Calling Out Genocide
By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
A day after the deadly terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas, in an act of unusual courage by an immigrant Indian, Congressman Thanedar renounced his membership of the Democratic Socialists of America coming out against that entity for promoting what he termed a pro-Palestinian “hate-filled and anti-Semitic rally in New York City.” His statement was unequivocal; his ideological stance crystal-clear.
“After the brutal terrorist attacks on Israel, which included the indiscriminate murder, rape, and kidnapping of innocent men, women, and children, I can no longer associate with an organization unwilling to call out terrorism in all its forms” said Thanedar. “I stand with Israel and its right to defend itself. There is no place for moral equivocation in the face of unadulterated evil as we have seen from Hamas.”
It was refreshing to hear Thanedar airing his convictions in view particularly of the hesitancy of those who traditionally vigorously advocate for feminist, human and gender rights including Black Lives Matter, to come out against anti-Semite pro-Hamas and pro-Palestine protests openly calling for extinguishing Israel and Jews.
Thanedar, in contrast, went on fearlessly to call out Hamas for what it is. It is not a militant organization or a resistance movement, he warned, but a barbaric terrorist group which needs to be eliminated, their military operations need to be dismantled, and the two million Palestinian people living in Gaza need to be freed from these terrorist controls of Gaza.
Whether one agrees or not with his views, there is little doubt that using civilians as human shields and mosques and holy places as hiding spots is a tactic common to terrorists and insurrectionists across the world. India has had more than its share of such subterfuge resorted to by separatist and other disaffected forces. There is always risk in a rush to judgment when governments intercede to evacuate terrorists suspected of hiding in a place of worship, only to learn a bitter lesson as India did from sending its troops into the sacred grounds of the Sikh Gurdwara at Amritsar.
That sacrilege caused enough injury to religious sentiment and outrage leading to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in the immediate term, and to perpetuating separatist calls for an independent Sikh nation, the damaging impact of which is recently seen in deteriorating relationship between India and Canada, while threatening India’s relations with a host of other countries including Australia, New Zealand, UK, and USA. In turn these diplomatic tremors can shake global peace and security.
That peace is fragile is best proven by the short interval between the two world wars. The ‘War to end all wars’ led to a peace which lasted only 21 years. Today’s world sits on eternally hot embers. A small fire lit in one place has the force to burn down most of the world.
While nations and governments might favor peace, they are hardly likely or expected to sustain it if their nation’s integrity and their regime’s survival are threatened. Israel’s leadership cannot in all fairness be expected to react differently. Nor are wars fought in a principled peaceful way. When bombs are thrown, the civilians who get roasted become collateral damage. To then have United Nations and the US along with Arab and other powers calling for restraint and for a humane war seems a bit rich. Urging Israelis to remain calm, self-restrained, and rely on disciplined sober tactics when not only their country’s but their entire race’s survival is being threatened seems even less palatable.
Any hesitancy to take a stand in a situation parallel to Israel’s should be alarming and retaliation in the face of sudden brutal attack deemed just. Even if the attacker claims as do Hamas and Palestinians to have sufficient grounds and past injustices to justify the strike, there is no excuse to unilaterally start a war. Unprovoked aggression must also evoke decisive condemnation.
Should the same not apply to speech which justifies war, terrorist attack, and slaughter of innocents?
The right to speech clearly is seminal to democracies and is constitutionally protected as in America. Equally sacrosanct is one’s right to life, as is one’s duty to safeguard the right to life of those whose survival may be threatened by another’s speech. One has to and must speak up if speech crosses the line to threaten human decency and the shared humanity we all inherit from the moment of our birth. As Gandhi’s and King’s beneficiaries if not biological successors, we are expected to do no less.
Regrettably during the recent Congressional hearing, a trinity of America’s eminent women – all presidents respectively of elite universities – Harvard, MIT and UPenn were hesitant to take a decisive explicit stance against calls for genocide gripping their campuses. Disciplining of those indulging in such speech according to them would be context-driven and only of it were to result in bullying and actual harm. Even when Representative Stefanik pointedly asked “is it ok for students to call for the mass murder of African Americans? Is that protected free speech?”, the response it elicited was far from unequivocal.
Support for Palestinian nation is just. But pro-Palestinians calls for Intifada and ‘From the River to the Sea’ are not – advocating as they do Israel’s territorial as well as conceptual extinction. More diabolic is the call to extinguish Jews as a racial group. Yet, as the women leaders opined, so long as chants remain chants and do not lead to bullying, intimidation or actual threats against Jew students, faculty or other personnel, perpetrators of hate speech do not qualify for being disciplined.
Those guarded answers have caused much heartburn. Apart from many US Congress Representatives – Democrat and Republican, donors and academics too have conveyed their outrage. Harvard’s ex- law professor Lawrence Tribe found “the hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers deeply troubling”; Democrat Governor of Pennsylvania called the half-hearted stance unacceptable; a White House spokesperson deemed it unbelievable “that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”
Donor support in some cases has been terminated and donor engagement as well as parental faith in the integrity and value of college education risks further erosion if campuses remain ambiguous about genocide calls directed towards any particular race. Calls for the resignation of the three presidents were clearly heard, leading to at least one of the three resigning and the other two managing to tide it out.
Alas, politics and partisan interests invariably trump principled actions. Campus student bodies as well as managements are fierce in protecting their autonomy and the guarantee of free speech. As always, the storm over provocative, inciteful and hateful sloganeering and riotous protesting will wither away in our campuses and eventually as well in our legislative halls and public spaces so long as it keeps incumbents in power. The constitution meanwhile will continue to step in to provide a false shield of free speech behind which to hide the ugly face of racist conduct.
( Sohoni is a published author and freelance writer. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.)