Israel, the spectre of 1948, and genocide scholars (1)

Readers of this blog may be aware that in a recent article I discussed the 1948 removal of the Arab population of Palestine within a genocide perspective, and subsequently debated this with the US-based Israeli historian, Omer Bartov. The fall-out from these contributions has continued, and it is time to update and draw some conclusions, which have exposed the contradictions in contemporary pro-Israeli attitudes and their impact on genocide scholarship in general.

Omer Bartov: from reason to extreme rhetoric

Readers of the Bartov debate will have noted that while for the most part – as one would expect – his argument was carefully reasoned, at two particular points it moved rather sharply in directions that were not related to the argument which he was criticizing. In his first response to my article, Bartov suddenly moved from the discussion on the definition of genocide and its relation to ‘ethnic cleansing’ to a statement about the Palestinian claim of a right to return by those forced out in 1948 and their descendents:

This has a bearing on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Since there is no debate about returning Germans to Eastern Europe, Poles to Ukraine, Ukrainians to Poland, Jews to Lithuania, etc., despite their having been, by your definition, victims (though often also perpetrators) of genocide, why can Palestinians claim a right of return? What makes their Naqba “better” from all others? If Germans from the Volga and the Sudetenland settled down in Freiburg, why could Palestinians not settle down in Damascus? Mind you, this is not what I am advocating but merely the logic of your own argument.

I replied expressing surprise at this line of argument, because nothing I had written

implied that “the Palestinians’ Naqba” was “better” than any other case of expulsion, dispossession, or social destruction or that they have any more rights than anyone else. On the contrary, I indicated quite clearly that the Palestinian experience was less widely murderous than many other cases and I certainly don’t think that they have any different rights from any other people. In principle, however, every dispossessed people must have the right of return, as has been acknowledged recently in the case of Bosnia. However in practice the right of return is always made extraordinarily difficult (in this the Israelis are no different from other dispossessors).

Looking back at the debate, however, what is even more striking is that while my article did not draw political conclusions – I had never even mentioned the question of Palestinian return – Bartov had immediately interpreted it in political terms. The second point of sudden escalation in Bartov’s argument confirms this tendency in his response, in even more striking ways. For in the concluding paragraph of his final comment, he alleged that ‘the argument of Israeli genocide of the Palestinians is clearly meant to delegitimize the state and to say that it was born in the blood of innocents and should therefore also go down in blood.’ He added, ‘You do not make peace with people by telling them that they have no right to exist because they were born in sin.’

These allegations were completely shocking to me. At the time of the debate, since it had been agreed that Bartov’s contribution would conclude the exchanges, I insisted on a short rider stating: ‘Martin Shaw wishes to make it clear that the remarks in Bartov’s final paragraph … do not in any way represent his position.’ Looking back, however, what I see is that even this respected Israeli historian – who was prepared to agree that ‘ethnic cleansing’ had taken place in 1948 – could only see its interpretation within the genocide frame as a denial of Israel’s right to exist and, even worse, an incitement to drown the state in blood – although nothing I had said remotely pointed in these directions, either in the article, the debate or elsewhere. In the end, Bartov was unable to maintain a reasoned stance in relation to this issue, or even to express his political fears without gross misrepresentation of his opponent.

This is ironical, because Bartov himself, in his original attack on scholars like Donald Bloxham and Dirk Moses for allegedly mixing colonial genocide scholarship and Israeli politics (‘Genocide and the Holocaust: What are We Arguing About?’, paper given at the Wiener Library, London, 11 July 2010), had argued that ‘statements by historians of genocide about Zionist ideology and Israeli policies are mostly rhetorical expressions of opinion, not scholarly analyses of the politics and practices of nation-building and ethnic displacement.’ However Bartov’s response to a reasoned historical argument (if by a sociologist interpreting the debates of historians) was to pour out some of the most extreme rhetoric yet seen in any genocide scholars’ debate.

Of course, setting aside Bartov’s rhetoric, we can still ask whether my argument could in any way be seen as necessarily entailing political conclusions of the kind he implied. Genocide is an international crime: the Convention in which it was criminalised was adopted just months after the events of 1948, although the United Nations ignored some Arab appeals to consider Palestine in its light. While I departed from the UN definition, I nevertheless suggested that that its definition might also apply to the Palestinian events (although not in criminal terms, of course, as the Convention does not apply retrospectively). Clearly my argument necessarily led to a critical attitude to the foundation of modern Israel, but not at all necessarily to a destructive attitude towards its continuing existence today.

Indeed Bartov acknowledged ‘that some countries such as Australia or the United States have begun to look back at genocidal aspects of their past’, and ‘their various “sorries” have never in any way been seen as delegitimizing their existence and sovereignty, even in the case of Germany and many other European states that were involved in the Holocaust.’ So why should my argument automatically ‘delegitimize’ Israel’s ‘existence and sovereignty’?

Moreover, in my one brief nod towards a political conclusion, I suggested only that Israel would not achieve security without addressing its historical wrongs, something with which Bartov seemed to agree. But this is a very different proposal: far from being threatening, it actually implied a way to improve Israel’s legitimacy.

The second question that Bartov’s extreme rhetoric prompts is, how should it make us evaluate his more reasonable theoretical arguments? It is difficult not to see his fear of the ‘threat’ to Israel posed by the genocide-framing of 1948 as conditioning his other positions. For example, why does he give such an ambiguous reply to the arguments for restoring the broader conception of the means of genocide originally laid out by Lemkin (retained to some extent in the Genocide Convention and many later definitions), and hold fast to Norman Naimark’s nebulous differentiation of ‘ethnic cleansing’ from genocide? Why does he defend so strongly the link between the Holocaust and the very concept of genocide?

It is almost as though, at least in the context of Israel-Palestine, the very idea of genocide is ‘owned’ by the Jewish victims of Nazism, and can never be utilised in analysis which points in a different direction. Jews are victims of genocide, others only of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Bartov argued passionately at the Wiener Library for writing history from the point of view of the victims, and criticised ‘writing about many genocides’, saying ‘I am sure that it precludes empathy.’ He exemplifies this in his very interesting book Erased, about the destruction of Jewish culture in Galicia, in what is now Ukraine. He is too honest not to recognise that Polish life was also eliminated from this region by Nazism and Ukrainian nationalism, but he is too focused on the Jewish tragedy to properly address the fate of Galician Poles. This leads to repeated references to ‘Jews (and Poles)’, making the latter a constant afterthought.

Israel Charny’s defamatory outburst

If Bartov’s extreme rhetoric was embedded within reasoned argument, another well-known genocide scholar has responded with a much less controlled outburst. Israel Charny, an Israeli psychologist of American origin, who was one of the founders of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), published an outrageous ad hominem attack on me on the IAGS discussion list (17 January 2011). After reading my exchange with Bartov (it is not clear that he read my original article), he accused me, directly or indirectly, of ‘insincerity’, ‘a delusional projection of an angry soul’, being ‘a prejudiced genocide scholar’, violating ‘the elementary requirements of assembly of established information’, utilizing ‘a device that we have documented in past research as a familiar one of deniers of Holocaust and genocide’, ‘bitter condemnation of a given ethnic identity’, and following (whether I am ‘anti-Semitic or not’) the ‘primary form/outlet’ of ‘contemporary anti-Semitism’. In sum, Charny accused me, a fellow genocide-scholar, of prejudiced scholarship; he tarred me with both anti-Semitism and Holocaust/ genocide denial; and he even had the gall to psycho-pathologize me.

These were extremely defamatory accusations, amounting to wholesale character assassination. They had also been sent for publication to the Journal of Genocide Research, as a response to my debate with Bartov; they were summarily rejected by the editors. However they made it onto the IAGS discussion list because of a lapse in the monitoring of contributions. IAGS officials apologized for this and published an apology on their list, together with a response from me. Charny, on the other hand, has not had the decency to apologize, even though his attack was completely out of accord with the values he expressed on the same list only last year, when he said that ‘cordial and cooperative relationships between fellow genocide scholars of course should be pursued’, and expressed ‘hopes that we foster a field of genocide studies that is marked by just that extra bit of integrity and courtesy and cooperativeness that would seem to go along philosophically with a desire for a safer world for all.’ (13 September 2010) Yet those lofty aims were expressed in the course of another intemperate attack, that time on the International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS). Charny has form in this respect.

Moreover Charny implicates his scholarship in his libellous accusations. He claims that my ‘use of language utilizes a device that we have documented in past research as a familiar one of deniers of Holocaust and genocide: he formulates major attacking blows and follows them with disclaimers and ostensible measures of reduction of the destructiveness.’ The irony, of which Charny seems wholly unaware, is that in this case he himself appears to be in the camp of denial.

Although he claims to ‘have personally researched, lectured, and published about criminal genocidal massacres committed by my Israeli people over the years’, Palestine appears in the Encyclopaedia of Genocide, which he edited, only in the context of Jewish immigration and flight from Nazi persecution, and not at all in terms of the fate of the Arab population in 1948. However Charny rushed to contribute (together with Steven L. Jacobs) a chapter in the Encyclopaedia, which was published in 1999, on ‘Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide in Kosovo’ the same year. In Kosovo, over 1 million Albanians were uprooted from their homes and about 10,000 killed, whereas fifty-one years earlier in Palestine, some 750,000 Arabs were uprooted and around 5,000 killed. On the surface, these are comparable events: the most obvious difference is that Nato forced the return of the Albanians, whereas Israel has successfully blocked the return of Palestinian Arabs, while facilitating the ‘return’ of Jews who had never lived there before. If one of these episodes could be looked at in the frame of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide, there is prima facie good reason to look at the other as well. Yet one of them was covered in the Encyclopaedia and the other, although by then thoroughly studied by historians, was not.

Now my own attempts to look at 1948 in this light are described by Charny as ‘blind and rampaging’ attacks on Israel and Zionism. No doubt a Serbian nationalist would see Charny as a ‘blind and rampaging’ anti-Serb because of his Kosovo article. But it is not the sort of language one expects to see of one genocide scholar by another. I challenge any reader of my pieces to show that I am ‘making major attacking blows’ or perpetrating ‘destructiveness’ against anyone, let alone using ‘denialist’ methods. I engage in a historical-sociological argument about the place of the partial destruction of Palestinian Arab society in 1948 in the history of genocide. In the course of discussing generalizations about this question, I enter appropriate qualifications and references to varying arguments made by scholars in the field. Far from representing denialist tactics, or ‘violating the elementary requirements of scholarship’, my methods follow normal scholarly argument.

As to the content, I was not, as he alleges, ‘formulating the core intent of Israeli fighting in the War of Independence as genocidal’. I referred to the emerging historical consensus that attributes the destruction of Arab society in much of Palestine at least in part to deliberate policies of the Zionist leadership designed to remove the majority of the Arab population from the territory of Israel, as well as the actions of local commanders, officials, etc. I argue that this was one of Israel’s aims in 1948 (another, obviously, was to defeat the Arab armies), and that it was largely successful in this aim. In this discussion I rely heavily on the historical work of Benny Morris, whom no one could accuse of being anti-Israeli. I refer more than once to his view that Israel took advantage of the war, ‘which was initiated by the Arab side’, to remove the Arab population, so that its expulsions were ‘opportunist’. However I complement this with the argument, developed with considerable evidence by Ilan Pappé and largely endorsed by genocide historian Mark Levene, that the elements of planning were much stronger than Morris suggests.

Not content with his own ‘blind and rampaging’ charges against my scholarship, Charny predictably locates these within the frame of anti-Semitism. He implies that I am guilty of ‘bitter condemnation of a given ethnic identity’ (presumably, Jewish), but not one word in any of my writing gives any warrant for this. You might as well accuse me of being an anti-German racist, or indeed a (self-hating?) anti-British racist, because I have written about genocide committed or condoned by Germans and Britons. Indeed Charny obviously recognizes that I am not consciously anti-Semitic (hence that ‘anti-Semitic or not’). Yet he links my work to the claim ‘that contemporary anti-Semitism has most definitely taken as a primary form/outlet for its virulence a kind of blind rampaging attack on the legitimacy of the State of Israel’. Hence, he implies, my work is objectively anti-Semitic. If there is one ‘linguistic device’ which deserves critical scrutiny, it is surely this shameless but sadly routine attempt of Israeli defenders to tar any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Within genocide studies, at least, we can surely outlaw this tired but deeply insulting device, which robs the idea of ‘anti-Semitism’ of any real meaning?

Charny’s mention of ‘denial’ in his attack is particularly significant because he has made academic denial a subject of his research, claiming elsewhere to have made ‘a major extension of our understanding of denials also to include what I termed “innocent deniers,” i.e., those who may not really be aware of the genocide they are helping to deny, and are not necessarily in touch with why it is important to them – what benefit accrues to them – by standing with the negationists, skeptics and deniers of the genocide.’ In general, it seems to me that we must be wary of accusing other genocide scholars in this way: there must be room for legitimate disagreement about which historical processes constitute episodes of genocide, without invoking ‘denial’. I certainly respect those like Bartov who carefully disagree with my argument that there was a genocidal element to 1948. However it is difficult to see the purpose of Charny’s hysterical attack on me unless he wishes to block all discussion of Israel’s foundation in a genocide frame. In this case, it is not clear that Charny is ‘innocent’: his reference to ‘my Israeli people’ shows a very conscious identity which is surely the basis of his inability to engage in reasoned argument about the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs.

Israel and the International Association of Genocide Scholars

Israel Charny signed his post, with typical modesty, as ‘co-founder and a past president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars’. Fortunately Charny is far from representing the style of argument within IAGS as a whole, which contains many good scholars. Yet there is much to suggest that his political blindspots are widely shared. For example, Jack Nusan Porter, writing on the IAGS list in response to my rebuttal of Charny, says ‘it will be difficult for Israel to admit that it committed “genocidal acts” in 1948. A statement like that would undermine the entire raison d’etre of a Jewish state. As a Left Zionist myself, I believe in a Jewish state along side a Palestinian state; some, like Prof.  Shaw, support one single state.’ This is a curious assertion, involving yet another unthinking assumption, because I am on record only in support of a two-state solution. However Porter goes on to ask me, ‘do you expect Israelis, and their Jewish and non-Jewish supporters  to quietly walk away from your questions. No, they will respond. Yes, in a menshlich manner of course, but they will respond.’ He adds, ‘I hope you will reconsider your position about quitting the IAGS; that’s why we have an IAGS – to debate sensitive issues like the Israeli-Jewish-Palestinian-Arab quandary. Please join the debate and respond to us.’

Porter’s friendly response is welcome relief after Charny; but it equally epitomizes the problems we face in the genocide field. Porter approaches the Palestinian question entirely in terms of his Jewish/left Zionist/pro-Israeli identity; there is not even the lip-service to the idea that, in an organization of scholars, we should first of all approach this in terms of scholarly analysis, creating distance between our identities and politics on the one hand and our scholarly work on the other, or recognising the distinct roles the two play.  But this seems, after Bartov and Charny, to be a particular problem for many pro-Israeli scholars. While Australian scholars (like Moses, whom Bartov attacked) have taken the lead in identifying the genocidal structure of Australian colonialism, few Israeli scholars follow the same path. The work of those who do, like Ilan Pappe, is marginalized. So long as this tendency persists, it will be difficult for genocide scholarship to develop within a professional organization heavily influenced by pro-Israelis.

Moreover Porter’s idea is that the IAGS should be a forum to debate contemporary Israeli-Palestinian and similar political issues. This idea seems to be shared even by many IAGS members who don’t agree with his particular positions, as reflected by loose attacks on Israel on the IAGS discussion list during the Gaza War. They simply haven’t understood how problematic this is. It is one thing for individual scholars to combine activism with scholarship – although they should recognize that these are distinct activities, as I have tried to do in my own work. It is quite another for a scholarly organization to become a forum for political debate. In the end, IAGS would be just as unsuitable as a scholarly organization if it became dominated by pro-Palestinian activists as it has been by pro-Israelis, or if it were polarized between them. The debate on my Palestine article has shown that even a serious scholar like Bartov, who is committed to historical analysis, can find it difficult to maintain scholarly debate. The idea that scholarly organizations should positively promote a political focus is completely wrong. No wonder that INOGS has recently pulled back from discussions about a merger with IAGS.

Update 18 February 2011: an NY-based Jewish newspaper, Forward, has published an article about this controversy. Since this includes allowing Charny to repeat his ‘anti-Semitism’ libel, I have demanded a retraction and apology.

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