The Movement for Black Lives has been receiving both widespread praise and criticism over the content of their new platform, particularly in response to their use of the word “genocide” to describe the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. Some of the movement’s critics, including some of the largest Jewish communal organizations in the United States, have even condemned The Movement for Black Lives’ language “in the strongest possible terms.” Their harsh responses are indicative of skewed priorities regarding the struggle for social justice, both in the U.S. and in Israel.
In their condemnation of the platform’s use of the terms genocide and apartheid, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) did so “as deeply committed Zionists.” URJ also misrepresented The Movement for Black Lives by claiming that the platform “falsely suggests American Jews…must choose between their commitment to combatting racism in the United States and their Zionism.” But the platform actually makes no mention of “Jews,” let alone American Jews, nor does the platform mention Zionism. And while the URJ extrapolates from the platform’s stance on Israel, the URJ doesn’t directly address why they reject the use of the terms genocide and apartheid.
Other pro-Israel critics of the platform, claim that the oppression of Palestinians doesn’t match the definition of genocide as dictated by international law.
According to the United Nations, the legal definition of genocide (adopted, aptly, in 1948) includes:
“…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
killing members of the group;
causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
[and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Based on this definition, the U.N. Office specifically concerned with the prevention of genocide further outlines a framework made up of factors that may be used to identify the risk of genocide in any given situation, noting that “what is significant is the cumulative effect of the factors.” Additionally, amidst the Israeli military’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during the summer of 2014, the same U.N. Office issued an official statement expressing profound concern, not only over the disproportionate killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces, but also over the prevalence in Israeli public fora of inciting violence against Palestinians.
It’s unclear why critics of The Movement for Black Lives’ platform, including multiple city-wide chapters of the Jewish Communal Relations Council (JCRC), think that the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians does not fit the only internationally recognized definition of genocide. Beginning before the Nakba and continuing today is a decades-long process of the mass killing of Palestinian civilians with impunity, of frequent home demolitions, and of the deprivation of basic resources needed for the population to thrive — all of which is carried out by the State, and done so on the basis of its victims’ Palestinian identity. It’s difficult to imagine how much more severe the State’s actions against Palestinians would need to be in order to constitute genocide — and it seems that institutions condemning the use of the word are unwilling to meaningfully confront the concerns of the activists who used the term.
Stating that The Movement’s language is “offensive,” Zionist critics imply that the state-sanctioned oppression of Palestinians must necessarily reach levels comparable to the Holocaust in order for it to be considered genocide. This disturbingly suggests that Palestinian civilians would need to be killed on the scale of millions — instead of the current rate of thousands killed every couple of years by the Israeli military — in order for even ostensibly liberal communal institutions to recognize it as genocide.
It’s reasonable to debate whether or not the State of Israel’s ongoing treatment of Palestinians can be accurately described as genocide. What is not reasonable is the haste with which some of our communal institutions, while failing to further engage with urgent questions of genocide and apartheid in Israel, have disregarded the work of The Movement for Black Lives.