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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer


‘Modern-day libel’: Jews and genocide in Gaza

Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash

Among the charges leveled against Israel in these tragic days is that of its genocide of the Palestinian people. Unlike other such words or phrases heard at present protests, this one has a technical and legal definition, as well as a clear origin. The Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1943 or 1944 when the extermination of the Jewish population in Europe was the goal of its most powerful nation. ”Genocide” has since been borrowed to describe other mass killings, whether applied retrospectively to the case of Armenians in World War I or to Rwanda in the final years of the former century. The present-day claim against Israel is by comparison demonstrably false. No Israeli government, no matter how lamentable, has contemplated this, let alone adopted it as a matter of policy. As such, it is not equal to other present-day critiques, many of which are also inaccurate, though somehow understandable, in light of different facets of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.The question arises, then, where this charge gains traction and even legitimacy on university campuses in North America and elsewhere. Understandably, emotions are very raw at the moment, though this alone cannot explain things. After all, no tropes are heard that admit purely fantastic imagery into the conversation; for all that is said, one does not encounter claims of Israeli four-headed monsters or the like.  The answer surely relates to the genocide of the Jews and consequent attempts by the Christian Western world — rocked to its core by the recognition of its direct relation to the perpetrators — to come to terms with what had happened. One explicable (if inexcusable) reaction involved attempts to attenuate this unique event by way of finding faults in the very body that claims representative status for the Jewish people, a body that in real-world terms is hardly blame-free in its treatment of the Palestinians.The charge of genocide of Palestinians by Israelis reflects an extension of that process to its very extreme, though with a critical twist. This accusation actually inverts reality, “like a bundle of light rays entering a camera obscura,” in Claude Lévi-Strauss’ description of how myths are often transmitted from one people to another. The possibility that myths of faraway or ancient lands may have something in common with modern history may seem incredible at first thought, though not when one situates the Jewish genocide within centuries of Christian myths about Jews and Judaism. The most obvious parallels present themselves in the wide-ranging medieval and early modern blood libel and charges of host desecration, which accused Jews of the shedding of Christian blood for their rituals or the destruction of the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. These charges, as Magda Teter, Caroline Walker-Bynum and many others have demonstrated, are not only false but actually reflective of internal Christian debates about the place of blood in Christian theology and even of the necessity for a Jewish diabolical entity to enable new theological answers to emerging challenges and concerns.The charge of Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people amounts thus to a modern-day libel, seemingly brief in its antiquity but, properly understood, part of a long tradition and no less potent than its antecedents in terms of explanatory power. One wonders which among the other terms bandied about — many reflecting ideas that have defined the Christian Western world as well — might begin to totter when subjected to open-minded scrutiny. There is a final point to be made, which concerns the fate of those who follow this path. A major casualty of the Jewish genocide was visited upon the Christian West itself, which, as said, would henceforth need to reconcile its culpability in the unprecedented horrors. To an extent, some good has emerged from this. Within Catholicism, for instance, a foundational overhaul of the Church’s views on Jews and Judaism has yielded notable improvements in Christian-Jewish relations. But the damage had already been done, with many made aware of the moral abyss to which they had been led, finding an excuse to discard much else in the Christian or Western tradition. The present reality threatens a new awakening of this sort: a realization that, once more, otherwise good-minded people will have fallen again for what may well be the oldest trick in the book — with existential consequences.

Abraham Winitzer

Notre Dame Jordan H. Kapson Associate Professor of Jewish Studies

Nov. 3

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.