Lev Grinberg and
the Meaning of “Symbolic Genocide”
Professor Lev Grinberg, Director of the Hubert Humphrey Center for Public Affairs at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, published an article entitled, “Symbolic Genocide”, in the Belgian daily newspaper, La Libre Belgique of March 29, 2004. There he accused Israel of perpetrating “symbolic genocide” against the Palestinian people. After reading some extracts of this article in translation, Education Minister Limor Livnat declared that Ben Gurion University can no longer serve as Lev Grinberg’s academic home and communicated her position to the University’s President, Professor Avishai Braverman. In its lead editorial of April 25, 2004, Ha’aretz, took the position that the Minister’s intervention was outrageous, and that if Greenberg had committed the crime of incitement, he should be brought to law, but basically, his academic freedom should be respected.
Rather than joining the public debate in Israel, our first step will be to give some of the original French text of the article in La Libre Belgique. We shall then place these statements in context and fill in some of the missing steps of the author’s reasoning process. The article’s first paragraph reflects Grinberg’s basic views:
The murder of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin is part of a general policy carried out by the government of the State of Israel which could be described as symbolic genocide. Incapable of getting beyond the trauma of the Shoah and the insecurity that it caused, the Jewish people, supreme victim of genocide, is currently inflicting a symbolic genocide on the Palestinian people. Because the world will not permit a total elimination, it is a partial annihilation that is going on. As a child of the Jewish people, and as an Israeli citizen, I condemn this abominable act and appeal to the international community to save Israel from itself; specifically, I exhort the European community to intervene in a direct and forceful manner to stop this blood bath. The complex ties between the Jewish people and Europe have not yet been severed, and it is time to act; not because Europe should exorcize its guilt, but indeed because it is also responsible for the future of the world.
In this succinct statement, Grinberg has managed to include quite a few different thoughts:
Israel has a policy of perpetrating symbolic genocide against the Palestinian people;
Israel suffers from the collective trauma of the Holocaust and, as a result, is behaving psychotically, which means that having reached a state of collective insanity, it is no longer responsible for its actions;
Having once been the victim, Israel is perpetrating the same crime against the Palestinians. Today’s Israel is behaving in a manner similar to that of Nazi Germany;
If it were not prevented from doing so by world opinion, Israel would carry out a full program of annihilation which means that Israel’s intentions are basically criminal (and that the Jewish state is criminal);
Because of Israel’s collective psychotic condition that results in irresponsible behavior and criminality, the world and particularly Europe must intervene for its own good and to save Israel from itself. (Later in the text Grinberg recommends UN – but not American intervention).
Despite Grinberg’s carefully formulated language, the term “symbolic genocide”, represents a false accusation. The main reason why it lacks merit is that the Palestinians target Israeli civilians, while, in the exercise of its legitimate right of self-defense, Israel does not target Palestinian civilians. One may observe that Grinberg has actually reversed the role of the criminal and the victim, portraying Israeli society as sick and attributing to it genocidal intent which does not exist, but which, on the contrary, may be clearly identified on the other side. During the Cold War, Soviet propagandists first developed this technique which has later become known as “the moral inversion of terms” or the “reversal of culpability”.
As Alan Dershowitz wrote, all the casualties of terrorist attacks are victims of murder in the first degree. Nothing that the Israelis have ever done can match the Palestinian targeting of civilians in murderous and even genocidal intent. To make his point, Dershowitz quoted Phyllis Chesler, who wrote:
Israeli female fatalities far outnumbered Palestinian female fatalities by either 3 to 1 or 4 to 1. Israeli women and girls constituted almost 40% of the Israeli noncombatants killed by Palestinians. Of the Palestinian deaths over 95% were male. In other words, Palestinians purposefully went after women, children, and other unarmed civilians and Israelis fought against armed male soldiers who were attacking them.
When one considers the Palestinian culture of suicide and death that makes human bombs out of young people, one is confronted with a real example of collective insanity. There is no comparison between Israel and the Jewish people with this truly sick society. It is a disservice to give the other side equal moral status by resorting to a discussion of the “cycle of violence” and the use of such terminology as “tribal vengeance”. Further, Israel has preserved its justice system during wartime, while the Palestinians have totally failed in this respect.
Grinberg negates and trivializes the unique experience of the Holocaust, which is part of the collective Jewish heritage, and by implication, he compares the Israelis with the Nazis. Although Grinberg began with a discussion of “symbolic genocide”, he has explicitly and without qualification accused Israel of criminal intent: that Israel, given the opportunity, Israel would commit real genocide against the Palestinians. This means that regardless of scale, “symbolic” or not, the full weight of the accusation is there.
This type of accusation seems to be fashionable these days. Alan Dershowitz reported that Jose Saramago in March 2002 characterized Israeli efforts to defend its citizens against terrorism as “a crime comparable to Auschwitz”. When Saramago was pressed about “Where...the gas chambers are?” he responded, “Not here yet.” Similarly, the Telegraph (UK) of April 28, 2002 reported that Prof. Martin van Creveld had predicted that, with the outbreak of war in Iraq, Israel would seize the opportunity to expel two million Palestinians. (The charge in this case is not genocide but ethnic cleansing.) In both cases, criminal intent is assumed. The reversal of roles which this accusation implies, of the victim becoming the aggressor, is also not original. It has appeared before in Belgium. In his article, “Anti-Semitic Motives in Belgian Anti-Israel Propaganda”, Joel Kotek wrote, “It is worthwhile noting the words of Simon-Pierre Nothomb…in the daily Brussels-based Le Soir of December 18, 2001:
How can such a talented and perceptive people as the Jews, who experienced so many atrocities and pain in flesh, blood, and spirit, accept today that its government and army inflict upon others who are not guilty of anything, precisely what they suffered themselves?
Grinberg seems to have quite a bit of company who mouth the same line. One might have expected something much more original from a person who in this noisy and public act has declared himself a child of the Jewish people committed to the pursuit of justice.
The next issue that must be addressed is the intent of such statements in the light of the current conflict. Our enemy is waging a war against the State whose objective is to bring about its collapse by isolating it internationally, fomenting internal divisions and destroying its morale. In this form of conflict, which is fought primarily on the political level, a central objective is to destroy Israel’s legitimacy and reattribute it to the Palestinians. To achieve this goal one must undermine any justification for the continued existence of the Jewish state. In this context, an article such as this, written by a high level civil servant and published abroad, represents a particularly valuable asset for the other side in its propaganda war against Israel, not the least because this political act undermines the consensus of support for Israel. (Further, a quick look at the web reveals a strange coincidence: the Palestinian Authority would very much welcome outside intervention, particularly by the UN.)
Ha’aretz has viewed the situation from a legalistic position: whether or not Grinberg’s words consist of incitement. They may or they may not. However, there is more at stake here than freedom of speech, because Grinberg has in effect committed a political act of some consequence. He accused Israel of criminal intent without presenting real evidence. The important issue here is the basic and fundamental assault on the legitimacy of the State, because, if the State is criminal, its authority cannot be legitimate, and it then becomes a moral duty to rise up against it. This is the dangerous and harmful message that Professor Lev Grinberg has propagated.