Last December’s biggest news story was the disaster of a Congressional testimony for the presidents of University of Pennsylvania (Penn), Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Since then, Liz Magill, president of Penn, has resigned; Claudine Gay, president of Harvard, has resigned; and the House has passed a bipartisan resolution condemning their “evasive and dismissive” testimonies, launched an investigation and threatened a subpoena.
When the presidents were asked point-blank by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) if calling for the genocide of Jews constitutes a violation of their universities’ rules or code of conduct, all responded by providing a legalistic “context-dependent” answer to a moral question. Upon facing immediate backlash, university leadership turned to defense mode, issuing apologies and affirmations. Before resigning alongside Liz Magill, Penn Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok issued a statement attributing Magill’s disastrous testimony to her being “over-prepared” and “over-lawyered.” Claudine Gay has attributed hers to getting “caught up” in a “combative exchange.” MIT has issued no justifications.
It should be unconditionally clear — as statements from Harvard and Penn have attempted to acknowledge retroactively — that calls for the genocide of Jews, itself an actionable statement of hate with the malicious intent of targeting Jewish people, is outrageous and punishable. Suggesting that further “context” or “actionable conduct” are required to substantiate disciplinary action is not only untenable but also dehumanizing.
While the backlash and condemnation we’ve seen have all but discredited the presidents’ approach to addressing “what constitutes bullying and harassment,” their legal circumlocution through exceptional qualifiers serves as a masterclass in addressing “what constitutes genocide.” Under the legal scrutiny of the International Court of Justice for years to come is this very question amid the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza: Is Israel, in its operation to root out Hamas, committing genocide against the Palestinian people?
On social media, in major cities and on our own campus, we’ve seen impassioned protests rightfully raising awareness of the humanitarian situation in Gaza. However, what we’ve also seen alongside them are signs emblazoned with “Stop the Genocide” and “Divest from Genocide.” Recently, we’ve witnessed flyers being posted by our all-familiar friends, Speak Out Socialists, calling on students to “oppose the genocidal war on Palestine” and advertising their town hall with a staff writer for The Electronic Intifada. Herein lies the source of the movement’s misguidance.
Assertions of genocide are profound, grave and subject to stringent legal criteria. When alleging that Israel is committing genocide alongside raising awareness for the crisis in Gaza, we conflate a humanitarian reality with a divisive legality. When raising awareness for the innocent victims caught in the crossfires of bloody war, insinuations like these that antagonize a grieving nation and people after the atrocity on Oct. 7 serve neither party any good. What is served, instead, is the vilification of each other’s humanity.
That being said, optics aside, let us consider the merit of the argument raised itself and the reality that confronts Israel. According to the United Nations, genocide is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Only three cases under this convention have been recognized as genocide: 1975-79 Cambodia, 1994 Rwanda and 1995 Bosnia and Herzegovina. The key word qualifying the convention’s legal criteria for genocide is “intent.” If Israel had entered Gaza with the intent to destroy Gaza’s populace (mens rea) and had been bringing about its destruction (actus reus), that is genocide.
Yet, history and the timeline of events impugn haste assertions of genocidal “intent.” It is imperative to bear in mind Israel declared war and subsequently entered Gaza in response to the appalling Oct. 7 instigation by Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas. Before then, and since the Second Intifada, Israel wanted nothing with Gaza, as it sat — perhaps too idly — behind its “Iron Wall.” Entering Gaza was forced upon it. Still, Israel has continued to drop thousands of leaflets over Gaza, north and south, attempting to alert civilians to safety and operate under the principles of just war (jus ad bellum): proportionality, necessity and distinction.
While this context is important, it is in no way a vindication of the innocent deaths or sufferings caused by Israel’s operation, its fatal mistakes, or the future course of war. The context purely serves to decouple the cause from the effect and is paramount in adjudicating cases of war crimes. The cause is the temerity Hamas had to attack Israel, knowingly jeopardizing Gazans’ lives in pursuit of suicidal jihad. The effect is the abysmal human collateral of Israel’s urban operation to root out Hamas as they hide behind the civilians and hostages they use as human shields and the hospitals and mosques they call headquarters. According to the National Security Council’s John Kirby, if any one party has any semblance of genocidal intent, however, it is Hamas.
The slogans “Stop the Genocide” or “Divest from Genocide” are not only, therefore, misguided but inherent dismissals of basic universal liberties. Think of the ultimate goal of these chants and protests. Will peace ensue with a unilateral ceasefire? What does true peace even mean? What does it mean to the families who’ve been given the same timeless promise of peace? What is it to prevent this atrocity from happening again? For as long as Hamas tyrannizes Israelis and Gazans, there will never be peace. For as long as terrorists reign in Gaza and the West Bank, there will never be “two states” in any equation with a two-state solution. This is just reality, and we cannot ignore it.
But does this mean there is to be no standard set for Israel? Not at all. While Hamas makes the distinction between combatants and noncombatants extremely difficult, further differentiation is increasingly necessary. When asked about the human toll in Gaza at a campus discussion last semester over the Israel-Hamas conflict, Professor of International Relations Steven David, taking the Israeli perspective, conceded, “Now, could the case be made that Israel could be taking more steps to ensure fewer deaths in Gaza? Absolutely.”
What we as students should be advocating are not imprudent accusations of genocide or demands of “ceasefire now,” which even the International Court of Justice rejected recently in its interim decision, but rather pragmatic and productive causes aiming to benefit humanity as a whole. Perhaps this means calling on Egypt to open its border to Palestinian refugees, or denouncing hate rhetoric on both sides, or protesting against the constant, yet perplexingly unrousing, humanitarian crises in Lebanon and Syria or calling for regime change in Gaza.
Constructive arguments for all of humanity — grounded in mutual respect and voiced with empathy for victims, survivors and their families — rather than pointed promulgations of dehumanizing rhetoric or cries of genocide are what should be made to heal our division. We must stand in solidarity with both our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters and not give into brandishing divisive slogans — ostensibly striving for peace — that stand only to distort our shared morality, distract from our shared humanity and dismiss reality.
Aneesh Swaminathan is a freshman from Plymouth, Minn. majoring in Political Science and Molecular and Cellular Biology.