Everybody Said ‘Never Again’

A member of the local Palestinian diaspora takes part in a protest on the WEM pedestrian bridge leading to the West Edmonton Mall, on December 26, 2023, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The campaign of extermination that first caught the attention of Polish law student Raphael Lemkin—whose critical contribution to our understanding of genocide was giving us the word, though this was not his only contribution—was the Ottoman campaign of liquidation directed against Armenian Christians living in the territory of the Muslim empire. Lemkin was dismayed to learn that there wasn’t any kind of legal course of action to take against those who had ordered the massacres and those who had carried them out. There was no legal mechanism because there was no crime per se, and there was no crime in part because there was no concept of such a crime, no way of adequately conceiving of it because there was no satisfactory way of talking about the thing. When the Germans invaded Poland, Lemkin made his way to the United States, where he was a legal academic long associated with Duke University. He coined the term genocide in the early 1940s to describe Nazi atrocities and was an important figure at the Nuremberg tribunals. His work provided much of the basis for the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. A career to be proud of, to be sure—but one might reasonably ask, from time to time, whether it mattered. 

Genocide, as Lemkin understood it and the U.N. defines it, does not require comprehensive universal extermination or a plan of comprehensive universal extermination. Genocide is a program of eliminating a people as a people, as a nation or within a nation or society. This is not to say that no one dreams of universal extermination of targeted populations—some Nazis dreamt of the worldwide elimination of Jews, while others professed that they would have been content with merely eliminating the Jews of all Europe. My colleague Jonah Goldberg frequently points out that the U.N. language on genocide excludes efforts to eliminate classes of people; the Soviets wanted to go on liquidating the kulaks and other enemies of socialism and the USSR’s U.N. representatives insisted on the class exclusion.

The two most important campaigns of genocide in the world today are those directed against: 1) the Jews of Israel by Arabs who mean to annihilate the Jewish state as a polity and who will murder, maim, and rape as many individuals Jews as it takes to do this and then some; and 2) Ukraine, the elimination of which as a nation and as a polity is the stated aim of Vladimir Putin’s murderous and tyrannical regime in Moscow. 

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