Genocide! “That bell can’t be unrung. That thought can’t be unthunk.”
The label sticks!
The International Court of Justice may take years to adjudicate the South African case but the accused, Israel, shall forever have the charge hanging like a badge of shame around its neck. Because the ICJ has, in essence, deemed the sum of what it is committing in Gaza as heinous and premeditated enough to be probed as genocide.
For the Palestinian cause, for the people of the Strip who are experiencing mass slaughter, it’s not only a validation, it’s a turning point. Once, well before October 7, a journalist asked a Gazan boy what he would like to be when he grew up. “Here, we don’t get to grow up,” he matter-of-factly answered. Now the Israeli horrors he and his entire kin have been enduring fall under a very specific name, and it’s the worst in the book of crimes against humanity.
For Israel, the court’s findings are a flag in the deepest color red. As The Forward’s Sam Eshman wrote in his, “’A Taint of Evil: Why the ICJ Genocide Ruling Was Branding Genius”: “That bell can’t be unrung. That thought can’t be unthunk.”
Israel is at once defiant and shellshocked. So, what does it do barely hours after the ruling? It plays to type, pulling one of its usual stunts by accusing 12 UNRWA staff members for allegedly participating in the October 7 attacks. Had it stopped there, we would have dismissed it as a feeble attempt to deflect from the resounding legal defeat it had just been dealt. But it goes much further and calls upon all donors to defund the refugee agency whose role, especially today, is critical to life in Gaza.
The Jewish state wants vengeance–and more. It is deliberately, and for all to see, violating one of the ICJ’s provisional measures ordering it to facilitate all humanitarian aid to the enclave. Quite apart from the 12 UNRWA employees’ guilt, which has yet to be independently verified, the utter cruelty of the collective punishment of a 30,000-strong organization runs like a mini version of the mass retribution Israel is exacting on all Gazans for what Hamas had done.
Of course, the usual troop of Western aiders and abettors immediately proceeded to pause funding for UNRWA, blithely joining in this revenge ritual, much like they joined in the larger one.
But here’s what’s really interesting about this Israeli antic: it failed. Indeed, a feature of the October 7 crisis has been an ever expanding showcase of Israeli failures on all fronts. Yet again, the Jewish state deploys its hasbara playbook, mobilizes its army of supporters, attacks, expecting a swift win, but is very quickly exposed and rebuffed. And whereas in the past, Western endorsement of Israel’s accusations gave them the ring and appearance of fact, now it gives the West itself the ring and appearance of complicity in the crime and its coverup.
For me, the past three months have been a fascinating study in how lost this once formidable country seems to be in this new age, as if a traveler from an ancient time. It’s been an extraordinary moment of stark contrasts, in fact. Hamas’s ingenuity and Israel’s predictability on the battlefield have been finding their echoes in every arena where the Palestinian and Israeli narratives clash.
At the ICJ hearings, the eloquence and passion of the South African John Dugard and the pomposity and dullness of the British Malcom Shaw, equally the rich mix of the former’s team and the sameness of the latter’s resonated far beyond the matter of Israel’s acts of genocide. They faced off as totems of the audacity of the once-colonized and the obtuse self-regard of the colonizer, the advent of the new fellowship and the retreat of the old one.
Just so the punch and counterpunch in the media. A mainstream ecosystem largely in lockstep with rehashed Israeli storylines, a nimble alternative one robustly debunking them. The vigorous refutation of early allegations of beheaded Israeli babies and rapes has made what used to be such easy yarn spinning for Israel nearly impossible. When you’re caught lying years after the misdeed, it’s debatable history; when you’re caught in real time, your lies, even in those instances when you’re not fabricating them, end up doing the job for your adversaries.
But no battleground has been more perilous than the campuses of American universities. There, antisemitism has been weaponized and lobbed at every critic of Israel, including Jews, and dangerously emptied of all import. As Scott Ury, associate professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, put it in defense of professor Derek Penslar, a scholar on antisemitism and head of the Jewish Studies Center at Harvard, “if it means everything, it means nothing.” In the past, the heated discourse suggested a communal feud, today it has the feel of a civil war, as conservatives and liberals, billionaires and intellectuals, older generations and younger ones, fight over the very meaning of Israel to their Jewishness.
The Israeli state has invested enormous resources–financial, political, and cultural–into building an iron wall in the West as impregnable as the military one it constructed on home turf. The serious ruptures it has simultaneously sustained in both do more than damage its brand, they threaten its prospects.
In their desperation to lay the blame somewhere outside the heart and being of the Zionist goliath, its supporters have been rushing to dump the myriad fiascos in the lap of Netanyahu and his governing coalition. Unfair! And more significantly, unwise. Because it asks too much of the poor fellow and asks nothing of the state itself. And to ask nothing of it is to condemn it to the bleak future its defenders are desperate for it to escape.
How Israeli soldiers degrade and humiliate Palestinians
In his conclusion to yet another Netanyahu-fixated piece, Haaretz’s Aluf Benn argued: “The first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said, Israel’s fate depends on two things: its power and the justice of its cause. On October 7, it turned out that its power was far weaker than what we had believed. On Friday [the day of the ICJ judgment] its just cause sustained a terrible blow.”
But the inescapable truth is that Israel, from inception, has had to wield such tremendous force precisely because it was in defense of a cause unjust to many beside it. And it exerted it at will in a very forgiving world. It’s a new, much less tolerant era now, one in which a palpably diminished Jewish state is having to confront moral, demographic, and strategic challenges it never had to consider before. For its own sake, it’s time to redefine the cause into one that is truly just for both Israelis and Palestinians.
On Another Note
I choose these two podcasts, “The Fiery End of the Ottoman Empire” and “The Rise of Ataturk,” on William Dalrymple’s Empire, with Beirut ever on my mind. They’re about Smyrna, Izmir today. What it was but 100 years ago and what became of it in the blink of an eye. Lessons from history that, alas, we refuse to learn.