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The Moral Significance of Naming Genocide in Gaza

The ICJ ruling has sparked an important conversation.

Words: Jessica Wolfendale
Pictures: UNRWA

On Jan. 26, in South Africa v. Israel, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to prevent the commission of acts in Gaza that are prohibited under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. According to international law experts, this ruling is not a finding that Israel has already committed genocidal acts, only that it was “not implausible” that some of Israel’s actions fall “within the provisions of the (Genocide) Convention.” The standard of proof required for the court to rule that genocide has occurred — a determination it has not yet made — is very high: there must be “proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” If such intent cannot be proven, either through statements or a pattern of conduct, Israel’s actions in Gaza will not meet the legal definition of genocide.

But whether Israel is committing genocide in Gaza is not just a legal question, it’s a moral question. Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks, Israel’s actions have killed thousands of civilians, destroyed homes, hospitals, cultural and religious centers, limited access to food and water, and displaced over 1.7 million people. When evaluating whether these acts constitute genocide, it’s important to look beyond the legal question of Israel’s intentions and consider the impact of these acts on the people subjected to them. If Israel’s actions (and the conditions that led to them) are threatening the foundations of social, political, cultural, and physical life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, “genocide” may be the appropriate term to describe the moral significance and scale of the harm caused by Israel’s attacks. 

The Moral Meaning of Genocide

Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1944 to capture the distinctive moral atrocity of the systematic destruction of a group. His campaign for a legal category of “genocide” was central to the creation of the Genocide Convention in 1948, which defines genocide as involving “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” — a definition that was accepted only after a long process of compromise and negotiation among the member states of the United Nations in 1948.

As with other controversial terms like terrorism, scholars continue to debate the definition of “genocide.” Some have criticized the Convention for excluding political groups as targets of genocide and excluding cultural destruction as a form of genocide, even though Lemkin’s original definition included “disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups” as elements of genocide. In the 1990s, scholars and activists argued that “genocide” should be used to describe the destruction of indigenous communities caused by mass killings, family separations, forced integration, and the destruction of cultural heritage and language, regardless of the intentions of perpetrators and policymakers. Calling these practices “genocide” highlights their devastating impact on a group’s cultural, social, and physical survival and reveals relevant similarities to the horrors of the Nazi genocidal campaign. As with the Holocaust, the harms of genocide extend far beyond the numbers of people killed to include the loss of descendants, family, culture, language, religion, and a shared social identity and community. 

As philosopher Claudia Card argues, genocide is characterized by the creation of an extreme form of “social death” — the destruction of the communal, familial, and social bonds that create a group’s unique “social vitality.” Social death can be inflicted on a group even without physically destroying its members, such as by practices of forced sterilization, forced impregnation, and the removal of children aimed at destroying their native social identity. Yet, the narrowness of the legal definition of genocide and its explicit intent requirement make it difficult to identify, let alone understand, the true impact of these kinds of practices on a group’s survival and identity. 

If Israel’s actions (and the conditions that led to them) are threatening the foundations of social, political, cultural, and physical life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, “genocide” may be the appropriate term to describe the moral significance and scale of the harm caused by Israel’s attacks. 

Naming practices and policies that cause social death and destroy a group’s social, physical, and cultural identity as genocidal is important for avoiding what scholar Mathias Thaler calls “genocide blindness.” Genocide blindness is the failure or reluctance to perceive or acknowledge when genocidal violence is happening. Overcoming this blindness requires a willingness to see and understand the effects of policies and actions targeting groups from the victims’ perspective, and not from the point of view of perpetrators or policymakers, who may view their actions as justified. Only then does it become possible to grasp the true scale of the harm inflicted by such practices and to recognize how they can be attacks on a group’s identity and survival.

The Moral Argument for Naming Genocide in Gaza

Establishing Israel’s explicit intentions is central to South Africa’s legal case against Israel, but not for the moral evaluation of Israel’s actions. Following decades of occupation, Israel’s actions in Gaza — its choice of weapons, tactics, and targets — have seriously threatened the cultural, psychological, and physical survival of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and devastated familial and generational relationships. Even if the ICJ finds that Israel’s actions do not meet the legal definition of genocide, focusing on the experience of Palestinians rather than on Israel’s intentions provides a reason to consider a moral case for using “genocide” to describe the ongoing destruction in Gaza. Using “genocide” in this way would capture the many dimensions of the harms suffered by Palestinians beyond the rising death toll and destruction of property. Importantly, naming the impact of Israel’s actions as genocidal would not in any way diminish the moral atrocity of Hamas’s attack, nor would it justify anti-Semitism. Instead, it would reinforce the moral equality of all people and the special value of communities that is at the heart of the condemnation of genocide in all its forms. 

Jessica Wolfendale

Jessica Wolfendale is Professor of Philosophy at Case Western Reserve University and holds secondary appointments in the School of Law and as a senior research associate at the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence. She is the author of two books and more than 40 articles and book chapters, on topics including military ethics, war crimes, security, torture, and terrorism. Her current book project, "Torture and Terrorism in America,"  examines the toleration of torture and terrorism in the criminal justice and national security contexts. 

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