BDS pin, Egypian Journalists Syndicate, April 2015. Amr Nabil / Press Association. All rights reserved.The International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS) is holding a conference in Jerusalem this weekend. The initiative has attracted an attack by Israel Charny in the Jerusalem Post under the lurid heading, ‘Genocide scholars who minimize the Holocaust – and some who are coming to town’. This summarised his article published in the pseudo-academic Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, reporting a flawed survey of his friends and acquaintances interested in genocide about their attitudes to the Journal of Genocide Research (JGR), the premier journal in the field which is sponsored by INOGS.
Charny charges JGR and the authors of seven articles (including this writer) with ‘minimization of the Holocaust, delegitimization of the State of Israel, and repeat[ing] common themes of contemporary antisemitism’, and then reports how many of his respondents agreed with each of these charges in relation to each of the papers and the journal as a whole. The exercise is a travesty of social research because Charny personally selected the participants, prejudiced the survey by feeding them his own views and distorted summaries of the papers (rather than the papers themselves or their abstracts), and by using loaded terms like ‘Holocaust minimisation’ and above all ‘antisemitism’.
The ‘boycott’ petition against the conference
At the same time, however, for simply holding the conference in Jerusalem INOGS has come under fire from 270 academics and others who have signed a petition calling on it to respect the academic boycott of Israel, called by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). The petition points to the ‘hypocrisy’ of having the conference in Israel at a time when Israel’s actions are ‘increasingly being viewed through lenses of ethnic cleansing and genocide linked to settler colonialism’, as well as calling the location ‘Jerusalem, Israel’, when the city’s eastern part has been illegally annexed.
The irony of the petition’s first charge is that this is also the core reason why Charny objects to JGR. Seeing Zionism romantically as a ‘heroic nationalism’ rooted solely in Jewish victimisation, he is incensed by the mere suggestion that Israel’s founding through the removal of most of Palestine’s Arab population could be analysed through a ‘genocide’ lens. I proposed this idea in a 2010 debate in JGR following a fuller article in the Journal of Holy Land Studies (the paper was earlier presented at an INOGS conference). It was not an original insight: JGR’s most heavily downloaded paper is one by Patrick Wolfe which linked the Israeli case to the wider problem of genocide in settler colonialism.
It typifies Charny’s intellectual sloppiness that he doesn’t seem to have read my original article before condemning me, but it also reflects poorly on the petition organisers that they don’t seem to have been aware of INOGS and JGR’s pioneering roles in promoting discussion of colonial genocide and broaching the subject (very sensitive because of the twin centrality of the Holocaust to genocide studies and to much Jewish identity) of the genocidal dimensions of the Nakba.
Nor do they seem to have picked up on the fact that INOGS was founded partly because of dissatisfaction with the way in which the existing, US-based International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) had been politicised by pro-Israeli scholars, most notoriously in a 2006 resolution echoing Israeli propaganda charges that then-President Ahmadinejad of Iran was threatening a new genocide against Jews.
INOGS’ opposition to politicising genocide studies
I left IAGS after that (although I should mention that in recent years a new, younger leadership has avoided further provocations of this kind). I supported, and still support, INOGS’s opposing stance that it is not helpful for the disciiplinary organisations of academics in a sensitive field like genocide to take political positions on what counts as genocide or a threat of genocide. All scholars in the genocide field have moral commitments, of course, and we should expect individuals to take political positions. But if we are to have professional communities which promote academic rigour and serious scholarly debate on the cases of genocide, then these cases cannot be foreclosed by majority votes on a website.
It is in this spirit, I assume, that my friend Juergen Zimmerer, the INOGS President, and other colleagues on its board have approached the Jerusalem conference. Israel is, naturally, one of the major countries in which the Holocaust is studied and there are key intellectual debates, including the relationship of Holocaust to wider study of genocide (the latter category is subversive in Israel since Holocaust-centrism is hegemonic) and indeed about how the Holocaust itself should be studied, broached in JGR, which it is especially appropriate to take forward in an Israeli setting. There are, after all, many serious genocide scholars in Israel, such as the veteran historian Yehuda Bauer who defended the conference in the Jerusalem Post, as well as ideologues like Charny.
The academic boycott of Israel
Thus far, I am sympathetic to the ambitions for this conference. Its programme is impressive. My absence, however, is not accidental. It is one thing to avoid political commitments, as INOGS has managed to do up to now. It is another, when holding an event in a site of conflict, to accept the position advocated by one side and to reject the position adopted by the other. Whether INOGS likes it or not, the academic boycott of Israel is part of this conflict. The boycott is not directed at individual scholars: many academics who support the boycott regularly have contact with Israeli scholars. It is directed at universities as Israeli institutions, which like many others are to a greater or lesser extent complicit in the oppression of Palestinians, as my late colleague Stan Cohen argued in a memorable paper (Hebrew here).
I don’t criticise the specific Israeli institutions which have sponsored the conference, which may well be acting laudibly within the oppressive Israeli climate of which Charny’s attacks are a symptom. It is significant that a West Bank-based institution is also among the sponsors, and Al Quds University was apparently approached to co-host but declined. There is a plenary roundtable, What Does It Mean to Study the Holocaust and Genocide in Israel/Palestine, A Site of Conflict?, in which one of the speakers is Palestinian, as well as other occasions to reflect on Israel-Palestine issues. This will probably a stimulating gathering, and at one level I am sorry to be missing it.
However I don’t see these as good enough reasons to avoid the boycott question. The boycott as a whole (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions, BDS, to give it its proper name) is emerging at the centre of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It offers Palestinians the means of applying peaceful international pressure to Israel to reach an equitable settlement, as an alternative to the violence of Hamas and others. It has been the focus of a huge official and unofficial Israeli counteroffensive, including bans on BDS campaigns in the USA, which has smeared boycotters as antisemitic.
It was unnecessary for INOGS to endorse the boycott; it could clearly have simply avoided the whole issue, in line with its previous position, by holding its conference somewhere else. But by holding a conference in Jerusalem, INOGS has taken a position against the boycott, and it is not one I can support.
I would have respected INOGS’ board more if it had responded publicly to the criticisms of the boycotters, and indeed I made several attempts to encourage it to articulate its position, so that this debate, instead of being brought together in this piece, would have taken place between INOGS and those academics who thought it should not go to Jerusalem.
There is a further irony in that INOGS and JGR have been smeared as ‘delegitimising the State of Israel’, and even antisemitic, despite this decision. No doubt the Charnys of this world will be quick to heap further ignominy on me for the views I am expressing, and will throw in INOGS for good measure.
I explained my decision to support the boycott at the time of Israel’s last large-scale massacres in Gaza in 2014, and there is no need to repeat all the arguments here. I will make clear, however, in the light of recent controversies in the UK, that my position on Israel-Palestine has not fundamentally changed since I was commissioned to write on it in 2009 (after the first Gaza massacres) by the editor of Democratiya, Alan Johnson. (Charny should note that Johnson now works for the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, BICOM, and was never one to publish an antisemitic post.)
Any reader of these articles will see that I do not oppose the existence of the State of Israel. That is also true of my academic writing referred to above. Charny is unable to engage with the Palestinian genocide proposition (or even Ilan Pappe’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ perspective) in conceptual or historical terms, but only through the starkly political lens of the ‘delegitimisation’ of the state. Yet as Jonathan Freedland has argued, ‘As for the notion that Israel’s right to exist is voided by the fact that it was born in what Palestinians mourn as the Naqba [sic] – their dispossession in 1948 – one does not have to be in denial of that fact to point out that the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and countless others were hardly born through acts of immaculate conception. Those nations were forged in great bloodshed.’
However the corollary of recognising that there is no necessary connection between the crimes of Israel’s foundation and its right to exist today is that the Nakba deserves the same academic attention as the other cases that Freedland mentions, which are increasingly discussed in the colonial genocide literature that JGR has done so much to develop. If research on Israel-Palestine is to advance, it will have to overcome the idea that deep historical criticism of Israel necessarily implies the dismantling of its state and society.
The reason why we have not got to this ‘normal’ stage is Israel’s continuous expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which even more than its failure to address historic Palestinian grievances means that Israel itself has not achieved a stable state. The world has recognised Israel within its 1948 borders, but Israel itself is unsatisfied with these borders. Its internationally illegitimate expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, endorsed in some degree by all mainstream parties in the Knesset, makes it impossible to unequivocally endorse the state.
Conceptual and normative aspects of forced removal
At the heart of my conceptual position is the proposition that the forced removal of populations is one of the key means through which genocide, the destruction of population groups and societies, is carried out. Corresponding to this, I take a normative position: whole groups and societies should not be forcibly uprooted.
I apply this principle retrospectively to the forced removal of the majority of Palestinians from Israeli territory in 1948, a removal which was partially deliberate at the time and wholly deliberate in the Israeli refusal to allow Palestinians to return after the war.
I apply this prospectively to any proposal for the forced removal of the Jewish population of Israel, and I recognise that the Jewish population needs a state in which it has confidence to protect it. A stable state structure in Israel-Palestine, whether one state or two, needs Jewish as well as Palestinian consent.
However I also apply this principle now to the ongoing forced removal of the Palestinian population from their homes in many parts of the Occupied Territories, and their replacement by Jewish settlers.
Jerusalem: where ‘genocide’ questions are still live
Jerusalem is not just a site of ‘conflict’, in the euphemistic terminology of the INOGS conference programme. It is a site of what many, almost as euphemistically, call ‘ethnic cleansing’, as Palestinians are forced out of their longstanding homes in the occupied east of the city. It is a site in which questions of ‘genocide’, the deliberate destruction of communities, are all too live.
‘Genocide’, wrote Raphael Lemkin, ‘has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor's own nationals.’
It is true that current dispossession is piecemeal, often legal in the Israeli understanding (although Israel’s domestic law does not genuinely apply when the occupation is illegal under international law), and mostly accompanied by only localised coercion or violence. In these senses it is different from the wholesale removal of a large population, without a shred of legality and with extensive violence, which occurred in 1948.
However it seems to me unarguable that the present dispossession is an extension of the historic destruction of Palestinian society. In the midst of this crisis, genocide scholars cannot ignore the call for boycotting Israel which comes, not from those ‘singling out’ or ‘demonising’ Israel (as BDS’s critics claim), let alone from antisemites, but from those Palestinian organisations which see it as a more potent weapon for justice than rockets, bombs or knives which harm innocent civilians.
This is why I am not in Jerusalem.