Why Israel’s actions can be called genocide

Israel lobby groups recently reacted with outrage against the Movement for Black Lives policy platform which refers to US complicity in Israel’s “genocide” and “apartheid” against the Palestinian people.

The president of the liberal Zionist organization J Street condemned the use of the term genocide as “outrageously incorrect and deeply offensive.”

Other pro-Israel Jewish organizations claimed that using the term to describe Israel’s policies is “anti-Semitic” and libelous. By contrast, Jewish Voice for Peace offered an unqualified endorsement of the Movement for Black Lives platform.

Despite the outrage of many pro-Israel groups, there is a long history of human rights scholarship and legal analysis that supports the assertion Israel is committing genocide, according to a statement from the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“Genocide can be applied to the destruction of a people or a national group as a viable group, and that can be both with their being driven from a land or the rendering of their language no longer legal, or just the destruction of their national identity,” Katherine Franke, board chair at CCR, told The Electronic Intifada.

Palestinians have claimed “that what the state of Israel has done is try to deny the very existence or presence of Palestinians in the area that was mandate Palestine before 1947,” she added.

“Nothing new”

Franke, a professor at Columbia University Law School, authored the statement in response to the “enormous, ugly backlash” against the Movement for Black Lives, which represents more than 50 Black organizations.

“As human rights lawyers, [we felt] it might be appropriate to just clarify the record that this was nothing new – that the term genocide had been applied by human rights activists, lawyers, scholars both inside law and inside other disciplines for many, many years,” she said.

Franke dismissed the claims by Israel lobby groups that using such terms to describe Israel’s policies against Palestinians is a form of anti-Jewish bigotry.

“Even the suggestion that the state of Israel may be committing a human rights violation is almost always taken in a somewhat reactionary way as a form of anti-Semitism,” she remarked.

“And of course, a criticism of a state is not the same thing as a criticism of an ethnic or religious group.”

Israel’s systematic targeting of Palestinians since 1947 has been referred to as “incremental genocide” – a term used by historian Ilan Pappe and echoed by Michael Ratner, a human rights lawyer and CCR’s former president, who died earlier this year.

“It’s been going on for a long time, the killings, the incredibly awful conditions of life,” Ratner said during Israel’s assault on Gaza in July 2014, referring to the expulsions of Palestinians from hundreds of towns and villages starting in 1947.

“It’s correct and important to label it for what it is,” he added. Ratner asserted that such crimes can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Franke told The Electronic Intifada that Palestinians “are pursuing a number of avenues” through the ICC to raise international legal violations that Israel has committed against them.

For example, the ICC has been conducting preliminary examinations of possible war crimes Israel committed during the summer of 2014 in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

However, charges of genocide have not been brought to the court yet, Franke said.

Listen to the interview with Katherine Franke via the media player above. Photo by Anne Paq/ActiveStills.

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This is a long shot and seems to be reaching too far to apply a term that is not really relevant to the situation. Most people would agree with the first part of Franke's definition which falls in line with the general dictionary definition. However, the 2nd part "both with their being driven from a land or the rendering of their language no longer legal, or just the destruction of their national identity" makes no sense. There has been talk of cultutal genocide which would inolve the systematic destruction of a culture, its books and artefacts which once again is not relevant here. Taking the word for systematic murder of groups of people and watering it down to cover transfer of populations reduces its original meaning in order to apply it to more cases. Just create a new word, don't misappropriate an existing one


Contrary to popular opinion, the legal definition of genocide is not “the systematic murder of groups of people,” though that certainly may of course fall under the definition of genocide. This is the definition of genocide in international law and one can be guilt of genocide without mass murder, though Israel has certainly committed such crimes.


The term "ethnocide" has also been used, but this is semantic. The Germans under Hitler did not initially want to murder the Jews. They just wanted them Gone! They even collaborated with the Zionist movement to transport Jews to Palestine. Either way, the Jewish presence in Germany was greatly diminished. In another case, namely the United States of America, the European implants engaged in the systematic and repeated transfer of native Americans, with the resulting disappearance of their culture -and physical presence- from most of their patrimony. By any measure, the white European settlers in America are guilty of genocide against the native Americans. The worst aspect of this is that the very group that was victimized has engaged in an elaborate long term plan to inflict on the Palestinians a similar fate. Israel and its supporters are seeking cover for their genocidal plan by accusing any and all critics of anti-Semitism.


I suggest you read these articles and watch Miko Peled and Ilan Pappé on Youtube

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I think you should look more carefully or perhaps even listen to this interview with an open mind before you make such judgements. Try reading the official definition of genocide or even try looking into the question before you make mis-leading statements about "relevance"; before you yourself "misappropriate" the existing definition of the word "genocide". You are wrong so please do check it out.


Katherine Franke speaks lucidly and persuasively. The Center for Constitutional Rights plays a vital role in advancing the cause of justice at home in the US as well as abroad. And it's good to see Michael Ratner's contribution on this issue cited. He was a great advocate for the genuine rule of law, and is sorely missed. Here's a link to some of his many contributions at the Real News, where he was a board member:



In the minds of civilized people and informed the world, it is clear that the terrorist state of Israel aimed at the physical eradication of the Palestinians and it is Genocide. And argue the Zionists what they want because nobody informed believe in their pathetic fallacies.


I would like to ask for a clarification regarding Ratner's comments, which were made in the context of the last Gaza massacre (masquerading as war): He endorsed Pappe's terminology of "incremental genocide," but while incremental genocide sounds like a term that makes a lot of sense with respect to the occupation after 50 years, it is not a legal term of art. It has no legal meaning and therefore using it in a context to make a legal case against Israel, which I presume is the ultimate goal, would not seem to be a useful exercise. Also, in the growing literature on genocide and with reference to Israel's actions, a key issue is whether Israel has the "intent" to destroy Palestinian society in whole or in part -- and by part, a return to the discussion by Lemkin and the framers of the Convention clearly indicate they meant a significant part of the population, not relatively small numbers that wouldn't change the demographic presence/balance -- or at least knew/knows that its actions could well lead to the destruction in whole or part of the population even if it can't be said that it was a direct intention (in fact, as of now, only intention is counted in int'l law re trying people for genocide, although legal scholars are trying to change this). These are issues that I believe need to be addressed before the term can hope to gain wide acceptance as an accurate legal description of, rather than a far less relevant political/polemical accusation against (however morally justified) Israeli actions.

I would also like to point out that Kimmerling's term "politicide" has a lot of possibility to use here, and works well with the much more easily proved accusation of Apartheid, as well as of ethnic cleansing, which while it is not itself a statute crime (in other words, there's no convention against it as there is with genocide, Apartheid, etc) is considered an element of crimes against humanity and genocide.


Ilan Pappe is a historian, not a practicing attorney. The term "incremental genocide" is thus a product of historical research and analysis. Its adoption by Michael Ratner, who certainly was a lawyer, does not imply a belief on his part that a category of crime exists under that specific title. He has simply employed an adjective to describe the methodology or form of this particular example of genocide. That seems a perfectly valid attribution. All genocides occur over a period of time- sometimes a very lengthy one- and make use of numerous social, military and political tactics in the service of that aim.

As to the requirement that a significant part of Palestinian society must suffer destruction before the process can be adjudged genocidal, in this instance the case is both self evident and thoroughly documented. Incidentally, the word "society" is not primarily a demographic term, as you seem to argue. It refers to the totality of institutions and relations prevailing among a given population. Israel's mass expulsions of Palestinians (beginning in 1948-49) and the tremendous range of oppressive acts imposed on the people since that time, certainly qualify as the intended destruction of a society. And to maintain by virtue of a purely demographic reading, as you have, that "relatively small numbers" have been so effected, simply repackages the hasbarists' claim that since the remaining Palestinians continue to reproduce, no genocide is taking place. And by the way, that demographic balance you mention would present a very different appearance but for the Nakba and subsequent full scale atrocities.

It's genocide, even if the goal has yet to be fully achieved. And it's ongoing, which means it's incremental.


First of all, labeling anyone who questions a particular psoition as a supporter of Israeli hasbara is ridiculous. I know many Palestinian scholars who do not use this term either. Second, the term genocide was coined to lay out a legal category of acts that could be recognized under international law as a particularly category of crimes against humanity and be punished as such. It is at its heart a legal term, not an historical or sociological term. Otherwise it just becomes another polemical term used by one saide against another. There is in fact a detailed trail of discussions in the case law arising from the former Yugoslavian, Rwandan and Dargur war crimes trials that attempt to determine what are the requirements to be met before a legal accusation of genocide can plausibly be made. I believe that anyone wishing to use this term needs to engage the case law and discussions surrounding the term going back to Lemkin's original writings. Only then can a serious argument about the term and its applicability to Israeli actions be made. The case might be thoroughly documented, but it is not self-evident. Ethnic cleansing does not by itself equal genocide. Nor do many other war crimes or crimes against humanity. In most cases where genocide has been prosecuted the clear indication was that the intent if not the specific action was to kill enough members of the group to destroy its cohesion and ability to survive, if not physically, then as an ongoing community. Physical extermination was not necessary, but forcing members to shed their identity and adopt a new one (forced conversions, imposing new religious or national identities and symbols on a community down to the individual level to wipe out the previous identity, etc.) is another possibility. Any attempt to label Israel or any other country/state/group as genocidal or committing genocide would have to demonstrate this level of destruction.


Article 2 of The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (1948) lists these acts as falling under the Convention's authority:

(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;

Under these terms, how can anyone seriously argue that Israel has not been engaged in a pattern of genocide?


Frankly, I think the whole discussion of the appropriateness of the term "genocide" misses the real point. "Liberal" critics of the Israel/Palestine plank in the Movement for Black Lives platform have not confined themselves to questioning whether its language corresponds to the definition of "genocide" elucidated under customary international law. They have denounced it as "offensive" and anti-Semitic. This counterattack reveals the critics' true, and morally repugnant, insistence that Israel must enjoy special immunity from condemnation for its crimes -- however grave -- and that Jews reserve a unique status in the history of international victimization, one to which other oppressed peoples can never aspire. Both positions are indefensible.

Yes, there are legitimate grounds for preferring a narrow use of the term "genocide." But the same cannot be said for the imputation of moral shortcomings -- particularly the slanderous accusation of anti-Semitism -- to those who condemn official policies that by any definition are illegal, deadly and appallingly destructive. The abusive language aimed at BLM by J Street & Co. isn't wrong because it's arguably incorrect as a technical matter, like the terminology that so upsets their delicate sensibilities; it's wrong because it's intellectually dishonest and morally untenable. In other words, the critics' abuse of language is vastly more serious, and more offensive, than anything they purport to find in the movement's policy platform.

So I suggest that we focus our response on the critics' hypocrisy and the fundamental turpitude their own abuse of language reveals. For in accusing the platform of "offensive" or anti-Jewish terminology, these "liberals" have embraced the Israeli-Jewish exceptionalism that has always been one of the most pernicious elements in pro-Israel propaganda.


I agree with your critique of the attacks and I do not support them at all. But I don't it is an either or case. It is in face very important to use terms like gemocide as carefully as possible lest they become mere polemical rhetoric rather than representations of legal categories with actionable consequences.


Mark: First, I should mention that I've read and admired your writing for some time.

Second, I agree with you. (And, just to avoid any misunderstanding, let me stress that I certainly never thought you meant to support the attacks on the BLM platform.) From my legal work, I've learned the importance of using such a serious term of art in the sense in which it can achieve the most good -- namely, where it describes an actionable offense . My personal opinion is that the drafters erred in straying from that sense. (Also in giving the Israel lobby a handy way to distract public attention from the very meritorious content of the platform with a dogfight over the application of a single word.)

I was aiming my comment more at those who have undertaken to justify the use of the term -- an approach that, I think, feeds into the reactionaries' strategy without adding much of anything useful to the cause. My point is simply that we should focus on what's most important. After all, tactical errors or terminological confusion can be dealt with pretty easily; I was hoping to call attention to the much less pardonable misuse of language by those who are attacking the platform, and to suggest the priority of fighting back against the abuse of terms like "anti-Semitism" and of victimhood status instead of letting those folks set our agenda by descending into a lot of back-and-forth about the definition of genocide. I apologize if I seemed to be sniping at you.

Thanks for expressing your agreement with my critique, even so.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).