Skip to main content

It goes without saying that the word “genocide” has a special sound to the people of Israel. Yet today the nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust finds itself accused of this ultimate crime against humanity.

Protesters marching against the Israeli military assault in Gaza set fire to Star of David flags and chant “we charge you with genocide.” Activists in Toronto plastered an Indigo store with posters accusing its Jewish owner with “funding genocide.” Now the government of South Africa is going to the International Court of Justice with a claim that Israel is guilty of “genocidal” acts.

Israel, naturally, has responded with angry indignation. Government spokesman Eylon Levy called the South African charge an “absurd blood libel.” The White House, meanwhile, called the accusation “meritless, counterproductive and completely without basis in fact whatsoever.”

Canada should add its voice to the condemnation.

Flinging this inflammatory charge in Israel’s face only serves to confirm its people’s understandable conviction that the world is turning against them in their darkest hour. It feeds hostility and hatred. An apparent arson attack on a Jewish-owned Toronto deli this week is only that latest example.

It is one thing to criticize Israel: its bombardment of Gaza, its militant West Bank settlers, its right-wing government, its blustering, overstaying Prime Minister. It is another to demonize it. To accuse Israel of an act of which the Jewish people were themselves the most famous victims is truly contemptible.

Orbinski: The humanitarian horror in Gaza must end

As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reminds us, genocide is “a very specific term.” A Polish jurist, Raphael Lemkin, coined it to describe the systematic mass murder perpetrated by the Nazis, along with other historical instances. The United Nations genocide convention defines it as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion or race.”

Nothing of the sort is happening in Gaza. Israel’s campaign is intended to destroy Hamas, not the Palestinian people. Unlike Hamas, which set out deliberately to kill civilians on Oct. 7, Israel tries to avoid killing civilians (as it attacks an enemy that hides itself among them). You can argue that it isn’t trying hard enough, that its campaign has been indiscriminate, reckless or, if you like, even brutal. The result – thousands of innocents killed – is unquestionably heartbreaking.

But intentions are everything when it comes to making moral judgments. With good reason, we judge premeditated killing much more harshly than the accidental kind. There is a world of difference between a democratic state defending itself against terrorism and a movement that storms a music festival and guns down throngs of people at close range.

Language matters, especially when it comes to the law. Genocide is one of those words that is thrown around so loosely now that it has lost much of its meaning. It has become a slogan, a term of propaganda, a weapon in the bitter cultural and ideological wars that are raging all around us.

What is worse, it is a weapon that is used selectively. Many of those who now accuse Israel of genocide stood on the sidelines when Syria’s dictatorship smashed Aleppo to rubble and yawned when Myanmar’s generals mowed down pro-democracy demonstrators or razed Rohingya villages. The same South African government that is so incensed at the purported genocidal behaviour of Israel’s army remains on cozy terms with Vladimir Putin’s Russia even as it sends rockets crashing into Ukrainian cities.

It is this double standard that rankles. Israel rightly complains that it is singled out for special scrutiny at bodies such as the United Nations, which has passed innumerable resolutions condemning its treatment of the Palestinians.

Canada has usually taken its side, standing apart from Israel-bashing at the UN. It should do so again in this case, saying with all the force it can muster that the charge of genocide is false.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe