Holocaust and Genocide
Thus far, we have explored alternative definitions of the term genocide and the different conditions under which genocides occur. In both the Israeli national and the international-universal context, another question that arises is whether the Holocaust by definition can be placed in the category of genocide. This chapter explores the relationship between these two terms, which, as we will see below, raises numerous debates between and among scholars of the Holocaust and scholars of genocide.
Defining the Holocaust
In recent decades, the Hebrew term used for the English word Holocaust, to designate the bitter fate that befell the Jews of Europe under Nazi rule, is shoah. According to the standard Even-Shoshan dictionary of the Hebrew language, the word's literal meaning is destruction, ruin, annihilation, or terrible tragedy. The Hebrew word appears a number of times in the Old Testament, as in Isaiah 10:3, Where it has been translated into English as "desolation," "dissater," "calamity," and "punishment," and Psalms 63:10, where it has typically been translated as "to destory." In the prophetic literature — Isaiah, Zephaniah, and Ezekiel — the word shoah refers to the danger posed by neighboring peoples or prophecies of fury regarding their fate. In other books (such as Job 30:3, Proverbs 1:27, and Psalms 35:8), the word expresses deep distress, bitter pain, and immense suffering in the fate of the individual.1
As far as we know, the term shoah was first used in 1940 to refer to the fate of the Jews under Nazi rule, prior to the onset of the systematic extermination, in a booklet entitled Shoat Yehudei Polin (The Devastation of Polish Jewry), published by the United Aid Committee for the Jews of Poland. However, until spring of 1942, the term was still used only extremely rarely in this context. Indeed, initially the term in use was the Hebrew word hurban (destruction), with its Jewish historical connotations (the term is used in relation to the destruction of the Temple) and widely known in Yiddish (Der Hurban). It was only after leaders of the Zionist labor movement and authors and thinkers in the Jewish yishuv in Palestine began speaking and writing publically about the extermination of European Jewry that the Hebrew term shoah began to enjoy more widespread, albeit still limited, use. The term as it is used today took root after the collapse of Nazi Germany and the Israeli parliament's enactment of the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance (Yad Vashem) Law, 1953, which first used the term in an official context.
Still, not all Jewish and non-Jewish circles in different parts of the world agreed with this use of the term. For example, in a 1957 debate that appeared in The Jewish Observer, a magazine published by Agudath Israel in the United States, a leader of the religious Agudath Israel movement in the United States explained why the term shoah was not appropriate to describe the extermination of European Jewry during World War II, and rather used the word hurban (destruction):
Is the term shoah acceptable? Clearly, it is not. The word shoah in Hebrew, like the word Holocaust in English, gives the impression of an isolated catastrophe unconnected to anything that happened before it or after it, such as an earthquake or a tidal wave. As we know, such an approach is far from the Torah's view of Jewish history. The destruction of European Jewry is an integral part of our history. We must not isolate it and deprive it of its monumental meaning for us.
In this way, religious circles sought to frame the Holocaust as one in a long series of tragic events that together constituted the history of the Jewish people throughout the generations, reducing its unique significance. The author went on to object to what he regarded as the error of the founders of Yad Vashem, who felt the need to adopt a new, artificial term to refer to the extermination of European Jewry, instead of the concept hurban, with its historical meaning and profound symbolism.
Today, it is almost impossible to use the word shoah in its original sense, as its meaning has been almost totally linked to the acts of the Nazis during World War II. However, we periodically witness inappropriate, casual use of the term shoah, which cheapens the concept and does it a disservice in Israel and around the world. The term has been used on a broad scale to refer to the discrimination against African Americans in the United States, Jews in the former Soviet Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States, Arabs in the territories occupied by Israel, and the victims of other real or perceived injustices around the world. Some use it to refer to tragedies and cases of genocide that have befallen other peoples, as in the "Romani Holocaust" or the "Armenian Holocaust," even though the Armenian genocide took place before the Jewish Holocaust, to which the term is used to refer today.2
Should we use the term 'Holocaust' to refer to the fate of non-Jewish victims of the Nazi regime during World War II, such as Romanis, homosexuals, political prisoners, Russian prisoners of war, the mentally ill, Poles, and Jehovah's Witnesses? In this context, it is helpful to consider some of the questions discussed at an academic conference held at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC in 1987: Who were the victims of the Holocaust? Can we clearly distinguish between the "final solution" to the Jewish problem on one hand, and to Nazi policies toward other ethnic and religious groups and specifically classified populations on the other? And if so, on what basis?3
The English word "Holocaust" derives from the Greek holokustoma, which originally meant sacrifice by fire. The Greek term was translated into Latin to refer to "a burnt offering to the Lord" in Samuel I 7:9, and in other biblical passages, to a "burnt offering." Its use in English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries expanded its literal meaning, as it came to be used as a metaphor for sacrifice in general. Later, it was also used to refer to the destruction of an object, a place, or a group, usually by fire but in other (typically natural) ways as well. It was in this manner — in reference to great catastrophes — that the word Holocaust was used prior to World War II. Its usage to refer to the Jewish Holocaust of the twentieth century only became standard practice toward the end of the following decade, between 1957 and 1959. In the wake of Claude Lanzmann's 1985 film Shoah, the Hebrew term also came to be used widely in other languages to refer to the extermination of the Jews of Europe.
In this context, however, some object to using the term Holocaust, with its religious association (particularly in English) with the burnt offering. They question the very image of an offering: an offering to whom, they ask, made for what purpose? The Holocaust was the action of human beings and in no way a divine act. This, after all, is one of its most troubling aspects. The religious connotations of the term Holocaust serve to reduce the horror of the event and its chilling humanistic implications: the fact that it and all other genocides are committed by human beings against other human beings. American philosopher Berel Lang maintains that, in contrast to the standard usage of the term Holocaust, "the Nazi genocide against the Jews had none of the properties of a sacrifice except for its design of willful destruction: no intentionality on the part of those 'sacrificed,' no sense of loss or of giving by those 'offering' the sacrifice, no evocation of a good to be redeemed by the act itself."4 The following excerpt by Pierre Vidal-Nacquet is particularly relevant here:
Is it necessary to state or repeat that one explains neither one of the events by speaking of a Holocaust? A Holocaust [presupposes] priests. Neither in 1915 nor in 1943 were there any priests; there were, rather, servants of a totalitarian order of two nation-states, armed with varying techniques.5
What is the importance of designating a unique, internally significant term with meaning rooted in the particular history and culture of a victimized group to refer to a genocide, like the term shoah? What are the different attitudes toward using the terms shoah and Holocaust to refer to the extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazis?
We now turn to a brief but crucial survey of the debate over the uniqueness of the Holocaust and its relationship to other cases of genocide.
Holocaust and Genocide
The multiple interpretations of the Holocaust and the many different moral lessons that the Jewish people learned from it find expression in the debate over the degree to which the Holocaust should be understood as a universal historical event as opposed to a historical event that is singular and unique. This question has divided scholars, survivors, and public leaders on three continents for close to four decades. In 1990, Michael Berenbaum, long-time director of the Holocaust Research Institute of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, provided a glimpse into the practical aspects of the debate in his observation that "Israeli historians have vehemently opposed the representation of non-Jewish victims in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, fearing that this inclusion diminishes the singularity of Jewish fate."6 Little has changed since then. In fact, to a certain degree, the polarization has only intensified.
Scholars of historiography and the philosophy of history are not alone in considering the singular versus universal aspects of the Holocaust. So do communities the world over. Monuments and memorial ceremonies increase popular awareness of the Holocaust and have become part of mainstream culture in America and around the world. Today, the struggle to ensure awareness of the tragedy is conducted by ethnic politicians and public leaders; by educators during curriculum development; in academia; in religious and philosophical circles; and by members of the literary and artistic elite.
These attitudes have undoubtedly influenced relations among different victim communities, as reflected in philosopher Jean Michel Chaumont's book La concurrence des victimes (The Competition of the Victims), which analyzes the role of the Holocaust in the identity of European Jews and Jewish communities in the United States and Israel. In the introduction to his book, which has sparked widespread debate throughout Europe, Chaumont writes:
As to the victims of the Nazis, nothing is managed properly. Under an external veil of consensus, slogans such as 'never again,' 'the sacred obligation to remember,' and 'the struggle against anti-Semitism and racial intolerance,' strong differences divide the groups of victims of the Third Reich on the issue of memory: Jewish deportees against underground fighters, Jews against Gypsies, homosexuals against political prisoners, antifascist Jews against Zionists. The lists of confrontations and counter-arguments is long and goes beyond the crimes of the National Socialists, especially in the United States where it involves a myriad of groups such as Jews against Armenians, Jews against blacks, Jews against native-Americans, and even Jews against Tutsis, and others.7
According to Chaumont, at the heart of these debates lies the controversial assertion regarding the singularity of the Holocaust. The immediate importance of the Holocaust to its Jewish victims, maintains Chaumont, concerns not its uniqueness but rather its problematic entrenchment in Jewish history and the fact that it must remain a central component of Jewish historical consciousness. How would Jewish historical consciousness have been different, asks Chaumont, had the murders carried out by the Nazis not been portrayed as unique?
Like any historical event, the Holocaust has many unique elements. These elements should be evaluated according to historical assessment, conceptual frameworks, the definition of Holocaust-related classifications, and the possibility — and, in my view, the obligation — to compare it to other instances of genocide. Work of this kind is of the utmost significance from an academic perspective. However, when engaged in genocide as a category, we must also ask how each instance of the phenomenon is unique. Every genocide has its unique historical, political, and legal dimensions, as well as its own moral consequences. Unique aspects of the Holocaust include, among other things, the fact that the perpetrators intended to exterminate an entire population (all the Jews in their reach); the racial ideology they espoused; and the cold, systematic 'industry of death' through which the killing was conducted. These issues can be analyzed as three unique historical dimensions: the unprecedented goal of the Holocaust; the systematic, 'scientific' implementation of the extermination process, which bears no resemblance to any other event in human history; and the horrifying, unprecedented outcome — six million dead, including more than one million children.
Moreover, only a comparative approach can provide us with the foundation to conclude that the Holocaust was in fact different from all other genocides, past and present. Israeli society, however, has consistently emphasized the uniqueness of the Holocaust, often without sufficient knowledge of other instances of genocide and without undertaking a comparison.
For victims, it matters little whether they were sentenced to death by virtue of their belonging to a specific racial category, national minority, or social class. For them, whether they belong to a group of six hundred thousand, six million, or sixty million victims, the outcome is the same. Every human being is a world unto him/herself, and we all have an equal right to live our lives. The condemnation of such acts of murder must therefore be decisive and unequivocal across the board. From this perspective, learning about the tragedies that have befallen other victims highlights the universal meaning of the Holocaust. Only a dialectical approach recognizing both the unique and universal can enable Israeli society to strike the necessary balance between focusing on the Holocaust and openness to consider other cases of genocide.
As we have already noted, the term 'genocide' was first used on a large-scale during World War II in response to the Nazi's unprecedented treatment of the Jews of Europe. Before 1944, the word appeared neither in dictionaries, encyclopedias, nor textbooks. During the first few years, it was used primarily to refer to the extermination of the Jews. Today, some people still prefer to employ the term genocide — in a manner similar to its usage in the designation "Armenian genocide" — to refer to all the acts of extermination carried out by the Nazis, and propose terms such as "the Jewish genocide" and "the Romani genocide," as they all have one common denominator. Others prefer genocide terminology based on the perpetrators, such as "the Nazi genocide," including, for example, Berel Lang, who calls his readers' attention to "the absence [from his book] of the term 'Holocaust' where it would usually be expected to appear."8 Some observers are critical of the fact that some elements within the Jewish community refrain from using the term genocide at all. One example they point to is the Encyclopedia Judaica, which contains a broad discussion of the Holocaust without using the term, except in the context of the UN Convention on Genocide.
As I have noted, members of some non-Jewish groups — including survivors, their families, and scholars engaged in exploring their tragedy — sometimes adopt the term Holocaust in reference to the genocide that befell them, as in the case of the Armenians and the Romanis. In contrast, historians and scholars in various disciplines highlight the uniqueness and singularity of the Holocaust. Recent decades have witnessed the production of an extremely diverse literature addressing these issues and the debates they stimulate. Below is a brief survey of some of the issues.
Prominent Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer drew a distinction between the concept of Holocaust, or the "wholesale total murder of every one of the members of a community" and genocide, which does not necessarily refer to total eradication. "To sum up," he writes,
there may be no difference between Holocaust and genocide for the victims of either. But there are gradations of evil, unfortunately. Holocaust was the policy of the total, sacral Nazi act of mass murder of all Jews they could lay hands on. Genocide was horrible enough, but it did not entail total murder, if only because the subject peoples were needed as slaves...
Not to see the difference between the concepts, not to realize that the Jewish situation was unique, is to mystify history. On the other hand, to declare that there are no parallels, and that the whole phenomenon is inexplicable, is equally a mystification.9
In this manner, Bauer attempts to draw a clear distinction between the Holocaust and other instances of genocide, and stresses that Hitler's plans regarding the Jews differed significantly from his plans for other peoples. In contrast to the intention to bring about the physical extermination of the Jews, his plans for other conquered peoples included enslavement, but not necessarily extermination. The mass killings of Poles, Czechs, Serbs, and other Slavic peoples were intended to instill fear in the masses, to eradicate their leaders, to forestall uprisings, and to uproot culture.
Bauer argues that both the work of Lemkin and the UN Convention erroneously place two different crimes in the same category. The first is genocide, defined as the intentional destruction of a racial, national, or ethnic group by means of: 1) selective mass killings of the elite or of another part of the group; 2) eradication of the group's cultural or religious life in order to divide the group as a unit; 3) enslavement of the group in order to divide the group as a unit; 4) destruction of the group's economic life for the same purpose; and 5) biological eradication by means of kidnapping children and preventing the maintenance of proper family life.10 The other crime, according to Bauer, is holocaust, or the intentional physical destruction of all members of a particular national, ethnic, or racial group carried out for ideological or pseudo-religious reasons.
Under the classification of genocide, Bauer includes the Nazis' policies toward the Poles, the Czechs, the Romanis, and other groups. He also includes Soviet policies toward the Chechens and other groups, as well as the policies of the American settlers toward many Native American tribes. This type of killing, Bauer contends, almost certainly includes the murder of the Hutus in the 1960s and 1970s, of the Biharis in Pakistan in 1971, and of the Ibos in Nigeria in 1966. At this point in history, he maintains, the category "holocaust" includes only the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe. On this basis, Bauer's later publications describe the Holocaust as "unprecedented," pointing to a continuum of evil that ultimately resulted in mass killings, genocide, and the Holocaust. In his opinion, the case that comes closest in nature to the Jewish Holocaust is the Armenian genocide (although the two are certainly not identical), followed by the Romani genocide. Over the years, Bauer's approach to this subject has undergone a number of changes, and perhaps even a major reversal.11 According to Yosef Gorny, Bauer's many years of studying the history of the Holocaust led him from a Jewish-focused approach to a universal perspective — from a decisive public position in support of the uniqueness of the Holocaust to an acknowledgement of the often unclear distinction between genocide and the Holocaust.12 Regardless of this change, Bauer continues to argue that the Holocaust was, without a doubt, an unprecedented event in human history.
Monument to the Sioux victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre, on the
Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota
Israel Gutman, another prominent Israeli historian of the Holocaust, considered the Holocaust in the context of other mass killings that took place before and after World War II. Highlighting the differences between the Jewish case and that of the Armenians and the Romanis, Gutman emphasizes the totality of the Jewish Holocaust and the fact that "the essence of the Holocaust is murder, endowed with ideological legitimacy."13 Gutman maintains that the Holocaust should not be understood as an instance of the crime of genocide, and that
In fact, the trend toward unification, that is, toward an emphasis on the similarities between the abovementioned historical events [such as the killing of the Armenians and the massacre in Biafra] and the Jewish Holocaust during the Second World War is of secondary importance, while the elements of difference are what is decisive and what signifies the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a historical event.14
"The Holocaust," Gutman concludes,
differs from similar crimes and constitutes an unprecedented event in the history of the Jewish people and the world as a whole. . . . Obfuscating the uniqueness of the Holocaust or integrating it into a long list of crimes, even if with good intentions, helps to distort the historical picture and could potentially result in the revival of the murderous ideology. Understanding the uniqueness, therefore, involves more than just fulfilling the obligation to remember, but also illustrating the significance of the events and the dangers they encompass.15
For Gutman, the uniqueness of the Holocaust is inextricably linked to Jewish history, while Bauer regards its uniqueness as rooted in the history of German Nazism. Gutman examines the Holocaust's implications for the present, primarily its significance for Jewish existence, while Bauer sees it as an event relevant to human society as a whole.
The approach of differentiating between genocide and the Jewish Holocaust, and of casting the Holocaust as a special case and as distinct from the crime of genocide, finds expression, among other places, in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (edited by Gutman himself), which concludes its entry on "genocide" as follows:
According to all the experts, genocide was one component of the Holocaust. However, the crime that the Nazis committed against the Jewish people in Europe involved planning; the administration of a system; the construction of extermination facilitates; the forced transfer of the entire Jewish population in underhanded ways; and, above all else, assigning them [the Jews] blame and the stigma of conspirators and pests, whose physical extermination was required for the rehabilitation of society and the future of humanity. In this way, it alone constitutes a distinct type of crime that is broader and more all-encompassing than genocide.16
Steven T. Katz, a Jewish American historian of modern thought and philosophy, takes a different approach. Katz is working on a comprehensive, broad-scale study aimed at establishing the uniqueness of the Holocaust in comparison to other instances of mass extermination that have taken place since the discovery of America, with an emphasis on modern times. Katz compares the Holocaust with the extermination of the indigenous population of South America, of the Armenians, of the Romanis, and the systematic exterminations carried out in the concentration camps of the Gulag in Soviet Russia. In his view, the Holocaust was a unique tragedy because "never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized policy, to annihilate physically every man, woman and child belonging to a specific people."17 On this basis, he proposes a narrower definition of genocide: actualization of the intent, whether 'successful' or not, to murder any social group in its entirety. Katz does not limit the type of groups against which genocide can be perpetrated, and in principle includes groupings based on gender, political affiliation, and economic factors. Accordingly, his definition also places no limitation on the nature of the force carrying out the killing (which does not necessarily have to be a state). Katz also uses this definition of genocide to characterize the Holocaust, as well as to show that the Holocaust is the only example of genocide in this sense. Every other understanding of the term 'genocide' misses the point that the term was coined to refer to the Nazis' extermination of the Jewish people.18
In contrast to the approach emphasizing the unique singularity of the Holocaust, other scholars frame the Holocaust as genocide, some highlighting its uniqueness and others focusing on its similarities with other genocides. These scholars sometimes claim that all genocides are unique in their own way. Consistent with this approach, are the studies by Jewish American social scientists Helen Fein and Robert Melson that compare the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide.
Irving Louis Horowitz also published a controversial article against the trend of emphasizing the uniqueness of the Holocaust. He objects to the debate among Holocaust survivors regarding which acts of extermination are and are not worthy of being classified as a holocaust, which he describes as a "bizarre struggle."19 For Horowitz, the search for exclusivity in death has strange implications.
Using numerous examples from the Armenian and the Cambodian cases, Horowitz rejects philosopher Emil Fackenheim's eight propositions distinguishing the Holocaust from genocide in general. Horowitz is critical of Fackenheim's ideological outlook as well as of Elie Wiesel's mystical approach, and calls for moving beyond the "mystery of silence" and "the silence of mysteries."20 According to Horowitz, the role of political science in this context, as in others, is to rationalize the irrational and to fulfill its obligation of understanding why genocide occurred.
Michael Berenbaum argues that the uniqueness and universality of the Holocaust pose no contradiction to one another. He also holds that far from obfuscating its uniqueness, comparing the Holocaust to other mass killings actually draws greater attention to it. For example, discussing the Armenian genocide in conjunction with the Holocaust intensifies our moral sensitivity and further reinforces our position. Discussing both events in this manner also reflects spiritual generosity and a commitment to universal principles. Although our sense of suffering remains ours alone, under no circumstances should it keep us divided. Rather, it must enable us to unite with others victims in a resounding condemnation of inhumanity.21
According to Berenbaum, exploration of instances that are analogous but not identical to the Holocaust must be based on two key principles: historical authenticity and the potential for new insight into aspects of the Holocaust and other cases of genocide. As long as these principles are adhered to, he claims, such analogies should not give us cause for concern, as they will not lessen the importance or the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
We must remember that the great general interest in the Holocaust of recent decades has raised public awareness regarding other cases of genocide that have occurred throughout history, resulting in a better understanding of issues related to the genocidal potential that is part of human nature and human society. In academia, this approach has resulted in the emergence of a new field of study known as "genocide studies." In addition to exploring individual cases of genocide, genocide studies strives to establish similarities and differences between different instances of genocide so as to better understand how to intervene in and, if possible, to prevent such phenomena in the future.
It is also important to keep in mind that accepting claims regarding the uniqueness of the Holocaust does not relieve us of our moral obligation to be engaged in other instances of genocide. In addition to preserving the uniqueness of the Holocaust and never losing sight of the atrocity it constituted, are we not obligated to also draw attention to similarities, things that can be compared, and details that conjure up similar associations? Not only do comparison and analogy not imply equivalence, they also help to define precisely what about the Holocaust makes it so different and unique. In the academic world, moreover, the comparative approach is regularly employed by scholars in all fields of research. Finally, we must always remember that claims of the uniqueness of the Holocaust are devoid of all meaning when not based firmly on an understanding of its points of intersection and divergence with other instances of genocide.
Our approach to the question of the uniqueness and universality of the Holocaust combines general consideration of different instances of genocide with a special focus on the Holocaust as a unique phenomenon. This integrated approach is manifested in the combined use of the terms "Holocaust" and "genocide," which is consistent with the practice of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and the title of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, a journal published by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
The final two paragraphs of Israeli Holocaust scholar Uriel Tal's article "On the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide" provide a fitting closing for this section:
One of the difficult questions in the study of genocide and the Holocaust is what they have in common and how they differ and, indeed, the similarities and the differences between particular instances of mass extermination of human groups, be they differentiated by their ethnic origin, tribe or nation, their socioeconomic class, ideology, or religion. Is not mass extermination a phenomenon that outweighs all the differences between various human groups? Are not the phenomena accompanying mass extermination universal in nature, phenomena such as fear, pain, agony, death, manifestations of the absurd and of the alienation of the victim in the face of the forces affecting his fate, manifestations of prejudice, injustice, evil, cruelty, hate, and violence? Is not the fact that genocide is happening in the twentieth century, that is, in the age of critical rationalism, of enlightenment and modern civilization, in the age in which man has at his disposal technology which could be a blessing if he could only control it according to the criteria of social morality; is not that fact an indication of the universal nature of genocide?
And on the other hand, is not particular differentiation in the study of the mass annihilation of human groups absolutely necessary, for the victimizers themselves practice genocide on particular groups precisely because of that particularity? Furthermore, is not the universality of genocide composed of particular instances, with every instance exemplifying a particular aspect of the general phenomenon? And in regard to the specific case of Holocaust, does it not demonstrate the need to differentiate among particular cases? The Nazis themselves, and especially those primarily responsible for the Holocaust, like Hitler and Himmler, viewed the Jew as both the symbol and substance of anti-Nazism as such. The triumph of Nazism over the Jew was the proof, but also a symbolic means of overcoming Monotheism and its legacy within civilization. Thus, the mass annihilation of the Jews was unique, different from other genocidal phenomena.22
Israeli Legislation on Genocide
The ratification of the U.N. Convention on Genocide by individual countries is a complex issue, as is the passage of the Convention in general. In order to institutionalize ratification, a ratifying country is required to incorporate judicial definitions into its own criminal law. This section explores the legal status of the crime of genocide in Israeli criminal law, as well as Israeli law's treatment of "crimes against the Jewish people," "crimes against humanity," and "war crimes."
The Crime of Genocide (Prevention and Punishment) Law
Israel signed the UN Convention on Genocide on September 17, 1948 and ratified it on March 9, 1950, making it the first international convention signed and ratified by Israel after gaining independence. Just twenty days after the signing, on March 29, 1948, the Israeli Knesset enacted the Crime of Genocide (Prevention and Punishment) Law. In its formulation of the statute, Israeli legislators reiterated the definition of the crime as it appears in the UN Convention, but its stance on the punishment of perpetrators was much more decisive. The Israeli statute used the same definition as the Nazis and Nazi collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950, which was first enforced in Israel against a Nazi criminal in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and which provided the legal basis for his execution. The district court later used the same statute to sentence John Demjanjuk to death, although the Israeli Supreme Court subsequently acquitted him due to reasonable doubt regarding his identity as Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka.
The statute enacted by the Israeli Knesset in the wake of the UN Convention was the first law enacted in Israel for the purpose of activating a general international convention. During his presentation of the bill before the Knesset in December 1949, Israel's first justice minister Pinhas Rosen announced that it was also "the first [bill] submitted to the Knesset as a result of our participation as an equal member in the international organization of nations." Israel's ratification of the convention and the Knesset legislation on genocide reflected the young country's desire to cooperate with the United Nations and to contribute to the effort to achieve the important goals it was established to pursue. However, it is important to keep in mind that the discussions on the genocide law preceded the discussions of the components of the memory and commemoration of the Holocaust, such as the "Yad Vashem Law" and "Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Remembrance Day," which was subsequently renamed "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day." They also preceded the enactment of the Nazis and Nazi collaborators (Punishment) Law.
While the bill was being discussed by the Knesset and its Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, the War Crimes Bill was also being discussed. Although it was proposed to combine the two laws, the proposal was ultimately rejected. Despite the criticism directed at various sections of the UN Convention, the discussion emphasized the importance and special significance of the signature and ratification of the Convention by the state of Israel. The Knesset's decision to ratify the Convention and to enact the Israeli statute on genocide was unanimous. The discussions also noted the educational significance of the Convention and the law, the importance of teaching about them in schools, and the central role of education in preventing future genocides. An extended debate focused on the question of whether the Israeli law should include punishment for those convicted of the crime of genocide, and it was ultimately decided to stipulate that "a person guilty of genocide shall be punishable with death," except for under certain circumstances indicated in the law (Section 2). As we have seen, the UN Convention contains no explicit instructions on this issue, and provides only vague direction regarding the adjudication and punishment processes.
The Crime of Genocide (Prevention and Punishment) Law, 195023
1. (a) In this Law, "genocide" means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group (hereinafter referred to as "group"), as such:
(1) killing members of the group;
(2) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(3) inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction, in whole or in part;
(4) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(5) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
(b) In subsection (a), "child" means a person under eighteen years of age.
2. A person guilty of genocide shall be punishable with death; provided that if he committed the act constituting the offence under circumstances which, but for section 6, would exempt him from criminal responsibility or would be a reason for pardoning the offence, and he tried to the best of his ability to mitigate the consequences of the act, he shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than ten years.
3. (a) A person guilty of any of the following acts shall be treated like a person guilty of genocide:
(1) conspiracy to commit genocide;
(2) incitement to commit genocide;
(3) attempt to commit genocide;
(4) complicity in genocide.
(b) The terms "conspiracy," "incitement" and "attempt" in subsection (b) shall be construed with reference to the provisions of the Criminal Code Ordinance, 1936.
(c) For. the purpose of subsection (a)(4), a person shall be deemed to have taken part in genocide if he is so deemed under section 23(1) (b), (c) or (d) of the Criminal Code Ordinance, 1936.
4. A person guilty of an offence under this Law shall be punished whether he is a legally responsible ruler, a member of a legislative body, a public official or a private individual.
5. A person who has committed outside Israel an act which is an offence under this Law may be prosecuted and punished in Israel as if he had committed the act in Israel.
6. The provisions of sections 16, 17, 18 and 19 of the Criminal Code Ordinance, 1936, shall not apply to offences under this Law.
7. The Provisions of Part I of the Criminal Code Ordinance, 1936, shall apply to offences under this Law insofar as this Law does not otherwise provide.
8. Notwithstanding anything contained in any other Law, in considering the extradition of a person charged with, or convicted of, genocide or any of the acts enumerated in section 3(a), the plea that the offence with which such person is charged, or of which he has been convicted, is an offence of a political character shall not be entertained.
9. The Minister of Justice is charged with the implementation of this Law.
10. This Law, which is consequent upon the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the 9th December, 1948, signed on behalf of and, in accordance with a decision of the Knesset, ratified by the State of Israel — shall come into force on the date of its publication in Reshumot and shall remain in force whether or not the Convention comes into or remains in force.
Crimes against the Jewish People, Crimes against Humanity, and War Crimes
As we have seen, the discussions surrounding the Knesset legislation on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide also touched on legislation concerning the crimes of the Nazis. On 1 August 1950, the Knesset enacted the Nazis and Nazi collaborators (Punishment) Law, 1950, which contains definitions of three crimes that are relevant to our discussion here: crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It also stipulates the death sentence for any person guilty of one of these crimes during the period of Nazi rule in Germany. The Israeli law defines the crimes as follows:
"Crime against the Jewish people" means any of the following acts, committed with intent to destroy the Jewish people in whole or in part:
(1) killing Jews;
(2) causing serious bodily or mental harm to Jews;
(3) placing Jews in living conditions calculated to bring about their physical destruction;
(4) imposing measures intended to prevent births among Jews;
(5) forcibly transferring Jewish children to another national or religious group;
(6) destroying or desecrating Jewish religious or cultural assets or values;
(7) inciting to hatred of Jews
Is it legitimate for a country to distinguish between crimes of genocide perpetrated against its own people and crimes of genocide perpetrated against the rest of humanity?
"Crime against humanity" means any of the following acts:
murder, extermination, enslavement, starvation or deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, and persecution on national, racial, religious or political grounds;
"War crime" means any of the following acts:
murder, ill-treatment or deportation to forced labor or for any other purpose, of civilian population of or in occupied territory; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas; killing of hostages; plunder of public or private property; wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages; and devastation not justified by military necessity.
In the Nazis and Nazi collaborators (Punishment) Law, "crimes against the Jewish people," "crimes against humanity," and "war crimes" are not synonymous with the crime of genocide, although they sometimes constitute a component of the crime of genocide. For example, "crimes against the Jewish people" as referred to in the Knesset statute encompasses a number of elements that appear in the UN Convention and in the Knesset legislation on genocide. In addition, the Knesset statute classifies "inciting to hatred of Jews" as a crime, whereas the UN Convention is more reserved, criminalizing only "direct and public incitement to commit genocide." Another difference between Israeli law and the UN Convention is the fact that, according to the Knesset statute, crimes against the Jewish people include "destroying or desecrating Jewish religious or cultural assets or values," for which there is no parallel in the UN Convention.
Politicide and Democide
Lack of clarity regarding the meaning of the term genocide and criticism of its use in various contexts has resulted in the evolution of new terminology. One new term to emerge is "politicide," which can be defined as murder intentionally carried out by a government for political or ideological reasons, or, more specifically, as the killing of people by a government because of their political opinions or the policies they espouse. Genocide and politicide, however, should not necessarily be considered two separate phenomena, as mass killings of ethnic groups may occur in both. One example is the expulsions, murders, and ethnic cleansings carried out by the Soviet Union under Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s against more than two million people belonging to eleven small ethnic groups, such as the Germans in the Volga region, the Tatars, the Chechens, the Kalmyks, the Ingush, and others. On a practical level, however, the overlap between the two terms is limited, and the term politicide is used to refer to mass murders related to purging members of the communist party or anti-communists, opponents of the revolution, social-democrats, and critics of the ruling regime.
Another term that also encompasses genocide was coined by R.J. Rummel, an American scholar of political science and international relations from the University of Hawaii.24 According to Rummel, the term genocide is unclear and misleading, and has multiple interpretations and meanings. One is its legal meaning, as defined by the UN Convention, which includes not only actual destruction but the intent to destroy. Another is its more common meaning, referring to a government's murder (and only murder) of individuals because of their belonging to a particular national, ethnic, racial, or religious grouping.
These two meanings are problematic in that neither covers the actions of governments that murder political opponents, purge their population of revolutionary elements, or carry out killings in order to fill extermination quotas (like those committed during the Stalin era). In order to fill this gap, he proposes a broader term, "democide," to encompass all murders carried out by a government, regardless
of whether the victims belong to a particular group. Parallel to the term 'murder,' which refers to the killing of individuals by other individuals, 'democide' refers to all acts of murder carried out by governments. In this context, intent (planned or premeditated) is of critical importance. According to Rummel, democide involves "practical intentionality." For example, democide also includes death resulting from a government's display of indifference to the preservation of human life, as in the case of forced expulsions in which people die at the hands of brutal guards
or as a result of heat, cold, starvation, or dehydration. Even if the deaths were not premeditated, they can still be classified as democide.
According to Rummel, the term democide can also be applied to cases in which governments kill unarmed civilians with premeditation. Unlike genocide, the term democide is restricted to intentional killing, and does not apply to attempts to destroy nations, races, or religious groups by means other than killing. It encompasses the concepts of genocide, politicide, mass murder, and acts of terrorism. According to Rummel, "Democide is the intentional killing of unarmed or disarmed persons . . . by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command." In this way, it is more all-encompassing than the concepts of genocide or politicide, and covers both.
Rummel's definition of democide distinguishes between 'domestic democide', a government's murder of population within its own borders, and 'foreign democide', a government's murder of populations outside its own borders.25
Rummel also proposes to distinguish between "megamurderers," or regimes that have murdered more than one million people, and "lesser murderers," or regimes that have murdered less than one million people. The data on the democides perpetrated by the fifteen regimes classified by Rummel as megamurderers indicate that these countries have been responsible for the murder of a combined total of 151 million people: four times greater than the total number of people killed in all the civil wars and international wars fought during the twentieth century until 1987.As we have seen, Rummel's revised estimate for the entire twentieth century (including the mass killings of the final decade of the century in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, East Timor,
and elsewhere) soars to 174 million. Countries with totalitarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union, China, and Nazi Germany, were responsible for 84% of all the killings, accounting for close to 128 million deaths. An additional 203 instances of smaller scale killings resulted in the death of almost 17.7 million additional people. Rummel later updated his estimates based on new information regarding countless victims in China and Africa, and claimed that the number of victims was actually much higher, reaching 262 million victims during the entire twentieth century.
These estimates are based on approximately 8,200 cases of genocide, politicide, massacre, terrorist attack, illegal execution, and other relevant forms of killing.
Most people are unaware of these numbers, which are impossible to comprehend and difficult to believe. We should make a concerted effort to consider the significance of these numbers for the world in which we live.
Rummel culled his information on the different instances of democide from more than one thousand sources. He warns that, because the numerical estimates on which his research is based are used to shape public opinion, they are often higher or lower than the actual number of those killed, depending on the point of view and the interests of the person or body doing the estimating. For this reason, he calculated his estimates according to the logical average between the highest estimate and the lowest estimate, based on tens and sometimes hundreds of estimates of particular cases.
Under such circumstances, there are obviously disputes over the number of victims killed in most instances of genocides. Indeed, in some cases there are extreme discrepancies between the estimates, which at times are cynically exploited. The Holocaust appears to be virtually the only instance in which there is more or less consensus regarding the number of victims (with the exception of Holocaust deniers).
As most acts of mass murder took place during wartime, Rummel attempted to exclude from his estimates all the cases of deaths related directly to war, and to include only cases of genocide and mass murder. The Holocaust during World War II and the murder of the Armenians during World War I are, in his opinion, cases where the distinction is clear. Many other cases, however, are less clear, such as the British and American bombings of civilian urban populations in Germany during World War II, or America's military bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia. In his article, "Power Kills: Absolute Power Kills Absolutely," Rummel maintains that, as a result of its indiscriminate bombing of parts of Germany and Japan, the United States should be included on the list of 'megamurderers', or countries that have taken tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Of the instances in which distinction is particularly difficult, Rummel's estimates include all those killed in acts considered to be war crimes or crimes against humanity under the Geneva Conventions. The grand total that emerges from Rummel's estimates is larger than the population of all but six countries in the world.
According to Rummel's research, 39 million deaths, or 23% of all victims of democide, can be attributed to genocide. This number in itself is greater than the combined number of soldiers killed during all the wars of the twentieth century. The cases considered include not only the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide but also lesser known instances of genocide such as the Nazis' murder of the Romanis; the Turks' murder of the Greeks; the murder of the Native Americans in Mexico; the almost complete extermination of the Herero people by Imperial Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century; China's murder of the Tibetans; and many other cases. Overall, the lengthy list includes genocides carried out by 141 regimes. However, the fact that all of these instances come under the category of genocide, maintains Rummel, does not negate the uniqueness of the Holocaust, during which the Nazis tried to root out and exterminate all the Jews they could reach.
One question of extreme importance is whether some regimes are more susceptible to democide than others. Like many of the scholars discussed above who attempted to develop theoretical approaches to the countries or regimes that commit genocide, Rummel's work does not focus on the countries in which the killings took place but rather on the type of regime in place in each. Is there any correlation between regime type and the propensity to carry out genocide? According to Rummel, the more totalitarian and less democratic a regime, the greater the likelihood it will perpetrate democide or genocide. Even if not all instances of all forms of democide in a given country are coordinated, their very perpetration stems from the totalitarian character of the regime. Megamurderers such as the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, Nazi Germany, and Cambodia can use their totalitarian power to exterminate groups that conflict with their interests, and this ability resulted in genocide. In democratic countries, the elites lack the power and the will to completely eradicate individuals and social groups. Democratic countries also have citizens who oppose such intentions. The greater a regime's power is based on its aggressive intervention in all aspects of society, including control of religion, the economy, and even family life — in conjunction with radical ideology or absolutist religious principles, the greater the likelihood that it will come to consider mass murder as a viable tool for achieving its goals.
According to this approach, power and belligerence provide the context and the fundamental explanation for a regime's perpetration of genocide and other types of murders. This also explains the external violence perpetrated by countries with aggressive regimes. Democracies desire war less than totalitarian countries, and wars between two aggressive totalitarian countries, such as the Soviet Union and Germany, are the most brutal and violent of all.
Rummel's conclusion is that the combination of power and aggressive worldviews kills, with the scope of killing increasing with the aggressiveness of the regime. Totalitarian government, then, appears to be a fundamental factor in domestic democide, including genocide. The more centralized a regime, the easier it is for it to operate according to the whims of the elite. Such regimes will embark on many unnecessary wars against their neighbors and will have a greater tendency to harm their own citizens. The more democratic a regime — that is, the more decentralized it is and the better developed its system of checks and balances — the less likely it is to commit democide. In practice, radical totalitarian regimes have been responsible for the violent deaths of tens of millions of people, while democratic countries often have difficulty deciding whether or not to execute rapists and serial killers.
Although the empirical estimates used by Rummel to distinguish between democratic and totalitarian regimes are undisputed, some question the decisiveness of his conclusions regard democracies, pointing out that democratic countries have also carried out crimes that are genocidal in nature. Indeed, throughout history, democratic regimes have aided perpetrators of genocide, and have not done everything in their power to prevent their crimes.
Despite the limitations of the definition of 'genocide' under the UN Convention, we must remember that it is the definition most widely used by society and the academic community. For this reason, it is preferable to use it, but at the same time to expand it. Still, it is also important to remember that in some cases, arbitrary expansion or reduction of the concept, or using it in an irresponsible manner, may not only reduce its scope but ultimately distort its meaning. This decreases the significance of acts of genocide themselves, which are without a doubt among the most serious crimes committed in the history of humankind.
The following table contains a sample of genocides that have been committed throughout history, which is by no means exhaustive. Not all scholars are in agreement about the classification of all the cases listed.
Table 1: Genocides throughout history
|Biblical Middle East, 800 BC||A variety of groups||Various perpetrators|
|Milos, 416 BC||Residents of the city of Milos||Athenians|
|Carthage, 146 BC||Residents of the city of Carthage||Romans|
|China, 1211-1234||Chinese, Persians, Muslims, and others||Genghis Kahn and the Mongols|
|North and South America, 1492-1789||Native Americans||Spanish, Portuguese, British, and French|
|Australia and New Zealand, 19th century until the present||Aborigines||Ranchers, white settlers|
|South Africa, Zulu Country, 1818-1828||The Ndwandwe people||Zulus under the leadership of Shaka Zulu|
|Southwest Africa, 1904||The Herero people||Imperial German Army|
|Turkey, 1894-1908 and 1915-1922||Ottoman Armenians||Sultan Abdul Hamid II and the Young Turks|
|Europe, 1933-1945||Jews||Nazi Germany|
|Europe, 1933-1945||Romanis||Nazi Germany|
|Europe, 1933-1945||Homosexuals; Mormons; Physically and Mentally Disabled; Jehovah's Witnesses; Political Opponents||Nazi Germany|
|Bosnia, 1941-1945||Serbs, Jews, Romanis||SS, Croats, Muslims|
|Southern Sudan, 1955-1972||Non-Muslim Sudanese||Sudanese Army|
|Indonesia, 1965-1967||Communists||Hired Mercenaries|
|Nigeria, 1966-1970||Ibos||Other Nigerians (and starvation)|
|Paraguay, 1968-1972||The Aché Indians||Other citizens|
|Tibet, beginning in the 1960s||Tibetans||People's Republic of China|
|Bangladesh, 1971 until the present||The non-Bengal population of southeast Bangladesh||Bangladesh Army and Bengal Settlers|
|East Timor, Indonesia, 1975||Timorese||Indonesian Army|
|Cambodia, 1975-1979||Urban educated Cambodians||Khmer Rouge|
|Bosnia and Kosovo,1992-1995||Muslims, Croats, Kosovans||Serbs|
|Rwanda, 1994||Tutsis||Hutus — militias, army, officials, and collaborators|
Sources: Porter, "Introduction: What Is Genocide? Notes toward a Definition"; Dobkowski and Wallimann (eds.), Genocide in Our Time.
The definitions and information in this book are essential for the study of genocide and for efforts to understand a subject that in many ways is incomprehensible. In closing, I again emphasize that, above all else, the fundamental principle underlying this book is the universal value of human life, wherever it may be found.
The Century's Decline / Wisława Szymborska26
Our twentieth century was going
to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.
Too many things have happened
that weren't supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
Happiness and spring, among
were supposed to be getting closer.
Fear was expected to leave the
mountains and the valleys.
Truth was supposed to hit home
before a lie.
A couple of problems weren't going
to come up anymore:
hunger, for example,
and war, and so forth.
There was going to be respect
for helpless people's helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.
Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.
Stupidity isn't funny.
Wisdom isn't gay.
isn't that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.
God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.
"How should we live?" someone
asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.
Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naïve ones.
Nazi soldiers, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.
1 On this subject, see, among others, Yehuda Bauer, "Defining the Holocaust: Different Approaches in the Historiography," in Studies in Historiography, ed. Moshe Zimmerman, Menahem Stern, and Joseph Salmon (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 1987), pp. 245-253 [Hebrew]; Uriel Tal, "On the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide," Yad Vashem Studies 13 (1979), pp. 39-43.
2 Other genocides have specific names that are less known outside each particular community of victims. For example, the Romanis use the term porajmos, which in the Romani language literally means "the devouring," as a unique term to refer to their persecution at the hands of the Nazis, thus distinguishing it from the Jewish Holocaust. To refer to their genocide, the Armenians use the term yegherna, which can be translated as "catastrophe."
3 See the volume published in the wake of these discussions: Michael Berenbaum (ed.), A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis (New York: New York University Press, 1990).
4 Lang, Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide, p. xxvii.
5 Pierre Vidal-Nacquet, "By Way of a Preface and by the Power of One Word," in A Crime of Silence: The Armenian Genocide, ed. Permanent People's Tribunal (London: Zed Books, 1985), p. 3.
6 Michael Berenbaum, "The Uniqueness and Universality of the Holocaust," in Michael Berenbaum (ed.), After Tragedy and Triumph: Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 17.
7 Jean Michel Chaumont, La concurrence de victimes — génocide, identité, reconnaissance (Paris: La Découverte, 1997), p. 9.
8 Lang, Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide, p. xxvi.
9 Yehuda Bauer, "Against Mystification: The Holocaust as a Historical Phenomenon," in The Holocaust in Historical Perspective (Seattle: Washington University Press, 1978), p. 36.
10 Yehuda Bauer, "The Place of the Holocaust in Contemporary History," in Studies in Contemporary Jewry, Vol. 1, ed. Jonathan Frankel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 213.
11 Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).
12 Yosef Gorny, Between Auschwitz and Jerusalem (London: Mitchell Vallentine and Company, 2003).
13 Israel Gutman, "The Uniqueness and Universal Character of the Holocaust," in Struggles in Darkness: Studies in Holocaust and Resistance (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim, 1985), p. 62 [Hebrew].
14 Ibid., p. 53.
15 Ibid., p. 68.
16 Israel Gutman (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim, 1990), pp. 391-392 [Hebrew].
17 Steven T. Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 27-30.
18 Ibid., pp. 128-130.
19 Horowitz, "Genocide and the Reconstruction of Social Theory," p. 1.
20 Irving L. Horowitz, "Many Genocides, One Holocaust? The Limits of the Rights of States and the Obligations of Individuals," Modern Judaism 1 (1981), pp. 74-89.
21 Berenbaum, "The Uniqueness and Universality of the Holocaust," p. 34.
22 Uriel Tal, "On the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide," p. 52.
23 Passed by the Israeli Knesset on 29 March 1950.
24 Two short articles by Rummel appear in Encyclopedia of Genocide Vol. 1, ed. Israel W. Charny (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1999). One, "The New Concept of Democide" (pp. 18-23), addresses the meaning and implications of the term 'democide' and the other, "Power Kills: Absolute Power Kills Absolutely" (pp. 23-34), analyzes regime type (democratic, autocratic, and totalitarian), as an important factor in the occurrence of genocide. These articles succinctly encapsulate his extensive research into these subjects, which has been highly acclaimed by scholars of genocide and the Holocaust.
25 For example, according to Rummel, between 1936 and 1945, Japan murdered close to six million people, all of whom were victims of 'foreign democide.' They included people in China, Korea, and Indochina, as well as prisoners of war. For this reason, the "internal genocide" and "genocide" columns contain no information regarding the number of victims.
26 Wisława Szymborska was born in Poland in 1923 and died in 2012. She published sixteen collections of poetry that have been translated into many different languages. In 1996, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Her poems explore the troubling events of the twentieth century and the numerous acts of mass killing it has witnessed, including the extermination of Polish Jewry. Source: Wisława Szymborska, "The Century's Decline," in View With a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (New York: Mariner Books, 1995).