Words have meanings. But those meanings are liable to change. One motivator for seeking a change in a word’s meaning—to have it encompass something that currently falls outside of its ambit—is to harness the emotive punch associated with that word. “Democracy,” for example, is a word with many positive associations, and so people very frequently argue that various concepts or norms not currently associated with “democracy” should, in fact, be considered democratic and thereby fall under the beneficent aura of “democracy.” So too with negatively-connoted words—racism, rape, fascism. We push things we don’t like into those categories (or, more accurately, stretch those categories to encompass things we don’t like) so as to capture their negative power; to tie them together with the harsh vitriolic impact of those terms. This practice is what philosopher Charles L. Stevenson called the “persuasive definition.”
The persuasive definition has a somewhat shady reputation. It is seen as blurring previously sharp meanings. It can be viewed as illicitly seizing moral force rather than gaining it organically. Frequently, it is practiced as a sort of sleight-of-hand—staying deliberately ambiguous about whether one really means to evoke the “original” meaning of the term or not. Yet at some level I think the persuasive definition is responsible for virtually all attempts to push the boundaries of language. The connotative impacts of language are sites of power; obviously, they will be contested. It’s far from clear that such contestation is wrong, or even avoidable.
Much of the Jewish reaction to the Israel section of the Movement for Black Lives (MBL) platform has focused on its contention that Israel is engaging in a “genocide” of Palestinians. Two of the authors of this section, Ben Ndugga-Kabuye and Rachel Gilmer, have talked to Jewish media about how this language came about, and I think it is evident that the persuasive definition element is very much in play here. They and others asserted that “genocide” need not refer to offenses identical to the Nazi Holocaust, or even ones which involve systematic extermination and mass murder. The point of using the term “genocide” was to evoke the gravity associated with that term, to hammer home the severity of the injustice experienced—even if that injustice is, in the words of Robin Kelley, more of a “cultural genocide—losing a culture, losing a language, losing your land.” From their vantage, the orthodox definition of “genocide” monopolizes emotive and organizing power in the hands of a particular class of wrongs; preventing them from being harnessed to combat other injustices that are pressing in their own right. When they claim genocide, they are acting against framings that view the wrongs in question as “mere” violence (who doesn’t experience violence some of the time?) or discrimination (who hasn’t been maltreated on occasion?). Genocide helps evoke the injustice as the sort of wrong which threatens, in a real way, to make ordinary practices of living as a cohesive social group impossible.
This, I believe, presents the case for the reasonability of “genocide” in a fair light. Yet nonetheless there are Jewish objections to the deployment of “genocide” language here that I think have very strong force and demand serious consideration.
The most obvious is the suspicion that the meaning being evoked here is not being deployed in an impartial manner; it writes a check Jews are not entitled to cash. If “genocide” can include “cultural genocide” (things like “losing a culture, losing a language, losing your land”) there would seem to be a very strong case that what happened to North African and Middle Eastern Jews over the course of the mid-20th century was a “genocide”—and a genocide orchestrated by Muslim states under the banner of anti-Zionism to boot. Those communities were virtually obliterated; communities of thousands of years wiped out within the space of a few decades, albeit mostly by “ordinary” expropriation, discrimination, and violence rather than any generalized politics of extermination.
Yet it seems unlikely that the Movement for Black Lives would agree to such a labeling. It identifies with anti-Zionist movements in the Middle East; it would object strenuously to being deemed complicit in a genocidal project. Their reticence, in turn, calls into question whether they seriously believe in the new definition they’re forwarding—will they apply it to friend as well as foe? I was talking the other day to the executive director of a prominent Middle Eastern Jewish organization who was incensed about the MBL platform and (especially) the demands by groups like Jewish Voice for Peace that all Jews endorse it without reservation (On JVP: “They completely ignored us for over a decade and now they want to speak on our behalf?”). It’s not that her group wants to call what happened to Jews like her a “genocide” (though they have used “ethnic cleansing”); but she is well aware that this discursive reframing is not done on her behalf and is not being made available to her.
We could push the argument further—groups like Hamas call for a genocide of Jews in a very “traditional” sense, but even some of the purportedly progressive anti-Zionist organizations operating in MBL’s circle who would abhor such exterminationist desires nonetheless campaign for a Middle East where there is no longer a sovereign and independent space of Jewish life capable of self-creation and self-determination. Is that project properly termed “genocidal”? Are they willing to cop to the legitimacy of that label? Discriminatory application of the new persuasive definition is an identifiable wrong, and one that is worth calling out. It suggests that the term is not being used as part of a genuine egalitarian political program, but as a “ticket good for this ride only.”
But there is a deeper problem here worth interrogating. The term genocide, as many of the MBL platform defenders do recognize, has a special significance and sensitivity to the Jewish community. Its significance to the Jewish community, in turn, has been the subject of considerable frustration to those who frequently find themselves at odds with the mainstream Jewish community. Often, they treat the Holocaust as a sort of unearned advantage for Jews—a chip or a card that Jews can use to tilt the discursive game in our favor, as when Naomi Klein accused Jews of thinking “we get one get-away-with-genocide-free-card.” The contemporary Jew, they seem to think, is downright lucky that his or her relatives perished in the camps—look at the bounty it’s gotten us! How fortunate we are, to have this talisman of the Shoah that we can wave around to ward off all criticism going forward! They treat the Holocaust not as a source of trauma but as a source of privilege, and an unjust privilege at that.
Sometimes this occurs in a very explicit manner, as in Holocaust denial or contentions that it was actually part of the Zionist plan all along. More often it is implicit, with the vaguely acknowledged Jewish suffering in the Holocaust placed on equal footing with the illegitimate benefits Jews seized in its wake. (“Germany,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “is guilty of two wrongs. One was what they did to the Jews. And now the suffering of the Palestinians.”) Accordingly, this approach to genocide and the Holocaust is focused on neutering this illicit advantage, of depriving Jews and Jewish groups of their capacity to rely on it for staking claims and demanding hearings. If Jews fall on both sides of the “genocide” ledger, then the Holocaust variable is canceled out and we Jews return to our starting position.
The simplest way of expressing this problem, then, is to return to the issue of the persuasive definition as a sleight-of-hand. Even if in private MBL organizers might agree that the “genocide” they see occurring in Israel and Palestine is meaningfully distinct from the Nazi Holocaust, adopting the label purposefully elides the distinction. The point of using the term is precisely to appropriate the emotive power that largely emerged from the crematorium smokestack. It is to posit an equality between what the Jews had done to them then and what the Jews are doing to others now, even while denying that one is really saying Gaza is like Auschwitz, or really saying occupation is like gas chambers. That gambit comes off as disingenuous, and reasonably so. From the Jewish vantage point, what is happening is that cultural capital derived in part from the ashes of burnt Jews is stripped from those bodies and turned on their descendants. It is nothing less than the leveraging of Jewish oppression against Jews, and that is always in my view anti-Semitic.
It is worth honing in on what is being done here. I agree that the Holocaust, to some extent, has provided a foundation for Jewish claims staked against non-Jews, in the same way that I think that slavery and Jim Crow have provided a foundation for Black claims against Whites—though in both cases that foundation is honored less frequently than often assumed. But what underwrites this foundation? Frequently, critics suggest that Jews, as Edward Goldstein put it, think “that the Holocaust confers permanent, unassailable virtue on Israel and Jews.” But this is nonsense—oppression doesn’t confer virtue on its victims, and nobody sensible believes otherwise. Rather, the Holocaust’s relevance was not showing the perfection of the Jews, but the imperfection of the Gentiles. Used to being the measure of all things, the Holocaust (as I wrote in response to Goldstein):
destabilizes the hegemonic presence of non-Jewish voices and thus creates space for Jewish voices to be heard. To the casual observer that looks like a claim that Jews are “perfect,” but that’s only because Jews are claiming the right to speak on equal terms with a non-Jewish presence that had previously arrogated to itself a label of universal transcendence.
For thousands of years, for much of the world, part of the cultural patrimony enjoyed by all non-Jews—spiritual and secular, Church and Mosque, enlightenment and romantic, European and Middle Eastern—was the unquestionable right to stand superior over Jews. It was that right which the Holocaust took away, or at least called into question: the unthinking faith of knowing you were the more enlightened one, the spiritually purer one, the more rational one, the dispenser of morality rather than the object of it. To be sure, some people were better positioned to enjoy this right than others. And some people arrived onto the scene late in the game, only to discover that part of the bounty they were promised may no longer be on the table. Of course they’re aggrieved! The European immigrant who never owned a slave but was at least promised racial superiority is quite resentful when the wages of Whiteness stop being what they once were. Similarly, persons who lived far from the centers of Christian or Muslim power where Jewish subordination was forged are nonetheless well aware of what was supposed to be included in modernity’s gift basket. They recognize what they’ve “lost” as acutely as anyone else.
“The Germans,” the old saying goes, “will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.” And not just the Germans. Many people deeply resent the Jews for what Auschwitz took away from them—the easy knowledge that their vantage point was elevated over and superior to that of the Jews, the entitlement to be able to talk about Jews without having to listen to Jews. The desire to neuter the Holocaust is a desire to return to that old state of affairs. And so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Jews exhibit a special ferocity over the meaning of “genocide.” As noted above, the controversy of this MBL language has in large part played out in terms of whether it is even proper for Jews to register an objection. Are we valid contributors to the conversation? Are we equal players in this struggle? This is no coincidence. When people charge the Jewish state with genocide, part of what they are doing—with varying degrees of explicitness—is telling Jews “this concept which obliged us to listen to you no longer can underwrite that duty.” And in that brave old world, they can return to the baseline that had existed for thousands of years—where it was unthinkable, outrageous, blasphemous, for a Jew to have the temerity to contest a non-Jewish articulation of Jewish experience.
The debate over the meaning of genocide runs hot because for an important sector of progressive discourse, “genocide” is the only concept that grants Jews access to campaigns for equality as among their primary subjects. What else is left? Generic human equality? Even if Jews ever had it, such universalism is passe anyway. Anti-racism? Jews are not considered people of color, even as we are constantly targeted by White Supremacists and even when we’re talking about a Jewish state where over half the population is not of European descent. Non-discrimination? Everyone knows Jews are anti-discrimination winners, perpetually protected, even as Jews make up over half the victims of religious-based hate crimes in the United States and are targeted for a welter of discriminatory campaigns to drive us out of cultural, political, and academic exchange. Genocide is the last firewall left standing; the last citadel the forces of Gentile Supremacy have not yet been able to overrun. Once that flag is taken, the non-Jew can finally break free, soar beyond the fallen Jew, and reassume her rightful place of looking down on us from up on high.
None of this entails abandoning the struggle for racial justice—including, it should be said, justice for Jews of color in and out of Israel—that is embodied in the Black Lives Matter message. We pursue that goal because it is right and because it is just, and that is reason enough. Nor do I necessarily think Jews should disassociate from the broader Black Lives Matter campaign. It is notable that both the hard-right and the far-left have united in preaching a message of silence to the Jewish mainstream vis-a-vis Black Lives Matter—the former the silence of shunning, the latter that of acquiescence. Yet it is only engagement—open, honest, vulnerable engagement that takes neither endemic racial injustice nor ingrained anti-Semitism off the table—that offers a way forward.
No relationship is free of missteps, wounds, hurts, and wrongs. Relationships are built from what we do after the hurt is identified, in the bravery to return to the fray, announce the wound, and hope for growth. If we think anti-Semitism is a ubiquitous problem, the corollary is that anti-Semitism will be found in organizations that nonetheless demand our engagement, that cannot and should not be written off.
We continue to speak, not because it will work, but because it could. And sometimes, that’s enough.
This is an abbreviated version of a post that originally appeared at The Debate Link.