Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Settler's War and the Biden Response

While the world's eyes are primarily on the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, another spate of violence has erupted in the West Bank, where Israeli settler violence has surged to unprecedented levels. A few weeks ago, I observed that while what's "going on in Gaza is more eye-catching ... the [West Bank] situation is in some ways even worse because there isn't even a colorable claim of self-defense -- it's pure unconstrained terror inflicted by settler extremists on the Palestinian population for the express purpose of subjugation." (Matt Yglesias made a similar point). The Gaza operation can at least in the abstract be defended as a necessary response to Hamas' violence. The violence inflicted upon Palestinians in the West Bank defies even theoretical justification. In terms of familial resemblance, West Bank "price tag" settler terrorists differ from the perpetrators of October 7 only in degree, not kind.

Today, the Biden administration announced it would begin pursuing sanctions (such as visa bans) on settlers who engage in or promote violence against Palestinians. It's an overdue step, and I've urged considerably harsher measures than that (last week I suggested identifying violent settler organizations and placing them on the State Department's list of Designated Terrorist Organizations). Nonetheless, it is a welcome one. Extremist violence emanating from West Bank settlers is one of the primary drivers of the current conflict and an existential (and very much intentional) threat to the viability of a two-state (or one-state, for that matter) solution. The fact that these malign actors carry significant support in the highest echelons of the Israeli government is not a reason for the United States to stay its hand. Indeed, their substantial influence and clout makes it more imperative that America decisively intervene to isolate them.

This step by the Biden administration will not neuter the criticism it is getting from the left for how it has handled the past month's events (indeed, I first heard about the anti-settler sanctions from at least three social media accounts who flagged it in the course of derisively dismissing the notion that it meant anything at all). But that's the way it goes -- our policy towards Israel and Palestine should be humane and intelligent regardless of whether that earns brownie points with the online activist crowd. This proposal is a good proposal. I hope it is followed up on, and I hope it prompts other pro-Israel Democrats to think more proactively and creatively about what steps America can take to sap the strength of the settler-terror movement.

The other big almost-news of the day is the prospect of a ceasefire negotiated by the Biden administration. Initially this was reported as a "tentative deal" having been struck, now the reporting has backed off a little to saying the deal is "close". The details, as they're being reported, would see both sides cease hostilities for five days, the release by Hamas of approximately 50 hostages (approximately 20% of the total number they're estimated to be holding), and the transport into Gaza of significant quantities of humanitarian aid. All I'll say on this is that I'm familiar with the arguments for why Israel's military operation is necessary, and I'm aware that a ceasefire is still part of the middle, not the end. But I'll never be dismayed at the prospect that people suffering tremendously in a warzone will, for some time at least, suffer less. And I'll likewise only feel joy at the prospect that some kidnapped captives will be redeemed to their families.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

How Many Genocides Are Occurring in the World Right Now?

A few weeks ago, I asked on BlueSky an admittedly morbid question: "approximately how many genocides does a given person think are currently in progress around the world right now?" I didn't get much in the way of responses, so now I'll ask again here and elaborate a bit on why I think it's a question worth asking.

I was inspired to return to this question based in part on an online conversation I had with a Palestinian friend a few days ago, after she characterized Israel's current campaign in the Gaza Strip as "genocide". Knowing she was a fierce opponent of Hamas, I was curious if she also thought that Hamas' 10/7 attacks were acts of "genocide" as well. She responded that in her view, they clearly were -- indeed, given what Hamas did combined with how Hamas leaders characterized their ambitions, she thought the case for calling it genocidal was almost beyond argument.

For my part, my instinct is that Hamas' attacks -- abhorrent as they were -- are not properly called "genocide" (nor is the Israeli response). I couldn't help but observe the resulting incongruity vis-a-vis Hamas, though -- the Palestinian anti-Zionist thought that Hamas had clearly committed acts of genocide; the Jewish Zionist thought that this allegation was a mischaracterization and misapplication of the term. Or, as I put it, "today, you're the Hasbarist shill and I'm the Hamas terrorist apologist." How the world turns.

But what accounts for our incongruous divergence?

Consider what I think is a reasonably popular, though not necessarily universally held, "folk" understanding of genocide where it refers solely to generational calamities. The Holocaust, for instance, saw the extermination of two-thirds of Europe's Jewish population. The Cambodian genocide witnessed the murder of one-third of Cambodia's entire population. The Rwandan genocide killed off somewhere around three-quarters of the Tutsi population. The Armenian genocide was responsible for the death of between 50 and 80% of the Armenian population. That's a hefty weight class to be in. And while I don't want to say percentage death toll is the absolute be-all-end-all of what qualifies as a "genocide", it seems fair to say that most human rights abuses, even most incidents of mass atrocity, will not come near that threshold. These are, again, once-in-a-generation sorts of events. 

Given that understanding, my sense that neither Israel nor Hamas' recent conduct qualifies as "genocide" is not based on any illusions that either party hasn't committed grave (and violent) injustices against the other. But amongst currently active conflicts, the cumulative death toll of the Israel/Palestine wars doesn't even break into the top 20, and that's including all deaths (military and civilian) by all parties across all incidents from 1948 to present. It is, again, just not in the same weight class as the paradigm cases above. The differences between what's happening in Israel and in Gaza, compared to what happened in, say, Rwanda, is a difference in kind and not just degree.

But the above "folk" understanding isn't the only way to understand genocide. I was at an academic conference this weekend, and at dinner I shared a table with a colleague that worked in the field of peace studies. She mentioned the genocide of native peoples in Canada relating to the "residential schools" program, and then added off-hand that the genocide was "ongoing" to this day. This is, I think it's clear, a broader understanding of genocide than the folk understanding. And based on analogous principles, it seems that the number of analogous state behaviors towards minorities that are "at least as bad" as Canada's current treatment of indigenous persons would be quite substantial. Of course, one sometimes hears similar claims made regarding ongoing genocides of indigenous persons in the United States, or for that matter ongoing genocide of African-Americans in the United States. But there are many other candidates around the world, from the Dominican Republic's treatment of Haitians, to Morocco's treatment of Sahrawi, to Brazil's treatment of its own indigenous population, to India's treatment of Muslims, to Iran's treatment of the Ba'hai (and that is a very non-exhaustive list).

Indeed, based on that threshold -- where "genocide" includes treatment of a national minority either as badly as or worse than Canada currently treats indigenous peoples -- I wondered how many active incidents of genocide currently occurred around the world. Dozens? Hundreds? I don't expect anyone to have a precise figure. But I'm curious as to answers even within an order of magnitude, because I think it can help illuminate what people actually mean by a word that unfortunately is starting to develop blurry and divergent meanings. When people speak of "genocide", are they talking about a concept that they imagine as generally occurring in zero or one place around the world -- maybe two if things are dire? Or are they talking about something occurring in dozens or hundreds of different places simultaneously? If one person says "genocide" and envisions the latter, to a hearer who imagines the former, it's small wonder they'll often feel as if they're talking past one another. More broadly, the person whose position is "there is one genocide currently going on anywhere in the world, and it is in Gaza" can, I think, fairly be accused of making an unreasonable and biased assessment (again, check that top-20 list). But the person who says "there are dozens of genocides currently going on across the world, from Canada to Brazil to India to Iran to Morocco to China to the Dominican Republic -- and Gaza is one of them" can't be criticized in quite the same way (though potentially they can be queried as to why, with so many genocides occurring simultaneously, this one has so decisively grabbed their attention).

And for what it's worth, I want to be clear that the possibility that a given understanding of "genocide" would yield a far higher number of incidents than the folk understanding does not mean that understanding is wrong or implausible. As I tell my students, a sad fact is not the same thing as a false fact, and the world might be a sad or horrible enough place that there are innumerable incidents of "genocide" occurring all at once at any given moment. Nonetheless, I think there are implications of defining genocide in this more expansive fashion that are worth thinking through. Among them:

  1. The more expansive definition necessarily changes how the international community can relate to ongoing "genocide". Where genocide is generational, it is at least plausible to demand that a case of "genocide" be a sort of drop-everything, all-eyes-on-this emergency demanding otherwise impermissible forms of intervention (e.g., "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine). This orientation is neither feasible nor tractable in circumstances where there may be hundreds of "genocides" occurring simultaneously.
  2. The broader definition significantly raises the likelihood of there being cases of "cross-genocides"; two populations simultaneously enacting (or attempting to enact) genocidal policies upon the other. While in concept it isn't impossible for there to be a "cross-genocide" case under the folk definition, practically speaking it's hard to imagine. By contrast, a "dueling genocides" situation is the consequence of, for example, my friend's conclusion that both Israel and Hamas were engaging in acts of genocide -- both the government of Israel, and the (de facto) Palestinian government in Gaza, are simultaneously "genocidal states". This possibility, in turn, rests quite uneasily with a host of intuitions many of us hold about what genocide is, how to respond to it,  and what ought to be the geopolitical position of the "genocidal" state, nearly all of which imagine clear delineations between perpetrator and victim groups. What does it mean to intervene on behalf of a group to protect it from genocide under circumstances where, by stipulation, that group is also attempting to instantiate its own genocide?
And these reasons don't get into the possibility of linguistic exploitation: relying on popular understandings of genocide predicated on the folk view (of generational rarity) to direct attention and resources to an incident whose viability as a "genocide" is only plausible under a more expansive, revisionist account.

For my part, one reason I tend to prefer the "folk" understanding is that I think it preserves a more fine-grained taxonomy for speaking about human rights abuses and atrocities. We don't lack for language to describe incidents of mass atrocity, war crimes, indiscriminate bombings, occupation, wars of aggression, and so on. Hence, it makes sense to me to reserve "genocide" for the class of cases that are incidents of full-scale, widespread, intentional targeted extermination qua extermination, which are a tiny subset of even incidents of substantial civilian suffering and death. The Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Armenian genocide, the Cambodian genocide -- events such as these strike me as sufficiently different in kind from other incidents of even mass atrocity and widespread death and destruction that it's better to retain a unique term to describe them. This is particularly so given that we don't lack for a rich vocabulary to describe other forms of mass violence and atrocity such that we need to press genocide into more expansive service. 

But that assessment aside, I do think we can learn a lot by demystifying what people mean when they say "genocide", and in particular the degree to which they are intending to signify some sort of singular, once-in-a-generation evil versus something that is (sadly, horrifyingly) a more general feature of political repression and ethnic subjugation that is common around the world.