Thursday, January 12, 2012

What is Zionism?

A small but growing number of Israeli and American Jewish critics have come to regard traditional Zionism as an anachronism and a major obstacle to a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the future I will be making an argument about this issue, but for now I wish simply to define, explicate, and clarify the distinctions between different forms of Zionism. If I have made any errors, I would be very grateful to hear from the true experts on the nature of Zionism.


The most radical critics of Zionism are probably best described as “anti-Zionists,” for they argue not only that Zionism should be cast aside today but that because of the inherent conflict between Zionism and the rights of the Palestinians, the creation of a Jewish state in a land belonging to another people was never justified, not even in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The anti-Zionists favor a “one-state solution” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meaning a democratic binational state of all its citizens (Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza), irrespective of whether the Jews continue to constitute a majority. Indeed, anti-Zionists tend to support the Palestinian “right of return” to Israel itself, which if realized would certainly guarantee that the new binational state would have an Arab majority.


A second position is that of “post-Zionism,” which holds that while Zionism and the creation of Israel was initially justified because of the Holocaust and previous periods of murderous anti-Semitism, it is no longer either necessary or desirable that Israel continue as a Jewish state—meaning a state in which Jews are a large majority and have political sovereignty, which is heavily Jewish in culture and religion, and which allows, as a matter of right, unlimited Jewish but not non-Jewish immigration. Post-Zionists believe that Zionism has become an anachronism and an unbridgeable obstacle to a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they therefore join with the anti-Zionists in supporting the concept of Israel as a fully democratic state of all its citizens, with no special privileges for the Jews, and irrespective of whether the Jews continue to constitute a large majority (currently, as in most of its history, about eighty percent).

The position of post-Zionism on the nature of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement is less clear—to my knowledge, there is no single position. My understanding of post-Zionism is that most Israelis who identify themselves with that position favor the one-state solution, a democratic binational state. On the other hand, it apparently does not necessarily follow that most post-Zionists also favor a large-scale Palestinian right of return to pre-1947 Palestine—that is, before creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. In the absence of such a return of the Palestinian refugees and their descendents, a binational Israel would almost surely remain predominantly Jewish. Even so, post-Zionists oppose all measures and practices that compromise full democracy and are designed to ensure that there will always be a large Jewish majority.

Liberal Zionism

There is no one definition of “liberal Zionism.” However, most Israelis who identify themselves as liberal Zionists—or are so considered by others—share a number of characteristics. First, liberal Zionists believe that the creation of the Jewish state of Israel was justified because of the Jewish right and demonstrable need for a refuge. Secondly, however, most liberal Zionists reject traditional Zionism’s other arguments for a Jewish state in the land of Palestine on the basis of religious claims, Biblical mythology, ancient territorial “rights,” or colonial impositions (i.e. the Balfour Declaration).

Third, all liberal Zionists are adamantly opposed to the occupation and to the settlements, favor a fair two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians and generally share the international consensus of what such an agreement should comprise (the main components of which include the end of the Israeli occupation and the withdrawal of most of the Jewish settlements over the 1967 lines; the creation of a Palestinian state in some 95-98% the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, which will become the capital of the state; Palestinian or Muslim sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) mosque and other religiously important Islamic sites; strong limitations on the size and armaments of a Palestinian army, but with international peacekeeping forces stationed along the state’s boundaries, to help guarantee the security of both Israel and Palestine against military attacks, from whatever quarter).

Fourth, liberal Zionists certainly oppose the demand that the Palestinians must formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for negotiations, and most of them would not even insist that a final settlement must include such Palestinian recognition. Even so, there is a certain tension, or perhaps a potential internal contradiction, in the liberal Zionist position. On the one hand, in principle liberal Zionists wish Israel that to be regarded—and become— a truly democratic state of all its citizens. On the other, for both political and cultural reasons, most liberal Zionists continue to wish to live in a state that remains heavily Jewish, and support the continuation of an Israel that can serve as a potential refuge against a revival of severe anti-Semitism elsewhere in the world—which means privileging Jewish immigration into Israel and perhaps other measures that are designed or would have the consequence of maintaining a large Jewish majority in Israel.

Thus, the implicit—and sometimes explicit—premise of liberal Zionism is that Israel will and should remain a state in which the Jews are a large majority, and that is one of the most important distinctions between liberal and either anti- or post-Zionism. The fullest and most sophisticated statement of the liberal Zionist position is that found in a major book by a distinguished Israeli legal and moral philosopher, Chaim Gans A Just Zionism; On the Morality of the Jewish State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Gans argues that while many components of traditional Zionism are unpersuasive, and that the Zionists undoubtedly committed crimes against the Palestinians, especially in expelling or killing hundreds of thousands of them in 1947-48, the Holocaust proved (made “indisputable,” in his words) the need for a Jewish state. Moreover, Gans contends, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leading to an Israeli sense of insecurity, continues to justify the retention of a Jewish majority in Israel and Jewish control over the army and other security institutions, although only temporarily and “circumstantially,” pending the end of the conflict is settled.

The unavoidable implication of the liberal Zionist position—but not that of the anti-Zionist or post-Zionist arguments--is that its commitment to genuine democracy and to viewing Israel as a state of all its citizens would be put to a severe test if the Jews were, for whatever reason, to lose their large majority in Israel

Traditional Zionism

Most traditional Zionists, by far the overwhelming majority of Israelis, adhere to all the Zionist arguments justifying the creation of Israel in Palestine as well as the standard mythology about Israeli innocence in the ongoing conflict with the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular. However, there are differences over what to do about the Israeli occupation, the expanding Jewish settlements, and an end to the conflict with the Palestinians.

Centrist traditional Zionists tend to be uneasy about the continued occupation and support a two-state settlement with the Palestinians—in theory. However, when it comes down to the necessary specifics, in practice even the centrists typically oppose the Israeli concessions that are a sine qua non of a two-state settlement, especially over sharing sovereignty in any part of Jerusalem with the Palestinians and even a minimal Palestinian right of return to Israel.

Rightwing traditional Zionists, especially but by no means exclusively the settlers, are opposed to ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; on the contrary, they want to take over more and more of “Judea and Samaria,” including formerly Arab East Jerusalem. Therefore they oppose a two-state settlement and any compromise with the Palestinians, for their true goal is a one-state solution--not a binational one, however, but an expanding Greater Israel over as much of Biblical Palestine as feasible and with as few Arabs as possible, using force or other means to make life miserable for the Arabs in order to induce them to move elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

Good post, but my impression is that a considerable number of people who call themselves "liberal Zionists" are really at the left end of the people you call "traditional Zionists". They might support a two state solution and even (by Zionist standards) the "generous" one on offer in the Geneva accords, but in practice and on the gut emotional level they put most of the blame for the conflict on Palestinian and Arab rejectionism, and they are far more angered by terrorism from the Arab side than they ever are by war crimes and oppression from the Israeli side. At most, when someone like Netanyahu is in charge, they will say that both sides are to blame for the lack of peace, but when someone less obviously extreme is the Prime Minister then they put most of the blame on the Palestinians. This constitutes an obstacle to peace because this is the prevailing view on the liberal end of the American political spectrum (the Republican side has gone over to the far right pro-settler position), and the way it works out there is never more than moderate pressure on the Israelis to be reasonable. I constantly read or hear people say "I'm opposed to the settlements, but..." and then they follow this up with something which points out that the real problem is that the Arabs will never accept Israel, keep using violence, respond to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza with rockets, etc.... So Israel is guaranteed constant support.

For myself, btw, I'm some mixture of "anti" and "post", though I wouldn't oppose a two state solution if the majority of Palestinians find it acceptable. I can't blame Zionists in the first half of the 20th century for thinking Zionism was the answer to anti-semitism, but also think that given human nature there was about a 98 percent chance it would go sour and turn into a justification for a new form of oppression. Which it did.


Anonymous said...

I should have said in the previous post that obviously there are liberal Zionists who really do fit the description you give. You're one and there are others. But there are also plenty of that other type.


Jerome Slater said...

Donald: I suppose it comes down to a definitional question. The people I think of as liberal Zionists do not place most of the blame on the Palestinians.

Perhaps I should have drawn another distinction: the left wing of the liberal Zionists, where I would put myself, think the overwhelming responsibility for the continuing conflict are the Israelis, whereas the right wing does not. What unites them is their commitment to a two-state settlement and the belief that all the arguments for establishing a Jewish state in Palestine are bad, except for the need for a refuge from murderous anti-Semitism.

Thanks for pointing out the problem inherent in my definition.

Anonymous said...

And then there are the "Recovering Zionists": those who once believed that the Zionist Jews of Europe and the US had a right to "expropriate" the Palestinian homeland and eventually realized that to agree that one people had the right to steal another people's homeland and expel the inhabitants, consigning them to lives of poverty and misery, generally in wretched refugee camps, while our noble Jewish brethren stole their homes, their farms, their businesses, their wealth, their villages & towns & cities, was to collaborate in an immense crime of genocidal proportions. If a "Post-Zionist" still believes that what the Jews did in 1948 had any justification at all, on any grounds, that individual remains of a criminal persuasion, closely aligned to the racist philosophy of Hitler. In 1948, the Jews were not only no longer in danger of extermination but the recipient of Europe's and America's bottomless sympathy and friendship (unlike the Roma people and male homosexuals who were also sent to the gas chambers). The theft of Palestine in 1948 can be rationalized by the vast suffering of 20th century Judaism only as a way to deny the horrific, racist, brutal truth. As for "liberal" Zionists, they are much like "liberal" colonialists everywhere, insisting they want the best for the "natives," so long as those natives were "transferred" elsewhere or otherwise rendered impotent. The genius of the human mind is its genius for self-deception.

Jerome Slater said...

I reluctantly decided to publish this hate-filled, hateful, and mentally imbalanced drivel, if only to illustrate that it is not only the case that legitimate criticism of Israel is often smeared as anti-Semitism, but that sometimes anti-Semitism is disguised as hatred of Israel and Zionism.

Just one illustration of the extremism of this post, which is manifest throughout: by far the worst crime of Israel--and it was a crime--throughout its history was the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians, accompanied by many massacres, in 1947-48. It is legitimate to label this as "ethnic cleansing," which many Israelis today have done. But "near genocidal?" What about the 160,000 Arabs who remained in Israel after 1948, most of them becoming citizens? Did the Israelis somehow overlook them?

Warning: I will not publish extremist comments in the future, especially if cowardly hidden behind anonymity.

pabelmont said...

You write, of anti-Zionist idea: "the creation of a Jewish state in a land belonging to another people was never justified". While I agree with the sentiment, it says nothing about what to do today. Israel, for good or ill, seems here to stay.

I'd point to a critical word in your definition, the word "a" in the phrase "a Jewish state". Certainly, Israel must be rolled-back (out of all the occupied territories). But -- that said -- there remains the question/problem of resettling Palestinian exiles of 1948. Their right, if it is a right, is to return to whichever state exercises sovereignty over the territory from which they were exiled. If a future Israel were to be smaller than the Israel of 1966 (and more like UNGA-181's proposal), then fewer exiles would be entitled to return to its territory. The smaller such a future-Israel, the smaller the return of exiles.

Just mentioning.

Jerome Slater said...

Pabelmont: That's a very interesting point, and I think an original one. The logic seems compelling to me. However, as I'm sure you realize, it is strictly hypothetical, as there is no chance that Israel would ever agree to return to the 1948 boundaries. It's going to be hard enough to ever get it to agree even to the 1966 boundaries.

Anonymous said...

The posting by Anonymous above is a bit extreme, but I would not call it "hate-filled, hateful, and mentally imbalanced." I think it's more an expression of the pent-up frustration of many who have spent years following the cruel, inhumane treatment of a dispossessed population by a heavily armed Israeli state which demands to be seen as the victim.

Anonymous #2

Jerome Slater said...

A "bit" extreme? No matter how "frustrated" anonymous (#1) is,his comment is not within the range of intellectual or moral respectability. Indeed, when one says that even post-Zionists who can find ANY mitigating circumstances for 1948 are "closely" aligned to Nazism, one is revealing that one is either (1)very stupid or (2)mentally imbalanced, or (3) grossly anti-Semitic.

Or maybe some combination of all three.

Jim Donnellan said...

It seems to me that the content of Anonymous's comment warrents discussion, not because it is technically accurate, but because the horror of what happened to the "Palestinians" continues to be denied by official Israeli behavior and pronouncements.

Granted, it is not genocide. But what does one call the robbing/destruction of a life or its means of existence from a population?

Wikipedia (quoted in part below) puts genocide and ethnic cleansing on a "spectrum", the primary differentiator being one involves taking a life, the other not necessarily so.

But we are talking about the taking of a physical life. Did not the Palestinians lose the ability to live as they once did? Yes, they still exist, as prisoners still exist. Are we not playing word games when an entire population is basically removed from their "way of life" and not given the opportunity to create a new one?

According to Wikipedia:

Ethnic cleansing is not to be confused with genocide. These terms are not synonymous, yet the academic discourse considers both as existing in a spectrum of assaults on nations or religio-ethnic groups. Ethnic cleansing is similar to forced deportation or 'population transfer' whereas genocide is the "intentional murder of part or all of a particular ethnic, religious, or national group."[3] The idea in ethnic cleansing is "to get people to move, and the means used to this end range from the legal to the semi-legal."[4] Some academics consider genocide as a subset of "murderous ethnic cleansing."[5] Thus, these concepts are different, but related, "literally and figuratively, ethnic cleansing bleeds into genocide, as mass murder is committed in order to rid the land of a people."[6]

At the very least, the comment warrants discussion and I believe posting it was appropriate. I did not take it literally, but it did strike a resonant cord, especially after attending the Intelligence Squared debate last week and then reading Netanyahu's comments on Palestinian preconditions to peace talks today.

Frustration with Israel's PR runs high. It pretends it has done nothing wrong. Staggering.

Yes, anonymous exaggerates. And the Israeli government grossly understates.

Its approach is frustrating in the extreme. Anonymous offers stong language because nothing else seems to be capable of getting its attention.

You also have mentioned "tough love" because rational discourse did not seem to work.

Jerome Slater said...

I'm sorry, Jim Donnellan, but I don't agree, for the following reasons:
1. Genocide is commonly used for actions that are intended to kill most or all of a particular group; the Holocaust qualifies; Rwanda qualifies; Bosnia probably qualifies. What Israel did, though, certainly is justifiably described as ethnic cleansing, and I've used that term myself. Ethnic cleansing is a crime, genocide is much worse.
2. That wasn't the only hateful and, to put it mildly, erroneous statement. How about saying that if post-Zionists argue that while the Nakba was terrible, or a crime, there were some mitigating factors, that makes them "closely aligned to the racist philosophy of Hitler?"
3. Of course you're frustrated with Israel, so am I--to say the least. But that is simply no excuse for Anonymous, and it won't do to say that he uses 'strong language because nothing else seems to be capable of getting it [Israel's] attention."
On the contrary, language like that practically guarantees not only that Israel but reasonable people will not take you seriously.
Finally, I'm not sure what you mean when you mention my use of "tough love." That seems to imply that anonymous is also offering tough love, but that isn't so. He's offering hatred, which is different from love, no matter how tough.

Incidentally, the Israelis and their government have gotten so dreadful that I would no longer describe my approach as one of tough love. Fury is closer to the mark.

Jim Donnellan said...

We share the fury toward what the Israeli government is doing and has done.

I did not focus on the literal references to Nazism and genocide. Horror in the treatment of another has many names and manifestations. After a while, it has a similar emotional effect - man's inhumanity to man knows no bounds - what we call it matters, but the whole mess is so distressing that it is hard to differentiate at a feeling level one from the other.

The constant references to the Holocaust and anti-semitism by Israel's defenders has an equally numbing impact. Finkelstein named it, as you know, The Holocaust Industry. I once could visit Dachau or a holocaust museum and be deeply moved by the suffering that occurred there; now, I have to mentally remove or distance myself from the misuse of the historical reference as a defense of egregious behavior on the part of Israel. It's tragic, really.

At a conference here on Cape Cod a year ago, after listening to a number of Palestinians describe in a matter of fact manner their daily existence, I stepped up to the mike and wondered out loud if we were witnessing the holocaust in slow motion. The audience broke out into spontaneous applause; two people objected to the reference. I threw it out as a spontaneous thought, not as an accusation.

One of the people who objected came to me a year later - same type of conference - she had been to Israel in the intervening months - and acknowledged that the words now rang true. Scary.

Recently I sought out Menachem Daum, who created and produced a masterpiece of human spirituality called "Hiding and Seeking". It has nothing to do with the current conflict on the surface, but everything to do with a spiritual presence that could make such a huge difference on how this distressing reality plays out. The film and his consciousness grew out of and transcended his Hassidic roots; it is a sensitive and loving account of how a family dealt with the contradictions inherent in its own lives. In this instance occasioned by, ironically, his sons study of the Torah in Israel and his father-in-law's "neglect" of the Polish family that saved him from the concentration camps. As the film opens, Menachem states "the goal of all religions is to bring us to a level where we can see divinity that is all around us."

His film is a glorious testimony to that concept and it is conceptually and spiritually relevant to the current reality in the middle east.

Jerome Slater said...

Your last two paragraphs are very nicely put, but I have serious problems with some other comments. Whatever you may call it, a moment's reflection should convince you that there is no basis to compare the Israeli repression with a "slow holocaust" unless you think that the Israelis intend to murder every last Palestinian, just more slowly than the Germans attempted to murder every last Jew

When judging the Israelis behavior, especially in 1948, try to bear in mind that the Holocaust wasn't just an "industry," it was also: the Holocaust. Its consequences reverberate still, and certainly in 1948. That doesn't excuse the Nakba, but it mitigates it.

It is imperative in discussions of this kind to maintain balance and distinctions, and not give in to emotional overstatements, no matter how heartfelt.

Jim Donnellan said...

For me, it was simply an idea, a question, if you will. It seems to be almost an undiscussable idea here. I have no problem with that and can happily remove the reference if you would like. It is not a heartfelt idea for me, just a brainstorm question, a thought to be explored. I am more interested in the stages that lead up to genocide than I am in the actual outcome. But I confess that I haven't seriously explored that yet.

Maybe others here have. Would love to hear what they have found out. But we don't have to do that on this site.

Paul Lookman said...

Jerome, in your first reaction to anonymous-2 you say: “by far the worst crime of Israel--and it was a crime--throughout its history was the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians, accompanied by many massacres, in 1947-48. It is legitimate to label this as "ethnic cleansing," which many Israelis today have done.”

I have two points to make. First: the Holocaust crimes led to various trials and convictions. Many of the culprits were held to account. Not so in the case of the Nakba. Second: I wonder if you can substantiate your claim that “many” Israelis today have labeled the Nakba as ethnic cleansing. A couple of years ago, education minister Gideon Sa'ar ordered the term "Nakba" removed from textbooks, and announced that Israel's peripheral "development towns" would receive expanded treatment in history and geography classes. Do you have any statistics on what young Israelis know about the Nakba?

Jerome Slater said...


Your first point: I generally agree, though with reservations. The Holocaust, as has very widely been agreed, was sui generis. For more than one reason, it can't be compared to the Nakba, which is NOT to say that the Nakba wasn't a crime, for it surely was.
Israel hardly stands alone in its unwillingness to hold war crimes tribunals for crimes committed by its own country, especially when the crime reflected on the government itself. War crimes, both individual and governmental, were committed by the U.S. government in the Vietnam war, including the crime of aggression, and of course no one was held responsible.

Second point. No, I don't have a specific reference handy for Israelis who have used the term ethnic cleansing, but it is hardly uncommon on the Israeli "left," and it is increasingly common.

Of course, a far rightwing government, probably even a centrist government, is not going to tolerate the ethnic cleansing description. As for what young Israelis know, I have no idea.

Paul Lookman said...

Jerome, in your response to my first point you argue that the Holocaust cannot be compared with the Nakba, a fact which in your view “has very widely been agreed.” I beg to disagree. The UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” There are scholars like Martin Shaw of Roehampton University (London, UK), who argue that ethnic cleansing does fall within this definition. As Gal Beckerman sets out in the February 25, 2011 issue of The Jewish Daily Forward (, in Shaw’s view, Israel’s policies toward Palestinians “can be seen as a ‘slow-motion’ extension and consolidation of the genocide of 1948.” Shaw was of course condemned about his views, specifically by Israel Charny of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, but successfully argued that Charny’s criticism amounted to an ad hominem assault.

As regards your observation that “Israel stands hardly alone,” there are probably thousands of individual cases where Israeli military or settlers got away with what perhaps falls under the definition of war crimes or crimes against humanity, crimes that could and should have been prosecuted. And in your response to my second point you seem to misinterpret my rationale. My gut feeling says that there are preciously few (young) Israelis who label the Nakba as ethnic cleansing, but neither of us can provide figures…

Anonymous said...

jerome, sorry to see that the outright bigots are following you here and that the borderline bigots native to MondoWeiss are trying to defend the drivelous mess.

Are thoughts on the end of Khaled Meshaal's leadership?

Jerome Slater said...

Thanks, Anonymous. You and others should know that I don't intend to publish any further comments of this ilk.

Let me take this opportunity to say that I have broken with Mondoweiss, for precisely the reasons you suggest. I will no longer write for it, nor allow my writing to be crossposted there. I am considering whether to announce this on my home page, if only to alert readers that if they want to follow my posts, this is the only place to do so.

As for Meshal's decision not to continue his leadership of Hamas, I'm not sure it portends any change of Hamas policies Meshal has been considered to be the main leader of the Hamas hardliners, but he has been moving steadily towards accepting a de facto two-state settlement with Israel; that now appears to represent the overall Hamas position.

Jim Donnellan said...

I need some help here. There appears to be well defined boundaries for discussing the implications of the Holocaust for other peoples who have suffered. I'm not sure I am clear on the distinctions being made; I hear the label bigot being applied here but I do not understand why. Some specifics would be nice as it would help me understand what I am missing. I did get a hint of the volatility of the word Holocaust when I offered my observation referenced above will -- "Holocaust in slow motion" -- as the entertainer for that evening commented to me afterwards that upon hearing me speak he immediately sent a text to a friend of his and wrote "somebody just used the H. word".

Clearly, there are rules being broken here. It would be useful to make them explicit and discussable. Maybe anonymous will offer an explanation from his point of view; I personally would love to hear it.

Also, why are there so many anonymous posts here?

Jerome Slater said...


I think it's best to reserve the word Holocaust to THE Holocaust. Hitler killed every Jew he could get his hands on, and if he had conquered the Soviet Union he would have killed all the Soviet Jews, or all the British Jews if he could have, and so on. Nothing is comparable, despite the fact that there have been plenty of other mass murders, or even genocides.

At the same time, it is also the case that Israel has devalued the term by using it as an excuse for its repression of the Palestinians.

The literature on the Holocaust is immense, including how the term is used, and misused. I don't have anything to add to it. Perhaps others on this site will have something to say about the issue.

I do agree that while it is not required, it is desirable that commenters use their real names as much as possible.

Donald said...

I didn't realize this thread had become so active. As the author of the first two posts that had the name "anonymous" and then "Donald" underneath, I just wanted to make clear that those were the only two I wrote.

On the Holocaust, I think there are other genocides and mass killings that are comparable, but what the Israelis did in 1948, while it was a crime against humanity, doesn't rise to the level of a Holocaust or an Armenian genocide or what happened in Rwanda or various other cases. I don't like saying that very much because to some people it sounds like a defense, but it isn't.

Donald (I'm always forgetting my password, my account name, and even which "identity" I use to comment here and at Jerry Haber's blog, so I might end up posting as anonymous again.)

Jerome Slater said...


I'm tempted to say that there can't be anyone who would think labeling the Israeli actions in 1948 as merely a crime against humanity would constitute a defense of those actions--but then I realized that we both know people who might.

Actually, I'm not even sure about the term "crime against humanity." I believe--I'm not sure--that international law incorporates a definition, and distinguishes between "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity."

Can any readers knowledgeable about international law shed light on the question?

Donald said...

I was pretty sure that ethnic cleansing was defined as a crime against humanity, but upon googling it seems there is no formal legal definition for the term. Here is a link to a law article arguing that ethnic cleansing should be interpreted as a form of genocide--


The term genocide itself seems to have a legal definition that is much broader than the one people usually use. The common usage means mass slaughter of an ethnic group, intended to wipe out a huge proportion of it or even every member. The legal definition used by the UN (found at this link--

link is the following--

[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It seems to hinge on the question of "intent to destroy, in whole or in part". I'd need a lawyer to interpret that in any given case. Was the KKK guilty of genocide? They targeted members of specific groups and by definition they were intending to kill "part" of the group--the people they were killing.

But anyway, maybe one needs a separate word to distinguish what we normally call genocide (the Holocaust, the Armenians, Rwanda, etc...) from the broader definition.

Anonymous said...


Exactly. The UN definition is very poor, for the reason you point out.
Your definition of the common usage is correct. If we went by the UN definition, it would open the door to calling thousands of violations of human rights as "genocide," thereby wholly devaluing the term--which we need to retain in order to distinguish the truly mass slaughters, such as the examples you provide. The Serb slaughter of the Bosnian Muslims may come close, or would have in the absence of the US/NATO intervention.

In fact, I'm not sure that there are any other examples than the three you provide. For lesser slaughters, we have sufficiently descriptive terms: mass murder, ethnic cleansing, maybe crimes against humanity.

Jerome Slater said...

Whoops. "Anonymous" in the last post was me. Must have clicked on the wrong box.