Friday, September 23, 2011

When Everything Is “Genocide” or “Ethnic Cleansing,” Nothing Is

Evelyn Gordon

It’s hard to argue with the Israeli diplomat who called Richard Falk​, the UN’s special rapporteur on Palestinian rights who accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” an “embarrassment to the United Nations” yesterday. But the problem isn’t that Falk lies, or even that he does so with the UN’s imprimatur. The real problem is the larger trend he represents: The self-proclaimed “human rights community” increasingly treats minor issues as indistinguishable from major crimes. What enraged Aharon Leshno Yaar was Falk’s demonstrably false claim that Israel practices ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. The Arab population of Jerusalem quadrupled between1967 (when Israel annexed East Jerusalem) and 2008, from 68,600 to 268,600, while the city’s Jewish population rose by a factor of 2.5. Consequently, Arabs now constitute 35 percent of Jerusalem’s population, up from 26 percent in 1967. Since ethnic cleansing is normally meant to reduce the target population, if Israel were actually attempting such cleansing, it is surely the most incompetent ethnic cleanser in human history.

But to Falk, the fact that Jews build houses in East Jerusalem at all, along with evictions of Palestinian tenants of Jewish-owned buildings for nonpayment of rent, also constitutes “ethnic cleansing” — and never mind that the city’s Palestinian population continues to grow in both absolute and proportional terms.

By defining “ethnic cleansing” so broadly as to even include tenant evictions, Falk is essentially equating such evictions to events like the Srebrenica massacre, in which Bosnian Serbs massacred more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, and demanding that the world be equally outraged by both. But humans have a limited capacity for outrage, and the international community has a limited capacity to intervene. Thus demanding international intervention in cases like this actually reduces the likelihood of intervention in genuine cases of ethnic cleansing like Srebrenica — i.e., in precisely those cases where the victims most need help.

Granted, Falk is widely seen as a crackpot outside the UN; even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had to rebuke his promotion of 9/11 conspiracy theories.

But he is far from unique. In 2005, for instance, the International Association of Genocide Scholars split because European scholars objected to the Americans’ insistence that the term “genocide” retain some connection to its original meaning of mass murder. The European breakaways, as the Forward noted last month, define genocide so broadly as to see “genocide victims everywhere, from the Aborigines in Australia to the Albanians uprooted from Kosovo” — including, naturally, “the expulsion and killing of Arabs in Palestine during Israel’s War of Independence.”

That, frankly, is ridiculous. Wars, in which both sides fight, always entail casualties, but every war isn’t genocide. Indeed, the Palestinian death toll in 1948 was extremely low — an estimated 2,800-4,000 ( compared to Israel’s 6,400). Second, the flight of refugees, or even their expulsion, is not equivalent to murder. Refugees who flee or are expelled are still alive. Genocide victims aren’t.

But this warped definition definitely isn’t harmless. When crimes like genocide or ethnic cleansing are defined too broadly, people lose the ability to distinguish real evil from minor offenses. When everything is “genocide,” nothing is; the world will simply shut its ears to the cacophony of claims arising from all sides, unable to distinguish the important from the trivial. And then, the true victims will be slaughtered with impunity as the world stands idly by.

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