Did Jews commit genocide in 1948?
The question is provocative, and the answer for most people is an unequivocal no. But a debate over this idea has formed the crux of a heated argument among the most eminent genocide scholars in the world, and led recently to the censure of an Israeli professor by the field’s leading academic association.
It’s also one more reminder of the growing divide between European scholars and their American and Israeli counterparts when it comes to how they view Israel, both historically and in the present moment.
The debate began in the pages of a scholarly publication, the Winter 2010 issue of the Journal of Genocide Research. Two specialists in genocide, Omer Bartov of Brown University and Martin Shaw of Roehampton University, in London, engaged in a back-and-forth exchange about whether the word “genocide” could be applied to the expulsion and killing of Arabs in Palestine during Israel’s War of Independence. During the course of the war, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes and were later prevented from returning, creating what would become one of the world’s most enduring refugee crises.
Both Bartov and Shaw agreed that some form of what is now called “ethnic cleansing” did occur. But where Bartov was not willing to think of this as genocide, Shaw confidently argued that any policies meant to destroy a group, even if not outright murder, should be seen as genocide.
With this more expansive reading, he sees genocide victims everywhere, from the Aborigines in Australia to the Albanians uprooted from Kosovo. And Shaw goes further, claiming that the entire Zionist enterprise had “an incipiently genocidal mentality” toward the Arabs. Due to what he views as Israel’s original sin, Shaw argues that the state’s policies toward Palestinians and its Arab citizens since “can be seen as a ‘slow-motion’ extension and consolidation of the genocide of 1948.”
In the exchange, Bartov described Shaw’s ultimate purpose as “delegitimizing” Israel, and offered plenty of evidence for why calling what Jews did in 1948 “genocide” would only serve to render the term “meaningless.”
But it didn’t end there. Israel Charny, an American-born scholar who immigrated to Israel and who directs the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and edited the Encyclopedia of Genocide, was offended by the exchange. He wrote a response that was posted on the discussion board of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, a 16-year-old organization that is considered the pre-eminent association of its kind.
Charny did not mince words. He referred to Shaw’s argument as the “delusional projection of an angry soul,” and accused Shaw of attacks on Israel and Zionism that were “blind and rampaging.”
Shaw complained that Charny’s criticism amounted to an ad hominem assault, and the president of IAGS, William Schabas, apologized to Shaw, admitting that the offending message shouldn’t have been posted. Schabas then took the unprecedented step of formally censuring Charny.
“My only concern is that we have a debate in which the tone is between civilized academics, discussing things in an appropriate way,” Schabas, a professor of international law at the National University of Ireland in Galway, told the Forward. “Charny’s comments were too intemperate. So we apologized to Shaw and let the debate continue.”
But to Charny, this was one more sign that a field that was started as “a civilizational response to the horror of the Holocaust” has been turned against the Jewish state. “This is ultimately a story of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, including among genocide scholars,” Charny told the Forward.
Charny makes it clear that he does think Jews committed what he calls “genocidal massacres” during the war of 1948, like the infamous shooting of civilians in the village of Deir Yassin, in which more than 100 unarmed people were killed in a brutal raid. But he does not consider the “ethnic cleansing” that took place as constituting genocide, nor does he think, as Shaw contends, that the Zionists had any genocidal objective.
“I do not believe the war was undertaken by us with a genocidal intent at all — it was in self-defense for the establishment of Israel per the U.N. mandate and our cherished Zionist dream,” Charny said. “And I do not at all believe that we had any grand genocidal plan in our warfare or in the collective mind-culture in which the Yishuv [pre-state government] was operating.”
According to the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted at the end of 1948, genocide is legally defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Nowhere does it specifically mention what we would think of today as ethnic cleansing, but there are those scholars, like Shaw, who believe that ethnic cleansing does indeed fall within the convention’s initial meaning.
Shaw thinks Charny’s reaction is indicative of those scholars he calls “pro-Israel,” those who he thinks are incapable of applying the same critical eye to Israel and its past that they do to other peoples’ histories.
“He’s an American Jew who’s gone to Israel, and he has invested a lot of his identity in Israel — whereas criticisms of the recent attack on Gaza don’t necessarily bring the whole existence of the state into question, this seems to him as an argument that strikes at the foundations,” Shaw said, speaking of Charny. “The other issue is that there is a problem with the language of genocide with anything having to do with Jews. For some Israeli and pro-Israeli scholars, genocide is something that happened to the Jews; it’s not something that Jews could ever really be involved in.”
This current conflict between the scholars in some ways cements what was already an ideological rift.
In 2005, a group of genocide researchers, many of whom had been part of IAGS, decided to start their own rival organization, calling it the International Network of Genocide Scholars. The reason they say they broke away was twofold: They felt that IAGS had become too American in its perspective, and that it had become too politically activist. Unofficially, according to Shaw, the feeling was that the association was “overtly pro-Israel.” Shaw cites the example of a resolution that the association issued in reaction to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments about destroying Israel. The resolution condemned this as a threat of genocide. Shaw did not believe it was the place of genocide scholars to make such a pronouncement.
The two groups have continued independently — though they share many of the same members — until this past year, when there was talk of a merger, initiated by Schabas. Recently, after a few meetings to negotiate what would have been a new organization, the INoGS leadership said it was no longer interested. Schabas thinks the timing was not coincidental.
“If you would ask them who would be representative of the things they don’t like in the association, probably Israel Charny would be at the top of the list,” Schabas said. “I suspect that the recent explosion between Charny and Shaw may have contributed to the fact that the discussions about merging the two associations have melted down.”
INoGS is led by Juergen Zimmerer, a professor at the University of Sheffield, in the United Kingdon. Zimmerer said that the decision not to merge had nothing to do with the flare-up between the two scholars.
“We simply felt that IAGS was too divided internally to proceed with the merger at the moment,” Zimmerer wrote in an e-mail to the Forward.
According to Charny, the crux of the problem is the issue of Israel. In a reversal of the criticism that the breakaway INoGS scholars had of IAGS, he thinks that hatred of the Jewish state has undermined their scholarship.
“While saying that they don’t take any political position, they are slowly but surely, insidiously, under a smokescreen of their good English manners and their supposedly dispassionate point of view, becoming a hotbed of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish sentiment, which they will of course deny vociferously,” Charny said.
For now, the two organizations seem to remain deeply divided. Schabas, who is nearing the end of his tenure, looked back at the volatility of presiding over an association of genocide scholars.
“It’s like riding a bucking bronco,” he said.
To read responses from Martin Shaw and Jürgen Zimmerer to this article, please click here.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman