Is Israel committing a “genocide” in Gaza? This is what Didier Fassin suggests in an article recently published on the French AOC magazine website. Bruno Karsenti, Jacques Ehrenfreund, Julia Christ, Jean-Philippe Heurtin, Luc Boltanski and Danny Trom have already responded in the same media. In K., Eva Illouz criticises the sociologist’s method, which skews his entire argument. In her view, “in the troubled times we live in, choosing the right words is a moral and intellectual duty”. Published in partnership with Philosophie Magazine.
The war between Hamas and Israel has already claimed a shocking number of human victims on both sides. No less shocking has been the reaction of civil society and public opinion in European and American democracies. We knew that Israeli policy was increasingly indifferent to international law; we knew that anti-Zionism often concealed a refusal to grant Jews what is accorded to any other people; we knew that the Middle East conflict was radiating out into the European diasporas. But we did not know that a barbaric massacre of babies, pregnant women, the elderly, civilians for the most part devoted to the cause of peace, would be greeted with exultation or indifference by Muslims around the world and by academics, artists and intellectuals in Western democracies. For example, a few days after the massacre of civilians on 7 October and before the operation in Gaza, 33 student groups at Harvard issued a statement that ignored the victims of the massacre and blamed Israel, and Israel alone, for the actions of Hamas. In a similar spirit, a large number of petitions have been circulated by artists, sociologists, anthropologists and student organisations. The fact that crimes against humanity are justified or ignored by a significant proportion of these groups is a major political and sociological fact that deserves to be analysed for what it is, i.e. an intellectual and moral position.
A less than rigorous method
An article in the journal AOC by the internationally renowned anthropologist Didier Fassin illustrates this point. I take this example precisely because Didier Fassin is the author of a considerable body of work and holds a chair entitled “Morality and Political Issues in Contemporary Societies” at the Collège de France – and is therefore a member of the most prestigious research institution in France.
I’ll quickly summarise Fassin’s text: the Hamas attack is analogous to a little-remembered historical event, a massacre that the African Herero perpetrated in 1904 against the German colonisers who had settled in Namibia two decades earlier. The Germans had deprived the Herero of their land and enslaved them. In response, in a raid that has gone down in the history of the region, the Herero killed around a hundred Germans, and this attack was seen as a humiliation by the German kommandantur, who retaliated by exterminating them. Historians saw this genocide as a dress rehearsal for the great genocide that was the Shoah. According to Fassin, there are “worrying similarities” between what happened in South West Africa and what is happening today in Gaza. In the same way that the colonising Germans in West Africa committed the first genocide of the twentieth century, the Israelis would be the perpetrators of the first genocide of the twenty-first century.
So let’s talk about this “worrying similarity”. The social sciences – sociology and anthropology in particular – were built precisely around the epistemological problem of similarity. Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) observed that science could only overcome the problem of complexity and chaos by observing “similarities in the midst of differences“. As Bernard Lahire points out, Durkheim also opposed historians who were unable to overcome the multiplicity of seemingly unique events. A true social science had to identify recurring elements, i.e. similarities between seemingly different events.
Yet Fassin is not faced with a wide variety of phenomena and cases. He deliberately chooses to draw a parallel between two unique cases. As the anthropologist Philippe Descola puts it so well, we need to make a distinction between comparison, a mere figure of speech, and comparatism, a modern epistemological approach that can only be handled with care. Fassin’s approach is not one of comparatism but of rhetoric.
So let’s look at the two similarities he proposes to identify in history: the colonising Germans of the early twentieth century are similar to the Israelis of the twenty-first century; and the Hamas attack is similar to the Herero attack.
A comparison that doesn’t hold up
After France’s defeat and the unification of Germany in 1871, the Germans began to build a fleet that would enable them to establish a colonial empire thousands of kilometres away from a unified Germany that wanted to rival the other two great colonial empires (France and Great Britain). The colonisation of Namibia was therefore part of a vast project of territorial and economic expansion. For example, the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwestafrika (German Colonial Society for South-West Africa) was founded with the support of banks, industrialists and politicians, with the aim of exploiting mineral deposits and diamonds.
It would be difficult to find even a vague resemblance with the Jewish settlers who gradually moved into Palestine under the British Mandate. The differences are well known, but they are worth repeating. There has been an uninterrupted Jewish presence in Palestine since antiquity, as well as a historical and memorial affinity between the Jews and this land where the Temple was located, which was the centre of Jewish religious life. Such a religious and cultural affinity was simply non-existent in the case of the Germans in Namibia. The second reason – and the most important – is that Jewish colonialism was first and foremost nationalism: its aim was to build a nation, not to extend the power of a pre-existing nation. This nationalism was driven by poor, destitute immigrants, the equivalent of the Eritrean and Syrian refugees who haunt the European consciousness today. Zionism was supposed to be a solution to the ontological insecurity that the world – Muslim and Christian, scientific and nationalist – had created for the Jews. The Zionist Jews were therefore fundamentally hybrid: both colonisers and history’s great persecutees, colonisers because they were the persecutees of history. It is impossible to find parallels and similarities between the imperial colonialism of a powerful nation and the nationalism of barefooters fighting for their survival and receiving the legal and moral approval of the international community. If they have not entered the pantheon of post-colonial victims, it is for three reasons: because the Jewish nation was recognised as legitimate by the United Nations in 1948; because the Jews won several successive wars against the Arabs; and because these former Jewish victims, now victorious, created new victims, the Palestinians, who were driven from their land and have since lived under the relentless rule of the Israelis, to varying degrees depending on the period. A quick and less than rigorous reader would easily conclude from Fassin’s remarks that the Israelis are colonisers in the same way as the Germans were.
Let us now turn to the reaction of the Herero and Hamas, which seems to be at the heart of Fassin’s comparison. The Germans had made an agreement with the Herero leader Samuel Maharero (1856-1923). Despite this agreement, the Germans raped and killed hereros and even exhumed skulls for resale. The barbaric behaviour of the Germans and their withdrawal from the contract they had signed with the tribe could only lead to reprisals in 1904. Compare this to the massacre carried out by Hamas: the Gaza Strip was evacuated in 2005 by the Israelis, and Israel handed Gaza over to the Palestinians ready and waiting. When Hamas killed Fatah members and drove them out of Gaza in 2007, Israel began a blockade to prevent Hamas from arming itself (and, inconsistently, also did everything it could to strengthen Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority). Immediately afterwards, Hamas sent rockets into Israel, setting off a cycle of escalating violence, during which Israel always outbid Hamas attacks. Despite this state of latent war, Hamas has received several billion dollars in international aid from Israel, much of which has been invested in a large military arsenal and the construction of 500 kilometres of underground tunnels designed to protect fighters rather than civilians. It is therefore an armed conflict between two political and military entities, even if they are asymmetrical in size. The Hamas attack was on sovereign territory. Gaza itself is a semi-sovereign territory that no Israeli can enter. It is hard to see any similarity with the Hereros.
Hamas is a fundamentalist political group. Its charter, written in 1988, stipulates in Article 7 that Hamas is just one link in the long chain of struggle against the Zionist invaders. Quoting a hadith from the Sahih al-Bukhari, the charter states that the Day of Judgement will only come when Muslims kill the Jews. The amended 2017 charter states that Hamas will wage “jihad against Israel until its destruction”. The Hereros were not millenarians, did not defend the ideology of a sacred book, did not kill their own population in the name of their ideology, had no genocidal intention towards the Germans and had no military arsenal at their disposal. Any parallels between the two groups desecrate the memory of the Hereros.
War crimes, perhaps, but not genocide
But once the similarity between the two groups has been established, it becomes easier to conclude that the Hamas massacres were an act of resistance against a coloniser who, by analogy, belongs neither to his own land nor to his own nation. If the Israelis have nothing to do with Israel, this helps to establish the genocidal nature of its military operation. Here too, one can only be perplexed by the use of words and concepts. Article 2 of the 1948 International Convention against Genocide (The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide) clearly states that the intention to kill a people in whole or in part is necessary to establish genocide. On 13 October 2023, the Israeli army called on civilians to evacuate to the south of Wadi Gaza. 900,000 Gazans were evacuated despite Hamas’s attempts to prevent them from moving so that they could be used as human shields. Israel created humanitarian corridors. With the coordination of the United States, the United Nations and Egypt, humanitarian aid arrived in Gaza through the Rafa checkpoint, admittedly late, admittedly insufficiently, but enough to suggest that the word genocide is not appropriate to the situation. The Israeli army has distributed 1.5 million leaflets in Arabic to warn the inhabitants to leave for the south. It also ran a huge campaign in Arabic on social media and made thousands of phone calls to inform the residents of the Jabaliya refugee camp to evacuate. Fassin takes offence at the number of bombs dropped on Gaza (with good reason, since these bombs have killed a very large number of Palestinians) but fails to mention that since 7 October, more than 9,000 rockets have been fired at Israel by Hamas (probably more by the time this article is published), making 200,000 Israeli refugees inside their own country.
Let’s be clear: what is happening in Gaza is a humanitarian catastrophe without precedent in the history of the conflict. Fassin is right to point this out. The sight of Gazans faced with their destroyed homes and thousands of injured and dead is unbearable. These images will haunt Palestinians and Israelis for a long time to come. But this humanitarian disaster is a catastrophic effect of war, not genocide. The difference is crucial. A military response, even a ferocious one, against an enemy who has violated borders and international law, and who uses many means to avoid civilian casualties, is not genocide. It is possible that the Israeli military actions constitute war crimes. We will see more clearly at the end of the war. But even war crimes do not constitute genocide.
Need we remind you that Bashar al-Assad gassed his own population and caused the death of 300,000 people; or the ethnicide of the Uighurs by the Chinese; or the genocidal massacres against the Rohingya (declared by the UN to be one of the most persecuted peoples in the world) by Myanmar. Each of these three events is a much better candidate for the title of first genocide of the 21st century – in chronology and in intent.
Creating similarities where there are none can also be worrying. In these troubled times, choosing the right words is a moral and intellectual duty.