(photo credit: AP)
Survivors of the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur spoke in Geneva this week at the parallel conference on human rights to counter the UN Durban II event. Listening to them describe how they were systematically demonized by the killers made it clear that genocide does not happen in a vacuum. The hate condition of a population willing and anxious to commit genocide needs nurturing. Genocide must be framed positively to get the necessary broad public support.
Common to the framing of all genocide is a very specific kind of demonization. In Rwanda, the Hutus taught that the Tutsis were cockroaches and snakes. Tutsi women were portrayed as cunning seductresses who used beauty and sexual power to conquer the Hutus. In Bosnia, a fictitious news report said Muslims were feeding Serb children to animals at the Sarajevo zoo. Radio Rwanda repeatedly broadcast a warning that Hutus were about to be attacked by Tutsis, to convince the Hutus that they needed to attack first to protect themselves.
This demonization included two specific components. First, the victims had to be perceived as a clear and present threat, so that the killers were convinced they were acting in self-defense. Second, the victims were dehumanized, so that the killers convinced themselves that they were not destroying real human beings.
A decent person will not join in a murder of innocents, but a decent person might join in the killing of a subhuman who is threatening his very existence. Framing genocide as self-defense can turn decent people into killers. Protection of children and family can turn a calm neighbor into a passionate murderer, because self-defense is always justified.
In Darfur and Rwanda, all that was necessary to turn a society of ordinary people into killers was to convince them that they were in danger, and that the people endangering them were less than human.
LOOKING BACK on Jewish history, it is clear that the method used to foment violence against Jews has always involved the same framing of "self-defense," with only the details changed.
So when Jews were falsely accused of poisoning wells in the Middle Ages, causing thousands of deaths, even decent people joined in the killings. They did not perceive themselves as murderers because they were defending themselves and their families.
When Jews were believed to be using blood of children for Passover matzot, even decent people felt comfortable massacring Jews, as they were defending their children from a horrific torture.
Even Hitler used this argument of self-defense in Mein Kampf: "In this case [given the Jews' threat to the German people] the only salvation remaining was war, war with all the weapons the human spirit, reason, and will could muster... If the Jew... is victorious over the peoples of this world, then his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity... Thus I believe today that I am acting according to the will of the almighty creator: When I defend myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."
Hitler, too, packaged his genocide as legitimate self-defense. The details may change in each society, but the framing is always the same.
EXAMINING PALESTINIAN hate promotion today, it is especially striking and disconcerting that these components of the past genocides against Jews are prominent elements of the hate promotion of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas against Jews and Israelis.
Two items on Hamas TV earlier this month clearly document this.
Hamas TV broadcast a skit featuring actors playing a Jewish father and son, in traditional hassidic garb, discussing the hatred of Muslims their Jewish religion mandated. The father even revives the age-old libel that Jews drink the blood of Muslims: "Shimon, look, my son, I want to teach you a few things. You have to hate the Muslims... we want to kill the Muslims, we Jews want to drink the blood of Muslims." He later criticizes his son for washing his hands in water before prayer: "We have to wash our hands with the blood of Muslims" (Al-Aksa TV, April 3). Ironically, the Hamas accusation that Jews drink Muslim blood came the week before Passover, the anniversary of many horrific blood libels.
That same day, a Hamas religious leader ended his sermon with the promise of eventual genocide of the Jews. But to frame it properly, he opened with a depiction of Jews as the enemies of humanity: The Jews are inherently evil, seek to rule the world and are a threat to Muslims and all of humanity.
This is how Ziad Abu Alhaj framed it: "Hatred for Muhammad and Islam is in their [Jews'] souls, they are naturally disposed to it... Israel is a cancer that wants to rule the world." He concluded that the Jews are destined to be annihilated: "The time will come, by Allah's will, when their property will be destroyed and their children will be exterminated, and no Jew or Zionist will be left on the face of this earth" (Al-Aksa TV, April 3).
THIS DEMONIZATION and dehumanization of Jews is not limited to Hamas. Although hesitant to call for explicit murdering of Jews while seeking Western money, the PA continues its unrelenting framing of genocide as self-defense and for the common good.
In the PA-Fatah media today, Jews and Israelis are demonized through malicious libels, including such lies as the assertion that Israel intentionally spreads AIDS and drugs among Palestinians, conducts Nazi-like medical experiments on Palestinian prisoners and is planning to destroy the Aksa Mosque.
Says the Palestinian chief religious justice, Tayseer al-Tamimi: "The AIDS issue needs to receive due attention... since we neighbor a society [Israel] where the disease is widespread and which acts to transmit [AIDS] to Palestinian society. The occupying authorities, especially in Jerusalem, are working to spread drugs and drug addiction, without a doubt" (PA radio, February 17, 2008).
And this from Dr. Mutawakil Tahalk, head of the Palestinian Writers' Union and former PA deputy minister: "We saw how they [Zionists] stab bellies of pregnant women, slaughter infants and eat life in cold blood. They targeted children and the wombs of women so this people won't reproduce" (PATV, March 4, 2008).
A July 2008 article in Al-Ayyam accused Israeli settlers of releasing rats in Jerusalem's Old City "to turn the [Arab] residents' life into a living hell, forcing then to leave..." (July 17, 2008). A PA TV video clip juxtaposes scenes of a real Israeli tank with fictitious scenes of a child actor being shot, creating the fiction that Israelis deliberately target and shoot Palestinian children (PATV, May 15, 2008).
Just as the Tutsis were described as cockroaches and snakes, both Hamas and the PA have described Jews as loathsome and dangerous animals, including cockroaches, spiders, scorpions and alligators.
While each libel is somewhat different, their essence is the same: The Israelis and the Jews are dangerous, they are not human, we need to defend ourselves from them and we are clearly justified in doing so.
It is tragic that this framing of genocide as necessary self-defense has been so chillingly successful.
A poll after last year's murders of eight teenage yeshiva students found that "84 percent of Palestinians support the terror attack killing eight young students in a Jerusalem yeshiva on March 6, 2008" (Poll by Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, The New York Times, March 19, 2008). How can an entire Palestinian society support the murder of children? Clearly, the framing of Jews and Israelis as mortally dangerous to Palestinians has been totally successful.
Israel now faces a society that is very possibly past the stage of genocide framing and at the point of seeing the killing of Israelis, even teens, as justified. All that would be necessary for the population to go along with the final script, detailed so many times by its leaders, would be the means.
The writer is director of Palestinian Media Watch.