Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a characteristic intervention during his address in Washington to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) on 5 March 2012. In voicing determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and thus to reject a situation where Israelis would "live under the shadow of annihilation", Netanyahu said that in his desk was a copy of a letter from the World Jewish Congress requesting the United States to bomb the Auschwitz death camp in 1944, together with the American reply making excuses for declining to do so.
It hardly honours Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide to make them a pretext for killing more innocents in a new war. Netanyahu’s cheap comparison between the situation of Israelis today and the terrible plight of Auschwitz inmates sixty-eight years ago only insults their memory. Likewise, his attack on the secrecy of Iran’s nuclear programme - "its underground nuclear facilities" - is brazen hypocrisy from the leader of an undeclared nuclear-armed state; one which is moreover in a deep alliance with the greatest nuclear power on earth.
Such Holocaust militarism is surely an example of the "loose talk of war" of which President Barack Obama rightly warned in his own speech to Aipac the previous day. But sadly, the abuse of genocide-victims’ experience is all too routine. It is not only Israeli spokespersons - who regularly invoke the Holocaust as a justification for their state’s oppression of Palestinians - who abuse historical memory. Across the board, victims’ tragedies are cheapened by many politics of genocide mobilisation (as also, of course, of genocide denial).
The anti-denial problem
A twist in this situation is that some abuses of this kind take place in the name of combating denial. In Rwanda, journalists Agnès Uwimana and Saïdati Mukakibibi were sentenced to seventeen and seven years respectively for articles (published in a small circulation journal) that alleged corruption among officials and criticised Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, in the run-up to the elections of 2010. They were convicted on counts of endangering national security, insulting the president, fomenting division, and denying the genocide of 1994.
Rwanda has a constitutional ban on "revisionism, negationism and trivialisation of genocide". It defends this by referring to similar laws that were adopted by some European countries in response to Holocaust denial. Such laws have long existed in Germany, Austria and elsewhere; more recently they are being complemented by laws against denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915. A law adopted by the French parliament is a prime example, which was later struck down by France's constitutional court though may yet be passed in revised form.
Such laws have some value in indicating the gravity of these issues, but they are also insidious (by enshrining in statute particular versions of historical memory in a way that facilitates tendentious manipulation) and invidious (in protecting the memory of some genocides and some victims while suppressing that of others).
It is legitimate, for example, to draw attention to Hutu victims of massacres committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which controls the post-genocide government in Rwanda - even if it must also be acknowledged that these massacres were different from the "Hutu power" genocide against the Tutsi (being of far lesser scale, and not linked to the unified aim of destroying a whole population group, than was the case in the 1994 events). But this nuanced argument, which I can make from the safety of European academia (and which I hasten to add, the condemned Uwimana and Mukakibibi did not make) would earn me imprisonment in Rwanda.
Laws in third-party countries, like France’s in relation to events in the Ottoman empire a century ago, inevitably raise questions of international politics. Many Turks (and others) will interpret the French law in terms of contemporary French chauvinism towards Muslims and hostility to Turkish membership of the European Union. It will probably reinforce denial more than it will make Turks confront the dark side of their state’s early history.
Moreover, such international moves provoke retaliatory accusations, as when Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued that France should instead "investigate how many people French soldiers massacred in Algeria, and their involvement in the killing of 800,000 people in Rwanda". Erdogan was not wrong: Jean-Paul Sartre famously accused his country of genocide in Algeria, and many questions have been raised about France’s role in Rwanda (see Andrew Wallis, "Rwanda: a step towards truth", 21 January 2012). But such accusations are hardly an appropriate response to the overwhelming historical consensus on the Armenian genocide.
The law is often too crude an instrument to address the questions raised by genocide, whether it focuses on particular cases (and thus is interpreted as partisan and selective) or on general sanctions against denial (which then provoke legitimate and sometimes difficult historical questions about where and when genocide has actually been committed, which can make the law look controlling or irrelevant).
Education, not politicisation
The only answer to denial is non-partisan historical research and education. But even scholarship is bedevilled by partisanship based on nationalist and ideological agendas. In a previous article, I criticised the denial of genocide in Rwanda by Noam Chomsky and his associates (see "The politics of genocide: Rwanda and DR Congo", 16 September 2010). But I was uneasy about a proposal for an official condemnation of their denial by the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), which seemed to be applying a sledgehammer to crack a few nuts.
The IAGS, after all, is the very organisation that compromised its authority when it responded to the anti-Israeli rhetoric of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by warning of "a risk of genocide" from Iran's nuclear programme, thus helping to lay "academic" foundations for Israel’s current efforts to make war look reasonable and perhaps inevitable.
Knowledge and understanding of genocide deserve to be made widely available - but the pitfalls in "authoritative" collective pronouncements on these questions should be at the forefront of educators' minds. Academic fatwas are as problematic as legal prohibitions, neither of which protects the victims or their memory.