Israel and Genocide, Part 3: A Matter of Lies and Death
GENGIS KHAN IS in fact an interesting choice. He is not just any murderous figure. Even among the most homicidal rulers, he occupies a special position. We know that Stalin admired him immensely, and for good reason: Until Stalin arrived, Genghis Khan was almost certainly the most prolific murderer in history. He may still be. If you discount the famine under Mao, Genghis Khan may be responsible for more deaths than Mao and Stalin combined: some say 40 million people.
It is interesting to compare this man, in particular, to Israel. History and legend offer competing accounts of the Mongol emperor’s life, but we know the approximate story. Genghis Khan was born around 1167 to a minor tribal chieftain in Mongolia. The boy’s name was Temujin. Only later would he achieve the title “Genghis Khan” (which perhaps means “Universal Ruler”). Temujin’s father was treacherously murdered by a rival tribe, the Tatars, when he was about nine years old, and this reduced the boy and his remaining family to outcasts.
The nomadic life hardened him. Temujin murdered his half-brother Bekhter over an argument: a useful move that made him the de facto leader of the family. His mother then trained him in survival and diplomacy, and he spent the next decade clawing his way to power, slowly amassing a loyal and ruthless army.
When at last he had the opportunity and the resources, Temujin avenged his father. He took care that every male adult in the Tatar tribe — everyone “taller than a cart handle” — was slaughtered. His closest childhood friend, Jamuka, became a rival and a threat, so Temujin broke his back. All of this preceded the orgy of homicide for which he became famous.
It does not matter which of the tales of Genghis Khan are true, and which are exaggerated: whether he killed 20 million or 40 million. The point is that his name was for centuries a metonym for “evil,” much as “Hitler” is for us today. In much of the Middle East, his memory remains vivid and despised: Temujin was responsible for a massacre that is still very real in that part of the world, and will never be forgotten.
Israel has perhaps 4,000 innocent Palestinians on its conscience. Perhaps 8,000. Perhaps 3,487. Whereas Genghis Khan murdered 40 million. Some say 20 million. One source credits the Mongols with 29,927,000 deaths.
When we speak of “orders of magnitude,” it is not just a rhetorical device: It is a very simple but useful mathematical tool. It is a way of comparing vastly different amounts, without having to specify precise numbers. We generally define this as a power of 10: multiply by 10, and you go up an order of magnitude. Multiply by 10 times 10, and you go up two orders. Hence, one million is three orders of magnitude higher than one thousand: This is a good way of conceptualizing the difference between a poor man and a millionaire.
When we compare history’s murderous regimes, we are reduced to comparing orders of magnitude. This is a grotesque Stalinist exercise, because it requires us to abstract from the individual. Unfortunately, it is necessary. I fully expect to be bombarded upon publication with arguments demonstrating that Israel is in fact responsible for the death of 6,453 unarmed Palestinian civilians, over fifty years. Or 8,347.
An individual life always matters, of course — it is the world, and more — but for the purposes of clarifying this particular libel, these precise numbers are not the issue. Worse, they are a red herring: They distract from the crucial intellectual task at hand. We are trying to grasp the difference between the death of a few thousand individuals and the whole-scale slaughter of a nation. We have all that we need — the numbers and the precision — to show that defaming Israel with this slur is a particular kind of lie: it is not simply inaccurate, but it is inaccurate by orders of magnitude.
The comparison to Genghis Khan is particularly obscene. Assume a probably low number for his victims — 20 million slaughtered — and assign Israel the impossibly high number of 15,000 — and you are still off by three orders of magnitude. Even one order of magnitude is hugely significant: That is the point. Three orders of magnitude is the difference in height between an ant and a human being. Now try to imagine that in terms of the butchered. (You can’t. The mind is not capable.)
The true difference between Israel and Genghis Khan is probably four orders of magnitude: the difference in height between a human being and Mount Everest. Norman Finkelstein, although he means no harm, is happy to spread the lie that Israel — with its few thousand dead — has essentially the same blood-drenched record as Genghis Khan, this archetype of atrocity, still considered by many the most brutal man in history. The only significant difference is that those clever Israelis have digital weaponry. With this technological advantage, the bloodthirsty Jews — no different in their vampire-like craving from Temujin — have killed some 4,000 Palestinian civilians. Perhaps 2,000. Perhaps 9,000. In over half a century.
It is not simply a matter of fatalities, of course. There is the matter of land. In terms of imperial ambition, we are expected to understand that Israel is precisely as voracious as the Mongol emperor. By exterminating so many people that whole sections of the earth reverted to forest — thereby altering the planetary climate — Genghis Khan managed to conquer the largest contiguous empire in history: 9.3 million square miles, 16 percent of the earth’s land mass.
Just as Israel — the modern equivalent — has ruthlessly occupied 8,522 square miles.
I shall leave it to you to calculate this aspect of the lie, in orders of magnitude.
It may surprise us, but strictly speaking, Temujin was probably not genocidal. His intention does not seem to have been to eliminate entire peoples: he simply wished to subjugate them. I am extrapolating from the fact that he had the opportunity to annihilate the tribe that murdered his father — presumably his most hated enemies — and he did not. He left the children of the Tatars alive.
On the other hand, it is undeniable that Hitler willed the eradication of the Jews. The evidence is overwhelming. Jewish artifacts, for instance, were collected for a museum to be built in Prague: the museum of an erased people. Hence we know that he intended their erasure.
Genghis Khan, although he murdered far more individuals, is categorically different from Hitler. He was in fact less evil.
Even if Hitler’s personal wishes were not what directly resulted in the Final Solution — this is the so-called “Functionalist” argument among historians of the Third Reich — we know the nature of that solution: it was designed to be complete. There is no debate here, unless you are a Holocaust denier, and Norman Finkelstein (to his modest credit) is not.
The professor hems and haws in this interview about explicit efforts to compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Holocaust itself. He almost brings himself to say that perhaps the Holocaust was worse, but no: “I don’t see how morally you could compare and say something like — it’s worse to drag a girl into a gas chamber than to drop white phosphorus on her. How do you compare those things?”
I am showing you how. This deals with a matter so revolting that I suspect he counts on it thwarting any attempt to reason or measure. White phosphorus is vile. It is among the ugliest military substances we have, ranking with napalm. I say “we,” because it is employed currently by Canada (my nation), America (Finkelstein’s), Israel and Britain, among others. It is being used — as we speak — by what I consider perhaps the most decent nation on earth: Denmark.
It is employed primarily (and paradoxically) to provide either illumination or a smoke screen. The nations I have listed above, with one exception, are committed to the principle of not using white phosphorus on human targets. The exception, however, is not Israel. It is America. The US reserves the right to employ white phosphorus against combatants, and has admitted to shelling the enemy in Fallujah with this substance. Which is to say: burning them alive, with a fire that cannot be quenched.
Those nations committed to using white phosphorus only as an illuminant or screening device, however, are likely to find themselves in Israel’s hellish position sooner or later: They will have incinerated civilians. Perhaps children. I suspect most of them already have. In particular, it is almost impossible to use white phosphorus safely in built-up areas.
Nevertheless, there is an enormous difference between the deliberate use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon against civilians — which is a war crime — and the reckless employment of it as a veiling device.
Nobody suggests that herding children into the gas chambers was anything but utterly premeditated. Whereas only the likes of Finkelstein can honestly imagine Israelis intentionally targeting little girls with incendiary weapons.
The Israeli case is examined in depth in The Gonzaga Journal of International Law. ”There is only one known instance where the Israeli army used white phosphorus not as an obscurant or an illuminant, but to burn away brush.” The conclusion, even though it renders Finkelstein slanderous, should not make anyone particularly proud: the report suggests that civilian deaths were a foreseeable consequence of using this substance non-offensively in an area as dense as Gaza. Hence the article’s sobering subtitle: “A Case Study in Adherence to Inadequate Humanitarian Laws.”
White phosphorus is legal, but I find it impossible not to support the ban suggested in the report. No, it has no effective replacement, tactically — especially in creating instant towers of cloud to obscure snipers in tall buildings. Soldiers will die if it is banned. As will civilians: White phosphorus is often deployed to illuminate a battlefield so that citizens will not be targeted accidentally.
Nevertheless, Israel in particular should govern itself according to this dictum: it is a crime to grant Norman Finkelstein even the appearance of accuracy.
This is a man determined, for whatever harrowing personal reasons, to paint his own people as a race of eager child-killers. Do not let him. If you employ white phosphorus, what happened in Gaza will happen again.
Yes, Hamas has targeted Israeli civilians with this substance, more than once. Israel is characteristically more generous than Finkelstein, however, in their assessment of intent: “The assumption in the IDF Southern Command is that the group that fired the mortars did not know that they contained phosphorus.”
Meanwhile, someone with Finkelstein’s rhetorical gifts, but paired with a sense of decency, ought to take on nations explicitly committed to using white phosphorus on humans. “The boils of hell” accurately describes tactics employed by his own country.
The report of the girls burned in Gaza was one of the sickening events that caused me to ask myself that first question: might Israel be an evil nation? To understand the facts in no way makes their death less horrific, but it permits the perspective that Finkelstein shuns.
“How do you compare those things,” he asks. This is how. First you look at numbers. 400 terrible things is simply not the same as 4 million terrible things. It differs, specifically, by four orders of magnitude: the difference in length between a gnat and a blue whale.
Then you examine intent. 400 accidental but foreseeable deaths is a truly repellent matter, but still not quite the same as 4 million premeditated murders, expressly committed for the purpose of exterminating an entire people. It is the difference between manslaughter and genocide.
Finkelstein, who knows this too, probably considers himself wily whenever he restricts his explicit analogy to Mongol butchers. Americans can be expected to know less about Temujin than Arabs do; and for those who are better-informed, this analogy circumvents the issue of defining genocide. Whether I am right or not regarding Temujin’s intentions, his name is not generally associated with that word, so Finkelstein’s analogy simply accuses Israel of the less rigorous crime: unspeakable slaughter, on a scale unimaginable.
Finkelstein is fond of this analogy: On his own site, he posts a petition from the group SPHR (“Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights”) decrying how he was censored when offering up a variant during a lecture: “Genghis Khan with a laptop.”
Unfortunately for Professor Finkelstein, when he takes genocide out of the equation, he has nowhere to hide. If the charge is genocide, the death toll is not itself the issue: The crime is far more complex. When he equates Israel with Genghis Khan, however, we no longer have to argue about definitions. All we have to do is look at the numbers. We are left with the sorry specter of a liar who can be refuted by any child who has mastered basic arithmetic. If you can count, then you understand. You have some measure of Finkelstein, the scholar.
He is more cunning, oddly enough, when he says: ”Israel is committing a holocaust in Gaza.” This is a more vulgar statement — by far — but it is less easily refuted. A major part of his life’s work is an attempt to demonstrate that what his parents survived was not unique. In the context of that work, the indefinite article — “a holocaust” — gives Finkelstein an out: He is not equating Gaza with the Shoah. Not specifically. He is implying it in every way, but he can legitimately argue that he is stating nothing more than: “what’s happening in Gaza is in the same class as a lot of really bad things.”
Even those without a PhD can be surprisingly slippery in the charge of genocide. Many are aware of the debate over the meaning of the term: they use this to gain room to wiggle. Others will insist that the Israeli crime is a special type of genocide: It does not look like what we have seen historically, but only because it is subtle. “Slow-motion genocide” is a favorite of the more practiced sophists on Huffington Post. Also “passive genocide.” The first suggests that not all of the deaths have occurred yet, but they will. The second suggests that a huge number of non-violent deaths could have been prevented if the conflict had been avoided.
“Slow motion genocide” is easily refuted: even discounting international refugees, the Palestinian population has more than tripled since the founding of Israel. In 2010, according to the World Bank, the population of the West Bank and Gaza was 4,152,100. It has grown since. To demonstrate that something is moving slowly and inexorably towards a certain point, you must at the very least demonstrate that it is not moving backwards. Zeno would have found this paradox unimpressive, for the simple reason that it is not a paradox. It is simply wrong.
“Passive genocide” is the more compelling theory, because you can use it to generate figures that look something like actual genocide: hundreds of thousands. These are the Palestinians who would — we are told — be alive if their circumstances had been different.
This figure is almost always calculated with Israel in mind, of course. You rarely hear of the “passive genocide” of the world’s poor, whose shocking infant mortality rate could be ameliorated if they were simply less poor. Still, it is worth investigating.
Infant mortality turns out to be crucial — it is perhaps the single most important statistic. The World Health Organization explains that it “correlates strongly with more comprehensive measures of health, such as disability-adjusted life expectancy.” They go on to reveal reluctantly that the infant mortality rate among Palestinian refugees is lower in the West Bank and Gaza than it is in Syria or Lebanon. Moreover: “Perinatal mortality is highest in Lebanon, and maternal mortality has been consistently higher in Lebanon and in the Syrian Arab Republic than in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank for the past 20 years.”
Therefore, if you truly wish to embrace this concept of “passive genocide,” you have to conclude that Syria and Lebanon are committing this vicious but mysterious crime against the Palestinians much more aggressively than Israel is.
Impeded access to healthcare is also said to be “passive genocide.” Americans in particular should think hard before embracing that definition: Harvard Medical School has determined that 45,000 people per year die in the United States because they lack health insurance. I happen to despise this cruel system — and the Tea Party revealed its true nature in applauding this barbarism – but lots of ugly things are not genocide.
When the Palestinian Authorities cancelled payments in mid-treatment for critically-ill patients as a protest tactic, human rights groups were appalled, but the words “passive genocide” were avoided. Rightly so.
“Passive genocide” is a pernicious term, of course, because it renders actual genocide meaningless. Every nation with a sizable population of unhealthy citizens is committing “passive genocide.”
We know what actual genocide looks like. There is nothing passive or lethargic about it. Genocide of a people who number in the millions means efficient butchery on a scale we associate with factory farms. Yes, Professor Finkelstein, the Holocaust was an industry: a multi-national abattoir. To accuse Israel of “passive genocide” or “slow-motion genocide” is simply a useful way of diverting us from the truth: that Israel is not remotely guilty of the inconceivable crime committed by Hitler. Which is to say the deliberate, premeditated annihilation of a people.
Which is to say: genocide.