How to Define Genocide

The New Yorker
Nov 16 2023
A historian of the Holocaust examines Israel’s rhetoric and actions in Gaza.

Last week, the Times published an opinion piece by the historian Omer Bartov, which raised the question of whether Israel’s military actions in Gaza constitute a genocide. “I believe that there is no proof that genocide is currently taking place in Gaza, although it is very likely that war crimes, and even crimes against humanity, are happening,” Bartov wrote. “That means two important things: First, we need to define what it is that we are seeing, and second, we have the chance to stop the situation before it gets worse.” (More than eleven thousand Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health. A State Department official testified before Congress that it is “very possible” that the figure is even higher than reported.)

Bartov, who was born in Israel and currently teaches at Brown University, is one of the foremost scholars of the Holocaust, as well as German policy during the Third Reich. In numerous books and essays, he has sought to explain how Nazi ideology manifested throughout Hitler’s regime—and especially in its military. Bartov ended this latest piece by writing, “There is still time to stop Israel from letting its actions become a genocide. We cannot wait a moment longer.” I recently spoke by phone with Bartov. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how precisely to define genocide, the importance of establishing intent when labelling something a genocide, and why a focus on terminology can be important in preventing mass atrocities.

What distinguishes genocide from crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing?

There are clear differences in international law. War crimes were defined in 1949 in the Geneva Conventions and other protocols. They are serious violations of the laws and customs of war and international armed conflict, and they can be committed against either combatants or civilians. One aspect of this is the use of disproportionate force—that the extent of the harm done to civilians should be proportionate to your military goals. It could also be other things, such as the maltreatment of prisoners of war.

Crimes against humanity do not have a U.N. resolution, but they were defined by the Rome Statute, which is now the basis for the International Criminal Court. That talks about extermination or other crimes against civilian populations, and it does not have to happen in war, whereas war crimes obviously have to happen in the context of war.

Genocide is a bit of a strange animal because the Genocide Convention of 1948, on which it’s based, defines genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” And this “as such” matters because what it means is that genocide is really the attempt to destroy the group and not the individuals in that group. It can be accomplished by killing members of the group. It can also be accomplished by other means such as starving them or taking away their children, or something that will bring about the extinction of the group rather than killing its individuals.

Yes, I was going to ask about the word “destroy,” and whether it is very clear that that means “kill.”

No, it doesn’t. Now, usually, not just in the popular imagination but also in law, often the association is with killing. When Raphael Lemkin was coming up with this term—he was a Polish Jewish lawyer who came to the United States during the Holocaust—he spoke specifically about a cultural genocide, which is when you really just destroy the group as a group. So let’s say there may be Jewish people around, but they don’t know that they’re Jews anymore, or you take all their children away and therefore there won’t be a continuation of that group. It doesn’t necessarily mean killing. In Australia or Canada, where there was removal of children from Indigenous groups, that has been defined as genocide.

The current example that people often use is what’s happening to the Uyghur population in China, even though as far as we know there are no mass killing campaigns.

Yes, destroying their culture.

Is the term “ethnic cleansing” used more to talk about removing people from a certain territory?

Yeah, so the difference between genocide and ethnic cleansing is roughly that in ethnic cleansing you want to move people from a territory that you want, and then they can go wherever they want. In a genocide, you target the group never mind where they are. But it should be said that ethnic cleansing actually does not have a clear definition in international law, and it comes under various other categories of crimes against humanity. There’s no convention on ethnic cleansing. And the last very important thing about it is that ethnic cleansing usually or often has preceded genocide. That actually happened in the genocide of the Herero, starting in 1904, and the genocide of the Armenians, starting in 1915. The Holocaust arguably began as ethnic cleansing, as removing Jews from territories controlled by Germany, and then when there’s no place to move them to, the Germans said, “Well, we might as well kill them.” So there is a connection between them.

The Herero were people in what is modern-day Namibia, and you are referring to the German behavior toward them, correct?

Right. The German Army is sent there to quell an uprising. The German general issues an extermination order. It’s the first modern extermination order. But what he’s basically telling them is that they should go to the Kalahari Desert, and obviously they are very likely to die there, especially because the Germans are busy plugging up all the watering holes there. So the genocide is accomplished by removing them from their territory into a desert. That is what the Ottoman authorities initially do to the Armenians. They just send them to the desert, through arid areas in what are now eastern Turkey, northern Syria, where many people die without being directly killed. That’s the overlap between certain genocides and ethnic cleansing.

Let’s say there’s a terrorist attack on a country and the country starts bombing the territory from where the terrorist attack originated, and where it was planned, and in the process of doing so starts killing a large number of civilians. What would be the things that you would look for to determine if crimes against humanity or, more specifically, genocide was taking place?

The first, most important thing is that the definition of genocide begins with the words the “intent to destroy.” You need to identify intent, so that if this army goes off to bomb that area from which the terrorists came and its intent is to destroy the group that attacked them in a terrorist act, and it says, “This whole group has to be wiped out because they are all bloody terrorists,” that is an intent that can be then added to the actions themselves to produce what might be genocide. Whereas if they go and they say, “O.K., these terrorists came from a particular group, they’re in a particular town, they have particular camps, and we are going to bomb that organization, and in the course of that, we may also kill a lot of civilians, but what we are interested in is killing those particular terrorists,” then it could become war crimes or even crimes against humanity, but it might not be genocide.

You write in your piece, “My greatest concern watching the Israel-Gaza war unfold is that there is genocidal intent, which can easily tip into genocidal action. On Oct. 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Gazans would pay a ‘huge price’ for the actions of Hamas and that the Israel Defense Forces, or I.D.F., would turn parts of Gaza’s densely populated urban centers ‘into rubble.’ On Oct. 28, he added, citing Deuteronomy, ‘You must remember what Amalek did to you.’ As many Israelis know, in revenge for the attack by Amalek, the Bible calls to ‘kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings.’ ” Can you talk more about this focus on what leaders say?

There’s a huge amount of that coming out from Netanyahu, who usually is more careful with his words. The President of the state of Israel, too, said it wasn’t just Hamas but all the people of Gaza who are responsible. The Minister of Defense spoke about “human animals”—and it’s not always clear if he means Hamas or Gazans. That’s the kind of language that has been used in several genocides, where you dehumanize a group constantly. The Hutu were doing that about the Tutsi, the Nazis obviously were doing it about the Jews, and so forth. And just recently, Avi Dichter, who is a Likud minister, was saying, “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba.” That’s a reference to the Nakba of 1948—the expulsion of the Palestinians. That’s a clear intent of ethnic cleansing.

When you see this kind of verbiage constantly being put out by people—politicians, generals, and so forth—it makes you worry. First of all, it filters down to the soldiers. It incites people to more and more violence. It dehumanizes the population that they’re fighting, and it’s in a situation where you are attacking an organization that is deeply entrenched within very congested areas with numerous civilians. So all of that obviously makes you worry that this can become something more systematic.

Does the destruction have to be about the group’s identity? Think of a leader who is very angry about a terrorist attack and just wants to get revenge and kill a lot of people, and doesn’t care who happens to be on the ground in the city he’s bombing versus someone who wants to kill people because they are members of the group.

Exactly. That is the distinction. And you can take an example. Let’s say, after the Second World War, we had the Nuremberg Tribunal, right? This was, among other things, victor’s justice. No one was being put on trial for carpet-bombing German and Japanese cities in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died. What was the strategy of the Americans and the Brits in bombing cities in Germany, or America in firebombing and then nuclear-bombing Japanese cities? The goal was not to destroy the German people as such, or the Japanese people as such. The goal was to win the war, and they were doing it by all means possible, and they were doing it very brutally, and one might very well have found these actions to be war crimes subsequently. But the goal was not genocide in the sense that they had no interest in destroying the Japanese people and culture, or the German people. And, in fact, right after the war, they started rebuilding those countries. So that’s a distinction. Ethically, you may say, “War is horrible and people shouldn’t do all those things,” but those are the legal distinctions, and, to my mind, they actually matter. It’s important to make that distinction.

Why is it important?

It’s important to say, is this a first-degree murder or second-degree murder? Even when you’re talking about violence, about vile actions, it helps to tell the difference. In this case in particular, the Germans killed a lot of civilians and the Americans killed a lot of civilians. Is there a difference between the two? I think it’s important to make that distinction. It’s even important to make the distinction between the Soviets killing a lot of people and what the Germans did. All kinds of conservatives ignore this distinction these days, where there’s a new historiography saying, “Well, they were just like the Nazis.” The distinction is that if the Germans had ended the war as winners, they would’ve actually enslaved and murdered millions and millions and millions more people. After the Soviets won the war against Germany, very brutally, with a lot of rapes and all that, East Germany was a dictatorship. But they were not killing people en masse anymore, so they were not genocidal. That makes a difference, even on the scale of morality where both things may be horrible.

You said first- and second-degree murder, but maybe one analogy to draw would be hate crimes, which evoke a special revulsion, even if the utilitarian ends of a specific hate crime are the same as a regular crime.


How do you think about a case where the intent may not be to destroy a people, but where those people are viewed as less human than you are, and you don’t care how many of them die. How do we think about that in the context of genocide?

Even if your intent is not to destroy the group as such, but functionally that’s what you’re doing, and much of your rhetoric is about treating those people as subhuman, then you are in that kind of gray zone between a well-planned, thought-out genocide, which is on the one extreme, and something that gradually becomes that. But it’s a fine distinction. I don’t think that the policymakers in Israel are actually thinking genocide. They’re using that language and they’re using policies that are pushing in that direction, but they’re not thinking of themselves as carrying out genocide.

Part of what is happening on the ground is if you displace large numbers of people from their homes, if you then cram them into a much smaller territory, you destroy the homes from which they came, if they receive not enough infrastructure, food, water, medical care, and they start dying in large numbers, your goal may have been to win a military campaign and to do it as ruthlessly and quickly as possible knowing that your political clock is running out, but the result begins to look more and more like genocide.

Why did you want to write this piece now? You’ve explained why you think it’s morally important to recognize genocide as distinct from other things, but is there some more practical reason?

Yeah, look, the obvious reason is that when you study genocide, you always look back and say, “There were all these signs that it’s going to happen, and why was nobody doing anything about it, or at least warning that it’s about to happen?” And usually there were people issuing warnings. Instead of waiting until something happens, it’s better to warn.

The violence is on a very different scale from anything that has happened before in Gaza. The mentality is different. The rage is different. And once you start speaking about it, it may actually have an effect, both on those who can stop it on the outside, especially the American Administration, and on some people on the inside, who say, “Wait, I mean, we are getting ourselves into something that we didn’t intend to do.”

You served in the I.D.F., correct?

Yes, I did.

Where were you stationed and when?

Well, I was conscripted in January, 1973, so I served in the war of ’73, which I was lucky enough to spend on the Jordanian front. Happily, the Jordanians did not attack us in that war. And then I was transferred to the so-called Syrian Enclave. This was in the aftermath of the war, when the Israeli forces were deep in Syria. And so I spent several weeks in First World War-type positions, getting shelled every day and losing people around me.

Do you think serving changed your relationship to Israel?

No. No. There were two things that affected me. One was the outbreak of the 1973 war. When I was in high school, in the early seventies, and I was in a kind of progressive high school in Tel Aviv, we were already protesting against the occupation and marching and saying, “Occupation corrupts.” There were peace feelers being put out at the time by Egypt, by Anwar Sadat. Moshe Dayan, the former Defense Minister, famously said, “Better Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh,” meaning, “Better to keep Sinai. We don’t need the peace. We are strong enough, because look what we did to them in ’67.” And then the war happened. Three thousand Israeli soldiers were killed, ten thousand were wounded. Members of my generation carry that sort of P.T.S.D. to this day. And, in fact, October 7th, I think, woke that in many of them. They were really sort of shaken twice over because of what happened in ’73.

And so, the first thing that I thought about was that war. There were many of us who thought that war could have been avoided. The leadership suffered from what I call the euphoria of power. And that’s exactly what has happened now. War taught me that there are wars that can be avoided. You think you can keep what you have because you’re strong enough to be able to keep it, and eventually it blows up in your face.

The second thing was that I served a little bit as an occupation soldier. I was a platoon leader, walking down the street with a line of soldiers behind me in the sun. People are hiding behind their windows looking at you, and they’re terrified of you. You are a little scared of them, too, because you don’t know if they’re going to throw some grenade at you or whatever. You feel that you have no business being there. You feel like, “Why am I there?” I really distinctly remember that sensation. Several generations of young Israelis have spent most of the military service as policemen, policing an occupied population. What does that do to the occupied and what does that do to the occupier? There’s a mutual dehumanization going on that ends up with such horrors as we saw and we are still seeing. It’s a slow process, but it is that kind of moral corruption that I think I started sensing already as a very young man. ♦