sum up: Echoing Dr. James, if the situation of the Palestinians under Israeli control is not genocide, what is it?
We have to begin having some serious conversations, everybody.
Dorothy M. Zellner is a longtime social justice activist who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Conference Educational Fund in the early 1960s, and at the Center for Constitutional Rights and CUNY School of Law. She has also contributed several articles to Jewish Currents. She is one of six editors of the prize-winning book, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.